MusicWeb International's Worldwide Concert and Opera Reviews

 Clicking Google advertisements helps keep MusicWeb subscription-free.

Other Links

Editorial Board

  • UK Editors  - Roger Jones and John Quinn

    Editors for The Americas  - Bruce Hodges and Jonathan Spencer Jones

    European Editors - Bettina Mara and Jens F Laurson

    Consulting Editor - Bill Kenny

    Assistant Webmaster -Stan Metzger

    Founder - Len Mullenger

Google Site Search


Internet MusicWeb




John Adams, Bernstein, Falla, Gershwin: Steven Osborne (piano) City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Carlos Kalmar (conductor), Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 3.3.2011 (MC)

John Adams: The Chairman Dances: Foxtrot for Orchestra

Bernstein: Symphonic Dances from West Side Story

Falla: Nights in the Gardens of Spain

Gershwin: An American in Paris

The delightful programme presented by Bridgwater Hall visitors, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, might have been designed by Jules Verne. Rather than Around the World in Eighty Days a better title would have been Around the World in a Couple of Hours. This mainly popular excursion contained three high octane scores each from American composers and a calmer more atmospheric offering from one of Spain's most famous composers. I'd like to think that the accessible nature of this all twentieth century programme was responsible for the substantial number of young people in the audience.

The journey commenced at Beijing in the People's Republic of China with composer John Adams's score The Chairman Dances. Subtitled a Foxtrot for Orchestra the 1985 piece was an "out-take" from act three of Adams's Nixon in China an opera that portrays USA President Nixon's historic meeting with Chairman Mao in 1972. The Chairman Dances is Adam's depiction of the events surrounding the erotic dance of Chiang Ch'ing, Chairman Mao's future wife, the legendary former Shanghai film actress 'Madame Mao'. Conductor Carlos Kalmar had spoken in some detail about the score at the pre-concert talk and is clearly an enthusiastic admirer. This was an exciting account by Kalmar revelling in the frequently shifting colours from Adam's often repetitive machine-like and vital rhythmic patterns. There is nothing minimalist here about Adams's writing, but taken out of its operatic context the music did rather outstay its welcome.


Bernstein's West Side Story was written as a contemporary Broadway musical of Shakespeare's tragedy Romeo and Juliet involving gang rivalry between the Sharks and Jets in New York's West Side. The bounty of timeless high quality melodies and compelling rhythms has assured the enduring success of Bernstein's 1957 score. Bernstein himself supervised the arrangement of the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story - a suite that he often conducted. For starters I'm not sure that Kalmar gained enough oomph in the Prologue with the brass section seeming a touch self-conscious. Universally known, the tear-jerking song Somewhere was so beautifully introduced by the principal violin, viola and cello then joined by the splendid solo horn. Its celebrated melody with the words There's a place for us… on massed strings was quite movingly performed. The orchestra let rip in the brilliantly scored spiky syncopations of the gang confrontation dance scenes Mambo, ' Cool' Fugue and Rumble thrillingly played with an abundance of chutzpah.


After the interval we had a change of mood with the CBSO being joined by piano soloist Steven Osborne for Falla's Nights in the Gardens of Spain. This impressionistic piece is a calming triptych of symphonic depictions of the famous gardens of cities Granada and Córdoba in the night hours. This is not a customary concerto part for the piano. It is more integrated with the mood painting of the orchestra than a virtuosic showpiece. Shimmering, wistful and stifling these multicoloured Andalusian nocturnes were impressively caught by Osborne and the CBSO. The shadowy and trance-like opening piece the Generalife Gardens at the Alhambra contains a blissful climax. Buoyantly rhythmic the striking and fanciful second nocturne Danza lejana (Distant dance) led straight into the exciting concluding scene Gardens of the Sierra de Córdoba. Firmly influenced by gypsy music the vigorously pounding writing just bristles with ideas. Always convincing Osborne never stints on radiance and sensitivity. Throughout the Birmingham horns were in formidable form. I've not heard solo playing the equal of principal horn Elspeth Dutch since attending the Concertgebouw and Berlin Philharmonic at the musikfest berlin 2010.

A rags-to-riches story Gershwin's talent for music and song writing in particular, took him from Tin Pan Alley to Carnegie Hall. Gershwin was one of the small number of composers who successfully managed to combine classical music with jazz idioms. His tone-poem An American in Paris depicts through the eyes of an excitable American visitor the sights, sounds and atmosphere of the Parisian streets complete with taxi-cab horns. In his engagingly wholehearted manner Kalmar lit the touch paper for a spectacular visceral momentum in a work that bristled with energy. The CBSO delighted in the jazzy rhythms especially the wave of nostalgia in the central blues passage. Highly impressive was the audience pleasing bluesy trumpet solo and the later passage when the trumpets let rip to striking effect. The orchestra's leader played her extended solo contribution exquisitely.

Michael Cookson


Back to Top                                                   Cumulative Index Page