Eine Kleine Nichtmusik

Witty and pertinent observations on matters of great significance OR Incoherent jottings on total irrelevancies OR Something else altogether OR All of the above

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Rhapsodies In Red, White and Blue: RSNO, Usher Hall, 14 August 2010

Back in the Usher Hall for another well-attended concert. This time the orchestra was the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, conducted by Gunter Schuller. I'd seen Schuller before: I can''t remember what he was conducting then though I think it included one of his own pieces. Schuller was a pioneer of what might be termed classical-jazz fusion, epitomised for me by the album where I first heard of him, Jazz Abstractions with Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, Bill Evans, Jim Hall (among others) and the Contemporary String Quartet. Anyway, Gunter Schuller was here on Saturday to conduct an all-American programme of Copland, Gershwin and Ives.

We kicked off with a piece I'd never heard right through, though I saw James Earl Jones doing part of it in news footage of Bill Clinton's Inauguaration (the second one I think). This was Copland's Lincoln Portrait, which begins with settings of various tunes associated with the American Civil War, before the orchestra is joined by a speaker (here Clarke Peters) who reads extracts from speeches by Abraham Lincoln. It is a moving though not maudlin piece, and made a good start to an otherwise very exuberant evening.

Next, the pianist Steven Osborne joined some of the RSNO for a performance of Gershwin's Rhaosody In Blue. this, though, was not the normal orchestral version but the original version created for Paul Whiteman's jazz band. (In my youth I had a 78 rpm record of Gershwin himself playing this version with Whiteman, but I'd never heard it live.) The orchestra was augmented by a tuba player who doubled on string bass (not something one sees every day, especially as he was using two tubas in different keys as well), three saxophones and a banjo player. (This turned out to work alongside my wife: it was Robin Robertson who teaches guitar at Stevenson College. He got a well-deserved special handshake and bow from Gunter Schuller at the end.)

Steven Osborne's performance was formidably accurate, if perhaps a touch risk-averse for my taste. (It's all relative, of course: Gershwin gives the pianist plenty of adrenalin-laden moments, and only someone of his own - or Osborne's - awesome technique has the luxury of being able to make any of it sound safe.) The RSNO, though, clearly relished being a jazz band, even if John Cushing's opening glissando was simply a rapid swoosh rather than a true note-bender. Much fun was had by all, including the now fairly elderly Schuller who conducted the whole evening sitting down. The audience just loved it, and so did I.

After the interval we had a rare performance of Charles Ives's Fourth Symphony. This monster uses a large orchestra with nine percussionists, three pianists (a soloist on a big concert grand, an orchestral pianist on a smaller grand, and another on a quarter-tone piano, which must have been hell to tune in the days before digital keyboards - and the symphony was premiered in 1965 having been written back in the 1920s but not fully edited and assembled). There is a chorus, and an organ. This ain't chamber music. The music itself lurches from a restrained opening, with the chorus singing "Watchman, what of the night?" to an full-blown cacophony not unlike something from Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica. The third movement is a simple fugue, one of the most beautiful and tonal movements Ives ever wrote. The finale begins with the percussion letting rip before the rest of the orchestra join in, all seemingly in different time signatures and tempi though less anarchic than before - more Zappa than Beefheart. At the climax the chorus come in, wordlessly singing a hymn tune, and the orchestra gradually calms down towards the ending.

The only time I had seen this piece done before was a few years ago in the festival when John Adams conducted it (I think with an American orchestra). Schuller's version may not have shaken the foundations the way Adams did at the climaxes (that may have had more to do with the orchestra than the conductor) but he brought a clarity to the performance that Adams couldn't match, as well as bringing out the lyricism of the third movement. It's easy to think of Ives as needing the adrenalin of a Bernstein, a Previn or even a Rattle, yet the premiere was given by none other than Leopold Stokowski, the only conductor to be impersonated - quite well actually -by Bugs Bunny (in Long-Haired Hare). The RSNO responded brilliantly to Schuller's understated style and brought the symphony, and the concert, to an uplifting end.

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