Rhapsodies in Red, White and Blue (RSNO/Schuller 14 Aug 2010)

My first concert of this year’s Edinburgh Festival was at the Usher Hall, where the RSNO gave a program of American music under veteran American conductor Gunther Schuller. The first item was Aaron Copland’s wartime piece, Lincoln Portrait. I was not familiar with this work but it was characteristic Copland, with quiet, melancholy passages reminiscent of Appalachian Spring contrasted with louder brassy sections. The RSNO’s principals had plenty of chance to shine with brief solos, particularly clarinet (John Cushing), flute (Katherine Bryan) and trumpet (John Gracie). Clarke Peters performed the speaking rôle superbly. He remained seated throughout and his amplified voice filled the auditorium without overwhelming the orchestra. In pieces such as this it is often hard to achieve the right balance between speaker and orchestra, and combined credit must go to Copland, Schuller and Peters, as well as the in-house sound engineers for achieving this perfectly. Peters’ delivery was quiet and not overdramatised; as Copland said, ‘The words are sufficiently dramatic in themselves’, and Peters brought this out without drawing attention to himself. The second piece was George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, which is very well known in its arrangement for symphony orchestra but was performed in its original jazz band version. The reduced, and slightly unusual, forces of the RSNO included saxophones (soprano, alto, tenor and baritone) and a banjo. Special mention must go to principal tuba John Whitener who took up the double bass as well, as would have been done in Paul Whiteman’s original band. Although only 28 musicians were in the orchestra, it was hard not to imagine a much larger force was on stage given the size of the sound that filled the hall. My one criticism would be that the banjo and bass were hard to hear above the rest of the orchestra and both would have benefited from being doubled. The real star of the show, however, was Steven Osborne, who proved that he is one of the growing number of classical pianists who are equally at home in the jazz idiom. Left-Hand leaps were performed crisply and with staggering virtuosity while melodic lines sung and danced beautifully. The performance was rapturously received by the audience and I wonder why this version is not performed more often, as it has a primal, edgy quality which is lacking in the ‘cleaned up’ symphonic version.

The second half could not have been a more different affair: Charles Ives’ Symphony Nº 4 is a vast sprawling canvas of eerily microtonal harmonies and complex rhythms. I had never heard the symphony before, but having stumbled across a copy of the score in a library a few years ago, I was aware of its terrifying complexity. In the second movement. Gunther Schuller was ably assisted in the conducting duties by the leader of the orchestra, William Chandler. Schuller was successful in bringing out the structure of the piece, from the gentle opening – featuring a somewhat reduced chamber version of the RSNO chorus – building up to the climactic second movement. His control wasn’t relaxed as the orchestra approached the calm conclusion of the piece, again with chorus. The large percussion section took centre stage at several points, notably the start of the finale, beginning with five of them alone beating out a rhythmical pattern which continued as the whole orchestra grew to a fearful climax reminiscent of the second movement, before suddenly coming to a halt, ushering in a quiet coda-like passage. The final note was a single pianissimo beat from a bass drum – probably the quietest thing I have heard in a concert hall, yet perfectly audible in the stunning acoustic. Although less than thirty minutes long the symphony has all the dram a, tension and depth of a Mahler or Bruckner symphony three times its length. Given its complexity of the piece and the size of the orchestra involved we do not hear it often, but it was refreshing to see the RSNO tackling it with verve and bringing off a performance that testifies to the strong state of classical music in Scotland.

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