Monday 6 December 2010

Too many puddings from the Harth-Bedoya and the RSNO, but some stunning trombone playing from Magnussen

Perhaps the cold weather and thick snow helped explain a rather thin Usher Hall turnout on Friday; doubtless some unfamiliar works on the programme didn't help.  In truth, were it not for the rare opportunity to hear a trombone concerto, I'd have through twice about strapping on my walking boots.

Certainly the story of how former RSNO trombonist Bryan Free tracked down and reassemble Nathaniel Shilkret's trombone concerto, originally written for jazz legend Tommy Dorsey, is a fascinating one.  Sadly, the story is rather more interesting than the concerto, whose main merit was that it provided a magnificent showcase for the talents of the orchestra's young principal Davur Juul Magnussen.  He was very impressive, leaping around the full range of the range of the instrument: now muted, now glissandos, now playing three notes at once, in a wonderful rumbling sound generated by humming, playing and getting an overtone (something that Dorsey refused to play).  And not a cracked note in sight, no mean feat.  As a sometime, albeit infinitely less talented, trombonist myself, it's great to get the all too rare chance to hear the instrument shine like this.  Sadly, beyond that, the piece was eminently forgettable, and it was quite easy to see why it had been forgotten.  The boogie-woogie finale, complete with the sort of drum kit not often seen with a symphony orchestra, was fun, but it didn't seem in away way to follow from what came before.

The works on the programme shared a common theme of having been composed by people from the Americas.  So it was that the evening opened with Copland's El salon Mexico.  And it did make a fine curtain raiser, the orchestra playing it very well and Harth-Bedoya bringing plenty of panache and fireworks.

Much the same could be said of Leonard Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from West Side Story.  Again, it was a lot of fun, not least the orchestra clicking their fingers en mass, or calling out as required.  Not to mention, as elsewhere in the evening, some superb flute solos from Kathryn Bryan (indeed, she seemed to have almost as many opportunities to shine as Magnussen).  Again, Harth-Bedoya brought great showmanship and a sense of fun, but as they played on, it began to dawn on me that this was all a bit much of a muchness.  How about a change of pace somewhere?  Instead, this was a concert programme in the manner of a restaurant that serves only pudding.  Where was something a little deeper and more profound, where was the main course?

Certainly not in the evening's final piece, Alberto Ginastera's Estancia: Four Dances.  These were trying to be showy and fun in the same way as the rest of the programme, but failed even to do that.  In the first place, each dance felt rather repetitive (no mean feat as they lasted only a couple of minutes apiece).  However, there was nothing in the writing that even came close to Bernstein or Copland.  Now, perhaps this wouldn't matter so much if there was a ballet to accompany it, but there wasn't.  Furthermore, the piece provided an object lesson that simply having a lot of loud notes, played very rapidly one after another, does not in and of itself generate exciting music (no matter how well played they might be).

All in all, one can't help thinking that given the rich tapestry of music available from the Americas, a much more satisfying programme could have been derived.

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