When we think of America, Dvořák and Milhaud are not among the first set of composers to come to mind, but it turns out they deserve to be among the second. The London Philharmonic Orchestra's latest programming venture in The Rest is Noise festival, this time with conductor Marin Alsop, launched American music on the world in a way we wouldn't necessarily expect – exploring the influence of American culture on non-American composers as well as taking a look at some American classics in their own right.
Dvořák's Symphony no. 9 may be associated with many things – drama, passion and bread adverts, to name a few – they also have a strong connection with American spirituals. The first half of the concert placed an a cappella arrangement of three traditional spiritual pieces (sung by the London Adventist Chorale under the direction of Ken Burton), side by side with the symphony. The spirituals were neat and characterful, juxtaposing crisp yet soft consonants with warm, enveloping sound and an attention to phrasing and rubato that was intensely sensitive. Deep River was intimate and passionately sacred; it was a shame the choir wasn't amplified given the size of the hall, but the purity of the style was clear nonetheless, even if some details were swallowed by the acoustic. There were occasional pitching problems in the sopranos in Swing Low, but the performance was generally polished yet soulful. The parallel between the two programme items was distinctly drawn by a direct segue from the third song, Goin' Home (a piece based on the second movement of the Ninth Symphony), to the first movement of the Dvořák.
The first movement began with the sensitive ease of the spirituals before it, and the flexibility in the phrasing, allowing the music to swell with vocal fluidity, was refreshing. The movement soon whipped into a tumultuous storm under Alsop's baton, roaring with enthusiasm from every instrumentalist and conductor alike. The second movement was not entirely successful: the interpretation lacked breadth and at times became a little pedestrian simply because the tempo felt a little rushed. The third movement was far better, the intensely cheeky rhythmic idiosyncrasies bursting with energy and enthusiasm, and the fourth movement rounded off the piece with vim and impressive bravado.
The second half of the concert took and an even more unusual tack to showcasing American influence on music: it off the influences of jazz and of the city of New York respectively, with two interesting and less-performed pieces of repertoire by Darius Milhaud and Edgard Varèse. Milhaud's La création du monde, as Alsop herself introduced to the audience, was written as music for a ballet about – unsurprisingly, given the title – the creation of the world. Inspired by jazz (apparently Milhaud was a frequently visitor at jazz clubs, thirstily transcribing solos and taking inspiration from the style), the piece fuses classical elements with more contemporary rhythms and harmonies, and even the instrumentation is clearly jazz-influenced, with the standard viola in the string section replaced with a saxophone. The jazz sections were syncopated with precision and style, the classical sections sweeping and considered with feeling, but for all the skill of the musicians, I can understand why this piece isn't more frequently programmed. Despite an intelligent and stylish interpretation, the writing in the piece felt somewhat like a parent and child arguing over which radio channel they should listen to, and it felt like a shame that the clearly skilled and sensitive performers weren't given more chance to shine in their moment as a chamber ensemble.
The final piece on the programme, and the most risky in terms of audience reception, was Varèse's Amériques. Simply put, it was pulled off with aplomb. With another charismatic introduction from Alsop, we learnt about the influence of the sounds of New York City, the composer's philosophy of "organised sound" as opposed to structured melodic line, and the use of novel instruments (a police siren and a "lion's roar" among them, guarded by an army of percussionists numbering into double digits, a visual novelty that promised an intriguing aural texture before the piece even started). The pure flute solo which began the piece (as Alsop pointed out, a clear tribute to Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune) soon tumbled into overwhelming walls of sound. It was easy to feel the fear, the excitement and the overwhelming buzz of the new city being explored by a foreigner, the intimidating shimmer of cymbals and cars wailing past. The piece was a simply astonishing sensory assault, and the performance utterly committed from the first sound to the final cataclysmic crash.
His piece was hailed as the most important piece 'for grand orchestra' created on American soil since the turn of the 19th century - a bittersweet, wordless rhapsody that envelopes like a dream and includes among its sonic armoury the sounds of sirens, duck-calls, whips and even a steamboat whistle.
Free pre-concert event, 6pm until 6.45pm, Royal Festival Hall Foyle Future Firsts present Les Six (orch. Constant) 'Les Maries de la Tour Eiffel' - a rare revival of the score to Cocteau's nonsensical ballet.
Southbank Centre: Royal Festival HallBelvedere Road
London Greater London United Kingdom SE1 8XX
London Philharmonic Orchestra © Richard Cannon