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Review: Glorious Gershwin at Philharmonic Hall ****

The clocks go back this weekend, but on a damp Thursday night at the Philharmonic Hall they were looking forward past the looming dark, dismal days of winter to the coming of spring with a pair of printemps-related pieces.

Andre Previn died earlier this year before completing a work the RLPO hoped to present as a world premiere.

Instead, they opted for a UK premiere of his orchestral fantasy Can Spring be Far Behind? with Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring acting as a season-related bookend, sandwiching George Gershwin’s pulsating Concerto in F.

Previn’s piece has energy, drive and sparkiness, and under Joshua Weilerstein’s lively baton the orchestra gave it plenty of all of them, from the thumping Hiawatha-style opening to a melodic torrent of sound evoking a cascading spring thaw – via some attractive woodwind solos – and a cinematic ending that would grace any Hollywood wagon train worth its Technicolor salt.

Previn described himself as a musician who played jazz and was at the piano on one of the key recordings of Gershwin’s 1925 follow up to Rhapsody in Blue.

Growing up in Russia, soloist Kirill Gerstein - a regular welcome face in Liverpool - taught himself jazz from his parents’ records and got a jazz scholarship to study in Boston at the age of 14.

Neatly bearded and looking effortlessly cool, Gerstein played this Gershwin as though he’d wandered in to a laid back, late night jazz bar and had found a willing and very able symphony orchestra to jam with.

Concerto in F may not have the big, voluptuous melodies of Rhapsody in Blue, but there’s much to appreciate within its varied three movements, delivered in dashing and joyful fashion by the Phil and pianist.

They simply looked like they were all having a marvellous time – and who couldn’t be carried along on the wave of deft, delicate keyboard work juxtaposed with the unmistakable sound of the city that never sleeps?

Above: Joshua Weilerstein. Photo by Sim Canetty-Clark

Top: Kirill Gerstein. Photo by Marco Borggreve

Speaking to the audience before the start, Weilerstein (more of him anon) described the evening as a “concert of contrasts”. But in fact, it was a programme with a particularly harmonious feel - in complementary content if not in actual musical notation.

A beefed-up orchestra (nine horns, six trumpets, four flutes and two tubas among the ranks) greeted us after the interval for Stravinsky’s pagan crowd-troubler.

“Please feel free to riot,” Weilerstein had joked at the start of the evening.

Still, if Rite no longer causes confusion and consternation among its listeners, it still has the ability to grab you by the lapels and give you a good shake, teetering on the avant garde edge with its experiments in rhythm, tonality, texture and dissonance.

Stravinsky’s experiments patently held no fear for a Phil on excellent form, and there was a palpable sense of relentless, restless motion, and demonic, chest-crushing cacophonous sound along with impressive solo work from bassoon and a lovely muted trumpet duet.

And so back to the Weilerstein, who has appeared on the Hope Street stage a number of times over the last few years.

Youthful, charming, eloquent, animated, entertaining to watch and mindful to shine the spotlight of praise on sections and individual players, in this season where every conductor is being scrutinised and then debated in the bars, auditorium and yes, even the loo queue, as a possible successor to Vasily Petrenko, if he’s not a serious contender then he should be.

Catch him on Sunday afternoon and make up your own mind.

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