Review: All American at Philharmonic Hall ****


Bells, bass clarinets, banjos…all that was missing was a star-spangled banner from this blazing ‘all American’ night at the Phil led by Hawaii-raised Sarah Hicks.

Part of the Phil season’s spotlight on women in classical music, the concert was supported by the Association of British Orchestra’s Sirens programme which aims to advance and promote the understanding of music by women.

And its first half was dominated by a pair of female musical voices – leading contemporary figure Joan Tower and the little-known (on this side of the pond at least) late 19th Century composer Amy Beach.

In recent seasons the Phil has encouraged its conductors to engage with the audience from the stage.

And Hicks proved a particularly joyful and knowledgeable guide, explaining both halves of the programme as well as heaping praise on the orchestra whom she called “great musicians and quite wonderful people too”.

It was a busy night for percussion and timpani and Tower’s Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman (a direct riposte to Copland’s common man) put them and the brass section firmly centre (up)stage in a brief but rousing burst of glossy sound.

Pianist Beach was forced to give up her performing career when she got married, but she was ‘allowed’ to carry on composing and was particularly prolific, although not widely heard here – particularly since her death in the 1940s.

Her ‘Gaelic’ Symphony, so called because of its use of Irish folk tunes within its four movements, opens with a rumbling on strings and a swirling crescendo, and under Hicks’ baton the Phil plunged in to its romantic, busy orchestration which came in relentless, tempestuous waves – perhaps a little bit too tempestuous at times – punctuated by the first of the folk melodies, introduced through the woodwind.

An allegro vivace second movement introduced a second traditional song on oboe with clarinet and bassoon support and lively strings, while the melodic third movement brought with it a lovely lullaby sung through Jonathan Aasgaard’s cello and a sweet, soulful singing theme from Dutch violinist Amarins Weirdsma – visiting soloist two weeks ago and back last night to lead the orchestra, and an unusual trio of cello, violin and bass clarinet.

And while a brisk final movement initially felt like it needed a bit more clarity, it delivered some punchy brass and a lushly romantic finale.

Gershwin and Bernstein formed the double bill after an interval ice cream, pianist Ian Buckle stepping out from his usual place behind the violins to perform as soloist in the complex Variations on I Got Rhythm (albeit still playing his preferred orchestral piano).

Gershwin’s famous melody flits in and out of the piece in playful Willo the Wisp-type fashion, darting and vanishing amid unexpected tangents and complex syncopations, and Buckle offered a light and sure touch alongside some crisp playing by the orchestra.

Bernstein’s Three Episodes from On The Town was an entertainingly jaunty, swaggering, swinging filling between I Got Rhythm and an evocative performance of Gershwin’s Catfish Row from Porgy and Bess.

The suite includes some of the most beautiful music the composer wrote, including Summertime – performed with aching sweetness by Weirdsma (who I assume was playing her Guadagnini violin), and the gorgeous Bess, You Is My Woman Now, introduced as a cello solo and then smoothing out through the full strings.

Hicks injected plenty of drama into the fugue and hurricane movements, and the thumping finale was chimed in by a Forever Bell.