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Review: Stillness and Light at Philharmonic Hall ****1/2

American conductor Joshua Weilerstein has become a fast favourite at Hope Street – and this Thursday night pre-Christmas concert reminded why.

Warm and engaging, he took the time to talk to the audience about the programme of ‘serious and dramatic pieces’, and its lesser-known composers, before launching into the music proper.

His enthusiasm for American contemporary Caroline Shaw, and particularly her Entr’acte for strings, rang through in the orchestra’s performance of the piece with its crisply delineated dynamics and interesting range of playing techniques.

If the opening bars bore something of a hint of Einaudi, the work’s middle section plunged the Phil deep into the rust belt with its tricky syncopated plucking patterns and tone evoking American bluegrass.

There was a solo violin motif for leader Jonathan Stone, and Jonathan Aasgaard brought the piece to a conclusion by turning his cello into something that sounded remarkably, and evocatively, Spanish guitar-ish.


Mozart also played with tone, texture and orchestration in his Piano Concerto No 24, written for an unusually sizeable orchestra including substantial woodwind section, brass and timpani, but still feeling somehow intimate.

Soloist Inon Barnatan brought a beautifully subtle touch to the opening bars of piano, arriving in the midst of the compact drama of the opening allegro, creating silky sweet runs with a propulsive ease and fluidity.

Barnatan’s lyricism and his clarity of tone - making each note sound individually vibrant and present – shone through in the larghetto, with the Phil’s woodwind section (who have had a great start to the season) acting as a delicate, responsive foil, and a virtuosic final allegretto.

Above: December at the Philharmonic Hall. Top: Joshua Weilerstein. Photo by Sim Canetty Clark

The second half of the evening brought a change in programme (the reasons for which weren’t explained), swapping William Grant Still’s Serenade for his Mother and Child for String Orchestra.

Still created the piece by orchestrating the second movement of his wartime Suite for Violin and Piano and it became instantly popular – even if it may have passed by British audiences.

Unmistakably American in tone and feel (albeit with a faint initial hint – to my ears at least – of Coates’ By the Sleepy Lagoon), it has a rather beautiful song-like melody and at times an almost cinematic quality, both nicely drawn out here by the Phil.

There’s nothing sleepy about Dvorak’s Seventh Symphony, a voice still from the old and not the new world.

Conductor and orchestra set out their stall with an ominous shimmer of cellos and violas giving way to a big, glossy, punchy full orchestral burst of colour – Weilerstein generating real drive without sacrificing tone as the melody was swapped from section to section in a rise and fall pattern.

The poco adagio second movement offered a sweet clarinet line from Jernej Albrecht and lovely, warm solo from principal horn Tim Jackson, along with burnished crescendos, while the Slavonic scherzo had plenty of nimble footed swing and sway and a crisp sharpness through the strings – along with a spanking finish.

Its finale, moving from the symphony’s D minor key into a sunny major, was given plenty of welly by a fist-clenching Weilerstein but without compromising on melody and glistening tone. Enjoyably stirring stuff.

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