Last night, the BBC Symphony Orchestra embarked on an adventurous program that spanned more than a century (1891-2005) in its musical germination, boasted three unique compositional styles (although in some ways it fell to Vaughan Williams to deliver the most “contemporary” colours, even as he borrowed largely from Tchaikovsky’s thematic gifts) and featured two renowned musicians: the extraordinarily talented English pianist, Stephen Hough and the unapologetically energetic American conductor, Andrew Litton. Yet, the brightest stars of the night were the dedicated, hard-working players that, when all of the preceding elements came into alignment, produced a symphonic aura that could stand head and shoulders with any orchestra on the planet.
In the house for the U.K. première, Aaron Jay Kernis rewarded the enthusiastic crowd with a readily accessible atmospheric soundscape that should find its way onto concert stages worldwide. This study in contrasts opened with dark viola/cello flowing lines, seasoned with a few dollops of dissonance before the mighty horns provided the “glue” into the first “moment.” Much-muted full brass and oily woodwinds added to the power and pain before a nearly together pizzicato shifted the tempo forward.
As the pace quickened, Litton was all heels and arms, which added unnecessarily to the excitement: with limbs, baton and feet moving simultaneously in different directions, the chances for razor sharp ensemble diminish. From the players’ point of view, it’s often near impossible to know if the next entry should come on the lowest point of the stick, the jabbed finger or when the leather hits the podium. Centering the body and drawing the musicians into concisely defined delineations of the pulse would lift this engaging performance into the realm of edge-of-seat excitement.
Once the opening flurry calmed, a Coplandesque section afforded principal trumpet Gareth Bimson the opportunity of demonstrating his considerable skill in the warm and blue solo line; first-chair flautist Daniel Pailthorpe shone equally in his ensuing intervention. Soon the mutes dampened the strings for a few measures of beautiful bitterness, faintly echoing Barber’s Adagio for Strings and proving to be just as treacherous in the stratosphere.
The final big surge was a mallet-rich, full-blown wild ride that burst into the ear before Kernis built in a reflective transition, replete with smile-inducing tonal changes and a somewhat untidy coda that stripped the band—and our emotions—bare until only the singular pitch of harp and flute remained.
In the Rachmaninov, Hough tore through the score like a man possessed—possessed of such technical wizardry that the rhapsodic, episodic commentaries were a treat at every turn. The cadenza was a marvel of unbridled forward motion then developed into deliberately balanced introspective statements that not even a couple of misfires could diminish. Litton and his charges provided generally effective support but ensemble problems continued to reduce the level of excellence.
The “Andante,” following Nicholas Korth’s memorable horn solo, led to the concerto’s finest moments. Initially without his baton, Litton sculpted large swaths of sound in a manner that caused the players to dig a little deeper. Where was this divine sculpting in the Kernis? Frustratingly, the upper strings, with many delicate entries, couldn’t manage to engage their bows and left hands as one, perhaps still uncertain as to exactly when to start. For his part, Hough provided bar after bar of magical declamation and secure poise, demonstrating convincingly that he is a musician who just happens to play the piano. Merci mille fois!
The seldom-performed symphony was given a strong airing which showed sides of the venerable composer that many listeners (both live and on a future BBC broadcast) might not have attributed to the creator of the earlier program-symphonies.
Whatever the actual source of inner discomfort, the sprawling work is filled with much anger and a recurring theme that defines uncertainty. Based on F, the motif searches a semitone lower (E) and a semitone higher (G flat) returning to its point of origin. Simultaneously it provides some angst and a feeling of getting nowhere—a cause of anger in any guise.
Once again the band rose to the occasion and cobbled together a performance that delighted the crowd—particularly the members of the percussion section who injected much-needed crackle into the full-cry climaxes (the rapid-fire cymbals were astonishing). Litton pushed, pulled and cajoled his considerable forces towards his way of thinking, resulting in many distinguished moments. Yet, as the complex work unfolded, there emerged the uncomfortable and limiting feeling of too many barlines. The music wanted to burst out of its vertical confinement and slip that leash into the further glories of horizontal drive tempered with overarching harmonic propulsion. A seldom travelled and dangerous path, its potential to unleash all that lurks in the score is considerable. JWR