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Tovey’s Potent Mix

Verizon Hall
12/11/2014 -  & December 12, 13, 2014
Benjamin Britten: Passacaglia from Peter Grimes, Op. 33
Bramwell Tovey: Songs of a Paradise Saloon, for trumpet and orchestra
George Gershwin: Catfish Row: Suite from Porgy and Bess
Leonard Bernstein: Symphonic Dances from West Side Story (Orch. Ramin & Kostal)

Alison Balsom (Trumpet)
The Philadelphia Orchestra, Bramwell Tovey (Conductor)

B. Tovey (© Jessica Griffin)

Vancouver Symphony Maestro Bramwell Tovey is becoming a familiar presence as guest conductor with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Audiences have tuned into his droll charm of his New Year’s Eve appearance last year, for instance, as he makes it a musical occasion to remember beyond the waltzes. This year, Bramwell is conducting the Fab Philadelphians Glorious Sounds of Christmas concert, anchored on the repertoire from the orchestra’s 1964 bestselling album conducted by Eugene Ormandy. But the bigger bonus is that Tovey was here the week before showing his talents as a composer and a pianist.

The program opened with Britten’s Passacaglia Act 2 scene interlude music from Peter Grimes, but conjuring its atmospherics as a standalone piece. Particularly dynamic the cross-orchestral currents building with such a subtle dramatic arc. The turbulent orchestra drive resolving to that dreamy celesta floating through the hall a perfect prologue to the evening.

Tovey then introduced Songs of a Paradise Saloon for trumpet and orchestra and gave the lengthy back story of piece inspired by his opera The Inventor about Alexander Keith, a spy for the Confederacy, saboteur and all around con man, who hung out in New York’s devious dive The Paradise Saloon. The orchestral Songs describe the night before the fateful events in the opera. It is a pastiche of character music with the intent, he said to inspire us to visualize the mayhem in the bar. Tovey finally introduced trumpet soloist Alison Balsom, who swept onstage in leather pants and a gray puckered cape and spike heels, ready for what Tovey described as a ’fiendish’ multiple horn piece with Balsom next to a table with trumpet, flugelhorn, cornet, piccolo trumpet and mutes lined-up.

The stark tight staccato trumpet lines of the opening, has an abrasiveness that seems too academic. When Balsom switches instruments to cornet and flugelhorn, the lower tones and lyricism starts to conjure the atmospherics with more immediacy and the music is getting sousy (without it getting to vamped). The back of the piece bloomed with tight progressions, as the passages get less angular and Tovey less literal, meanwhile, Balsom completely commands in these sections with buoyant phrasing and switching horns and without blinking. The piece time travels from Civil-War era to fragmented, burnished notes with jazzed lines on muted horn.

Tovey is a conductor who doesn’t lean on the winning surfaces of very familiar music and the musical depth he achieved playing two of the most famous works by American composers did not go unnoticed by this audience. Indeed, it was so moving to hear Gershwin’s Catfish Row Suite from Porgy and Bess in tandem with Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. Both reflecting complex social issues and both with so much stirring humanity (and poetry) built into the music. It is music we need to hear when times seem hopeless.

Meanwhile, the orchestra performed with sparkling intensity and polish. Tovey’s brings interpretive detailing to both pieces and the outstanding soloists, starting with the maestro himself who hopped off the podium showing his mettle as a stride pianist wild about that blue note in the opening. Tovey enunciated the jazz symphonia edge to Gershwin, so often softened by opera orchestras. Violinist Juliette Kang’s lead on Summertime in sonorous lower tones were moments of concert hall magic. Bernstein’s West Side seemingly never loses its luster, but the vibrant and visceral dimension of the full symphonic musicality ignited in this performance.

Lewis Whittington



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