The first of this season’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra concerts kicked off with a fascinating and beautifully balanced programme of American and Russian music under the title of “From Paris to New York”. The New York connection is fairly obvious for the works of Gershwin and Bernstein, but why Paris? Well, apparently both Prokofiev and Stravinsky worked with Diaghilev of the Ballets Russes, both composers lived in Paris, and many of their works were premiered in there. Our conductor for the evening was Alexander Shelley, whom we’ve seen three times here over the last few years; a reassuringly communicative and friendly chap who gets the best out of the orchestra whilst retaining a dignified stature and not going crazy at the podium.
We started off with Gershwin’s Strike Up The Band overture. It’s a rarely performed musical – a political satire, where America declares war on Switzerland because of a disputed tariff on Swiss cheese. The American public has never cared for self-ridicule or questioning patriotism in its musicals, and despite its score and lyrics, it didn’t go down well. The overture gives you a wonderful taste of what a good musical it probably was. With its instantly appealing military-style drums and whistles, its effect is to mix up all the best show tunes with some Yankee Doodle Dandy. The result is a very stirring piece that makes you jiggle around in your seat, and the RPO were obviously going to be on fine form.
Whilst the Grand Piano was being moved into position, Mr Shelley gave us some introductory background to the first couple of pieces – and it’s absolutely the best way to take your mind off the piano-shifters; it’s such a shame that these practicalities can’t somehow be taken care of more unobtrusively. And it’s a lovely new piano too, by the looks of it. With each half of the concert structured as American-Russian-American, it was time for Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No 3, with our soloist, Boris Giltburg, himself born in Moscow. I’ve heard many of Prokofiev’s compositions over the years and he’s among my absolute favourite composers; but this Piano Concerto was new to me. It’s a challenging piece! Complicated and stunning at the same time, I particularly liked the second movement which takes the form of a theme and variations; a wonderful seething mass of creativity.
Mr Giltburg is a pianist of immense style. From my vantage point in Row H of the stalls, you get a first rate view of the pianist’s hands, and my word Mr Giltburg’s were working like the clappers. Much of the music is exceptionally fast-moving, and his hands had to play industrial leapfrog to get every note reached. His technical accuracy was extraordinary; and he adopts an interesting posture whilst playing – quite upright, but bouncing his bottom up and down on the stool when things get lively, like he was taking his horse over some rough ground. The sound he produces is superb – strong, passionate, full of Prokofiev-like spikiness and unpredictability.
Mr Giltburg returned for the last piece before the interval, Gershwin’s I Got Rhythm Variations. A fascinating contrast with the concerto before, we returned to the showbizzy jazz hands New York element, giving the orchestra another opportunity to sing out some stunning arrangements, and for Mr Giltburg to show us his more emotional and expressive side. Another really entertaining performance. I was impressed to find out that Mr Giltsburg writes a blog – and it’s much more erudite than mine.
After the interval, it was time for Bernstein’s West Side Story: Symphonic Dances. Confession time, and I know it can get me thrown out of the Musicals Appreciation Club, but I’ve always found West Side Story a bit overrated. I know it has a massively significant place in the history of the musical – but as a show, and as a score, it doesn’t quite do it for me. However, it was wonderful to hear this symphonic arrangement. Nine movements take some of the show’s best tunes and either give each one a stunning orchestral interpretation, or use them as the basis for some off-kilter and quirky variations. Any orchestral performance which includes the conductor and musicians clicking their fingers, or occasionally shouting “Mambo!” can’t be all bad. There were wonderful changes of mood, too, with some movements really vivid and lively, where all the instruments have to dash out notes faster than you could say “A boy like that could kill your brother”; others were more languid and mellow. I especially enjoyed the cha-cha interpretation of the classic song Maria. Overall the tunes mingle so beautifully together; I much preferred hearing them this way. I also loved John Alley’s celeste contributions to this piece – they fitted in so well.
Back to the Russians, for Stravinsky’s Suite for Small Orchestra No 2. Mr Shelley described this little entertainment as the equivalent of a musical amuse bouche. Four short dances, full of hilarious phrasing and boisterous arrangements, assembled together to form an irresistible confection. Great fun, although perhaps slightly frustrating too, as you kind of want to hear some of these musical ideas developed a bit further. But it couldn’t help but entertain and make you smile.
The final piece, and the one that acted as a unifying theme for the entire evening, was Gershwin’s An American in Paris. Again we’re back to that Gershwinian swing sound, full of lush orchestrations that the RPO could really get their teeth into. More celeste, and even some taxi horns created a convincing musical representation of the French capital, and you can easily imagine this American guy walking around, bringing his home influences with him as he culture-clashes with the more elegant Gallic atmosphere. I’m not as fond of this music as I am Rhapsody in Blue, but nevertheless it was still a very entertaining way to wrap up the concert.
Always a privilege to see the Royal Philharmonic perform, and when they put together such a varied and exciting programme as this, it makes me very grateful I live so close to the theatre. They’re back in February – you should come too!