RSNO / Wilson

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Among the other ingredients they had in common – most obviously the shared influence of music outside the Western classical sphere from the other side of the Atlantic – the compositions conductor John Wilson chose for the RSNO to perform this weekend had interesting links in their titles.

While Copland’s Clarinet Concerto was always going to be alliteratively just that – that was what its commissioner Benny Goodman was paying top dollar for, after all – both George Gershwin and Sergei Rachmaninov changed their minds.

The Russian was probably correct that Symphonic Dances was a more sellable name than Fantastic Dances (in 1941 at least), but Gershwin’s Cuban Overture might have had more performances if he’d stuck with the original title, Rumba, given the USA’s subsequent troubled relationship with the Caribbean island.

The three works – written within two decades of the last century – share a lot of DNA, and prefacing the Rachmaninov with the American composers was highly instructive. What Wilson asked of the RSNO players in the Symphonic Dances was U.S. Marine Band precision – this was dance music that was as much Strictly Ballroom as it was refracting the composer’s perennial debt to the liturgy of the orthodox church though a Romantic lens.

The plangent quality to Lewis Bank’s saxophone solo in the opening movement often sounds more pastoral than it did here, while the waltz of the Andante was one that had heard American dance bands. And while the melodic material of the last movement may be identifiably old Russian, the small significant details of the orchestration – not least in the percussion – were of the contemporary West.

The RSNO percussion section was even more to the fore in the Gershwin, in music built around the collection of instruments he brought back from Havana. What a construction he made from his fascination with Latin music. More of a tone poem than an overture, it is a piece full of deliciously complex scoring and cameos for solo instruments both familiar and alien to the Cuban bands he’d heard.

The exacting approach that John Wilson brings to his rehearsal of any orchestra matched the compositional rigour with which Gershwin used his inspiration and that also applied to the way Copland incorporates stride piano, jazz bass, and Dixieland into his Clarinet Concerto.

RSNO first clarinet Timothy Orpen was the star soloist for the work, and he clearly revels in the way it unfolds, with all those influences appearing well through the work, which is also quite beautifully constructed.

In what is an exquisite showcase for his instrument, Orpen gave full emotional weight to the spacious first section, with its spare and specific orchestration, and gave a masterclass in pin-sharp articulation after the cadenza. The interplay between the soloist and his colleagues in the orchestra as the work unfolded was quite joyous, and the climax of the work irresistibly smile-making.

Keith Bruce