Usher Hall | Pianodrome | St John’s, Edinburgh
The second Usher Hall appearance by The Philadelphia Orchestra at this year’s Festival includes the First Symphony of rediscovered black American composer Florence Price. At the other side of the Old Town, mezzo-soprano Andrea Baker concluded the Fringe run of a show that celebrates Price’s contemporary Shirley Graham Du Bois, whose opera Tom Tom was premiered the same year (1932) and, although praised, similarly then sunk without trace.
Baker’s show, the latest in her Sing Sister Sing! project and entitled Tales of Transatlantic Freedom, does much more than that, however. Tracing her own lineage to an enslaved great-grandfather (who, like Du Bois, became a very successful student, she at Oberlin, he at Yale), Baker’s operatic training is apparent in her selection from Du Bois’ work, but elsewhere she ranges from gospel and blues to the songs of Robert Burns, her argument being that diversity has always existed in music, it has merely been lost in the present age.
Directed by John Paul McGroarty, the show made best use of a unique Fringe venue, housed within the Old Royal High School, once ear-marked for the Scottish Parliament and now destined to be the new home of St Mary’s Music School. At first prowling around the perimeter of the amphitheatre (which is partly constructed of old pianos) singing field hollers, the mezzo made her case with powerful performances of Ca’ the Yowes and A Slave’s Lament as well as spiritual Steal Away and lascivious dance moves, and some challenging eye-contact with members of the in-the-round audience.
Her essential partner in all this was pianist and arranger Howard Moody, just as versatile as she on two working pianos – “prepared” and otherwise – melodica and assorted percussion (often also the piano). It’s a show sure to have another life.
A duo of younger female musicians brought a run of lunchtime recitals at the Just Festival in St John’s at the West End of Princes Street to a close earlier on Thursday. Under new manager Miranda Heggie, the music, art and discussion programme concludes with Messiaen’s Quartet for End of Time this evening.
Cordes en Ciel was formed by two international students at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Estonian lutenist Kristiina Watt and French/American soprano Heloise Bernard. Specialising in music heard at the courts of Louis XIV in France and Charles I & II in England, they are a charming partnership, and the period of their music nevertheless demanded considerable versatility. From Watt that was a range of accompanying techniques on theorbo and guitar as well as lute, and from Bernard singing in French and English and of emotional love songs as well as wry narrative. The music of Lully and Purcell were understandably to the fore, but we ended in the Franco-Iberian territory popularly explored by Jordi Savall.
The Philadelphia’s first Usher Hall concert, originally to have been Beethoven 9 with the Festival Chorus, began with an unbilled “present” to the Edinburgh audience – as conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin announced it – of Dvorak’s Carnival Overture. Although a problematic addition for the Festival, as the previous “resident” orchestra at this year’s event, the Czech Phil, had begun with the same work a few days previously, it helped shaped Thursday evening’s programme by getting things off with a fast and furious bang.
The first work in the agreed revised programme was Rachmaninov’s less-often-heard Isle of the Dead. Inspired by a black and white print of an already sombre painting, its is nonetheless far from colourless even if many of those colours are dark ones: eight basses, tuba, bass trombone, contrabassoon and bass clarinet. Mostly about huge ensemble sound, tempi and dynamics controlled with a tight rein by Nezet-Seguin, it nevertheless featured some fine solo playing from leader David Kim and first clarinet Ricardo Morales.
The orchestra’s star principal clarinet was also among the prominent voices in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, but it was all about the conductor’s shaping of the old warhorse – without reference to any score. Out of the blocks like a whippet, this was a vigorous Five that shifted through the gears of pace and volume, showing The Philadelphia to be a highly responsive machine. Nezet-Seguin took long-ish pauses between the first and second and second and third movements, perhaps to prepare ears for the perfection of the segue from Scherzo to Finale – the make-or-break point of any performance.
Regardless of the bolt-on bonus at the front end of the evening, there was an encore, although we have, of course, heard the poignant Prayer for Ukraine from other orchestras too.
Picture of Yannick Nezet-Seguin by Hans van der Woerd