Tag Archives: John Wilson

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

RSNO / Wilson

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

For anyone unclear what a conductor does – particularly one visiting for a single weekend’s concerts in a season – Saturday’s performance by the RSNO under John Wilson provided the perfect illustration. Since his contract with the BBC Scottish ended, we do not see enough of Wilson in Scotland, and his execution of this brilliantly-conceived programme showed what a loss that is.

Music from the second, third and fourth decades of the 20th century, played in chronological order, was as fine a showcase for a large symphony orchestra as might be found anywhere in the repertoire. The mutual admiration between Maurice Ravel and George Gershwin is well-documented – and was amusingly recounted by the conductor in his introductory remarks – but the trans-Atlantic musical conversation that Wilson revealed, with Rachmaninov possibly eavesdropping on the long path to his Third Symphony, is rarely so clearly expressed.

The 1912 orchestration of Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales calls for six percussionists, two harps and celeste, and begins in a style that seems a precursor of Kurt Weill and Weimar cabaret music. The eight short pieces are often very beautiful, and benefitted here from the expressive flute of Katherine Bryan, who had a starring role through the evening. The work’s final bars were quite exquisitely shaped by Wilson.

In the mid-1920s, Gershwin was clearly still learning his orchestral craft, the immediate cross-over success of Rhapsody in Blue notwithstanding. Led by the timpani, the Concerto in F, begins like a Broadway overture, but the closing movement starts with a clear “borrowing” from a Stravinsky ballet score before asking the piano soloist to explore his inner Art Tatum and Meade Lux Lewis.

Soloist Louis Schwizgebel revelled in the bluesy chords he was asked to play from the start, as well as in his proximity to the front desk of the violins and leader Emily Davis, who has a few bars in the style of Joe Venturi in a central slow movement that also included a fine solo from first trumpet Chris Hart. There is often a big-band feel to the music Gershwin writes for winds and brass, but he was already a good distance from the work he wrote for Paul Whiteman.

Schwizgebel made the demanding piano part look breezy and capped it with a perfectly-chosen encore of a Jazz Etude by Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff, which was dreamily atmospheric.

If performances of Rachmaninov’s Symphony No 3 are comparatively rare, it’s perhaps because the work lacks the ear-worms that litter the composer’s other work, and persist in the mind afterwards. Instead its riches lie in the thorough exploration of all the sounds an orchestra can make and Wilson was all over every detail of the score, insisting on fine gradations in the dynamics and precision engineering of the balance for the solos, which come from every section and front desk.

The lush orchestration of the opening movement is followed by an Adagio that here glanced back to the start of the concert in sounding startlingly French, while the carnivalesque finale is as much Hollywood as Mittel-Europe. In 1936, sadly, that musical consensus so meticulously expressed here by Wilson and the RSNO was about to be torn asunder.

Keith Bruce

Picture: John Wilson

BBC SSO/Wilson

City Halls, Glasgow

For all the strength of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra across all departments, this programme conducted by John Wilson was a real showcase for the strings, from the huge ensemble sound that opened the evening with the first movement of George Enescu’s Suite No 1 – underscored only by Gordon Rigby’s rumbling timpani – to the solo by leader Laura Samuel in the Fairy Garden conclusion of Ravel’s Mother Goose.

Nicely lit and filmed, with plenty of well-chosen instrumental close-ups, for a live-stream that seems to have been a one-time event now absent from the BBC i-Player, it was clearly audible that the opening work was being performed in an empty hall, and that reverberant acoustic suited it well.

Some echoey page-turning noises sat less happily in the midst of Lennox Berkeley’s Serenade for Strings, initially a complete sonic contrast to the ominous Enescu but ultimately becoming more edgy than its lush opening. As was noted in the concert commentary, there is evident of Berkeley’s Parisian training in that development, as there is in Vaughan Williams’s orchestral scoring of his song-cycle On Wenlock Edge.

Tenor Benjamin Hulett was making his debut singing that version, as opposed to the piano-accompanied one, and perhaps he began a little uncertainly, but he warmed well to the task at hand. Houseman was reportedly less impressed by this than other settings of his work, and if the poet’s reservations are understandable, the musical arc of the work was given full expression here by Wilson and the SSO. Is My Team Ploughing? is much less bleak than the familiar Butterworth setting, and Hulett captured its ambiguity beautifully before giving full voice to the longest song, Bredon Hill.

The orchestral coup of the concert was another first, the world premiere of a new edition of the complete ballet music for Mother Goose, the fullest version of Ravel’s suite restored to his 1912 intention, replacing the hotch-potch published in the 1970s. I cannot pretend to have picked up the additions and omissions that Wilson alluded to, but it is true that Ravel was working in an era when the whole sphere of publication and proof-reading was becoming more complex and sophisticated. If he missed out on the benefits of modernism it is more than time amends are made.

The detail of his scoring certainly deserves to be as beautifully played as it was here, with the harp, winds and celesta complementing those strings, continuing to demonstrate that distinctive ensemble coherence alongside the front-desk solo virtuosity.

Available on BBC Sounds. Now also available on the BBC i-Player.

Keith Bruce