Tag Archives: Julia Perry

RSNO / Reif

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

The recent trend among orchestras to rediscover music by composers of African-American heritage, especially females, has unearthed some forgotten gems: not always, but assuredly so in the case of Julia Perry. Born in Kentucky in the 1920s, she died at the age of 55 in 1979, but in her curtailed lifetime studied at New York’s prestigious Julliard School and later with the go-to European teachers of the time, Nadia Boulanger and Luigi Dallapiccola. The RSNO opened last weekend’s programme with one of her 1950s’ works, A Short Piece for Orchestra.

It is, as it says on the tin, short, but within its seven-minute span it reveals a red-hot creative focus and intent, which this performance under German-born conductor Christian Reif vividly illustrated. Structured in five concise and continuous sections, it wasted no time in making its point, Perry’s stylistic language progressive and bold. Reif exerted incisive control on its initial explosiveness, a cascading torrent of aphoristic soundbites ripe for the picking, variously calming the mood (a delicious flute-led second section) or revelling in ecstatic adrenalin rushes along its journey.

As such, it functioned as the perfect springboard for Erich Korngold’s Violin Concerto in D, a sumptuous assimilation of the composer’s Hollywood epic film score style and influences derived from his native Vienna upbringing, echoes of Mahler and Strauss. If that demands a soloist of big personality, then American-born violinist Philippe Quint, making his RSNO debut, was a solid choice.

Visually, he was a commanding presence centre stage, with a physicality responsive to the music’s flamboyant cut and thrust. His tone was assertive and passionate, his agile facility at the topmost end of the fingerboard (there’s a lot of that!) bright and thrilling, and where Korngold luxuriates in golden lyricism, Quint’s realisation was gloriously rapt. Occasionally such all-consuming fervour distorted the perfection of the intonation, but it was a performance – along with his solo encore version of Charlie Chaplin’s famous melody Smile – that was both engaging and enthralling.

There wasn’t quite the same sustained intensity in Dvorak’s Seventh Symphony, which certainly had its triumphant moments, but which, under Reif’s busy direction, lacked sustained compulsion and the sharpest of responses from the orchestra. The opening two movements seemed weighted, sluggish even, made up for by a welcome zest in the Scherzo and ultimate flourish in the Finale. 

Ken Walton

BBC SSO / Gourlay / Kanneh-Mason

City Halls, Glasgow

IF conductor Andrew Gourlay was inspired to pursue his career when he was playing trombone with the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester under the baton of Claudio Abbado, he has clearly retained a love of good music for his original instrument.

The first half of this programme was a celebration of the USA’s Thanksgiving Day in 20th Century American music and the slide trombone was to the fore at the start and end of a very thoughtful sequence. Carl Ruggles, an associate of Charles Ives, started proceedings with three ‘bones joining four trumpets in the choir stalls, the sections led by the SSO’s top rank principals, Simon Johnson and Mark O’Keeffe. Far from a fanfare, “Angels” sounded distinctly Ellingtonian on the muted instruments, and, like the work that followed, seemed to have more to say than its brevity allowed.

Ruth Crawford Seeger has been rediscovered as a composer recently (as opposed to Pete and Peggy’s mom) and her arrangement of a string quartet’s slow movement as the Andante for String Orchestra might have been taken to ape Barber’s famous Adagio, if it did not pre-date it by five years – which begs an interesting parallel question. Again, it seems to suggest more than it delivers.

The African-American Julia Perry was a generation younger, but her Short Piece for Orchestra defies easy dating in its soundworld. Here were more thoroughly developed ideas, alongside the introduction of rhythm to the evening’s programme, as well as brass, winds, percussion and celesta. A student with both Boulanger and Dallapiccola, her vast catalogue is surely ripe for investigation; this was a chamber orchestra version of her score, but it was still full of vibrant detail and colour.

A further generation on, Alvin Singleton’s Cara Mia Gwen was commissioned by the Florida Orchestra to mark its 25th anniversary, but personal in inspiration, a memorial to his sister. The trombone had the first and last word here in a work in which the orchestral sections each had their own distinct role, and the chordal voicings again brought to mind the big band arrangements of Duke Ellington.

Perhaps only the SSO, even among the BBC’s orchestras with their varied diets, would have played that first half as a precursor to working with a fashionable young soloist on a repertoire classic. With her own Clara Schumann album selling well, pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason is recognisably more than the cellist’s older sister. Her way with Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto was a bit of a roller-coaster, but an enjoyable one. Her stated intention to be more playful than portentous was certainly fulfilled, and there was a great deal of interpretative individuality in her phrasing, as well as visible attentiveness to conductor and orchestra, rewardingly reciprocated.

There was also some technical imprecision however, alongside the lightness of touch in the faster passages, and a lack elsewhere of the dynamic nuance she had brought to the first movement cadenza.
Keith Bruce