City Halls, Glasgow
Of the many quality ingredients in Friday evening’s SCO concert conducted by Ryan Bancroft, the droll introductory remarks of recent recruit as the orchestra’s first viola, Max Mandell, deserve their own recognition. Chosen to talk about the American music in the programme for his accent, he guessed, the Canadian’s disparaging description of contemporary Connecticut as a haven for dislikeable people will live long in the mind.
He was altogether more admiring of the music Charles Ives composed about the place a century ago, and the performance of Three Places in New England we heard justified his enthusiasm. The SCO strings were beautifully calibrated from the first bars of what was a wonderfully atmospheric reading of the work by Bancroft, the music sounding perfectly suited to these forces.
Through all the snatches of songs and tunes, changes in dynamics and direction, the cacophonous climax of Putnam’s Camp and the pastoral idyll, climax and coda of the closing section, the conductor found a superb musical flow that was always moving, in both senses of the word.
If such a continuous thread was less apparent in the world premiere that followed, that may simply be because Errollyn Wallen’s Dances for Orchestra is quite differently constructed. The work, an SCO co-commission with the Irish and Swedish Chamber Orchestras, is exactly what it says, and in its rich mix of melodies and rhythms, and occasional clashing discord, it sat well between Ives and Copland.
It is a big work that begins with a Latin feel, before morphing into a lopsided waltz led by the flutes. A funky pizzicato string figure opens the second section with the clarinet introducing a one-note samba on top. Later some hard rock riffage from the basses is decorated with a little jig from the winds before a stately pavane expands into cinematic scoring. Perhaps inevitably, the finale borrows from traditional Scots reels, replete with foot-stomping.
On first hearing, the piece seemed a bit of a jigsaw, but a highly entertaining one. The composer had specifically requested that Bancroft direct the premiere because of their shared history as students of dance, and the concert was appropriately completed by the full ballet score of Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring.
The young Californian conductor, who trained at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and is now Chief Conductor of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic as well as Principal Conductor of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, was by chance following Kristiina Poska’s precision reading of the Suite with the RSNO last week. The full score is twice as long and although it is never as dark as the titles of some of its episodes suggest (Fear in the Night, Day of Wrath), its range of colour and tempi means there is less danger of tending towards Hollywood, as Copland explicitly prohibited.
What Bancroft found again was a lovely narrative line, so that choreographer Martha Graham’s outline to the composer was always apparent. The tale came to a quite exquisite conclusion in the last bars of The Lord’s Day as flute, clarinet, strings and percussion exchanged phrases – producing a spontaneous standing ovation from a large number of those in the stalls of the City Hall.