A reasonable crowd brave the rain for this Friday night concert of ‘Britten in America’, a further instalment of the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra‘s ‘Big on Britten’ series. Under the baton of Garry Walker for the night’s performance, there is an enticing mixture of Bernstein, Britten and Copland – a celebration of three well loved composers.
Opening with Leonard Bernstein’s On the Town: Three Dance Episodes, the orchestra take off full force. The first of these episodes, Dance of the Great Lover, is as upbeat, jazzy and exciting as you can hope for on such a dreary evening. The string and brass sections feed off each other beautifully, creating a playful back and forth, adding even more life to the vibrant piece. Walker leads them through it with some of the most distracting conducting seen in the National Concert Hall this year as he throws a variety of shapes, thankfully only adding to the vibrancy the orchestra have afforded to the work.
The second episode Pas de Deux is a much more wistful, thoughtful affair where once again the jazz lines of the brass sections shine through. The third, Times Square Ballet, is another explosion of sound, showing the orchestra’s ability to control their output, even at such strong volumes. Contrasting with the sultry, quieter intervals, which build back up gradually into far more powerful themes, the orchestra and conductor show immense capability to work together and handle each change with precision and thought.
Moving into the first work by Benjamin Britten, Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, Op.31, the change in musical styles is immediate. Changing from the flamboyant Bernstein to this darker work by Britten is a challenge for any orchestra. Tenor Andrew Staples and soloist on the horn Marie-Luise Neunecker take to the stage for this six-piece work. The opening Pastoral by Charles Cotton sees Neunecker struggle in settling into the long sustained horn lines, with some slight pitch discrepancies, but she gathers herself quickly, offering a much more solid performance through the following five parts of the work. Staples, however, carries the piece with magnificent tone and sensitivity to the work. The fourth part, a darker affair, provides the highlight of this work with Staples showing immense ability and control, handling both the quick runs and the demands of singing over the orchestra without sacrificing his tone at any point.
Britten’s Four Sea Interludes follows, the opening part Dawn with the eerily high violin line, representing the sea as the music gently flows and ebbs through the hall. The third part paints another picture. Named Moonlight, Britten depicts the sea at night, and the effect is entrancing. Soft and reflective, the orchestra handle such a delicate work well, balancing the different parts out with care. Storm too paints a picture, bit an entirely different one. Dark, restless and unpredictable, it is a sentiment to the force of nature. Ending in a savage blaze of sound, the work finishes on a very powerful note.
The final work, by Aaron Copland, transports the audience to a very different world. Although composed for a chamber orchestra of thirteen musicians, Appalachian Spring sees the entire Symphony Orchestra at work here in producing the vast landscape of sound intended. This work served as a reminder during the Second World War of the purity, innocence and hope that existed, and would exist again. Walker leads the orchestra here, quietly and gently, to the end of the programme, and sees them perform a very well executed interpretation of this work, maintaining the purity and softness intended.
Between the selection of works by these three composers offered by the Symphony Orchestra this evening, there was a lot to love. Diverse, entrancing and exciting, this was a well chosen programme, which was well executed and presented by a team of professionals – a fitting celebration of the works of these three composers.