‘An American Celebration of Music’ was the title given to Brown University Orchestra’s Irish tour, visiting Limerick Concert Hall, Wexford Opera House and the National Concert Hall, Dublin. The audience present at the Dublin concert on March 25th was a reflection of the programming – a variety of young and old, hip, subtle and extravagant.
The concert opened with Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Overture, taking the seasonal opportunity to play this piece as a strong opening, showcasing the strength throughout the ensembles’ sections: particularly the violin, cello and trombone soloists. The tension was built steadily, inexorably, until the orchestra’s musical director and conductor Paul Phillips held the orchestra and audience in suspense for a brief moment before leaping into the climax of the piece.
Global Warming was next in the programme, a piece by Michael Abels examining the idea of global warming by taking an irish melody and moving it between the orchestral sections and adapting it to international styles. The first violin and cello players showed their skill again with some excellent interplay between the two. The orchestra proved themselves capable of an accurate stylistic interpretation of the piece, mastering the Irish sound and elements of traditional irish string technique.
To finish the first half of the concert the Brown orchestra performed the American classic Symphonic Dances from ‘West Side Story’ by Leonard Bernstein. After a powerful moment of suspense, the orchestra launched into a disappointingly lackluster performance of a great work. All of the notes may have been in the right places, but the piece didn’t reflect the drama, vitality and sheer energy in the score. Percussion managed the challenging parts with alacrity, though sometimes getting louder than the rest of the orchestra could handle. Tempos were generally accurate but a touch rushed in places – a hard-line to walk in this constantly changing piece – but the ‘Mambo’, normally a risky section, was well-balanced. There were again some well performed solos and soli with a warm horn solo in Somewhere, some nice and filthy trombone lines, and well performed flute solo in ‘Cool’.
After the interval was the quasi-traditional Irish Dublin: Celtic Air and Runaway Reel from William Perry’s ‘Gemini Concerto’, unusually orchestrated by Robert Nowak. This very brief interlude featured two accomplished young soloists, but was lacking in musical depth and authenticity. Barber’s Adagio for Strings followed, again well played but lacking in emotion. Also, though a small point, while it makes sense to have freedom of bow movement in a piece like Global Warming with traditional Irish elements, in something like the Barber the oneness brought by a sea of bows moving in unison is a must, and it was missing here.
George Gershwin’s An American in Paris was the finale, and was the highlight of the night. While it was lacking in flair like the Bernstein, the more subtle elements made it more fitting for an orchestra with a sound like Brown’s. Phillips showed his skill and really pushed the orchestra to give it their all. While a few points became a little sloppy in the woodwind, they generally proved themselves up to the task. The second violins proved they could match the first, and the trumpet solo was well executed. The audience responded well to a night of hard work with standing ovation at the close of the night.
Phillips has clearly put in a lot of work with the orchestra to craft their unified warm sound, but ultimately the music lacked impact as a result. Instead of moving, the Barber was simply nice; instead of invigorating and exhilarating, the Bernstein and Gershwin were entertaining. There is definite potential here for an amazing ensemble beyond the level of a student orchestra, but it will require stronger leaders uniting their sections and some work by Phillips, adding style and panache to the lovely sound already achieved. Strings, trombones, percussion and first flute proved themselves capable of this higher performance level at times, but the woodwind, trumpets and horns will require some further study.