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Listening To America

  • March 9, 2024
  • 3 min read
Listening To America

London Symphony Orchestra
The Barbican
Sunday, 3rd March, 2024

Two overtures from Gershwin’s Broadway shows, Let ‘Em Eat Cake and Strike Up The Band, meticulously scaled up for full symphony orchestra by Don Rose, bookended this clever and thought-provoking concert.

Sir Simon Rattle, the LSO’s Conductor Emeritus, plans his programmes with great attention to the stories behind the music, as well as their artistic match. Here he chose two symphonies, both 18 minutes long and in a single span, by very different American composers. Roy Harris’ Third Symphony (and his best) linked to the world premiere of John Adams’ Frenzy in its reaction to political foreboding. Whereas Harris wrote in 1939 with a deliberate return to naïve innocence – closing his eyes to turmoil, Adams in 2024 reacts to Putin’s war and the thought of Trump’s return with a work that constantly reflects a world in turmoil.

Where the pairing works so cleverly is that there is a constant underlying lyricism too. Adams drives his rhythms from the lower strings with insistence while the higher strings provide long breathed stability, countering the Frenzy of the title. Against them, the brass and wind interject violent fragments, almost slaps in the face. Adams thinks symphonically, though, so this is not just protest music. Everything develops across the orchestra’s sections as a natural progression. It even works visually, with the melodic argument moving from right to left across the stage, double basses to percussion and harps and, to an extent, back again. It is a troubling but supremely satisfying work and Adams, who is now probably the world’s greatest living composer, is at his best. So was the London Symphony Orchestra; the trombones and trumpets in particular coping effortlessly with his demands for accurate virtuosity.

Principal trumpet James Fountain had to achieve that himself in the slow movement of Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F, newly edited by Timothy Freeze; his melting solo finding the smokey reflection of a New York night in the 1920s. It is a slightly schizophrenic work, with Gershwin trying to match his own wish to write a great romantic concerto with the commissioning conductor (Walter Damrosch) hoping to bring the jazz room into the concert hall. Even in the consumate hands of Kirill Gerstein, the ideal pianist for this music with his Russian in New York heritage mirroring Gershwin’s, and Rattle it is a hard combination to bring off. When Gershwin tries to be portentous the energy can flag. Gerstein showed just how to bring that energy back in his encore, an arrangement of I Got Rhythm in which he managed to play every note on the piano very fast, finishing with a grand thump from his forearm.

These days the LSO’s records and streams its concerts, often releasing them as CDs and downloads. This is a prime example of one that is definitely worth preserving for posterity, with John Adams’ Frenzy the star of the disc.

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Simon Mundy

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