Arts & Culture Music

LSO Goes American

  • November 21, 2022
  • 5 min read
LSO Goes American

The title of the LSO’s Autumn season at the Barbican is Always Moving and for a couple of weeks in November, the London Symphony Orchestra forsook the paths of the European classics and tackled contemporary America: not the America of rolling plains and mountain ranges but of street life and Black Lives Matter. The most obvious beneficiary was the 36 year old composer from Atlanta, Carlos Simon, who is being gratefully taken under the wing of several orchestras because he can write well put together music with enough complexity to be satisfying, without frightening audiences with vestiges of modernism.

Carlos Simon was represented by three works across two concerts (6 and 17 November). The first was the most ambitious and substantial. Portrait of a Queen has nothing to do with heads of state. Instead, it is a moving portrayal of an African-American mother’s history-long fight against disadvantage, prejudice and betrayal: the massive barriers erected against leading the sort of prosperous life envisioned in the American Dream, a noble representation of the Black Everywoman. Simon’s score is interspersed by narrative, delivered here by fellow composer and vocalist ESKA, a sensitively sparse text, poetic enough to work with the music, direct enough not to be overly romantic, by Courtney D. Ware. Simon’s orchestration is inventive and Andre J. Thomas, conducting, brought out the contrasts and detail skilfully. Simon’s AMEN! was less effective, largely because it fell back into so many of the clichés of popular gospel. Irreverent images of Sister Act kept rising, bidden by the relentlessness of Simon’s vigour. The succession of climaxes become less telling the more he insists on upping the stakes.

Cliché also undermined the effectiveness of Joel Thompson’s To Awaken the Sleeper, which opened the evening. The narrator for this was Sir Willard White, whose magnificent bass – as compelling in speech as in song – could summon the apocalypse if he was asked to. The text he was asked to narrate was pulled together from the writings of James Baldwin into an extended homily, which sat as a strange match for Thompson’s unthreatening music. Thompson is two years younger than Carlos Simon but as yet not as subtle. His music feels rather too innocuous for the angry text, with traces of Ives, Britten, perhaps Virgil Thomson but rather too much of Netflix. He also seems to want to use all the orchestra, all the time, which leaves little room for variation.

In between was the Tuba Concerto by Wynton Marsalis, who is becoming the most interesting of the composer performers combining the worlds of jazz and classical music. It is almost impossible to write for the tuba without being genial. The instrument burbles along, and did so delightfully in the hands of the LSO’s Principal, Ben Thomson (sorry for the plethora of sons of Thom.) It is difficult too, to make it sound angry or dramatic, though it can grumble, but that meant that Marsalis’s material, in style leaning on Gershwin and Richard Rogers, is too extended over four movements, even if his orchestration (including plenty of rhythmic clapping) is always clever.

All the works received their UK premieres and the real heroes of the evening were the conductors, Thomas and, for the Marsalis, William Long and the LSO players. As ever, the LSO players dealt with anything thrown in their direction with their usual spirited nonchalance. A skill that was needed in handfuls for the second concert, too. It began with more Carlos Simon, This Land, written three years ago but sounding very mid-twentieth century. This was true even of John Adams’ 2013 Saxophone Concerto, played with efficient virtuosity by Jess Gillam. Adams usually has a way of transforming fairly basic melodic ideas into beguiling textures of continuing surprise. However, this concerto seems more old-fashioned than his earlier music, fettered by the saxophone’s associations with jazz; lots of syncopation but missing the chance to explore further. There is none of the villainy Vaughan Williams gave in Job, nor the haunting beauty John Harle found for it accompanying early music.

It is becoming clear that American and European music have drifted a long way from each other in the last 70 years. America’s idioms are either tethered to film and television, or find it hard to escape the sound world invented by Gershwin, Bernstein and Copland, which tended to be conservative, even in its own time. In this new century those idioms, however big and boldly executed, sound dated as soon as they arrive, rather like the fonts used in US advertising or the design of its shopping malls.

To encounter American culture when it felt truly fresh, the LSO finished their pair of concerts with Gershwin’s An American in Paris. This was composed in 1928 after Gershwin visited Paris, to soak in the music of Ravel and join the throng of post-World War I musicians, trying to shape a new aesthetic. Gianandrea Noseda, one of the LSO’s two Principal Guest Conductors, drove the concert along with crisp authority, which was exhilarating. The stage orchestra for this numbered over 90 players and included several from the LSO’s partnership with the Music Academy, a summer school organisation for emerging players in Santa Barbara, California. Thirty of them had enjoyed a residency with the LSO that coincided with these concerts: a really rewarding initiative.

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Simon Mundy

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