STUART MILLSON is transported to a warmer sound-world
Any sense of malaise, austerity or winter gloom in London was dispelled for two hours (for those fortunate to be in attendance) by the Sinfonia of London’s 2nd December performance of Walton, Ravel, Dutilleux and Gershwin at the Barbican.
Much praised by the critics and always receiving great waves and whoops of adulation even before they have played a note, the Sinfonia’s concerts are an occasion: this mainly young orchestra, handpicked by their enterprising and unpredictable-in-repertoire conductor, John Wilson, playing with much physical joie de vivre and idiomatic interpretation. Confirmation of the latter came in the form of the jazzy trumpet playing – straight from the environs of Tin Pan Alley – in Gershwin’s intoxicating An American in Paris; a score we all know, or thought we knew… True to form, John Wilson, a great fan of the golden age of Hollywood and a musician dedicated to rediscovering lost scores, managed to track down 86 bars of unheard original Gershwin music, reconstituting the piece – turning it from that brilliant, boulevard ballet for Gene Kelly into a symphonic poem of The Great Gatsby era. The cliche, ‘it brought the house down’ certainly applied to this performance, as nuanced as it was bold, as cinematic as a work could ever be.
Yet the Gershwin was not the only work in John Wilson’s line-up that matched the mood of the composer. In Walton’s Scapino overture, the Sinfonia found all the wafting Mediterranean warmth and dry wit for which the English composer (who took himself off, post-war, to the Bay of Naples) is renowned. Similarly in Ravel’s 1903 song-cycle, Sheherazade, whichsets the mysterious oriental poetry of Wagner-attracted ‘Tristan Klingsor’ (otherwise known as Leon Leclere), a heady sense of the exotic and of unattainable sensuous revelation oozed from the Sinfonia strings; complemented by soloist Alice Coote’s equally beguiling articulation and vocal reveries.
Henri Dutilleux, a well-respected French composer who died some ten years ago, was represented by a 1950s’ ballet score, Le Loup, whichsoundedverymuch like a cabaret piece by Milhaud or Satie, turned into a symphonic poem. How authentic the work is as an example of the true musical character of Dutilleux is a matter of debate, but Le Loup – the wolf – had plenty of well-crafted passages for the Sinfonia to enjoy – although the piece, for what it was, did seem rather overblown in length.
Ravel’s Bolero could be considered as another of those works which, despite being very well known, does not entirely represent the best efforts of its creator. Yet in the hands of John Wilson, the audience had a chance to rediscover and re-hear the piece, entirely. From the first side-drum taps, to the strange, slow, disjointed thrums of the harp, Bolero has a curious mystery to it; an odd sense that you can’t break away or get out of a dream – which, before you know it – has sucked in every instrument of the orchestra and is fast propelling you to the edge of a precipice. John Wilson’s arrival at that moment jolted the Barbican audience into a tidal wave of applause.
And there was one additional, non-musical touch to the evening: the concert took place in the presence of Hollywood royalty. Enjoying the Gershwin in particular (no doubt), was none other than Gene Kelly’s widow, a lady of immense grace and style – a living reminder of golden ages which now seem out of reach, but which in fact are still just within our grasp.
STUART MILLSON is a Contributing Editor to the Brazen Head