New Zealand conductor Gemma New and Japanese pianist Mao Fujita both made their Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra debuts last night. A programme of two 19th-century favourites and two recent works made for an intriguing prospect which was borne out in an uplifting and hugely enjoyable concert.

Mao Fujita
© Eiichi Ikeda

We started with Musica Celestis, a work for strings alone by American composer Aaron Jay Kernis dating from 1990, originating from the movement of a string quartet. The title refers to the medieval concept of the harmony of the spheres and, in particular, the singing of angels in heaven. The gorgeous sounds gradually unfolded without hurry and came to a serene conclusion. It felt timeless: the language was tonal with hints of the medieval. This is surely a work that deserves to join Barber’s Adagio, Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro and others as a regular in the string repertoire.

Mao Fujita’s body language suggested extreme reserve as he walked onto the stage and crouched over the piano keyboard. How things changed once he started to play! His interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in B flat minor was full of life and energy, turning from thoughtful and reflective to outgoing and exuberant in a moment. His virtuosity was not mere show; his dazzling skill always served to express the meaning of the music and revealed many subtleties of the score that can be lost in more bombastic performances. The delicacy of much of the second movement was exquisite. Fujita’s playing was matched by that of the orchestra. New ensured that the balance between soloist and orchestra was just right. She held back when it was Fujita’s time to shine and let the orchestra take over when the soloist’s role was to add texture. There seemed to be a natural rapport between soloist, conductor and orchestra. Who would have guessed that this was the first time that the three had met? As a result this concerto seemed fresh and new. The Allegro con fuoco finale was indeed fiery and drew enthusiastic cheers from the audience.

The second half of the concert began with the first UK performance of Katherine Balch’s Like a broken clock. Balch is a young American composer, a pupil of Kernis, and the curious title of this work comes from the lyrics of a pop song about a cuckoo clock that inspired her. It is a jeu d’esprit that includes some unusual effects created by string players tapping their instruments to imitate the mechanism of a clock. Despite a committed performance and some appealing details, the material felt rather thin and its eight minutes were quite enough.

The concert concluded with Schumann’s glorious Rhenish Symphony. The composer wrote it at the start of his period as music director in Düsseldorf and a tour of the Rhineland filled him with enthusiasm for the area. There is an overall positive feeling about the symphony reflecting the composer’s enthusiasm. He did not relate particular places or events to parts of the symphony (though the fourth movement is considered to refer to the recently completed Cologne Cathedral and the music’s expansive grandeur is a highlight of the work). New presided over a richly sonorous performance, bringing out its flowing melodies as if telling a story. The RLPO horns added a special dimension to the overall sound of the symphony. The finale felt like a lively celebration and a fine ending to a very satisfying evening.