Ray Ushikubo is that highly unusual creative type: he is both a pianist and a violinist, and he proved both by switching instruments after Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and tossing off Paganini Caprice no. 24 as an encore. I had to do a double take, looking at the abandoned piano. I suspect we get so used to seeing specialisation in its purest form in soloists, that we choose to ignore that they probably have other serious musical competencies, even, in his case, to a superior degree. And a bit of blatant showmanship doesn’t go amiss at times, lest we become staid and forget that quite respectable women in crinolines scuffled over possession of Liszt’s silken handkerchiefs and velvet gloves at his wowed-up concerts. No scuffling in the ranks this evening, but still what excitement in the discovery. 

Thomas Wilkins, Principal Conductor of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, was the guest conductor. His discreetly undemonstrative style tonight was especially suited to the Rhapsody. It's the kind of work where the pianist has to be absolutely intentional about switching out conventionally intense virtuosity to something much cooler, jazzier, nonchalant. This single work, if you will, represented the birth of cool within the genre of art music when composed in 1924, and it still has to feel that way. Ushikubo got it right, powerfully dominating the keyboard’s range and then, with apparent ease, slipping into the half-said, throwaway parts, the gratuitous musical shrugs which are central to the charm. 

Sierra Leonean Londoner Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Suite from Hiawatha draws from a trilogy of cantatas evoking Longfellow’s epic poem a few decades previously, and arranged as a suite, partly by the composer and later, after his early death, by Percy Fletcher in 1919. An attractive programmatic work in four movements, tonight’s Kansas City Symphony rendition was quite pleasing without being especially memorable. I would have liked more confident twittering from the avian-like woodwinds in the third movement. The fourth movement, Hiawatha’s Departure, would have benefited from greater lyricism, but there were many pretty pleasing passages where soundscape suited the moods evoked. 

Wilkins prefaced the playing of Carl Nielsen’s Symphony no. 4 by reminding us that inasmuch as this work was written during World War 1, it was not programmatic so much as an invitation to think of the “inextinguishable” life force, returning time and time again after we think all is ended. The orchestra came into the first movement here with renewed vigour, with plenty of fire in the belly, and although the central movements had times when the mood and momentum seem to lag, the final movement once again sprang into life. It’s refreshing to hear the timpani showcased in such dramatic fashion, as Nielsen does here in the finale when two sets of timpani confront each other across the orchestra. Tonight’s timpanists threw down their gauntlets energetically and kept up their momentum with committed ferocity. If there was something inextinguishable this was it.