The pioneering spirit loomed large in this refreshing American smorgasbord. In an invigorating return to the Royal Festival Hall, Santtu-Matias Rouvali and the Philharmonia presented three American composers and one ‘honorary American’, each blazing a trail in their own distinct way, to provide an intriguing carousel of 20th-century century musical sustenance. And as a further reason to keep the champagne fizzing, it was also (give or take a day) the 75th anniversary of the Philharmonia’s very first concert, conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham for the fee of one cigar.

Santtu-Matias Rouvali conducts the Philharmonia © Belinda Lawley
Santtu-Matias Rouvali conducts the Philharmonia
© Belinda Lawley

Aaron Copland oozes the American idiom. One of his best-loved works, his Pulitzer Prize-winning Appalachian Spring, tells the story of a young couple preparing for their new life together, which Rouvali presented with clarity and nostalgic warmth. The orchestra was on song from the outset, rich chocolatey strings with searing vibrancy complemented by finely honed wind and brass, and Rouvali directing affairs with sensitivity and instinctive musicality. There was playfulness too, evidenced visually in the faces of conductor and players and through the rhythmic invention and touches of neoclassical purity, enough to recognise a hint of Stravinsky’s influence. The famous Shaker theme glistened like quartz before broadening majestically and transforming into a coda of calming optimism.

Following on from this, a guaranteed dopamine hit – Florence Price’s Dances in the Canebrakes, originally written for piano in 1953, the year of her death, but performed here in William Grant Still’s lively orchestration. Rouvali found the natural lilt and sway of the three slightly jazzy and leisurely African American dances making up this suite: a rag, a slow drag and a cakewalk. The gentle syncopations were nicely judged, and the orchestra effused relaxed fluidity in Price’s highly melodious piece. 

Santtu-Matias Rouvali conducts the Philharmonia © Belinda Lawley
Santtu-Matias Rouvali conducts the Philharmonia
© Belinda Lawley

Rouvali then seemed to enjoy his conductor-turned-player role as he joined the Philharmonia’s percussion section in Steve Reich’s Music for Pieces of Wood for five pairs of tuned claves (wooden blocks). Following in the same vein as Clapping Music in his desire “to make music with the simplest possible instruments”, Reich also described this innovative piece of minimalism as one of his loudest compositions. With plenty of nods and looks to communicate when to make slight changes, the five players presented Reich’s hypnotic and almost primeval sequence of repetitive but subtly changing rhythms with precision and, despite the technical complexities, a touch of swagger. 

The concert closed with one of music’s great pioneers, Igor Stravinsky, who had completed his Dumbarton Oaks concerto for chamber orchestra in 1938 just before moving to the United States. Rouvali was neat and compact in this distinctly neoclassical work, with a generous nod to Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, the orchestra crisp and angular and combining a slightly folksy feel with a large dose of ironic wit.

With this particular programme and the superior quality of the performance, this was certainly not traditional comfort food, and Rouvali’s touch of the adventurous really did hit the sweet spot.


This performance was reviewed from the Philharmonia's video stream

Ver on-line
*****