The heart of this afternoon's Hallé concert conducted by Rodolfo Barráez was a stunning performance of Korngold’s Violin Concerto in D major. From the very first notes our soloist Ning Feng took a more introspective approach than some players and, as a result, the first movement was serious and gripping throughout. He played with an exquisite sweetness that had the audience hanging on every note. The slow movement was equally beautiful and tender. The orchestra had been very much in the background in the Romance and had more of an opportunity to sparkle in the spirited finale, complementing Feng’s virtuosity. What a concerto! Full of sumptuous melodies, dazzling virtuosity and profound feeling, it is hard to believe that it has only gained its current prominence in the last decade or two. Its rejection by the musical establishment when it was new appears shocking now.

Ning Feng
© Tianyou Zhang

The concerto formed the centrepiece of a concert billed as “Cityscapes” and presenting us with a programme of American music related to cities. If Korngold failed to be accepted as a “serious” composer after gaining a reputation as a composer of film scores, Gershwin had been more successful at crossing the divide between popular and highbrow. The first piece of today’s concert, An American in Paris, showed that the writer of Broadway musicals could compose a symphonic poem to match those of any of his contemporaries. Barráez (conducting without a score) and The Hallé gave us a scintillating performance, conjuring up all the varied emotions of a foreigner in a strange but fascinating and exciting city, now strolling around contentedly only to be alarmed by the traffic, then relaxing in a park and then enjoying the nightlife, sometimes bewildered but giving in to the sights and sounds around him. Barráez sometimes seemed to be dancing along.

After the interval we were in another city, Atlanta, but in its parks. Jennifer Higdon’s City Scape is a three-movement evocation of this city from 2002; we heard the second movement, river sings a song to the trees. The composer writes about the streams and rivers in the green spaces: “the waters represent constant change, under calm waters and over powerful currents, doing so with exquisite beauty.” The work starts and ends with magical sounds from the percussion. In between the water flows calmly or becomes quite turbulent in a forceful climax, all evoked by surging strings or remarkable combinations of instruments. This was intriguing and always approachable music and certainly had “exquisite beauty”. I look forward to hearing the other parts of Higdon's City Scape.

To finish we visited New York and the Symphonic Dances from Bernstein’s West Side Story. The composer created this piece mostly from dance-related episodes from the musical. He rearranged the order to make a purely musical progression independent of the plot and expanded his score for a large orchestra. Barráez, evidently enjoying himself, elicited an ebullient performance from The Hallé. The Dances, like the musical, end tragically and the quiet finale seemed all the more disturbing in the light of the exuberant music that had preceded it.

Throughout the concert we had fine performances from the orchestra as a whole and many individual players. There are two more performances at the Bridgewater Hall and one in Sheffield. Definitely worth catching.