The latest concert in the BBC Philharmonic’s American Adventure series gave us three rarely performed American pieces followed by the ever-popular Pictures at an Exhibition.

Juanjo Mena © Sussie Ahlburg
Juanjo Mena
© Sussie Ahlburg
William Schuman was an esteemed composer and administrator (he was the first president of the Lincoln Center in New York) but his music is rarely performed, at least in the UK. His American Festival Overture was an exuberant start to the programme with rhythmic energy and orchestral colour well managed by Juanjo Mena and the orchestra, but it never quite took flight.  One could not help wishing for a memorable tune to bring it to life in the manner of, say, Bernstein’s Candide Overture or Barber’s School for Scandal Overture.

American pianist Garrick Ohlsson joined Juanjo Mena and the orchestra for Samuel Barber’s Piano Concerto, Op.38. The concerto was a success from its first performance in 1962 and won a Pulitzer prize for the composer. It is firmly in the tradition of the Classical and Romantic piano concerto with a sonata form first movement, a gentle second movement, a vigorous finale and plenty of opportunity for virtuoso display from the soloist, and yet it has a tough, aggressive feel quite unlike some of Barber’s more popular works such as the Violin Concerto. Ohlsson gave a muscular, robust performance. He demonstrated his authority in the opening piano solo and continued with dramatic interjections and a dazzling cadenza.  The first entry of the lyrical theme on the oboe came as quite a surprise in the context of the predominantly stormy first movement. The gentler second movement is an expanded version of Barber’s Canzone for flute and piano from 1959 and retains something of a chamber music feel.Here Ohlsson was able to show a more lyrical side of his playing. The exciting and technically demanding finale led to a rousing conclusion with Ohlsson dominating the orchestra.

Copland’s Quiet City is one of those works which surely ought to be a popular favourite. It started as incidental music to a play which survived only for a couple of preview performances in 1939 and then disappeared for ever. Copland rescued his music and transformed it into a ten-minute piece for strings and solo trumpet and cor anglais.  The soloists (Jamie Prophet, trumpet and Gillian Callow, cor anglais) combined with the strings to create a haunting impression of a city at rest in the night. The sound of the trumpet floating over the strings was magical, and the cor anglais added a mellow tone to the mix.  This is a piece that I could happily listen to again and again.

There was no rest for Jamie Prophet after his role in the Copland as he led us in the Promenade which opens Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition in the orchestral version by Ravel. This has become more familiar to concert-goers than Musssorgsky’s original version for piano solo, and understandably so. The combination of the Russian’s eccentric imagination and the Frenchman’s inventive use of the rich palette available in a large orchestra produce an undisputed masterpiece and one that is an orchestral favourite. Most of the actual paintings and designs by Mussorgsky’s friend Viktor Hartmann no longer exist and it is only though Mussorgsky and Ravel that we know of them. The depiction in music of these images is so strong that we have no difficulty conjuring up a vivid series of pictures, even if they are not necessarily what the artist intended.  However often we may have heard Pictures at an Exhibition, and however often the BBC Philharmonic may have played them, in Juanjo Mena’s hands they remained fresh and exciting.

Sometimes a solo instrument took the lead in depicting a scene, such as the saxophone in Il Vecchio castello (the Old Castle) or the tuba in Bydło (the Ox-Cart), but more often it was groups of instruments, especially woodwind, that brought out the characteristics of a picture as in the Ballet of Unhatched Chicks and the two Jews Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle. In this performance, however, the outstanding moment was when the marketplace at Limoges transformed into Catacombae (cum mortuis in lingua mortua) (Catacombs (With the Dead in a Dead Language). The cheerful banter suddenly gave way to an eerie, creepy underground world which Mena and his forces brought out dramatically, as they did with the following grotesque depiction of The Hut on Hen’s Legs (Baba Yaga).  After this the grandeur of The Great Gate of Kiev was a welcome return to the real world and a stirring recreation of the sound of Russian bells to bring the work to a joyous ending.