Commemorations of Leonard Bernstein’s centenary are everywhere this year, and for tonight’s concert the Royal Scottish National Orchestra's contribution decided to broaden out to give us a tour of hits of the American 20th century. It’s a wise move because, in my experience, it’s easy to get too much Bernstein.

Cristian Măcelaru © Sorin Popa
Cristian Măcelaru
© Sorin Popa

This was a patchy way to do it, though. The Chichester Psalms have become the composer’s most popular choral work, and they’re a great example of the dynamic eclecticism that lies at the heart of the composer’s appeal. However, this performance lacked heart. The riotous opening was good fun, with a sense of childish recklessness that was very Bernsteinian. The central setting of Psalm 23 lacked the sense of mystery or consolation that it needs, though, despite a capable treble solo from Andrew Watt and a tight performance from the well-trained chorus.

More serious problems were afoot in Rhapsody in Blue, setting in early with a troubled opening glissando played by a clarinettist who had been rushed into it by a conductor that hadn’t prepared the moment properly. You can’t judge a whole piece on one episode, of course, but when it’s an episode as iconic as this one, it’s hard to recover, all the more so when it was symptomatic of the piece’s wider lack of coherence. The orchestral sound was big and ballsy throughout, but there wasn’t nearly enough swagger in Cristian Măcelaru’s conducting, meaning that the orchestra never properly swung in the way I know they’re capable of. More damagingly, pianist George Li seemed to be playing in his own hermetically sealed world, scarcely seeming to communicate with the orchestra. At times it felt like a solo recital with an orchestra tagged on, and the balance between the two got more uneven as the piece progressed. 

The second half felt like a different concert. The Symphonic Dances from West Side Story capture some of the highlights of what will always be Bernstein’s most popular score, so the suite is kind-of de rigeur for any centenary celebration. I’ve always thought it a pretty uneven digest of the show and it’s just as interesting for what it leaves out as for what it includes. In many ways it’s designed to showcase the show’s (and, therefore, also the composer’s) extremes, blazing at white heat from the chaos of the urban fights to the intimacy of I have a love or the doomed optimism of Somewhere. Running for the extremes brought out a much more interesting side of Măcelaru’s conducting, as though he was relishing the challenge of solving the puzzle this time around, and the orchestra found much more bounce and energy than they did in the Gershwin, generating white hot excitement in the raucous cacophony of the urban jungle and gentle tenderness for the love scenes.

They obviously wanted to include one of the great American symphonies as part of the programme too, and I was glad they chose Barber’s First rather than any of Lenny’s, chewed up as they are with doubt, self-loathing and heart-on-the-sleeve narcissism. Barber’s is surely the great American symphony, at least before you get to John Adams. It’s a miracle of compression, but it’s also a model of clarity that gives Sibelius’ Seventh a run for its money, and the challenge for any set of interpreters is to make its structure comprehensible to an audience while also convincing them that it coheres as a whole. I had no doubts tonight. Strings announced the opening theme with grandeur and sweep that sounded positively cinematic, and Măcelaru kept up that energy right through to the grandeur of the concluding Passacaglia. The scherzo section had a touch of Mendelssohn to it before the jagged unison syncopations, which here seemed to point forward to Adams, and the slow section felt like sliding into a warm bath with its sensuous bed of strings and to-die-for oboe solo. A shame about the patchy first half, but the evening ended well.

***11