It would be easy to pigeonhole the Filarmonica della Scala as exponents of Italian repertoire. For starters, the orchestra has recently released a CD of overtures, preludes and intermezzi from Italian opera. What's more, its players also form the Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala, which is famed for its interpretations of Italian opera. Nevertheless, under the direction of Principal Director Riccardo Chailly, the Filarmonica is starting to defy categorisation.
Since assuming his role in 2015, Chailly has led the Filarmonica in concerts covering a broad range of repertoire. In what was arguably the tastiest musical offering of the current season, his latest enterprise gave two works by Shostakovich their La Scala première, in a jazz-themed concert dedicated to Duke Ellington.
But it was the world première of Concerto per pianoforte e orchestra by Carlo Boccadoro that proved the highlight. Jazz music forms the basis of the commission, in an abstract as well as a purely musical sense. "Rent", the first of three movements, references Harlem "Rent Parties", at which pianists like Fats Waller delivered virtuoso performances before passing a cap around in an attempt to make ends meet. "Dimuendo and Crescendo" evokes a celebrated seven-minute solo from saxophonist Paul Gonzalves in Newport in 1956, while "Toodle-oo", the finale, makes reference to Duke Ellington's East St Louis Toodle-oo.
The concerto work had an explosive quality in the hands of pianist Beatrice Rana and the Filarmonica. The first movement pits piano and orchestra against one another, Rana feverishly pawing up and down the keyboard (here, the reference to virtuoso jazz pianists was clear), as large, rowdy orchestral forces tried to unseat her with punchy staccato chords and showboat rhythms from a formidable battery of percussionists. Boccadoro evokes softer hues for the second movement, and spins an other-worldly sound in thickly-applied strings and reedy winds in the style of The Rite of Spring. The finale is the most overtly jazz-like movement in style – it draws on the language of “jungle jazz” in particular – and it was given a hip-shaking reading under Chailly’s unwavering beat.
Whether or not Boccadoro intentionally devised the work to fit this programme is not clear. Either way, its driving rhythms preempted those of Shostakovich's Symphony no. 12 in D minor in the second half, while its bitter mood and the way in which fractured melodies moved through various orchestral parts recalled Shostakovich's Jazz Suite no. 1, which had opened the concert. The suite lacked the panache that Chailly achieved in his recording of the piece with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, but the bold delivery comprised characterful individual parts, including cheekily sliding trombone and swooning Hawaiian lap guitar. While it is debatable whether a conductor is required for such a small ensemble, Chailly’s characteristically tireless crafting of the sound produced a decidedly bitter quality.
Closing the concert, Shostakovich's Twelfth took us from the realms of jazz music to that of film. This four-movement, quasi-cinematic depiction of “The Year of 1917” – dedicated to Lenin – was vividly rendered. Chailly drew an impressive depth of sound from strings and brass in particular, and the orchestra was on home territory in the romantic second-movement depiction of Lenin’s hideout in Razliv. Only by the triumphant finale had tired players run out of steam. On the basis of its recent appearances, Chailly's varied musical diet is doing the Filarmonica a lot of good.
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