This Thursday evening programme of American music from The Hallé and frequent guest conductor Cristian Măcelaru was a thrilling journey through unusual repertoire for this orchestra.

Cristian Măcelaru © Adriane White
Cristian Măcelaru
© Adriane White

The concert began with music from Jake Heggie’s opera Moby Dick, originally composed for the Dallas Opera in 2010 and arranged here into concert suite format by Măcelaru himself. Heggie’s soundworld was unmistakeably aquatic from the outset, with oscillating string figures shimmering above bowed vibraphone effects amid raindrop harp punctuation. The comedically snarled and flutter tongued trombone contributions were a sharp contrast, and the softer solos for low brass glowed warmly. There was a constant sense of fluid motion and Măcelaru’s pacing (both in conducting and arranging) gave the suite a strong musical arc. Guest leader Emma McGrath, on loan from Seattle, played her solos with elegant delicacy and the ethereally soft ending was similarly finessed.

The orchestra's own Principal Clarinettist Sergio Castelló López was soloist for Aaron Copland's Clarinet Concerto of 1948, a work defined by its heavy jazz influences. The concerto’s two movements, linked seamlessly by a solo cadenza, flowed onwards with an ever-widening palette of colours. The opening movement was hauntingly nostalgic in its simple clarinet line, and with the accompaniment consisting only of a reduced string section of 40 players, piano and harp, the clarinet tone was always at the forefront. The energy rapidly escalated in the concerto’s final minutes, amid some spectacular virtuosity from López. His engagement with both orchestra and audience was striking, breezing through dazzling semiquaver runs and enjoying the drama of the pauses. The orchestra accompanied enthusiastically, the slapped bass effects flying from the stage with gusto.

There was something of a party atmosphere for the second half. For an orchestra best known for its Vaughan Williams and Elgar, it was perhaps a surprise that Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story: Symphonic Dances were played with such unshackled fire. The riotous “Prologue” and “Cool” fugue were surpassed only by a rollicking “Mambo” in sheer exuberance. Elsewhere, the solo horn passage in “Somewhere” was memorably beautiful and the tragic spaciousness of the last bars was allowed to hang in the air with utmost fragility.

Robert Russell Bennett’s concert hall distillation of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess was an apt finish to the programme. With virtuosic xylophone solos, a banjo and trio of saxophones, it was again left-field repertoire, but pulled off with complete assurance. The sultry softness of “Summertime” was a world away from the rough tramp of “I got plenty of nuttin’” and sleaze of “It ain’t necessarily so”. The evening stormed to its close with an uproarious “I’m on my way”. With the whole string section moving as one in their seats, the audience clearly weren’t the only ones enjoying themselves.

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