The American in Paris pre-concert talk featured an American in Edinburgh: RSNO principal tuba player John Whitener. His talk bore the winning hallmarks of American didacticism: informally imparted information and humour. Whitener is a man who wears his learning lightly. The rush to make the 6:45 talk seems worthwhile if even one fact assists apprehension of unfamiliar music, such as that the bed of strings underscoring John Adams 1986 Tromba lontana is, in fact, a continuous melody. Compared to the two featured trumpets' understated fanfares, it unfolds in archeological time. The eponymous Distant Trumpet(s) were wonderfully played by Brian McGinley and Marcus Pope. At extremes of the stage, they were distant from one another and from the strings, but less so from the three percussionists whose light pulsing furnished a timescale between the strings and the antiphonal trumpets. I found this tonally unmoored piece intriguing, the usual fanfare brashness replaced by something approaching unease.

Peter Oundjian © Sian Richards
Peter Oundjian
© Sian Richards

Understatement also informed Bernstein's Serenade after Plato's Symposium. Bernstein's hope was that the lyricism of the solo violin part, here sensitively rendered by Robert McDuffie, would not be diminished by the normally gladiatorial expectations of a concerto. Plato's seven encomia on the nature and purpose love are reflected in five movements, the outer movements pairing two speakers, amongst whose names the most 'household' is surely Socrates. Before the performance, McDuffie and the RSNO described and illustrated the key orators' themes and textures.

The work requires five percussionists plus timpani. Their presence and absence contribute greatly to the contrasting moods. There were many fine moments in the section such as extremely tight xylophone shadowing of the solo part and an amazing snare drum.

Some of the most affecting music featured in the fourth movement, reflecting the address of the gathering's host, Agathon. I felt Bernstein's admiration for Shostakovich informing the movement. It also featured the most concerto-like cadenza moment in which McDuffie executed some wonderfully lyrical double-stopping.

Bernstein faced some criticism for the jazz influence in the closing Socrates/Alcibiades movement, the intense opening of which also suggested the influence of Shostakovich. The string writing and playing here was truly gripping. As for jazz criticisms, one ought to remember that this was no dusty gathering of classicists but a party. In any case, the music amounted to much more than mere dinner jazz; one was kept guessing throughout it's Stravinskian off-beat progress. One touch of orchestration genius struck me here: the tubular bells which contributed to the movement's opening gravity, somehow chimed in cheerfully in the closing mirth. McDuffie featured in a lovely duo moment with principal cellist Alexei Kiseliov and, later, a frenzied cadenza.

Full symphonic forces awaited us after the interval for Samuel Barber's Symphony no. 1, completed in 1936 and revised in 1942. The one movement contains four named sections. Those familiar with Barber's celebrated Adagio might have been surprised by the dynamic opening; in such a short symphony (approx 20 mins) every second counts. There was also great warmth in the opening Allegro ma non troppo, particularly a fine cor anglais solo delivered by Kirstie Logan. There were many winning woodwind moments in the following Allegro molto section: solo moments of note involved Adrian Wilson's oboe and David Hubbard's bassoon. One mercurial team moment, featured a rapid sectional scurry from the flute down to the lower reaches of the contrabassoon. A brass section of four trumpets, three trombones and tuba added much muscle to this section.

A wide ranging oboe melody introduced the touching Adagio section which later featured a lovely cello duo moment from Kiseliov and desk partner Betsy Taylor. Whitener's tuba provided great tension in a line which undercut the string texture of the moment. This 'movement' seemed the emotional heart of a work which Oundjian, in his welcoming remarks, described as one of the 20th century's most beautiful works. This was my first hearing but certainly not my last.

The programme's inspiration, Gershwin's An American in Paris closed this varied and very engaging evening. In our troubled world I find it somehow heart-warming that its most American of opening themes flowed from the pen of a Ukranian-Jewish émigré. Oundjian's control of rhythm and dynamics was impressively relaxed, the only signs of tension appearing in urgent petitions for sudden quiet. Logan's cor anglais featured in the tender slow theme, and there were very enjoyable solo moments from Whitener's bluesy tuba, leader Maya Iwabuchi and trombonist Byron Fulcher. A latecomer to orchestration, pianist Gershwin excelled himself in this work. This was a fine performance and I left Usher Hall with spring in the air and a spring in my step.

****1