This second concert of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra’s autumn season in Poole brought an audience-pleasing slice of 20th-century Americana. Nothing to frighten the horses here in a colourful programme of largely well-known works, familiar tunes and plenty of infectious rhythms. Little if anything to challenge the ear in the way you might sometimes expect from Kirill Karabits, but there was an undeniable feel-good factor in these popular classics drawn from two decades belonging to the 1930s and 1940s. Given the BSO’s reputation for pushing artistic boundaries, something more challenging or less obviously recognisable would have been a welcome addition to an evening that, at 21:20, finished relatively early.

Kirill Karabits in rehearsal with Kirill Karabits at Lighthouse, Poole
© Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra

It began with Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, the third of his much-loved ballet trilogy (also Billy the Kid and Rodeo) conceived for the renowned dancer and choreographer Martha Graham. Its original score for just 13 instruments was expanded in 1946 to a medium sized orchestra (plus percussion, harp and piano), and it is this version with its readily identifiable Shaker tune Simple Gifts that is most commonly heard today. This performance underlined the work’s striking contrasts, tenderness and exuberance reflecting the emotions of the newly married farming couple in Pennsylvania around which the ballet focuses. As a great showpiece for orchestra, Karabits coaxed marvellously detailed and affectionate playing, incisive and jaunty for the work’s breezy optimism and tellingly poignant for its pastoral evocations. Bright sonorities were always well served (woodwind solos memorably catching the ear), but the work’s intimacy could have been more heart-stilling. In the closing bars, intrusive harp and glockenspiel (actually marked pianissimo to strings piano) robbed something of the music’s serenity in an otherwise polished account.

John Adams, Philip Glass and Leonard Bernstein all conceived concertos for violin, but Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto (1939-40) remains one of the most frequently performed American concertos in the repertoire. Last performed here at the Lighthouse in 2017, its long-breathed lyricism and virtuosic demands have done much to sustain its popularity. Barber once declared he was an “unabashed Romantic”, but it wasn’t entirely clear from this performance if Ukrainian soloist Valeriy Sokolov was on the same wavelength. While playing from a score doesn’t necessarily preclude musical authority or spontaneity of delivery, here poetic eloquence was confined in an emotionally detached account not helped by the soloist’s limited dynamic and tonal palette, with orchestra often overwhelming him in the opening Allegro.  Edward Kay’s beguiling oboe set in motion the Andante (consciously imitating Brahms’ Violin Concerto?) and  provided just the right warmth for Sokolov’s intimate address. Lyrical musing found an occasional home within the movement’s surging climaxes, but it was the pyrotechnics of the fiendish moto perpetuo that finally brought some engagement with the orchestra, solo playing now elevated to meet the finale’s virtuosic demands.

BSO double basses in rehearsal
© Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra

After the interval the orchestra had further opportunity to showcase its talents in the sawn-off version of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess that is Catfish Row. Named by the composer’s brother Ira, this symphonic suite remained undiscovered until 1956 and was only published in 1997. As a medley of hits, opening with an arresting xylophone workout, the work’s scintillation and soulfulness were well caught, with well-projected double basses underpinning a burnished string section suggesting that the John Wilson Orchestra hasn’t got a complete monopoly on 1930s authenticity. Solo violin, cello and cor anglais variously captivated, as did guest banjo player Mitch Dalton for “I got plenty o’ nuttin”. The whole brought a rapturous response from the audience who, whilst being unable to dance in their seats, gave evidence of some vigorous toe tapping.

***11