The Philadelphia Orchestra began its fourth Winter Festival tonight, this year with the theme of the British Isles. Over a series of three concert weekends, it will showcase music by Britons, about Britain, or by composers inspired by or living in Britain. As a festival idea, it is a very reasonable and indeed atttractive proposition, binding together likely and unlikely pairings, allowing audiences to probe more deeply the music associated with “Das Land Ohne Musik” (as the German cultural critic Oscar Schmitz once savagely and unfairly called it). Tonight’s program ranged from that beloved Hanoverian and adopted English citizen, Handel, lionized by the nation’s metropolis, to the eternally East Anglian Benjamin Britten to contemporary Scotsman James MacMillan.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin © Hans van der Woerd
Yannick Nézet-Séguin
© Hans van der Woerd

A Scotch Bestiary is a superb two movement work for organ and orchestra. It is in that most British of poetic forms – nonsense. Jabberwocky even. Homage is paid to Elgar; like the Enigma Variations, MacMillan confesses coyly that he is depicting characters and types he has encountered in Scotland over the years; the ultimate in-joke is reserved for MacMillan’s own personal delight – what we get is the fantastical animal forms, the “slithy toves who gyre and gimble in the wabe”. But lest we over-emphasize its Britishness, MacMillan is keen to mention that his motivation is just as much Disney; it premiered in the Walt Disney Hall in Los Angeles.

The work is a very funny riot, and Paul Jacobs on the organ, and Yannick Nézet-Séguin at the podium gave it the comic and rambunctious treatment it deserved. The Reptiles emerged from the primeval scum, earthbound by deep organ pedals and tubas. Shimmeringly fast organ-playing rendered the Serene and Ubiquitous Majesty, the Queen Bee and the feverishness of her hive. I couldn’t help thinking of the politics of such music, of that peculiar combination of mockery and respect for royalty, culturally present in Britain since the cartoons of James Gillray. And surely politics were even more obvious in the depiction of the red-handed no-surrender howler monkey, with the military drums, the jagged organ, and the shrill and obsessive horns. But before anything got too serious, we were back with the tongue-in-cheek, in a movement called ‘Scottish Patriots’, which as well as bagpipe-like drones featured unexpected jazzy piano and bass, followed by a bit of final bombast. The same humour was visible in the Reverend Cuckoo, in which an obsessive clarinet was contrasted with an organ hymn, and then a final bit of jazz. The whole second movement entitled the Menagerie Uncaged represented what it was like when all these eight beasts and more besides went on the rampage. It was powerful, clamorous, exciting, and of course, fast and furious. I’m not quite sure whether the American audience saw the point – too many in-jokes? unobvious comedy?- but I enjoyed it enormously.

Nothing says the eastern coast of England like Benjamin Britten. Whereas the Mediterranean conjures up images of leisure, pleasure, hedonism even, Britten’s coastline is dark, lonesome and tragic. We are far from the Riviera in Suffolk. Nothing quite captures the loneliness, harshness and eeriness like the Four Sea Interludes, abstracted from Peter Grimes. This was an electric performance of four supremely evocative depictions of sea and confused, troubled humanity. Dawn opened with those eerily faraway strings, and the repeated ‘wash’ of sound, heard again and again, with little development, suggested a day beginning without hope of change. The brasses were dark and foreboding.

Sunday Morning brought the sounds of people into the seascape, the sliding scales indicating the restiveness of the villagers and their unwholesome rumours. The ringing bell at the end was a toll, not a mark of celebration. Again, hopelessness.

Moonlight dragged itself with slow heavy rhythms, a reluctance to move forward, with the ‘pings’ of harp, horn and xylophone as moments of light, picked out very clearly indeed. The Storm was violently depicted – the brass swelling and engulfing the sound, as waves might, the drowning and flailing strings, then the lull – a false lull, inevitably – for nothing is resolved, and the storm destroys all. This was powerful, beautiful and evocative playing, deeply emotionally authentic.

Handel’s Suite no. 1 from Water Music was sandwiched in between the MacMillan and the Britten, bringing us back to the famed royal barge-party on the Thames. But the water itself is not the point, although it was presumably rather pleasant to be on the water entertained in such a way; George I obviously thought so. Nézet-Séguin had the orchestra breathe beautifully, and made it feel more like a chamber music ensemble: it was intimate, vibrant and festive. Handel is rarely overshadowed, but I must confess that he was tonight.

****1