It is quite rare for a concert to offer so much fun as tonight's RLPO programme did. Under the auspices of the largely under-celebrated bicentenary of Adolphe Sax, the saxophone was a constant presence on stage in various roles. Strauss' brilliantly indulgent, but somehow ingeniously simple, Sinfonia Domestica was the crowning glory.

Another rarity was the enthusiasm of the reception for a contemporary piece of music. John Adams' Saxophone Concerto, premiered just last year, was received with enthusiastic whoops, and with good reason. Its greatest champion, the soloist Timothy McAllister, painted it with a rich spectrum of sonic colour in addition to offering an astounding display of virtuosity. His technical facility did a great deal for the soft fluidity of the early parts of the concerto, especially in the tranquillo passages. The sustained intensity of the second movement, as it went on, made his ongoing displays all the more impressive for his remarkable stamina.

Timothy McAllister © Timothy McAllister
Timothy McAllister
© Timothy McAllister

McAllister cut a lively figure on stage next to the calm, assured Petrenko, who led the orchestra through the concerto's rhythmic complexities with ease and great sensitivity in accompaniment. This was my first visit to the Philharmonic Hall since it reopened post-refurbishment a few weeks ago, and aside from the impressive aesthetic update, the hall's acoustics have been significantly improved in clarity and sound projection. This allowed every facet of the close interaction between soloist, conductor and orchestra to be appreciated fully. The large ovation was richly deserved; here, surely, is a work which demands to be programmed regularly in the coming years.

There is nothing too deep about the Sinfonia Domestica, and its vast demands on orchestra resources make it a relatively uncommonly played work. It is a showpiece, with a cursory plot to tie it together. It was treated as such by Petrenko, who did an admirable job of rallying his large forces and bringing out playing of unfailingly high quality. The string sound was as brightly gleaming as it was for the American music of the first half, throwing the more lyrical passages, and particularly the notorious love scene, into sharp relief. The throbbing wind chords here left little to the imagination.

The woodwind principals were on fine form throughout. Regular Principal Oboe Jonathan Small was tonight stationed on oboe d'amour, where he provided a memorably thick, warm quality of sound his extensive solos. The solos for first horn and trumpet were also carried off very well, particularly the enormous leaps required of the latter. Petrenko maintained an excellent level of clarity in the symphony's closing fugue, and later brought the marital row to a thunderous, rather violent climax. From here, he engineered a steady sense of momentum towards the unashamedly protracted coda. The nine horns and four saxophones gave a rich, heroic sound, making for a stirringly triumphant end to the row for Papa.

The Strauss was enormous fun, and it was an unexpected delight to see Petrenko return to the stage for an encore of the popular Waltz from Shostakovich's Jazz Suite. It was, of course, a final chance to appreciate the very fine saxophone quartet, although the rest of the orchestra appeared to be enjoying themselves just as much. The glissandi in the trombone solos evoked real smiles from many players on stage.

Much of the same applied to the opening work of the concert, George Gershwin's American in Paris of 1928. The bright string sound and vigorous, big band-style brass playing gave great character to the music. Petrenko conducted with a very casual, laconic beat, with the air of a bored Parisian policeman directing traffic in his cueing of the car horns tucked into the percussion section. He whipped up a huge sound when needed, though, fully embracing every blue note.

This was a wonderful programme, reflecting great imagination in planning and enormous skill in execution. As birthday parties go, it was a riot.

****1