A hat-trick of American composers and an American conductor were on offer here in Dublin, showcasing the cultural clout of the New World. Tonight’s all-American concert featured the greatest US composers: the triumvirate of Barber, Gershwin and Copland. With the finely detailed conducting of Leonard Slatkin and the virtuosic pianism of Wayne Marshall, this was as engaging a concert as it promised to be.

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Wayne Marshall, Leonard Slatkin and the National Symphony Orchestra
© Aisling McCarthy

Barber, best known for his syrupy Adagio for Strings, wrote his Second Essay for Orchestra during World War II and while it is not programmatic music, the NSO's programme notes quote Barber as suggesting that "perhaps one hears that it was written in wartime”. All the brass and percussion sections of the National Symphony Orchestra were on fine form tonight and at times, the ominous rumbling of the timpani and the visceral boom of the brass did seem a presage to war. This was offset by the carefree bouncy conversation among the woodwind that spills over into the strings. Slatkin brought this opening work to a majestic and heroic conclusion.

It was Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F that most captured the imagination tonight with a virtuosic performance from pianist Wayne Marshall. The percussion immediately caught the zeitgeist with its opening pulse of energy, while the orchestra responded with their woozy, blue harmonies. Marshall’s huge fortissimo at the start turned out to be a rare moment of power and at times the orchestra was too loud for the soloist (although this could have been an effect of my seat position in the balcony). Marshall proved himself rock steady in fending off the fiendish off-beat rhythms as he propelled the music forward with street-wise sassiness amid the decadent harmonies.

The solo trumpet of the second movement coaxed his relaxed-Sunday-morning melody over a backdrop of languorous woodwinds. Marshall added a little heat with acciaccaturas and flashy arpeggios while his dialogue with the solo violin oozed coolness. He instilled his cadenza with moving moments of slow jazz and, at other times, with passion in its powerful cry of appeal.

This calm was broken by the huge drive and thrusts of energy of the third movement and here Marshall corralled his repeated notes with gusto. At times, he opened up to the fleeting moments of sensuality before being dissipated by the mercurial shifts in mood.

Exultant and expansive, Slatkin imbued the opening movement of Copland’s Symphony no. 3 with a sense of optimism. The strident brass and the cacophonous percussion could not quench this sense of relief post climax. The last chord was an astonishing sigh, breathed out by the NSO, its overtones hovering in the air before dissolving into nothing. The second movement with its crash and brash screech of brass exuded an air of cheerful confidence. Slatkin and the orchestra revelled in the exchanges with sprite-like mischievousness.

The quotation from the Fanfare for the Common Man was powerfully done in the finale. This contrasted wonderfully with the babbling woodwind in their joyful exchanges, soaring up and then diving down swallow-like before handing over to a rejoicing string section. The most shocking moment of the entire symphony came towards the end with a sinister screech of a chord as if the Nazgûl were passing by.

All in all, this was an engaging exploration of American music.