This exploration of American music made an uninterrupted journey from the eccentricities of Charles Ives to the minimalism of Philip Glass. To this was added the symphonic distillation of John Adams’ opera Dr Atomic and the UK première of a Flute Concerto by the contemporary composer Aaron Jay Kernis. It was certainly a programme representative of American Adventurers, strong-willed individuals, mavericks unafraid to push boundaries and their juxtapositions bound by the Southbank Centre’s Belief and Beyond Belief series investigating music expressing both the divine and the human spirit.

Marina Piccinini © Marco Borggreve
Marina Piccinini
© Marco Borggreve

Under its Principal Guest Conductor Andrés Orozco-Estrada, the London Philharmonic Orchestra began the evening with twenty minutes of pulsing rhythms in the shape of The Light – Philip Glass’ response to a commission from Cape Western Reserve University in 1987, and on which site the speed of light was discovered a century earlier by physicists Michelson and Morley. Glass’ trademark arpeggios, abrupt tonal shifts and metrical displacements were all there and handled with superb control. The eventual arrival of brass and percussion to its throbbing soundscape made for more compelling listening but, despite additional instrumental layers and subsequent colouring, I was unmoved by its relentless repetitions – more mechanical than musical.

The Flute Concerto by Aaron Jay Kernis, for medium-sized orchestra (including a mandolin), could not have been more dissimilar. No musical idea in its four-movements ever outstayed its welcome, this musical journey seemingly transformed itself before any one mood or tempo could settle. Its eclectic style, veering somewhere between an expressive lyricism (notably the Pavan) and a restless hedonism (TaranTulla) was underpinned by a largely conservative harmonic idiom, its opening Portrait also referencing the Second Viennese School. Soloist Marina Piccinini played with assurance throughout and, in two technically demanding cadenzas, amply demonstrated why Kernis wrote this work specifically for her. In the more extravagantly scored sections of the work the orchestra threatened to overwhelm her, but in the rousing Finale, a “virtuoso romp” inspired by 70s rock legend Jethro Tull, Piccinini stormed though its challenges and brought off this UK première with aplomb.

After the interval it was the quiet mysticism of Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question that left its own haunting impression. The reduced string section of the LPO produced a wonderfully velvet-smooth tone, seemingly indifferent to off-stage trumpeter Paul Beniston, whose lonely wonderings posed “the perennial question of existence”. Orozco-Estrada shaped its six minute span with fidelity and infinite care.

The platform re-filled with the large forces required for John Adams' Dr Atomic Symphony: an electrifying orchestral summary of his 2005 opera about the testing of the first atomic bomb and the moral dilemma of its creator Robert Oppenheimer. Its opening movement “Laboratory” commanded attention and the depiction of an electrical storm “Panic” brought echoes both of “Shaker Loops” and string playing of superb discipline and precision. Elsewhere, brass solos made their own distinctive impact and in the closing movement, “Trinity”, its heartfelt trumpet solo derived from Oppenheimer’s soliloquy “Batter my heart” (John Donne) brought a poignant return to Ives. Throughout, the LPO was on terrific form.