As a teenager, I recall feeling how American classical music differed from European; its harmonies seemed as wide open as the plains depicted on film; its rhythmic freedom grabbed me viscerally. The same feeling obtains many years later and certainly did in this RSNO programme. The fact that two of these most American pieces were penned by the children of Ukranian Jewish immigrants says much about the musical culture of a relatively young America.

Peter Oundjian conducting the RSNO at Usher Hall © Mark Hamilton
Peter Oundjian conducting the RSNO at Usher Hall
© Mark Hamilton

Bernstein’s 1956 operetta Candide is modelled on Voltaire’s 1759 novella of the same name, in which life experience tarnishes the gloss of life as described by the tutor Dr Pangloss. Voltaire’s sarcasm, particularly towards Leibnizian optimism, is conveyed in Bernstein’s music through burlesque, syncopated rhythms. These get quickly under way after an opening which, in the hands of Peter Oundjian and the RSNO, was explosive. Syncopations played by one person have a very different feel to those executed across a large orchestral floorspace. These moments, designed to wrong-foot the listener, were unsettling in a very fun way. Overtures, being snapshots of a coming larger landscape, are often mercurial and the RSNO were suitably fleet of foot in this shape-shifting opener. Alongside the American-style syncopations, I thought I also detected shades of Prokofiev’s Mercutio and Stravinsky’s Firebird. This was five minutes of pure fun!

Aged twelve, Gershwin was a relatively late beginner on the piano. Nevertheless, he was working in Tin Pan Alley three years later. A similarly steep learning curve was embraced in the writing of his 1925 Piano Concerto. It was commissioned by Walter Damrosch the day after hearing Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, written for Paul Whiteman’s jazz orchestra. As yet untutored in classical orchestration, Gershwin threw himself into the task, completing the work at the rate of one movement a month. You would never guess this to hear the work. There are some beautiful touches of orchestration, such as a lyrical piano melody accompanied by cellos alone, or a beautiful upper-strings theme accompanied by spacious arpeggios on the piano. Moreover, despite being the intended soloist, Gershwin was generous in featuring orchestral players, particularly the trumpet, which clinches the blues feel in the central Adagio. In this regard, guest principal Hedley Benson was outstanding. What I found most gripping in his part, and his delivery of it, was not the high notes but the drop of a thirteenth onto a low A flat which ended many phrases. Despite repeated occurrences, this sound seemed somehow unbelievably moving every time – an odd mix of strength and frailty. The bluesy beauty of this movement is wonderfully offset by a finale which Gershwin described as “an orgy of rhythms”. RSNO brio suggested they concur with this description.

Although they never met while at the Juilliard School, pianist Jon Kimura Parker and Peter Oundjian were alphabetical neighbours in their graduation ceremony. They seemed here to enjoy working together. Parker certainly seemed to be enjoying the Gershwin and made its technical demands look like fun. At one point, where the left hand picks up the tempo by laying down a pattern of on-the-beat bare fifths, over which the right hand will sprinkle rhythmic spice, Parker’s feet began to tap. For an instant I wondered what the soles of his noisy shoes might be made of, until I spied a percussionist wielding a whip (two short slats of wood slammed together). This was such a warmly received performance that Parker repaid the compliment with a solo transcription of Danny Elfman’s theme music for The Simpsons. Seeing all the notes of that theme laid out on one instrument highlighted not only Parker’s virtuosity but the completely zany nature of that tune.

Harmonielehre is the name of Schoenberg’s 1911 treatise on harmony. It is also the name of John Adams’ 1985 work which, in addition to ending a sustained period of writer’s block, expressed his rejection of the creed of atonality. That’s not to say that Adams avoids dissonance; the amazing descending arpeggio at the climax of the central movement, “The Anfortas Wound”, really has to be heard to be believed, and heard live if possible. The mythical character and Jungian archetype Anfortas (guardian of the Grail and uncle of Parsifal) has a wound which only grace will heal. The RSNO’s profoundly insightful rendition of this movement caused me to wonder whether Adams’ moment of grace was eventually finding a way out of his blockage by combining tonality’s gravity, minimalism and high romanticism (the element in Schoenberg which he continues to love). This brilliantly paced movement was the perfect complement to the much more rhythmic outer movements, where I thoroughly enjoyed watching Oundjian’s necessarily tight control of the various rhythmic ideas at play – either against one another or against the common pulse. Audience reaction suggested many others similarly thrilled by this performance.