A first half of American pieces followed by Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony in the second has become something of a tradition in concert halls, at least in the UK. When the performances are of such a high standard as those given by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra with American conductor Robert Spano and British soprano Elizabeth Atherton, it works perfectly. The audience enjoyed a variety of ear-catching styles in the first part of the concert and a familiar favourite in the second.

Elizabeth Atherton
© Kiran Ridley

John Adams’ The Chairman Dances came first. This “foxtrot for orchestra” dates from 1985 and has become one of the most performed pieces of modern American music. It is related to the composer’s opera Nixon in China but is not an extract from it: Adams calls it an “out-take”, a scene that he did not include in the opera. It depicts Madame Mao gate-crashing a formal banquet and being joined by her husband descending from a portrait. They recollect their youth and dance a foxtrot. The insistent repetitions typical of minimalism are present, along with hints of Chinese music and big-band dance tunes. The textures, including prominent percussion, are often delicate and the large orchestra is used sparingly until the piece builds to an energetic climax before disappearing into emptiness. Thanks to Spano’s conducting and the acoustics of the Philharmonic Hall, every detail could be heard, which would become a particular feature of this concert, as would the fine playing of the orchestra, notably the sweet and smooth strings.

The second piece was much less familiar but no less appealling: Jennifer Higdon’s blue cathedral, first performed in 2000. It proved to be a good companion piece to The Chairman Dances, being of a similar length and for a similar sized orchestra. The title refers to the composer’s idea of an imaginary glass cathedral in the sky full of blue light but is also a tribute to her brother Andrew Blue Higdon, who died in 1998. The prominent solos for flute and clarinet are significant: the composer plays the flute and the clarinet was her brother’s instrument. These and other solos for the orchestral players were performed with great beauty, and Higdon creates some wonderful sparkling sounds from metallic percussion, especially the bells, often delicate and gentle. They whole piece was predominantly peaceful, reflective and melodic. I could not help thinking of the extraordinary blue light created by stained glass in Liverpool’s Metropolitan Cathedral, just a few minutes’ walk from the Philharmonic Hall.

A reduced orchestra was then joined by Elizabeth Atherton for one of the most poignant pieces of American music, Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915. Barber sets excerpts from a prose poem by James Agee which recollects a happy childhood in an innocent time before the USA joined World War 1. It had a profound impact on Barber who set it shortly after the end of the Second World War, recalling his own happy childhood and his loving relationship with his parents at a time when his father was dying. His musical response is a beautifully nostalgic and melodious work which he called a “lyric-rhapsody”. Atherton’s clear bright voice was ideal for the piece. She communicated the wide-eyed delight of the child in the sights and sounds surrounding him and the protective safety of his family. Just occasionally the orchestra overpowered her singing, and unfortunately most of the audience appeared not to have copies of the text and would have had difficulty following the words, although they could have had no doubt about the overall feeling of the piece.

And so to Dvořák’s Symphony no. 9 in E minor “From the New World”, one of the best-loved (and most performed) of all symphonies. In the context of the rest of the concert we are bound to ask “how American is it?” The answer is probably not very. It was written in New York and the title was the composer’s own, for he expressed an interest in Negro melodies and the music of the Native Americans. And yet, allusions to folk music could just as well be to the music of Dvořák’s Czech homeland. The symphony never fails to delight with its glorious melodies, rich sounds and mixture of energy and nostalgia. Spano took a rather measured approach: all the details came through clearly which particularly benefited the first and third movements which seemed to evoke the colours and sounds of the countryside, whether in Central Europe or America. The haunting cor anglais solo of the Largo was given an intense, languorous performance. Throughout, the RLPO strings showed their polished warmth as they had all evening. The vigorous final movement brought the concert to a stirring conclusion.