This programme at the Kauffman Center was an especially well-balanced one; each half was equally weighted. This is not always a necessary feature of a successful concert: often one major work perforce has a dominant position, and the others fall into line behind it. Not so here. Billed as La Valse with Copland’s Appalachian Spring, presumably for audience recognition value, the first half began with the much less familiar but substantial Le Boeuf sur le toit by Darius Milhaud. Conceived as a ballet, in collaboration with Jean Cocteau, about the characters surfacing in a “Nothing Doing Bar” in Prohibition Manhattan, this is an eminently catchy work – deliberately playing up the demotic by including strands of tango, samba, fado and a few popular melodies to boot. It is an amusing work of snippets, producing the effect of catching a succession of street performances en passant

Jean-Guihen Queyras
© Marco Borggreve

Le Boeuf... is unmistakably an inner-city work of its time (1919), and the fact that a classical orchestra is playing it is its essential irony. How well did they capture its playful sense of street razzmatazz? Fairly well, if not triumphantly. It wasn’t that they played sedately, but nor did they quite let go and give off enough hurdy-gurdy. Sometimes, it can be a weakness to sound too classical. The brass could have been more – well – vulgar; the tonal contrasts could have been more crude. I thought it a little demure; these 1920s could have done with more of a roar.

Lalo’s Cello Concerto in D minor brought Jean-Guihen Queyras to prominence. A refined sound and particularly lovely dark lower notes from his 1696 instrument framed the rendition elegantly. Especially convincing were the light and delicate scherzo passages in the second movement, where there was a sensitive interaction between soloist, flutes and plucked strings. Minute attention to detail of pitch and timing here made for a miniature glory. Yet, overall, I didn’t feel that Queras explored – or at any rate transmitted to us – the lyrical possibilities and passions of the score. Furthermore, there were some balance issues. The soloist’s sleight of hand is to match an orchestra of many – he/she typifies that favourite 19th-century trope of the individual set apart from the masses, even in communing with them. His cello’s voice did not sufficiently dominate. While the orchestra performed with great spirit and bold rhythmic crispness, making full use of the sudden ferocious single notes that intersperse the score, his ferocity did not match. This balance issue perhaps could have been compensated for had Queyras dominated emotionally, caressing each note, singing in the high register, but tonight that was not to be.

Copland’s Appalachian Spring, a suite orchestrated from the original ballet version in 1945, was an especially successful rendition tonight, and very definitely a highlight. The lively passages were invigorating, played with down-home gusto; the sometimes strange airs sounded fresh and pure; the variations on the Shaker hymn Simple Gifts was played with apt naivety. The ending – in its textures, its reserve and ultimately its stillness – was quite lovely.

I cannot help thinking of the nearness of feeling and substance between Ravel’s La Valse and the peroration of a contemporaneous poem, W.B.Yeats' Among School Children. “O body swayed to music, O brightening glance” writes Yeats, “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” This identification between the dancer and dance, surely receives its most enthralling musical form in Ravel’s depiction of an “increasingly passionate and exhausting whirlwind of dancers”, who are “overcome and exhilarated by nothing but ‘the waltz’”. It took a little for the players to get into and under the skin, as it were, of this particular waltz. Its opening sections sounded a little stodgy and lacking in clarities. But later, the orchestra were more convincing as the work progressed towards its dizzying culmination.