Joshua Weilerstein made a welcome return to the RLPO as guest conductor to direct a smartly conceived programme of music inspired by dreams. At the beginning of the concert, he spoke eloquently to the audience with the same boyish enthusiasm with which he usually bounces on and off stage, noting the intriguing arc of the evening's repertoire concerning dreams.

Joshua Weilerstein © Felix Broede
Joshua Weilerstein
© Felix Broede
The opening piece, Christopher Rouse's Bump of 1985, is described by the composer as a “nightmare conga”. Appropriately enough for a piece so inspired by 'modern' music (there are particular nods to West Side Story), the bass drum is a constant presence, pounding on every fourth beat. Intricate layers are added to this as the music grows in texture, initially with flighty woodwind dance figures and later elaborate tuned percussion. The challenging woodwind passages, ascending through the section from baritone sax and bassoon to flute, were executed with utmost technical facility and control, allowing a strongly infectious sense of fun to dominate. The three tuned percussionists, often requiring four-mallet techniques, also gave their parts with gusto. Weilerstein directed with clear precision of instruction, lifting the sound to a frenzied climax at which point the Mahler hammer blows provided a suitably spectacular visual effect to bring the dance to a halt.

Violinist Ning Feng joined the pared down orchestra for Prokofiev's First Concerto. He was an exceptionally physical presence on stage, dividing his attention between close interactions with the orchestra and shooting frequent direct eye contact into the stalls. This made for a pleasingly intimate sense of spontaneity in the music, and the natural grace of his technique made it all the more enjoyable.

The central quick movement pushed forwards with all the energy of the sleigh ride to which Weilerstein likened it, given a great deal of charm by the delicate touch of soloist and orchestra. The third movement was similarly forward looking, but now imbued with a carefully controlled sense of weightlessness which eventually paled to a magical ending.

If Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique was the most familiar and literally dream-like of the evening's works, it did not quite find the same enchantment as the first half. While the individual playing was to a very high standard, Weilerstein's was a fairly straight-laced, safe reading of it. The opening Réveries, for instance, did not particularly find the mysticism of an opiate-induced hallucination, and the details of the idée fixe were so closely managed as to lose some of the spontaneity which made the first half so thrilling. Nonetheless, the darker moments of the first movement were neatly highlighted in some haunting wind playing, nodding ahead to the dark turn the hallucination later takes.

After a second movement ball which was elegant rather than wild, in the bucolic Scene aux champs Weilerstein created a sublimely serene pastoral vista with the help of some touching woodwind solos and beautifully rich colour in the viola and cello unison passage.

The brass and percussion sections attacked the fourth movement with gusto, with the 14-strong brass section, all grouped together on stage, functioning well as a powerful unit. The lack of a repeat and abrupt last chord made for a fairly unsentimental, straightforward execution, before plummeting into the underworld for the finale. Weilerstein drove a sharp tempo here, the considerable demands of which easily met by the woodwinds, and a great sense of fun emerged in the symphony’s last minutes. The final rondo zipped along with tremendous energy, making a pleasing end to this fascinating programme.