The magnificent organ dominates the stage of the Bridgewater Hall but concert-goers rarely get to hear it being played. The BBC Philharmonic’s latest concert in its “America Adventure” series remedied that: as well as a work for organ and orchestra we had two solos for the mighty instrument as well. As the organ console was positioned at the front of the stage the audience was able for once to see the performer, and especially his hands and feet, in action.

John Wilson © Sim Canetty-Clarke
John Wilson
© Sim Canetty-Clarke
Jonathan Scott was the evening’s soloist. He began the concert by introducing the works to be played in the first half and before a note had been played he had already established a rapport with the audience. His relaxed but informative manner proved an ideal start to proceedings. Scott began with Charles Ives’ remarkable Variations on “America”, written when the composer was only 17.  These irreverent variations on the tune better known in the UK as God Save the Queen still place great demands on the player and Scott relished the challenge. They also save the performer the chance to show off the colours of his instrument.

The second piece of the evening was again for solo organ: Philip Glass’s Mad Rush. Despite the title this was a predominantly calm and contemplative piece which was originally written for the visit of the Dalai Lama to New York in 1979. This proved a serene contrast to the frenetic activity of the Ives.

Jonathan Scott was then joined by the BBC Philharmonic and John Wilson for Copland's Symphony for Organ and Orchestra, written by the 23 year old composer who had recently completed his studies in Paris and returned the USA. It arises clearly out of the world of Stravinsky and the French Neoclassicists but already has an individual voice. It established Copland’s reputation and remains one of his most rewarding works. It is hard to imagine that Copland had not heard any of his orchestral music in performance before and that this was his first composition for organ.

The organ is treated as an integral part of the orchestra, hence symphony rather than concerto, but the soloist has opportunities to shine. The piece follows an unusual but effective form: each movement is longer and more complex than the previous one. The first movement is a prelude which is mainly atmospheric and contemplative. Copland uses the violin large orchestra sparingly, often pairing the organ with another soloist – solo harp, cello and violin were prominent early in the movement. The scherzo followed with characteristic syncopated rhythms which Wilson ensured were spot on. The finale was the most substantial movement with contrasting themes, orchestral solos and arresting changes of mood leading to a tremendous rousing conclusion with full orchestra and organ thrilling the audience. Again Wilson controlled forces with aplomb.

Following the interval we had more Copland, this time the much more familiar Suite from his ballet Billy the Kid. Dating from some 14 years after the Organ Symphony, this is one of his most-performed works and one which has come to typify not only Copland’s music but American music in general. The introductory “open prairie” music has been honoured by imitation in countless films and TV programmes depicting the open spaces of the USA. Copland uses traditional cowboy songs (which are presumably more recognisable to American audiences than British ones) and weaves them into a story with vivid episodes. John Wilson led us through the varied moods ranging from jaunty dances to the tragic. The gunfight, dominated by timpani, bass drum and side drum, was thrilling.

The final work of the evening was The Adventures of Robin Hood: symphonic portrait for orchestra by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who comosed the music for the film in 1938.  He later produced a short concert suite for much smaller orchestra than was required for the film, but what we heard tonight was a more substantial five-movement suite created by John Mauceri in 2007 for the 50th anniversary of Korngold’s death. This suite restored the original orchestration and the stage of the Bridgewater was filled up with forces even larger than those required by the Copland. During the time Korngold was in Hollywood composing the Robin Hood music, Hitler annexed Austria and the composer, an Austrian Jew, was unable to return home. No such serious matters affect the music, though, which has a glorious swagger to match the film, including a fight almost as dramatic as the one in Billy the Kid, a ravishing love scene and a conclusion sometimes recalling the sumptuous music of Korngold’s admirer, Richard Strauss.

Korngold’s once neglected music is being rediscovered. Who better than John Wilson, established in both the classical repertoire and light music, to champion his film scores? 

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