This concert featured two Russian composers who both had to beware of offending a certain critic named Josef Stalin, plus an American whose style was created in the musical melting pot of an exuberant early 20th century USA, writes William Marshall.
There was no large-scale symphonic work, but there was plenty of musical interest and fascinating scorings that challenged all sections of the Slaithwaite Philharmonic, conducted by Benjamin Ellin.
The centrepiece was George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, effectively a mini, one-movement piano concerto. Despite its blue notes and syncopations, it is definitely not jazz music – too galumphing for that – but it is a product of the Jazz Age. With its famous opening clarinet glissando and its passages for growling, wah-wah muted brass, the score is a celebration of the soundscape of the popular music of the period.
The players proved adept at capturing this, especially principal clarinet Max Benn. In addition to that gliss, he also emulated the throaty rasp of the early New Orleans players of his instrument and the articulation of the Jewish klezmer clarinettists who were also an influence on jazz and swing music.
The piano soloist was Olga Jegunova, who earned an appropriately rapturous response from the substantial audience. She had the power and virtuosity to hammer out some of Gershwin’s heavier-handed passages, but also displayed loads of lyricism and introspection in the more reflective, solo sequences that are at the heart of the work.
The concert concluded with two suites from Prokofiev’s beautiful ballet score for Romeo and Juliet, with perhaps the best-known except being the music for the fateful ball given by the Capulets. Its famous theme is underpinned by the fatalistic thud of bass trombone and tuba, played very powerfully.
There were some intriguing combinations, including a lovely duet for bassoon and bass clarinet in the Friar Laurence passage, and the string stratospherics in a sequence depicting the young lovers themselves was highly atmospheric. Also, the performance ended on a soft and beautifully in-tune chord that earned an appreciative silence from the audience before the applause started.
The concert began with what actually might have been the most uplifting work of the evening. Strange then that it came from Shostakovich, whose career-long dread of a knock on the door in the night is so well known.
The work was his Jazz Suite No 2, although – as the programme pointed out – it should more appropriately be known as a Variety Suite, consisting of music drawn from the composer’s work for popular entertainment such as film soundtracks.
The suite opens with such exuberance that, this being Shostakovich, one immediately suspects a deeply ironic sub-text. But the orchestra, augmented by saxophones and an accordion, gave a thoroughly enjoyable account of the suite and there were plenty of stand-out individual contributions, such as the superb side-drumming that propelled the final movement.
Overall, the concert, because of the choice of repertoire, was inevitably fragmentary, but Benjamin Ellen remained in complete control of music that was often deceptively complex and featured many unusual sonorities.