Not since 2015 have the Cardiff Phil tackled an all American night of music. Though I’m usually a sucker for an event like this, a Welsh premier of a work by Charles Ives sealed the deal for me.
Though an amateur orchestra, Cardiff Phil never shy away from ballsy material, as was proven by them getting the UK premier of the symphonic arrangement of the Ring Cycle by Wagner. Tonight’s concert opened with a bang, that of the timpani, drums, tam-tam and brass. Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man makes a mighty impression upon opening a concert, leaving no prisons in its rousing declaration. The brass really need to own this work and some insecurities in the trumpets lost some of the effect the piece is going for. Leonard Bernstein’s Overture for Candide makes for another great little orchestral encounter, brimming with all the absurdities of the story the opera is based on. The pomp and rambunctious nature of the music is summed up brilliant in these few minutes of the overture. The orchestra hear kept up with the demands and pulled it off.
It’s taken an eye watering 118 years for Charles Ives’ 2nd Symphony to reach Wales. Though I can see why in many respects. Ives, who never pushed his music for performance, spent most of his time making his fortune in the insurance industry. Bernstein himself would make sure his work would get recognised, though it took decades for this to be achieved (Ives stopped composing in 1927, the world premier was in 1951). This symphony is Ives in his younger years, a telling, nostalgic landscape crammed with marching bands, college songs, hymns and barn dances. Though Ives is best known for his later, more experimental material, I found this symphony to be a bit on the naff and naïve side (all things considered). Ives was at his best with head turning ideas like slamming together songs and marches, adjusting the pitch of a piano or creating an eerie mood of early morning stillness. The orchestra came into their own here, bringing with this premier some polish and effervescence. One wonders what they would make of the rest of Ives’ utterly bonkers, yet brilliant canon.
Gershwin dominated the second half, with his Rhapsody in Blue & Porgy and Bess: A Symphonic Picture. Cardiff’s own Jerry Howard did a very good job on piano, a fluttery marvel and the orchestra had great moments of jazzy resplendence. Whilst the famous clarinet opening might have needed a but more practice, things appeared to go well in this beloved piece. Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings executed here maintained the grace and serenity demanded within. Though toward the end, someones instruments sounded like it was having a moment, who ever was playing should have stopped. Beautiful all the same.
The Porgy and Bess suite, arranged by Robert Russel Bennett takes all the best bits from the opera. Though considered problematic by today’s standards, this piece helped get more people of colour on the stage and these are some of Gershwin’s finest songs. Summertime, It Ain’t Necessary So, I Got Plenty of Nuttin’ and Oh, Lawd, I’m On Way all feature, fashionably orchestrated and instantly recognisable. Though the opera as a whole is flawed (we could discuss the racial elements for days) it’s refreshing to hear the highlights of the score. The players kept up the evocative, humid guise, wrapping up the night in fine fashion.
Cardiff Philharmonic’s next concert is 25 Years of A Night at the Movies on 29th November 2019 at Blackwood Miners Institute and St David’s Hall on 6th December 2019.