The Telegraph review: Wynton Marsalis Concerto, London Symphony Orchestra, Gaffigan ‘a labour of love
By Ivan Hewett, classical music critic
7 NOVEMBER 2015
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It’s often said that the London Symphony Orchestra is our most American-sounding orchestra. And boy, didn’t it seem so last Friday.
It was an evening of unabashed American pizzazz, led by the diminutive American conductor James Gaffigan, who at times looked like a Broadway show dancer doing a spot of moonlighting on the podium. Unorthodox his knee-bends and hip-sways may have been, but they certainly did the job.
The opening piece, Leonard Bernstein’s Preludes, Fugue and Riffs, fairly leaped off the stage.Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements seemed the outsider on paper, but its huge, hefty orchestration and nervy, rhythmic energy (portraying the Nazi war-machine and mocking goose-stepping soldiers) seemed very American.
Another piece by Bernstein, Chichester Psalms, promised to be less extrovert, given its origins as a piece for an Anglican cathedral and the Hebrew texts of the psalms. But even here, where Bernstein tries to capture a more ancient, Jewish kind of rhythmic vitality (and occasional melancholy), American optimism kept breaking out.
The LSO chorus didn’t seem at their strongest on this occasion, but the treble soloist Ben Hill gave “The Lord Is My Shepherd” a touching gravity.
These three pieces seemed only partial in their embrace of America, compared with the big, brand-new piece at the heart of the evening. This was the Concerto in D for violin and orchestra by Wynton Marsalis, here receiving its world premiere.
The legendary trumpeter and composer, who is the musical director of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, is a passionate advocate of the civilising influence of jazz, but he’s never taken the view that the genre is exclusively African in its origins. On the contrary, he insists all kinds of European influences, including classical music and folk fiddle traditions, played a part in its making.
This concerto is the latest in a long line of classical works where Marsalis tries to make those kinships evident. In one respect it’s cautious, in the sense that it leaves no room for improvisation. But in every other it’s hugely ambitious. No other work of Marsalis’s seems to reach out so overtly to every aspect of America, not just African-America.
At some moments a Charles Ives-like tonal anarchy came over the music, at others a wide-open-spaces tranquillity out of Copland, at others a wild hoedown jollity. And gospel and blues were never far away.
All this was pictured in a skilful orchestral score of over 40 minutes, at the centre of which was soloist Nicola Benedetti. This concerto has been a labour of love for her, and she soared over its very challenging technical demands with a radiant lofty lyricism, touching intimate bluesiness, and furious rhythmic energy.
On the basis of performing achievement and sheer inventiveness this premiere was enormously impressive, but by the end I felt the piece actually suffered from over‑ambition. It was as if Marsalis wanted to pour into this concerto every idea he’s ever had about the violin, and how it relates to the various traditions he loves. The result felt cluttered, and the many incidental beauties didn’t register with the force the composer must have intended.
Only in the Blues movement, a magnificent creation of Charles Mingus-like emotional gravity, did the piece actually touch the heights that Marsalis was clearly striving for.