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Sunday, 26 October 2014

Scottish Opera, 26/10/2014

Copland : Old American Songs, Book 2 (Michel de Souza, baritone)
Copland : Appalachian Spring
Stravinsky : Concerto in E flat "Dumbarton Oaks"
Stravinsky : Symphony in C

The Orchestra of Scottish Opera
Stuart Stratford

This concert given by the Scottish Opera Orchestra was a very pleasant way to spend an utterly dismal Sunday afternoon, between Copland in solid Americana vein, and the crisp neo-Classicism of Stravinsky at the tail end of the 1930s.  The proceedings began (a little unusually) by involving the soloist, though I imagine the logistics of the orchestral disposition had a lot to do with the way in which the programme was laid out. Michel de Souza charmed from the outset with a lively and persuasive reading of the 2nd set of Copland's Old American Songs, slightly less well known than the first, but all the more welcome for that.  His English was excellent, on the whole, and he has a warm, caramel-tinted baritone that was a pleasure to hear.

This was followed up by the 1945 version of Appalachian Spring, the suite for full orchestra.  Although it is an abbreviated form, at least three-quarters of the ballet is retained, but with standard orchestral forces deployed, the piece is a bit less intimist than in its original form.  The open-air feel so characteristic of Copland in this mode is still there, but the orchestration lacks the transparency of the chamber version - or, indeed, that of the Old American Songs - and the ballet origins of the piece seem less clear.  Stratford and the orchestra gave it a nice, straightforward performance, maybe a little lacking in the most evocative aspects of the score, but with the right degree of simplicity.

The overall American theme was maintained in the second half, for Dumbarton Oaks, although written in Europe, was a commission from an American couple for their 30th wedding anniversary, while the Symphony in C (commissioned by the same couple) was the first piece Stravinsky completed after emigrating to the United States.  There was also a dance connection; Jerome Robbins choreographed Dumbarton Oaks, while Martha Graham created a piece on the Symphony late in her career.  It was a bit unfortunate, however, that the logistics of the concert required the Concerto to be performed first, because there can surely be little doubt that it's the finer work, by some way.

Dumbarton Oaks is one of the very finest pieces of Stravinsky's neo-classical period, witty, engaging and ceaselessly inventive in a way that escapes the more ponderous Symphony.  The five wind players of the orchestra were particularly good here, but the strings lacked that slightly acidulated edge that gives Stravinsky his bite, and the piece as a whole was maybe just a touch short on pure nervous energy.  The Symphony in C, using much larger forces, similarly lacked that edge to the strings, which would have leavened the texture somewhat, although their articulation remained good.  The horns had one or two uncertain moments in the first movement, but came into their own later.  The work as a whole lacked a little focus, to me, and the start of the last movement was particularly leaden.  The conductor reminded us that although the Symphony was written during a particularly turbulent period in Stravinsky's life, both in terms of his personal life and in terms of the world around him, he famously and steadfastly denied that there was any reflection of his life to be found in the piece. Stratford, like most conductors, had his own ideas on that point, but while they were valid enough, I think maybe he was making a little too much of them, and burdening the music further than it needed to be.  It's a pity the concert could not have ended with Dumbarton Oaks, which would have left a more positive final impression of what was, all told, a very agreeable couple of hours.

[Next : 30th October]

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