Sunday, February 25

Philharmonia: ‘American Dreams’ – Royal Festival Hall

After being away from their London home since March 2020, Philharmonia have come together (albeit in a socially distanced way), to stage this concert celebrating the work of Aaron Copland, Florence Price, Steve Reich and Igor Stravinsky.  Conducted by the Orchestra’s Principal Conductor Designate Santtu-Matias Rouvali, this is a wonderful opportunity for the Orchestra to celebrate their 75th Anniversary and to help to raise funds to enable them to continue to produce their lively performances. 

The performance begins with Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, written in 1943-4, this piece was composed for choreographer Martha Graham who asked Copland to write a new ballet.  The story centres around a young couple in 19th Century Pennsylvania who meet, marry and set up home together and settle into their community.   This piece begins with a beautifully lively section and one can feel the spring awakening and the pitter patter of raindrops, with the mellow sounds of the flute and then later on in the piece the heightened use of brass and drums adds another layer and leads into a slower paced section.  By far my personal favourite was the echoes of ‘Lord of the Dance’, Copland had come across the basis to this music in 1940 as ‘Simple Gifts’ written by Elder Joseph Brackett in 1848 and was later used by Sydney Carter in 1963 for the hymn that we all know in the UK.  The final crescendo moves from the softer woodwind into the more dramatic drums, brass and cello which moves into a mellow end to this section.

With Florence Price we are able to appreciate a lesser known composer who was perhaps more well known for being a female African American, than for her music.  It was fortuitus that a large amount of her manuscripts were found in 2009, that her music has been revived.   Written in 1953, ‘Dances in the Canebrakes’ was one of Price’s last works and was fully orchestrated (after originally being written for piano), by William Grant Still.  These dance pieces allow us to take a trip back in time to the late 19th and early 20th Century.  The music from the South is brought to us via the ragtime rhythm, but the enchanting melodies are left until the final section ‘Silk Hat and Walking Cane’ with the glorious oboe leading into a final flurry.

After conducting the previous two pieces, Rouvali joins the percussion section to perform a very simple, stripped back piece written by Steve Reich called ‘Music for Pieces of Wood’.  Only five instruments were used; all tuned claves and this rhythmic music is almost hypnotic, although as you are drawn into the metronome type beats, your trance is broken by another clave which gives the piece a change of direction,  pitch and rhythm.  Even though the feeling of being on a train analogy works well here, I could imagine this working well as a replacement for the drum for Irish dancers or it is ideal chopping music in the kitchen.  Its simplicity hides the level of precision needed to make this successful and success was definitely achieved.

Finally, ‘Dumbarton Oaks’ by Igor Stravinsky, written for a couple (Robert and Mildred Bliss), who were celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary and the piece was named after their estate in Washington DC.  This mini masterpiece was overshadowed by tragedy for Stravinsky, as he wrote the piece in a sanatorium where his wife and daughters were being treated for Tuberculosis and unfortunately both his wife and eldest daughter died of the disease.  This was the last piece ho wrote in Europe and he soon moved to the US.  The string sections immediately bring Bach to mind as his influence is obvious here and the joy in its performance shines through as both Rouvali and the Philharmonia end the concert on a high and the pleasure of being back after so many months away is equally felt by the orchestra and I am sure, the viewers at home. 

Even though the socially distanced performance meant that the layout was more spread out than usual, it did not impact on the wonderfully uplifting performance with an interestingly varied programme.

This performance will be available to watch on the orchestra’s website in a week’s time and will be available for six months. 

Reviewer: Caroline Worswick

Reviewed: 26th October 2020

North West End UK Rating: ★★★★★