Friday, March 10, 2022

National Concert Hall, Earlsfort Terrace, Dublin, Ireland

Friday last,, and a week later Leonard Slatkin was bringing to Dublin music ‘made in America’, opening with Joan Tower’s eponymous piece (2005), which threads ‘America the Beautiful’ through its fifteen minutes, music of suspense, agitation, rumination, and powerful emotions, built with purpose if ultimately ambiguous, seized upon by the National Symphony Orchestra with empathy and panache. Following which an Adagio for String Orchestra (2002), Cindy McTee’s, later to become part of her First Symphony and including a quotation from Penderecki’s Polish Requiem and referencing Samuel Barber’s corresponding opus; it’s an intense and troubled ‘9/11’ piece, eloquent and deeply felt, quite bleak in its final measures, and it communicated resonantly here.

Next, Leonard Bernstein’s solitary film score, for the celebrated (eight Academy Awards) dockside drama On the Waterfront, released in 1954, boasting a stellar cast, including Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Rod Steiger, Lee J. Cobb and – still with us aged ninety-eight – Eva Marie Saint (who was born on the Fourth of July). Bernstein’s Suite exudes the violence, corruption and racketeering central to the movie, baleful (saxophone) and coruscating (percussion-fuelled) music that reflects tension, conflict and sleaze, if with aspiration and optimism breaking through that which is sinister and dark, the opening horn melody transformed to something hopeful come the close, all brought off with dynamism and passion by the NSO and Slatkin.

Following the interval, Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto, which also has its American connections: it was premiered in New York City in November 1909 with the composer as soloist, Walter Damrosch conducting, and when the Concerto was reprised there a couple of months later, Rachmaninov had Mahler by his side, rehearsing intensively and running beyond schedule. Between them, Olga Kern and Slatkin conspired an expansive account, perfectly paced at the outset to shape the folksy tune with fondness yet developing an ink-still-wet spontaneity as the first movement progressed, the performers generating romantic ardour and emotional volatility, occasionally spiky from Kern who settled on the composer’s cadenza (of two) that is usually regarded as the more technically challenging, which she brought off with flair, and after further musical detours caught on the wing, the return of the opening music was spot-on tempo-wise to that set at the start. Ah bliss, no ruinous clapping, rather expectant silence anticipating the central movement, and not long to wait for its impassioned unfurling, and then a fiery and feisty Finale, somewhat erratic if electrifying in terms of this being an of-the-moment concert performance, that didn’t overlook reflection or heart-easing chords (although the subito fortissimo on the second one was a shock) and from there we sped to a grand conclusion, the NSO and Slatkin always supportive of the roaring-away soloist, the piano under strain, now less well-tempered than forty minutes earlier, but remaining in shape for the C-sharp minor Prelude that Rachmaninov grew to hate, Kern going for the jugular if coming to rest with peaceful understatement before taking off again this time as a flighty bumble-bee, Rimsky’s wings/Rachmaninov’s copy.

Many Happy Returns to composer Cindy McTee, 69 today. Video of her Adagio for String Orchestra, Leonard Slatkin conducting the DSO; February 15, 2019; Orchestra Hall, Detroit.