Part of the South Bank’s year-long The Rest is Noise festival, last week’s two concerts of American Music at the Royal Festival Hall, with Marin Alsop conducting the LPO, were hugely enjoyable.
In part this was due to some thoughtful programming – opening the first concert, for instance, with the London Adventist Chorale singing three spirituals immediately before the performance of Dvorak’s New World Symphony, which draws much of its inspiration from both spirituals and the songs of Stephen Foster. In an even greater part it was due to Marin Alsop’s good humoured and highly accessible introductions to the less well-known pieces – before Varese’s “Amériques”, for example, she spoke of the influence of both Debussy and Stravinsky, then asked one of the flautists to play the opening to “L’Apres-Midi d’un Faun”, followed by another playing the similar opening to “Amériques”; a burst of “The Rite of Spring” was followed by a similar passage from the Varese. Thus set up, I suspect any doubters in the audience were more receptive than would otherwise have been the case.
Having switched round the running order from that printed in the programme and finishing the second night’s concert with Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”, Alsop sprang a wonderful surprise, announcing that as an encore they were going to play one of stride pianist James P. Johnson’s short symphonic pieces, “Victory Stride”. And how the LPO responded to the challenge! OK, they didn’t swing like Basie or Ellington, but I bet they beat Paul Whiteman to it hands down. And what a thrill to see not just the trombone and trumpet sections rising to their feet a la big band in the appropriate passages, but to see the entire string section – all 30 0r so of them – doing the same thing. Rarely have I seen the audience at a classical concert leaving the hall with such broad smiles on their faces.