In these post-pandemic times, should orchestras dream up bold programmes to prove they’re still alive and kicking artistically, or play it safe to tempt audiences back into the concert hall? On Sunday night, the Britten Sinfonia found an elegant solution to the question: they did both at once, with a programme entitled American Rhapsody that included two sure-fire hits, played in intriguing new ways, alongside some fascinating rarities.
This ingenious and hugely enjoyable evening was the brainchild of the guest star soloist, trumpeter Alison Balsom (who is married to the film and theatre director Sam Mendes). As she reminded us in her chat with the evening’s conductor, Scott Stroman, she was first turned on to the trumpet by hearing a recording of bebop trumpet virtuoso Dizzy Gillespie. Ever since, she’s harboured a yearning to throw off her role as a stunning performer of Baroque trumpet concertos, and embrace some American sassiness. This invitation from the Britten Sinfonia gave her the chance, and she certainly seized it.
To launch things, we had the visionary transcendental aspect of American music, as expressed in Charles Ives’s The Unanswered Question. As the orchestra’s strings unfolded a slow chorale, vast and mysterious as a starry sky, Balsom was nowhere to be seen; but we soon heard her, intoning the repeated, never-to-be-answered “question” from somewhere in the wings. Then the orchestra’s cor anglais player Nicholas Daniel, hardly less starry than Balsom herself, joined her and the orchestra for a beautifully dignified and spacious performance of Aaron Copland’s Quiet City.
Thereafter, each piece brought a complete change of mood and tone. After two of the charmingly innocent Dances in the Canebrakes by Florence Price, the African-American composer now enjoying a renaissance, we had the Spanish-flavoured melancholy of Rodrigo’s famous Concerto de Aranjuez, as reconceived by Miles Davis and Gil Evans for solo trumpet and big band. Under Stroman’s sure but flexible direction, Evans’s luxuriant orchestration burgeoned with tropical luxuriousness, while Balsom’s lonely trumpet unfurled the melody with rhapsodic sadness.
The most unlikely and creatively ingenious aspect of the evening was Callum Au’s arrangement of one of John Cage’s patterned, aloof Sonatas for “prepared” piano. The metallic plinks and plunks produced by the nuts and bolts inserted into the piano‘s strings in Cage’s original were brilliantly reconceived by Au for marimba, vibes, percussion and plucked strings, with Balsom modestly contributing just one shard of coloured glass to the whirling kaleidoscope of sound.
To give Balsom a break, the orchestral strings gave a performance of Stravinsky’s Concerto in D, which brought all its heartless brilliance and wit. Finally came Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, in a new arrangement for solo trumpet by Simon Wright.
Ingenious though the arrangement was, this new version didn’t quite come off. Pianist Tom Poster seemed to be reining in his solo part, so as not to steal the limelight from Balsom – but she could have done more to seize the limelight, by emulating the ecstatic wildness of the jazz trumpeters in the band. This felt like an intriguing “work-in-progress”; everything else was perfectly achieved, and a total joy. IH