John Gough's enthusiastic review of CBSO and Jess Gillam


Symphony Hall *****

I think it is safe to say that this concert, billed as 'Jess Gillam's American Roadtrip' was a sensation.

We heard a variety of less often performed repertoire as the concert charted a zigzag Pan-American course through music from the first half of the twentieth century.

The product of a fortnight's holiday in Havana, Gershwin's 'Cuban overture' burst upon us, all opulence and glitter in this unbridled yet detailed performance under Espinós' expert hands. Idiomatic Latin trumpets and swooping strings were followed by more than a hint of Ravellian voluptuousness in the middle section, before the irresistible exuberance of the opening returned.

The output of Villa-Lobos is so vast, and opportunities to hear his work so rare, that this was my first encounter with his Fantasia for saxophone. Jess Gillam, on soprano sax, here making her debut with the CBSO, was a revelation in what was possible on this sometimes intractable instrument. Her communicative personality, her artistry and beautiful sound led us through this three movement piece, energetic and demanding outside movements framing a beautiful slow movement, introduced by solo viola, as the sax traced lyrical arabesques over the lush carpet of strings.

After Copland's spiky 'Danzón Cubano', Gillam returned to the stage for what was definitely the popular hit of the night, Milhaud's suite 'Scaramouche', heard here in its rarely performed version for alto saxophone and orchestra.

This engaging piece with its exotic rhythms and diatonic melodic lines, spiced with bitonality, received a performance of such élan and care that it swept all before it. The sheer virtuosity of the first movement, manic episodes swapping with suavity, was such that although it was over in minutes, it demanded and got its own round of applause. Gillam's exquisite shaping of the sustained saxophone line over the grave orchestral accompaniment in the second movement turned this apparently slight music into something much more profound and touching, and of course the final infectious Brasileira movement, with its carnival rhythms, brought the house down. A perfectly judged encore of Duke Ellington's 'In a sentimental mood' started and finished at the edge of audibility. It transfixed a rapt audience.

In one way I would have been happy if the concert had ended after the expansive and beautifully moulded performance of Copland's 'Appalachian Spring' in which we relished the skill and artistry of the whole orchestra. I'm not sure that the placing of Barber's First Symphony as the final item was the best for the audience or the work.

Yet it was a riveting performance of this dramatic and compact piece, not least for the achingly beautiful oboe solo by Amy Roberts in the slow section followed by the wonderfully paced and transcendental string climax after it.

At the end of the concert I was left wondering, how is it possible for someone as young as Jess Gillam to have arrived with such an already fully formed artistic personality?

To quote Tom Stoppard in 'Shakespeare in Love' – "I don't know, it's a mystery".

John Gough

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