CBSO at Symphony Hall ★★★★

Some composers abandon the muse of entertainment in search of the serious and profound. It seldom works out as time and audiences prove better judges. Arthur Sullivan composed ‘Ivanhoe’ and ‘The Muse of Antioch’ but we prefer ‘The Mikado’ and ‘Pirates of Penzance’. Paul McCartney’s ‘Liverpool Oratorio’ and ‘Standing Stone’ are career footnotes while ‘Hey Jude’ and ‘Yesterday’ prove evergreen. For Leonard Bernstein being the toast of Broadway and Hollywood wasn’t enough and so came portentous and pretentious behemoths like his ‘Kaddish’ Symphony and ‘Mass’. Happily this concert was bookended by works that show Bernstein’s compositional forte, a cunning blend of classical, jazz and pop with a wonderful ear for melody and witty orchestration.

The conductor Fabien Gabel launched into a scintillating performance of the overture from ‘Candide’ – Bernstein’s finest foray into opera – with the CBSO on their toes. It’s a miracle of compression, a five-minute zip through the work’s highlights including the coloratura dazzler ‘Glitter and Be Gay’ as fine as any of Rossini’s comic arias. Bernstein was a brilliant pasticheur and it’s fun spotting his musical models. The virtues of his musical ‘West Side Story’ don’t need reiterating but in the ‘Symphonic Dances’ extracted from the work, Gabel let the CBSO enjoy themselves, and delight us, with a wide-eyed but never lachrymose ‘Somewhere’, a wild and raunchy ‘Mambo’ and the ‘Cool Fugue’ with Bernstein at his hippest. There was also a delightful rarity in Kurt Weill’s ‘Symphonic Nocturne’ from his Broadway musical ‘Lady in the Dark’. The man who penned ‘Mack the Knife’ knew about good tunes and woven into the medley are the heroine’s romantic ‘My Ship’ and the jazzily satirical ‘The Saga of Jenny’.

Like Bernstein, Danny Elfman is a versatile composer of great facility and his brilliant, demanding and fun Percussion Concerto was a worthy central showpiece for the concert. It was also a tour-de-force for percussionist extraordinaire Colin Currie who had fine support from the CBSO’s percussionists Adrian Spillett, Andrew Herbert, Toby Kearney and Sophie Hastings, James Goodwin (drum kit) Ben Dawson (piano) and timpanist Matthew Hardy. The four movement work begins with ‘Triangle’ with Currie placed centrally with a bank of instruments flanked with percussion players on extreme left and right of the platform with some fast and furious interplay and wacky sounds reminiscent of Elman’s soundtrack for the sci-fi comedy ‘Mars Attacks!’. The second is an homage to Shostakovich, using his signature four note ‘DSCH’ motto, more inward and pensive, while the harmonically shifting ‘Down’ is a movement of quiet repose dominated by the celeste. The finale movement ‘Syncopated’ is an unashamed crowd-pleaser with Currie in danger of demolishing his vibraphone in pursuit of a tumultuous conclusion.

Norman Stinchcombe

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