Philharmonia’s joyful comeback with Santtu-Matias Rouvali

Philharmonia Orchestra and Principal Conductor Designate Santtu-Matias Rouvali making music at the Royal Festival Hall on Monday. © Belinda Lawley

Befittingly for the eve of the orchestra’s 75th birthday, the Philharmonia made its joyous return to live concerts on Monday, with Principal Conductor Designate Santtu-Matias Rouvali on the podium at the Royal Festival Hall. 

The Monday evening concert, performed without audience and live-streamed via Idagio for ticketed online audiences worldwide, was the first time the Philharmonia musicians appeared together as an orchestra since the epic Beethoven 1808 marathon concert conducted by Principal Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen in mid-March. 

For their comeback, Rouvali and the Philharmonia had come up with an extraordinary all-American programme, with four astonishingly different scores, all rooted in the rhythmic vernacular. 

Contrary to a traditional concert setting, the evening opened with the most extensive score, both in terms of length and orchestral forces. Aaron Copland’s ballet Appalachian Spring (1943-44/1945) is one of the most iconic pieces of American music, widely lauded and much imitated. 

Originally written for thirteen players, the score was adapted for full orchestra by the composer soon after its ballet premiere. In its orchestral guise, Appalachian Spring soon became a standalone concert favourite, which in 1945 won the composer the Pulitzer Prize. 

While the ballet itself endorsed the American pioneer mythology, Copland’s music can be heard as a more universal appraisal of American folk idioms transformed into an orchestral context.    

Copland’s instantly appealing musical setting bears more than meets the eye. While the folk-rooted musical material is often given a straightforward treatment, its simplicity is hard-won, resulting from an intricate compositional process. With its vivid rhythms and extraordinary melodic material, the score is tremendously evocative in its quasi-cinematic musical imagery. 

For an orchestra, Appalachian Spring provides a splendid rhythmic challenge, requiring nuanced focus and solid ensemble playing. The conductor must be sensitive to the overall architecture, in order to deliver an intelligible pacing. In addition, the music should unfold in the most natural, quasi-improvisatory way. 

A pastoral symphony for the New World, the score is clad in musical vistas and barn dances, with spiritual undercurrents. 

With Rouvali at the helm, the Philharmonia gave an absolutely riveting account of the score. Combining delicate phrasing and vigorous rhythmic energy, the performance was the most enjoyable one. With safety distances applied, the orchestral fabric was more transparent than usual, contributing to the clarity of texture. 

Among the many performances of the quintessentially Coplandesque score, few have cast such an all-encompassing charm than this spirited one by Philharmonia and their Principal Conductor Designate. 

The second piece in the programme was far a less-known one. In 1953, Florence Price, the pioneering African American composer wrote a little three-movement suite for piano, titled Dances in the Canebrakes. As Price passed away soon after, the suite remained one of her last completed works. 

Based on rag and cakewalk, the three-movement suite is a wonderful re-imagination of popular dances, elegantly stylized, with charm and wit. Orchestrated by William Grant Still, a fellow African American composer, Dances in the Canebrakes is a catchy piece, especially when performed with loving dedication, as Rouvali and the Philharmonia did on Monday. 

Wonderfully melodic and rhythmically upbeat, Price’s long-forgotten score is a most welcome rediscovery, with, hopefully, many outings to come. 

After a brief brake, Rouvali and the four percussionists of the Philharmonia returned the stage to perform Steve Reich’s 1973 classic, Music for Pieces of Wood. As indicated by the matter-of-factly title, the ten-minute piece is scored for five pairs of tuned claves.

Based on a rhythmic pattern akin to the one in Clapping Music (1972), Music for Pieces of Wood uses additive processes derived from Reich’s minimalist summa, Drumming (1970-71). Within each section of the piece, various rhythmic patterns are constructed and deconstructed over the seamless root pulse, going rise to the most imaginative contrapuntal textures. 

While Music for Pieces of Wood may not make an instant impact on page, as a sounding event, it is a truly remarkable experience for performers and audiences alike. 

According to the interview presented on the interval, Rouvali had chosen the Reich piece in order to get to know the Philharmonia percussion section more closely. In the past, the conductor has resorted to percussion on a couple of occasions, including a marimba encore performed by Rouvali upon his inaugural concert with the Tampere Philharmonic back in  2013. 

Standing in a semi-circle, mid-stage, the five musicians plunged into the fabric of Music for Pieces of Wood with admirable concentration and gentle groove. Taking their audiences on a fascinating journey into the realm of gradual musical processes, the performance of the Reich classic was a joyful one.    

Rounding off the evening, Rouvali and fifteen members of the Philharmonia took the stage for Igor Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks (1937-38). Written while the composer was recovering from tuberculosis, the three-movement chamber concerto was the last work Stravinsky finished in Europe, before his immigration to the US. 

Commissioned as a thirtieth wedding anniversary gift for Robert Woods Bliss and Mildred Barnes Bliss, and named after their estate in Washington DC, the concerto was premiered at the Dumbarton Oaks music room, conducted by Nadia Boulanger

Based on descriptions of the composer’s working habits, it is easy to imagine the convalescing Stravinsky playing Bach on his piano, gradually distancing himself from the original score and resorting to improvisation, transforming the Bachian textures into Stravinskyan re-inventions. For there’s a lot of Bach in the score, in the guise of allusions and near-quotations from the Brandenburg Concertos (1721). 

Philharmonia and Rouvali back in action. © Belinda Lawley

Yet as ever with Stravinsky, his fingerprints are all over the miniature masterpiece. Be it the quirky rhythms, poignant harmonies or those impeccable contrapuntal constructions, Dumbarton Oaks is pure, ingenious Stravinsky. 

The twelve-minute score calls for a dexterous ensemble, making music together within a contrapuntal fabric, propelled by rhythmic pulses, so unmistakably Stravinskyan in their contours and accents. Contrasted by the wondrously fleeting moments of stasis, the score is rooted in dazzling rhythmic flow.

With their astounding Stravinsky tradition, including the 1965 performance of the Firebird Suite (1909-10/1945) with the composer himself on the podium, and further cultivated by Salonen over the past thirty years or so, the Philharmonia players were peerless in their joyful take on Dumbarton Oaks with Rouvali.

Together with their Chief Conductor Designate, the Philharmonia musicians endorsed Stravinsky’s score to the finest detail, while maintaining an upbeat rhythmic impetus. Thus Dumbarton Oaks turned out as the most satisfying closing imaginable.

The comeback performances resume on Thursday, with Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting and soprano Julia Bullock as soloist. It is great to have one of our most inspired orchestras back in action!

Philharmonia Orchestra

Santtu-Matias Rouvali, conductor

Aaron Copland: Appalachian Spring (1943-44/1945) for orchestra

Florence Price: Dances in the Canebrakes (1953) – Version for orchestra by William Grant Still 

Steve Reich: Music for Pieces of Wood (1973) 

Igor Stravinsky: Concerto in E-flat ”Dumbarton Oaks” (1937-38) for chamber orchestra

Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London (Idagio livestream)

Monday 26 October 2020, 7.30 pm 

© Jari Kallio 

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