American music is steadily getting ever more appreciated in the Old World too. And deservedly so, as this week’s concerts by the Tampere Philharmonic demonstrated. The orchestra was joined by the wonderful young British conductor Kerem Hasan, stepping in for Michael Francis, who was forced to cancel due travel restrictions.
The Principal Conductor ofthe Tiroler Symphonieorchester Innsbruck, Hasan is a familiar face in Finland. In September 2019, he conducted the Lahti Symphony in a marvellous programme, featuring the Finnish premiere of John Adams’s Absolute Jest (2011) for string quartet and orchestra. After his week in Tampere, Hasan is due to guest-conduct the Turku Philharmonic Orchestra in early December.
At Tampere, an all-American programme was heard. Due safety restrictions, the playlist was somewhat modified, resulting in a regrettable omission of Aaron Copland’s Third Symphony (1946). Still, even in its shortened guise, the evening was nevertheless a joyful affair.
Paying an obvious (and teasing) homage to Copland’sFanfare for the Common Man (1942), Joan Tower’s two-minute Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman I (1987) is scored for a similar ensemble of brass and percussion.
Commissioned by the Houston Symphony for its Fanfare Project, commemorating the 150th anniversary of Texas’s declaration of independence from Mexico, Tower’s original 1987 fanfare eventually grew into a series of six fanfares, with the last one added in 2016.
An exhilarating opener, Tower’s fanfare is a festive blast. With three iterations for percussion, the brass takes over, developing the musical signals and paving the way for a tutti round-up. Performed with vigor by the members of the Tampere Philharmonic under Hasan, the fanfare set the tone for the upbeat evening.
Aaron Copland’s ballet Appalachian Spring (1943-44/1945) is, without question, one of the most iconic and best-loved scores in the 20th century American music.
Originally written for thirteen players, the score was adapted for full orchestra by the composer following 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 concert version can be heard as a more universal appraisal of American folk idioms, brilliantly transformed into an orchestral context.
In his splendid score, Copland makes great use of folk-rooted materials. Hymn tunes, dances and vernacular songs are embedded into intricate musical structures, yielding to vivid sonic imagery, fused together into quasi-cinematic tableaux. Clad in upbeat rhythms and gorgeous melodic lines, and bound together by a solid musical architecture, Appalachian Spring bears an aura of a pastoral symphony for the New World.
For its performers, the score of Appalachian Spring provides many challenges, in terms of its rhythmic and textural transitions, requiring nuanced focus and solid ensemble playing. In order to establish intelligible continuity, the conductor must have a firm grasp of the overall dramaturgy of the episodic score.
With Hasan and the Tampere Philharmonic, Copland’s musical imagery was brought to life with admirable energy and melodic fluency, giving rise to both dazzling vistas and hilariously earthy barn dances. The contemplative tranquillity of the opening and closing sections was conveyed with tender delicacy, whereas the invigorating rural dances were charged with invigorating energy and spot-on rhythmic unity.
The orchestral fabric was laid out in exemplary clarity, albeit at times with the cost of sonority. Although some extra warmth was called for here and there, the performance was nevertheless a fine one.
Among the 20th century piano concertos, George Gershwin’s Concerto in F (1925) is to be counted among the most wonderful forays into the genre. Following in the heels of Rhapsody in Blue (1924), the concerto was commissioned by the conductor Walter Damrosch, who conducted the Carnegie Hall premiere on 3 December 1925, with the composer as soloist.
Scored for a full symphonic ensemble and lasting thirty minutes, the concerto is a large-scale work. Gershwin’s orchestration is based on a fairly standard instrumental line-up, save an extended percussion section, calling forth three players, and a prominent timpani part.
Cast in three movements, the opening allegro derives its rhythms from the Charleston realm, whereas the second movement is conceived as a blues, with an extended trumpet solo. The tour-de-force finale, labelled as ”an orgy of rhythms” by Gershwin himself, makes a full circle, bringing the music back to its thunderous opening.
As heralds, timpani and percussion begin the concerto, summoning tremendous sonic energy, summoning the whole orchestra into action. The soloist enters, with a lyrical solo passage, filled with jazz idioms. Throughout the movement, these contrasting textures are intertwined in the most imaginative and joyful ways, resulting in buzzing energy and the most radiant sounding colours.
Accompanied by two B flat clarinets and a bass clarinet, a muted trumpet opens the adagio, building up to a luminous solo passage, joined by gentle orchestral backdrop. Conceived as a bluesy nocturne, the movement develops into a contemplative dialogue between the soloist and the orchestra. In the coda, the opening line reappears on the flute, bringing the music to its close.
Gershwin’s finale-rondo is built on the musical material from the opening movement, restated in a more vehement manner. Playing with the listener’s expectations, Gershwin introduces a false climax, followed by a whole new passage of significant weight, leading to the climax proper. With splendor, the concerto lands on its final chords.
Teaming up with pianist Ossi Tanner, the winner of the Leevi Madetoja and Tampere Piano Competitions, the Tampere Philharmonic and Hasan gave a groovy account of the Concerto in F. Both edgy and lyrical, with a proper dose of good old trickster spirit, Gershwin’s score was performed with high-spirited energy and rhythmic lightness.
As perceived from a seat slightly sidetracked from the acoustic sweet spot of the hall, there were some slight balance issues between the soloist and the orchestra in some of the blaring tutti sections, but I would imagine that these problems were nonexistent in the middle stalls. In any case, the Concerto in F was a radiant thing, much needed on a gloomy, rainy November evening.
Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra
Kerem Hasan, conductor
Ossi Tanner, piano
Joan Tower: Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman I (1987) for brass and percussion
Aaron Copland: Appalachian Spring (1943-44/1945) for orchestra
George Gershwin: Concerto in F (1925) for piano and orchestra
Tampere Hall, Tampere, Finland
Thursday 19 November 2020, 7 pm
© Jari Kallio