REVIEW: WASO’s Bernstein and Gershwin – by Neville Cohn

Fine vitality in US suite

Reviewed by Neville Cohn
on the 7th April 2014
for the West Australian
Review of the West Australian Symphony Orchestra’s concert ‘Bernstein and Gershwin’ featuring violinist Karen Gomyo
Bernstein – Symphonic Dances from West Side Story//Copland – Appalachian Spring//Gershwin – An American in Paris//Barber – concerto for violin

Epitomising the brash, in-your-face nature of much of the orchestral music of 20th-century US, Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story came across in high style. Here, the players of the West Australian Symphony Orchestra seemed positively to revel in Bernstein’s lavish orchestration and gutsy climaxes. Throughout, the players sounded in their element especially the brass section with trumpeter Brent Grapes in exceptional form.

Musical enchantment of a very different sort came in the form of a suite from Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring. Seventy years on, its haunting measures, evoking sound images of a gentler, more introverted, pioneer America, are as meaningful and moving as ever. With Benjamin Northey presiding over events, it came across as an essay in muted sonic poetry. It was the high point of the program.

No line-up of top US composers of the 20th century could omit a deep obeisance to George Gershwin; his An American in Paris triggered cherished boyhood recollections of the famous MGM movie musical of the same name.

It is a score that has weathered well; its harmonies, rhythms, tone colours and sheer vitality are as refreshing now as they would have been during Broadway’s American-musical heyday.

Ten days ago we listened to Alina Pogostkina playing a splendid 1717 Stradivarius violin. On Friday, we heard Karen Gomyo as soloist in Barber’s Violin Concerto playing an even rarer instrument – the Aurora-ex-Foulis Stradivarius dating as far back as 1703.

Unlike, say, the late Yehudi Menuhin who, in performance, was a study in stillness other than for the movement of his bowing arm, Gomyo, glamorously clad in a strapless scarlet gown, has a stage presence that is the antithesis of the late Menuhin’s manner. Swaying to the rhythms of the concerto with some rather exaggerated back-arching, Gomyo shaped to the demands of Barber’s concerto like fine wine to a goblet, presenting the solo line phrased with such finesse and purity of tone that, for the duration of the work, Barber’s concerto sounded far better than it in fact is.