REVIEW: Bernstein & Gershwin – Gomyo and WASO – by Sam Gillies

Reviewed by Sam Gillies
on the 11th April 2014
for Limelight Magazine
“WASO and Gomyo capture the energy and inventiveness of the great American composers”
Perth Concert Hall
April 5, 2014: WASO plays Copland – Appalacian Spring//Barber – Concerto for Violin//Bernstein – Symphonic Dances from West Side Story//Gershwin – An American in Paris//with violinist Karen Goymo

In the second instalment of the ‘classics’ program for 2014, WASO paid tribute to the music of some of the great American composers, collecting the works of Copeland, Barber, Bernstein and Gershwin into a single program. WASO was conducted by Benjamin Northey who brought a terrific energy to the evening proceedings.

It seems a logical programmatic choice with perfect balance; you have the soaring brass melodies of Copland, the classical melodic texture of Barber, the theatrical musicality of Bernstein and the pastiche classicism of Gershwin. The two halves of the program differed thematically. The first half focused on more traditionally classical music from America, while the second half showcased two works that derived their influence from the popular and jazz music of the time.

WASO opened with Copland’s Appalachian Spring. The suite version, performed this evening, gives an impression of the key features of the original ballet while still functioning as a single work. The unique character of each section was carefully articulated, bringing to the forefront the disparity of the various characters and scenes. Copland’s work is distinctly, almost stereotypically, American, constructed from the tropes of a pastoral America, balancing sweeping delicacies with jaunty folkisms. WASO approached the work with care and nuance, and Appalachian Spring set the scene for the rest of the evening perfectly.

Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto Op. 14 hadn’t been performed by WASO for 17 years, so it was great to hear this work performed locally once more. Barber’s Violin Concerto stood out for two reasons. Firstly, the work avoids many of the more obvious and distinctive features of American music. The brass is, for the most part, reserved, and melodies are approached from a distinctively classical perspective, without reference to blues and jazz music forms. This meant that the understated Violin Concerto was free of the bombast reflected in the other works of the evening.

The second reason was the performance from the soloist. Karen Gomyo was simply fantastic, bringing the requisite talent and energy to master the melodic context of the Allegro, the delicacy of the Andante, and the virtuosity of the Presto. After blowing the audience away with the furious conclusion, Gomyo gifted us with a short, solo encore. It was purely a technical set piece but reinforced that what had just been seen was no accident.

The second half started with Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. The musical has become an endearing example of the Broadway show, and the Symphonic Dances effectively distil all of the key musical elements into a single composition across nine movements. For one reason or another West Side Story as a musical never really appealed to me, but here, stripped of the theatrical context the music is allowed to shine. There is a feeling of disjointedness throughout as you’d expect from a work that crams several hours worth of themes and music into 20-odd minutes, but it all works and flows well, never stopping for a breath.

The evening concluded with Gershwin’s An American in Paris. The work is a catalogue of American influences, distilled through a programmatic infusion of the Parisian landscape in the 1950’s. The influence of jazz and the blues can be felt throughout, and typically, the biggest challenge in an orchestral context, is capturing the drive and swing of the blues-ier elements of the work.

Thankfully, WASO executed these sections perfectly, capturing the requisite punchyness of the bright, upbeat sections while utilising enough restraint in the slower sections, without ever becoming corny or disingenuous. An American in Paris rounded out an evening of important American compositions. It was a fair selection of music, masterfully played.