Opera + Classical Music Reviews

BBC Symphony Orchestra review: Stars and Stripes forever

24 February 2023

Gemma New leads the BBCSO in an exhilarating evening of American music spanning the decades at the Barbican.

Gemma New

Gemma New (Photo: Roy Cox)

New Zealand born conductor Gemma New’s rise to fame has been meteoric since winning the Sir Georg Solti Conducting Award in 2021. Appointed Artistic Advisor and Principal Conductor of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra the following year, as well as being the Principal Guest Conductor of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, she’s been engaged by some of the most prestigious orchestras in the world, with this being her debut with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. On the basis of this judiciously curated programme of American pieces, it’s hoped she becomes a regular visitor to these shores, as each of the four works – very different in character – were conducted with panache, flair and a deep understanding of each contrasting idiom.

The evening began with John Adams’ The Chairman Dances – which the composer describes as an ‘out-take’ from his 1987 opera, Nixon in China. In the last act Madame Mao invites the Chairman to dance, with this foxtrot for orchestra being the result. Adams’ score glistens with a sense of impish joy, and is brilliantly orchestrated, with an especially compelling series of riffs for the percussion section. At times hypnotic, at others top-tappingly impulsive, New certainly coaxed idiomatic playing complete with pinpoint accuracy. The way the piece fades away to a dialogue between the piano and percussion section is both bewitching and spine-tingling.

We then went back in time 60 years, to the roaring twenties, to the bluesy, jazz-inspired musical world of Gershwin. Written in 1925, a year after the enormous success of Rhapsody in Blue, his Piano Concerto in F major was his first major orchestral work (the Rhapsody having been orchestrated by Ferde Grofé for solo piano and jazz band), and was a huge hit at its premiere in New York. The composer had originally planned to call the work ‘New York Concerto’, so it’s no surprise that the bustle of the Jazz Age metropolis can be heard in almost every single bar. 

“…each of the four works… were conducted with panache, flair and a deep understanding of each contrasting idiom”

French pianist Lise de la Salle caught each shifting mood of the work to perfection, from the opening syncopated Charleston rhythm which she infused with a languorous sense of ennui, through to the grand, emphatic sections of the first movement which were dispatched with power and authority. The blues inspired second movement was deftly handled by de la Salle, her rock solid technique and ability to caress the keys to let Gershwin’s melodies appear as if out of nowhere impressed, as did Niall Keatley’s exemplary trumpet playing. The headlong third movement, described by Gershwin as ‘an orgy of rhythms, starting violently and keeping to the same pace throughout’ gave de la Salle the perfect opportunity for her virtuosity to shine, and she didn’t disappoint – this was ‘edge of the seat’ playing. With exemplary support from New, one sensed conductor, pianist and orchestra were all breathing as one. Vivacious, technically perfect, and thrilling in equal measure, by any standards this was an outstanding interpretation of this seminal work.

After the interval, New and the BBCSO gave the UK premiere of Valerie Coleman’s Umoja (Anthem of Unity). ‘Umoja’ is the Swahili word for unity, and is the first of the Seven Principles of Kwanzaa – an annual non-sectarian celebration of African American culture. Originally written for a woodwind quintet, Coleman was commissioned to arrange Umoja in an expanded version for full orchestra by the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2019. Comprising three contrasting sections, Coleman’s score overflows with invention and given its relative brevity of 12 minutes manages to be both engaging and beguiling – here given a heartfelt performance by New and her attentive musicians.

The final work on the programme was Barber’s exhilarating Symphony No. 1. At turns viscerally exciting, yet plaintive and inward looking when required, it reveals a wealth of musical maturity for a 26 year old. Composed in a single 20 minute movement, it bristles with thematic ideas and volatility as themes jostle for prominence throughout. New directed a no holds barred performance that clearly delineated musical lines, and she was rewarded with exemplary playing from all sections of the BBCSO. 

This was a hugely satisfying and enjoyable exploration of American music, conducted to perfection by New. Let’s hope she becomes a regular visitor, as the synergy between her and the players was palpable throughout the evening.

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BBC Symphony Orchestra review: Stars and Stripes forever