Opera + Classical Music Reviews

The Music of Eric Whitacre @ Royal Festival Hall, London

15 May 2019

Royal Festival Hall

Royal Festival Hall (Photo: Victor Frankowski)

When the Eric Whitacre show rolls into town, full houses are guaranteed, and Wednesday night was no exception. Some critics dislike Whitacre’s music for being too easy – but then, why should one not enjoy approachable and well-constructed music? He’s an affable presenter, and, like a child with a new toy, clearly enjoyed being able to command the City of London Choir and a Mahler-proportioned Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in a programme of his own works coupled with those of fellow Americans. It’s the ‘command’, though, that gave the ointment of the evening its constantly irritating fly. Whitacre’s boundless esprit, allied with his minimal, symmetrical choral-conducting style (that puts one in mind of pre-flight safety instructions) resulted in an over-enthusiastic orchestra with which the barely-100-strong chorus could not compete.

Bernstein’s overture to Candide suffered the least; Lenny knew what he was about with orchestration, and the change in mood and dynamic springs naturally from this, the piece really requiring only a competent delineation of tempo and some mood-sensitive players. Whitacre’s own October also came across well in this new arrangement, in which the strings (absent in its original concert-band scoring) added a layer of velvety pastorality, accentuating the warm wistfulness of the summer past and providing the edge (particularly in the sad little cello solo) of winter to come.

Copland’s Quiet City began life as a pit-ensemble piece, and though Copland re-worked it for trumpet, cor anglais and strings, it remains, really, a chamber work, its changing moods requiring a light touch to summon the loneliness of late-night city-dwellers. The strings of the RPO, however, were too massive and too lush to summon Copland’s melancholy urban landscape, conjuring the expansive panoramas of Bierstadt rather than the disturbing isolation of Hopper. The two soloists were somewhat challenged by all of this; Patrick Flanaghan’s deft cor anglais work frequently disappeared under the avalanche, while James Fountain compensated by keeping the trumpet volume rarely less than a sturdy and sadly un-nuanced mezzo forte.

Hearing Adams’ Short Ride in a Fast Machine and Whitacre’s Equus in the same programme was a bit of a treat. Both are essentially minimalist works full of movement and energy, with Whitacre’s added lyricism contrasting with Adams’ stark mechanistic drive – as befits the comparison of a gracefully galloping animal and a speeding roadster. Again, sadly, both pieces suffered from being too ‘full on’. The subtle variations in timbre in Short Ride require a little dynamic help, which they didn’t receive, and, while Equus was thrilling, the turbo-charged orchestra ensured that the chorus was only audible at their loudest.

Whitacre’s Lux Aurumque and Sleep were performed by chorus and orchestra, and, again, while the orchestra provided a richness of timbre beyond the usual a-cappella renderings, it subtracted more than it added. Words were generally inaudible over the opulent orchestral texture, and, given that it merely doubled the vocal lines, one was left wondering why the choir was necessary. His Songs of Immortality, though, written for choir, strings, harp and celeste, fared better, although the chorus seemed not to inhabit the piece, singing with a notes-before-dynamic nervous exactitude throughout.

“I wanted to write a really bad movie score” remarked Whitacre of Godzilla eats Las Vegas, and this he certainly did. It’s a 14-minute romp of delicious pastiche, featuring brief Sinatra-song quotes, a March of the Elvises (for which the chorus donned sunglasses), a regular appearance of the dun-dun-DAH! sting for the eponymous monster, and a 20th-Century-Fox intro. While this was absolutely the most outrageous and enjoyable piece of the evening, for the rest, the old dictum ‘less is more’ might bear repetition.

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