Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham
June 10 2022
Review: William Ruff
Plenty of pizzazz and high-octane power to end the 2021/22 Nottingham Classics season
There was an end-of-term feeling about the Hallé’s Friday night concert. The RCH was packed, not only with loyal regulars but also with promising numbers of young people who were trying out a classical concert for the first time. There were speeches celebrating a season that had triumphed (despite the post-pandemic odds) and much praise of both the Hallé (20 years of being Nottingham Classics’ resident orchestra) and the city’s ultra-enthusiastic audiences.
So there was excitement in the air even before the first note was played. And the choice of programme was hardly likely to calm things down. Just look at some of the ingredients: a cowboy shoot-out; gang warfare in New York; jaw-dropping virtuosity from one of the world’s most charismatic young musicians – and a white-knuckle ‘short ride’ in John Adams’ ‘fast machine’. It’s a good job that the audience got all the whooping and cheering out of their system before being released into Nottingham’s Friday night crowds – even though a bit of cheerful misbehaviour from classical music lovers might not have done their image any harm.
Veterans of the Hallé’s annual Christmas concert would have known well conductor Stephen Bell. He’s good at audience rapport and takes pizzazz in his stride. He was also in his element coaxing a wide range of glowing colours from his orchestra. At the beginning and end of Copland’s Billy the Kid ballet score they knew exactly how to convey the sense of space and isolation which frames the story of the famous outlaw who died at the age of 21 having killed one man for every year of his life. Copland isn’t afraid to quote old cowboy songs in his evocation of a frontier town’s street and saloon. And he doesn’t hold back when depicting the posse (led by Sherriff Pat Garrett) and the ensuing gun battle. The Hallé’s insistent drum rhythms, threatening muted trumpets and tense, high violins will long lodge in the memory.
There was plenty of urgent tension (as well as much beauty) in their playing of the Symphonic Dances from Bernstein’s West Side Story. They remind us of just how important dance is to the musical and how much it carries the story-line. With a vast array of percussion instruments added to the mix, Bernstein characterises the rival Puerto Rican and American gangs with different dance rhythms: mambos and cha-cha-chas and a huapango on one side, up-to-date cool jazz and rock ‘n’ roll on the other. The Hallé demonstrated that the score isn’t just vividly colourful: it’s full of subtle, soaring melody tightly integrated into the powerful, poignant narrative.
If ever anyone feels gloomy about the future of classical music, they only have to think of Jess Gillam, the star saxophonist who shot to fame as a 2016 BBC Young Musician finalist. Both pieces she played showcased her extraordinary virtuosity and charisma. John Harle wrote his Briggflatts for her, a jaw-dropping amalgam of tonal colour and exhilarating rhythm. The final section is called ‘Rant!’ in which impossibly fast dance tunes chase each other against a background of sonic images from Jess’s native Cumbria.
Equally dazzling was her performance of Escapades, the jazzy concerto which composer John Williams fashioned from his music for Steven Spielberg’s 2002 film Catch Me If You Can in which a high-octane Leonardo di Caprio plays a con-man pursued by FBI agent Tom Hanks. Set in the 1960s, the film’s sound world is that decade’s progressive jazz, something which Jess Gillam clearly identifies. Her rapport with the Hallé was seemingly telepathic, especially with vibraphone player Erica Öhman. The exuberant, supercharged ending to the final ‘Joy Ride’ was not only a breath-catching experience but also summed up a memorable concert, whetting 2000+ appetites for the autumn and another Nottingham Classics season.
Stephen Bell Conductor
Jess Gillam Saxophone