sat 07/12/2019

Edinburgh Festival 2018 review: Benedetti, Baltimore SO, Alsop - puzzlingly tame | reviews, news & interviews

Edinburgh Festival 2018 review: Benedetti, Baltimore SO, Alsop - puzzlingly tame

Edinburgh Festival 2018 review: Benedetti, Baltimore SO, Alsop - puzzlingly tame

The International Festival's big Bernstein bash was a strangely polite affair

Marin Alsop: pressing ever onwards in propulsive but slightly unyielding Bernstein

The Edinburgh International Festival scored quite a coup in securing the services of Bernstein protégée Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra on the very day of the great composer/conductor’s centenary – and for the festival’s penultimate concert of 2018. And with local legend Nicola Benedetti as violin soloist, there was an understandably expectant, almost carnival atmosphere in the packed Usher Hall. What we got, however, was a concert that was far more restrained – at times puzzlingly so – but more thoughtful, too.

The most fun of the evening came in the form of four miniature birthday tributes to Bernstein, which had never been played, Alsop informed us, since their premieres in 1988 for his 70th birthday celebrations in Tanglewood. With their tongues firmly in their cheeks, Luciano Berio and Johns Corigliano and Williams offered witty variations on “New York, New York” from On the Town (Corigliano mischievously confused it with the more famous Sinatra song of the same name), and Toru Takemitsu came up with a far more reflective, sumptuously scored 90 seconds. Alsop and the Baltimore players seemed in their element, in performances that crackled with vim and vigour, rising to the composers’ Technicolor-style imaginings magnificently, and wallowing idiomatically in Takemitsu’s Debussy-meets-Messiaen harmonic richness.

Nicola BenedettiThe Bernstein Serenade that followed, however, was a far more sober affair, and soloist Benedetti (pictured left, photo by Simon Fowler) took a couple of movements to fully settle into the piquant, unconventional characters of its five movements: her double-stopped theme in the “Aristophanes” movement seemed strangely effortful, for instance, though she attacked the dance-like, Stravinskian figurations in its “Socrates: Alcibiades” finale splendidly. The Baltimore strings, however, seemed rather soft-edged and polite in their accompaniments: where was the grit, the rawness, the strong definition to carve out Bernstein’s crisp, clipped rhythms? Alsop ensured it was delivered with smoothness and glowing confidence, but it could have done with a little more spontaneity and – well, danger.

That sense continued in a surprisingly gentle, even tame Symphonic Dances from West Side Story immediately after the interval. The Baltimore band had a brightly coloured swagger to their playing, which the piece showed off to marvellous effect – along with memorable contributions from saxophone, drumkit and, of course, orchestra-wide finger-clicks. But Alsop seemed to skate over some of the dramatic opportunities that the music offers, pressing ever onwards in a propulsive but slightly unyielding account – one that, as a result, felt strangely unmoving. The Three Dance Episodes from On the Town that completed the programme felt similarly well-behaved.

In the end, it fell to the concert’s bright, blistering encore – the overture from Bernstein’s Candide – to raise the roof. It’s clearly a piece the orchestra knows inside out, and they played it with abandon. All in all, it was an evening of joyful celebration, but one that was perhaps rather too polite for Bernstein’s mercurial humour and uncommon intensity.

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