mon 04/12/2023

Currie, BBC Philharmonic, Mena, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester | reviews, news & interviews

Currie, BBC Philharmonic, Mena, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester

Currie, BBC Philharmonic, Mena, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester

Manchester team relishes Hispano-Latin sounds alongside a percussion tour de force

Percussionist Colin Currie: "hopping between four set-ups and a dozen instruments"

It was ironic, yet seasonal, that the BBC Philharmonic’s conductor-composer H K Gruber, who is said to be a descendant of the man who wrote “Silent Night” (Franz Xaver Gruber), should take centre stage with a rip-roaring, roof-raising percussion work that guaranteed exactly the opposite effect. At the same time Chief Conductor Juanjo Mena went back to his roots to bring us a riot of dance music – flamenco, waltz, Latin American, Malambo, Charleston and even a cowboy ballet.

Mena started with the Spanish influence in the form of Joaquĭn Turina’s Ritmos, a fantasia coreográfica originally written for piano but orchestrated for flamenco dancer Antonia Mercé, La Argentina, who was never to perform it. A friend of fellow Andalusian Manuel de Falla, Turina presents a gradual journey from darkness into light in six short dances from a slow rhythmic dance to an upbeat finish. Mena (pictured below right by Sussie Ahlburg), a noted interpreter of Falla, was in his element.

As for Gruber, we were due to have had a new concerto (enigmatically entitled “into the open…”) performed by his fellow Austrian Martin Grubinger. The soloist withdrew, however, and the impressive Scottish percussionist Colin Currie stepped in at short notice to play Gruber’s Rough Music, a piece which “combines allusions to medieval rituals and the rhythmic serialism of Alban Berg” – some combination.

It opens with the solo xylophone, establishing the percussionist as leader of the band and giving him plenty of scope for improvisation, tuned and untuned. Gradually the orchestra comes into line. Two of the three movements are abstract, but in contrast the third is focused on bringing the whole work to a shattering conclusion. Yet it opens with a deceptively slow waltz on the xylophone, described by Gruber as a ghostly outline of Eric Satie’s waltz song "Je te veux". But what develops is a violent and brutal finale.

Currie showed an authoritative brilliance and exceptional ability to use the full battery at his disposal, hopping between four set-ups and a dozen instruments strung across the front of the platform, from vibraphone to timpani, which proved fascinating visually as well as aurally. He has at the same time both the lightest and the most aggressive touch: watch out for his series of solo recitals at the Wigmore Hall next April.

After that, we had two works recalling the opening of the Bridgewater Hall in 1996, one specially commissioned for that occasion, Thomas Adès's orchestral fanfare These Premises Are Alarmed. In a mere four minutes, Adès exposes the orchestra to a wide range of expression in every section, as if to test the effectiveness of the hall’s acoustics.

The other piece was John Adams’ Slonimsky’s Earbox, premiered here in its time by the Hallé under Kent Nagano with the composer on hand. Reflecting Stravinsky’s Song of the Nightingale, it is a tribute to Adams’s friend, the Russian-American composer Nicolas Slonimsky, “a man of wit and hyper-energy”. Certainly, the hyper-energy came across here, with stamina-sapping, sustained, frenetic string playing. Mena, a calm constant at the centre of the storm, conducted with precision and panache.

the whole of the ballet is colourful, inventive, challenging to play and exhilarating to hear

It was that sort of night. To end it, we had Estancia, a half-hour one-act “cowboy ballet” by Alberto Ginastera, inspired by his native Argentinian gauchesco tradition, bareback riders and all. In five scenes, divided into 12 episodes and punctuated by short narratives, spoken or sung, Ginastera captures the changing times in a day on the pampas. And he tells the story of a city-dweller who tries to win his spurs, the rodeo and a cowgirl by testing himself against the gauchos.

Ginastera’s rodeo music is terrific, written a year before Copland, who influenced him, composed his famous Rodeo. But the whole of the ballet is colourful, inventive, challenging to play and exhilarating to hear. Mena directed it with unfailing energy at the end of a busy night and the orchestra responded superbly. The Spanish baritone Alfredo Garcĭa was an effective narrator.

All credit to the Phil: this was an imaginative, action-packed, exhausting, but thoroughly engaging and enlightening programme.

Currie showed an authoritative brilliance and exceptional ability to use the full battery at his disposal


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters