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Whilst we are unable to come together with audiences at our Barbican home, we are pleased to continue releasing a programme of online content and streamed broadcasts, making music available for everyone to enjoy digitally in the coming weeks. A warm welcome to the numerous conductors and soloists joining us, among them many firm friends and regular collaborators with the Orchestra. We are delighted also to welcome back members of our family of conductors.
It is a pleasure to invite you to watch and listen today online, and we extend thanks to our broadcast partner Marquee TV for streaming this concert. I hope you enjoy the performance, and look forward to welcoming you back in person when we are able to re-open our doors.
In this concert, John Wilson takes personal favourites by Gershwin, Ravel and Richard Rodney Bennett, and presents them in glorious sonic Technicolor.
Everyone knows that no one – but no one – conducts Gershwin with more verve and style than John Wilson. But today he gets even more personal, with joyous, multicoloured showpieces by two composers close to his heart: Ravel's Valses nobles et sentimentales, and Richard Rodney Bennett’s brilliant Partita.
For some, Richard Rodney Bennett was the composer who did Four Weddings and a Funeral; for others, he was one of the finest jazz pianists of our time. But for Wilson, he was a friend, an inspiration, and ‘an absolute master’.
Thursday 8 April 2021
Bennett, Ravel and Gershwin
Richard Rodney Bennett Partita for orchestra
Ravel Valses nobles et sentimentales
Gershwin arr Robert Russell Bennett Porgy and Bess – A Symphonic Picture
John Wilson conductor
London Symphony Orchestra
This performance is broadcast on Marquee TV. Available to watch for free for seven days from Thursday 8 April 2021, then on demand with a subscription.
Recorded at LSO St Luke's on 11 March 2021 in COVID-19 secure conditions.
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Richard Rodney Bennett
Partita for orchestra
✒️1995 | ⏰17 minutes
1 Intrada: Allegro giocoso
2 Lullaby: Andante con moto – Poco meno mosso
3 Finale: Vivace e giocoso
The more Richard Rodney Bennett interacted with the audiences who heard his music, the more that music changed. Over time, the composer became convinced that his love of melody didn’t have to be confined to his work in jazz, song and film music. He believed that concert audiences wanted to hear those things, too.
Bennett was determined that his Partita, commissioned by British Telecom in 1995, should be ‘full of tunes’. The piece formed part of what The Guardian has described as the ‘irresistible flowering of [Bennett’s] melodic and harmonic language.’ Bennett himself described the Partita as ‘a lively and I hope very accessible piece’.
The word ‘Partita’ implies nothing more than ‘a score’. In this case, it is a score in three movements for a relatively light-sounding orchestra of the size Mozart would have recognised, but with added harp.
There are solos for individual string and wind instruments throughout the piece, which lend it a conversational quality and conjure up the spirit of the witty, outgoing person it commemorated: the music publisher Sheila MacCrindle, who died in 1993. ‘She was a hilariously funny and eccentric person,’ recalled Bennett in his own programme note.
After an incisive opening, the first movement features wide spanning tunes, fluid rhythms and plenty of instrumental colour – all typical of Bennett. The lullaby of the second movement arrives on a tune first heard on the horn, but only after a solemn introduction featuring an elegiac solo for the viola. The horn theme, as well as the movement’s postlude, carries something of the hopeful spirit of Bennett’s adopted America. The finale is full of bustle, the most overt reflection of MacCrindle’s personality. Its main tune is another built of wide leaps, but plenty more themes emerge and jostle endearingly for attention.
After its 1995 premiere, given by London’s Philharmonia Orchestra in 1995, the Partita was performed by 16 other orchestras around Britain in the space of seven months – just as BT’s commission had stipulated.
Note by Andrew Mellor
Sir Richard Rodney Bennett
1936 (UK) – 2012 (US)
Richard Rodney Bennett led multiple musical lives. He grew up in Kent and Devon, learning to play the piano by ear. At the age of 19 he had written his first movie score and within another two years was in Paris learning the ways of Total Serialism with Pierre Boulez – one of the most hardcore branches of the musical avant-garde that existed.
Bennett would later tour as a singer and cabaret artist, write full-length operas and symphonies, give the British premiere of a Boulez piano work, become the talked-about foyer pianist of the Algonquin hotel in his adopted New York, and write the music for films from Far from the Madding Crowd to Four Weddings and a Funeral.
The critical establishment struggled with Bennett, wrong-footed by what it saw as musical dabbling and confused by his conflicting musical genealogy. Bennett’s musical triumph was to rise above such notions, convincing himself that no real barriers existed between the avant-garde that so fascinated him and the emotionally honest, easy lyricism that was his natural voice.
The concert music that Bennett continued to write throughout his career combined modernist rigour, lyrical beauty and a level of refined craftsmanship on which the composer prided himself. It includes overtures, cantatas, concertos for guitar, piano and saxophone and occasional pieces that uncannily accommodate the worlds of jazz, serialism and classical form in a very personal style. Above all, Bennett wanted his music to speak to his audience.
Composer profile by Andrew Mellor
Valses nobles et sentimentales
✒️1911, orch 1912 | ⏰16 minutes
1 Modéré – très franc
2 Assez lent – avec une expression intense
4 Assez animé
5 Presque lent – dans un sentiment intime
7 Moins vif
8 Épilogue: lent
Ravel originally conceived Valses nobles et sentimentales for solo piano. The title pays homage to Schubert, who composed collections of Valses sentimentales and Valses nobles in his final years. The piano edition opens with a quotation from the Symbolist poet Henri de Régnier: ‘le plaisir délicieux et toujours nouveau d’une occupation inutile’ (the delicious and forever-new pleasure of a useless occupation). The piano version was first performed on 8 May 1911 in a concert of new works organized by the Société musicale indépendante. None of the composers’ names were listed, and the audience had to guess who had written each piece. The astringent harmonies of the Valses prompted them to suggest Satie, Koechlin and Kodály among others – very few guessed Ravel.
In 1912, Ravel orchestrated the piece to create a ballet, Adélaïde, ou le langage des fleurs, for the Russian dancer Natalia Trouhanova. Although the premiere on 22 April 1912 at the Théâtre du Châtelet – in a programme that also featured Dukas’ La Péri – was well-received, the work’s long-term success in its orchestrated version has been as a concert piece.
The eight waltzes highlight Ravel’s skill and inventiveness as an orchestrator. Striking features include the delicate flute and harp solos in the second waltz, the prominence of the clarinets and melancholy cor anglais in the fifth, the playful cross-rhythms in the sixth waltz, and the climactic passages for full orchestra in waltz number seven, which seem to anticipate Ravel’s later La Valse (1920). The Épilogue contains many reminiscences of earlier themes, closing the work in a wistful, contemplative mood.
Note by Kate Hopkins
Although born in the rural Basque village of Ciboure, Ravel was raised in Paris. First-rate piano lessons and instruction in harmony and counterpoint ensured that the boy was accepted as a preparatory piano student at the Paris Conservatoire in 1889. As a full-time student, Ravel explored a wide variety of new music and forged a close friendship with the Spanish pianist Ricardo Viñes. Both men were introduced in 1893 to Chabrier, who Ravel regarded as ‘the most profoundly personal, the most French of our composers’. Ravel also met and was influenced by Erik Satie around this time.
In the decade following his graduation in 1895, Ravel scored a notable hit with the Pavane pour une infante défunte for piano (later orchestrated). Even so his works were rejected several times by the backward-looking judges of the Prix de Rome for not satisfying the demands of academic counterpoint. In the early years of the 20th century he completed many outstanding works, including the evocative Miroirs for piano, and his first opera, L’heure espagnole.
In 1909 Ravel was invited to write a large-scale work for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, completing the score to Daphnis and Chloë three years later. At this time he also met Igor Stravinsky and first heard the Expressionist works of Arnold Schoenberg. During World War I, he enlisted with the motor transport corps, and returned to composition slowly after 1918, completing La valse for Diaghilev and beginning work on his second opera, L’enfant et les sortilèges.
From 1932 until his death, he suffered from the progressive effects of Pick’s Disease and was unable to compose. His emotional expression is most powerful in his imaginative interpretations of the unaffected worlds of childhood and animals, and in exotic tales such as the Greek lovers Daphnis and Chloë. Spain also influenced the composer’s creative personality, his mother’s Basque inheritance strongly reflected in a wide variety of works, together with his liking for the formal elegance of 18th-century French art and music.
Composer profile by Andrew Stewart
Gershwin arr Robert Russell Bennett
Porgy and Bess – A Symphonic Picture
✒️1935 arr 1942 | ⏰24 minutes
Gershwin was at the peak of his fame as a composer for Broadway when, in 1926, he read DuBose Heyward’s new novel Porgy. It tells of a tight-knit slum community struggling on the fictional Catfish Row, imagined on one of the islands of South Carolina. Porgy, a disabled black man, fights to survive and to be with his beloved, Bess.
Bess is plagued by illness and harassed by the local dope peddler Sportin’ Life. When Porgy is arrested on suspicion of a crime he didn’t commit, Sportin’ Life takes his chance, heading for New York to work as a pimp and taking Bess with him. But Porgy is released. In the opera’s closing seconds, with a sense of blind optimism that makes his character so easy to adore, he sets off to New York to rescue his Bess.
After a summer spent with Heyward among the islands of South Carolina, Gershwin started work on his operatic take on the story, Porgy and Bess, in 1934. The extended title had intended resonance. Gershwin wanted his score to become the great American opera, his nation’s answer to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. It would have the usual operatic apparatus of recitative (a form of speech-song), arias, ensembles, choruses and even leitmotifs – tunes or gestures used as dramatic signals. And yet, Porgy and Bess would be entirely different: a folk opera inspired by the musical style and sensibilities of the communities Gershwin sang and danced with in South Carolina.
At the heart of the score are enchanting, evocative melodies whose straightforwardness often conceals their ambiguities. They are as varied as they are spontaneous and fresh, while the musical drama they plot presents a respectful, heartfelt and fearlessly tragic view of the African American experience.
In 1941, the conductor Fritz Reiner commissioned the doyenne of Broadway arrangers, Robert Russell Bennett (all too easily confused with Richard Rodney Bennett), to fashion an orchestral journey through Porgy’s main tunes. Bennett, a former assistant to Gershwin, delivered Porgy and Bess: A Symphonic Picture.
The scene-setting music references bustle and danger of Catfish Row, as well as the community’s genial picnic on Kittiwah Island. But mostly, we hear songs without voices: ‘Summertime’, ‘I Got Plenty o’ Nothin’ (with the distinctive sound of the banjo) and the love song ‘Bess, You Is My Woman Now’. Before Porgy’s final declaration of ‘I’m On My Way’ (to New York), we hear the swaggering Sportin’ Life in his songs ‘There’s A Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York’ and ‘It Ain’t Necessarily So’.
Note by Andrew Mellor
George Gershwin was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1898. He first started playing the family upright-piano of his own accord at the age of eleven, trying to imitate the sounds of the pop music he heard on the radio. He amazed his family with his natural musicality and rapid technical progress. Soon he commenced formal lessons with the renowned concert pianist Charles Hambitzer, who taught Gershwin the fundamentals of conventional piano technique and introduced him to a wide range of European classical music.
At the age of 15 Gershwin dropped out of school and found his first job as a so-called ‘song-plugger’ for a publishing house on New York’s Tin Pan Alley. He penned his first great success in 1919 when his song Swanee was picked by popular Broadway actor Al Johnson for inclusion in his hit play Sinbad. Swanee would become Gershwin’s greatest hit, selling an estimated two million records and over a million copies of sheet music. The generous royalties he made from Swanee allowed him to focus his creative energy on concert, theatre and film work.
In 1924 Gershwin composed Rhapsody in Blue, a ground-breaking concert work for solo piano and jazz orchestra that succeeded in combining the disparate worlds of classical and jazz. The work was an instant and enduring success, establishing Gershwin as a significant musical voice. Following the success of Rhapsody in Blue, Gershwin travelled to Paris where he applied to study with several prominent tutors including Nadia Boulanger and Ravel who famously rejected him saying: ‘Why become a second-rate Ravel when you're already a first-rate Gershwin?’
Throughout his life Gershwin’s compositional output was prolific, encompassing a broad range of styles and genres. His classical works include a number of orchestral works, a folk-opera Porgy and Bess (1935), four concertante works for piano and orchestra, and a vast collection of solo piano and chamber music. In addition to his classical work Gershwin penned 16 Broadway musicals, five film scores and hundreds of pop singles and jazz standards. His legacy has been enduring, today he is one of the most widely performed American composers.
Composer profile by Benjamin Picard
John Wilson is in demand at the highest level across the globe, working with some of the finest orchestras and opera houses. In the UK, he performs regularly at festivals such as Aldeburgh, Glyndebourne and the BBC Proms with orchestras such as the LSO, London Philharmonic, BBC Scottish Symphony and City of Birmingham Symphony. Elsewhere, he has conducted the Royal Concertgebouw, Budapest Festival, Swedish Radio Symphony, Oslo Philharmonic and Sydney Symphony orchestras amongst others. Recent and future highlights include his debut with the Bavarian Radio Symphony, Danish National Symphony, Royal Stockholm Philharmonic and Basel Symphony orchestras and his return engagements include DSO Berlin, BBC Philharmonic and Philharmonia Orchestra.
Wilson made his opera debut in 2016 conducting Puccini's Madame Butterfly on Glyndebourne's autumn tour and has since conducted Gershwin's Porgy and Bess at the English National Opera and returned to Glyndebourne to conduct Massenet's Cendrillon. He will make his debut at the Metropolitan Opera, New York City, in a future season.
Wilson has a large and varied discography which includes a series of discs with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra exploring the works of Richard Rodney Bennett, with the BBC Philharmonic devoted to the symphonic works of Aaron Copland, and numerous recordings with the John Wilson Orchestra. In 2019 Chandos released Wilson’s first recording with the Sinfonia of London which featured Korngold’s Symphony in F Sharp, followed by a highly praised French album and his latest release with the orchestra, the Respighi Roman Trilogy, which reached Number 1 in the UK Classical Charts in August 2020.
Born in Gateshead, Wilson studied composition and conducting at the Royal College of Music, where in 2011 he was made a Fellow. In 1994, he formed his own orchestra, the John Wilson Orchestra, dedicated to performing music from the golden age of Hollywood and Broadway, and with whom he has appeared regularly across the UK. In March 2019, John Wilson was awarded the prestigious ISM Distinguished Musician Award for his services to music.
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© Mark Allen
© Mark Allen