An American Evening

HARRY DADSWELL is impressed by the “Yankee swagger” of the CUMS Symphony Orchestra.

american andrew goldman Clare classical music concert review cums CUMS Symphony Orchestra Ewan Campbell George Gershwin Leonard Bernstein Porgy and Bess Samuel Barber symphony orchestra West Side Story william cole

CUMS Symphony Orchestra, Saturday 24th November

It all began in a mood of apprehension. A stooped and apologetic CUMS apparatchik announced that the conductor had been struck down by illness, and that William Cole, a music undergrad at Clare, had agreed to take his place on the podium at short notice. However, the self-assured performance that followed ensured that this mood was swiftly swept away.

The one exception to the American theme of the concert was the opening number, Requiem for hollow churches. This one-movement work by Ewan Campbell (Composer in Residence to CUMS) used unusual string bowing techniques, with endless downward slides reminiscent of the Doppler effect generating a highly tense, even nightmarish atmosphere.

One regret lay in the confusing programme notes written by the composer. In contrast to the suggestive title, these were an unnecessary addition. Spelling out sources of inspiration, in this case including the sound of high-heels on the floor of St Paul’s Cathedral and the flutter of pigeons in the Taj Mahal (a church?), can often distract the audience and limit their perceptions. Campbell would have done better to let his music speak for itself.

The soloist in Samuel Barber’s Piano Concerto, Andrew Goldman, had won his spot in a CUMS competition. He certainly proved himself worthy of this prize, dispatching this demanding work with the vigour and energy it needed. Although the violins failed to keep their tuning for some of this work’s lush romantic tunes, this improved for the gorgeous meandering lines of the second movement.

Things became more theatrical for the second half, with music from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess and Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, two of the greatest works of popular American classical music. The Symphonic Dances showcased CUMS at its best. Avoiding the gaudy and sentimental songs we all know (‘Tonight’, ‘America’, ‘I feel Pretty’ and the like), this orchestral arrangement took us through many of the darker episodes of West Side Story.

The musicians were clearly enjoying themselves in the Mambo, brought to a conclusion by suitably raucous trumpet solos. In fact, the brass section were splendid throughout, their confidence seemingly infecting the rest of the players. Whilst the music ended ominously, with the return of the carefree ‘Somewhere’ played over an unnervingly sinister bass note, the concert itself ended with a warm audience response, expressing its gratitude for a job well done. The programme demanded Yankee swagger, and CUMS had delivered this in buckets.