Conductor: Michael England
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
It’s Friday, 4th July and time for another in the CBSO’s concert series, Friday Night Classics. As conductor Michael England points out, the date cries out for a celebration of American music, but how to choose? This concert focuses on the East Coast, and New York in particular with music by those titans of 20th Century American music, George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein. Ironically, of course, neither of these men was actually born American, but they each made huge contributions to the music of the nation. Their music, once so ground-breaking, is now familiar; nevertheless, it still has the capacity to captivate modern audiences in its construction and sublime beauty.
The first half is dedicated to Gershwin and covers his whole range, from his first big hit, ‘Swanee’, to the sultry ‘Summertime’. And, of course, no tribute to Gershwin could possibly be complete without ‘Rhapsody in Blue’. A joyous medley, including ‘Strike Up the Band’, S’Wonderful, ‘I Got Rhythm’ and ‘Fascinatin’ Rhythm’ introduces the trio of singers: Leila Benn Harris, Caroline Sheen and Norman Bowman. Unfortunately, at this performance, despite using microphones, the singers’ voices had a tendency to get lost, especially when the full orchestra was playing behind them.
The first singer to shine is Benn Harris with ‘Summertime’. Her crisp soprano voice really hits the spot, with hints of fragility and brittleness. Nevertheless, she gives a pitch perfect performance of this number, her voice soaring effortlessly to the final few high notes. Following her is the smooth Bowman with ‘I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise’. His voice is more mellow and suited to musical theatre, which is indeed his main area of expertise. Then we meet Sheen with the longing ‘I’ve Got A Crush On You’. Throughout the concert, Sheen is flirtatious, even coquettish, imbuing the lyrics with meaning, for example with ‘The Man I Love’. Ben Harris and Bowman show a twinkle in their eyes with ‘Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off’, before the Steinway Grand is rolled on for piano soloist Victor Sangiorgio and the incomparable ‘Rhapsody in Blue’. This epic piece includes rhythms inspired by New York’s subway and plays with the emotions. Sangiorgio makes the complex fingering appear easy and the whole is a triumph.
Throughout this first half, one is struck by the physicality of conductor, England, a well-established West End conductor and musical director, with such shows as The Pajama Game, Les Misérables, The Phantom of the Opera and The Producers under his belt. England conducts with his entire body, signalling staccato areas and their transitions to smooth melodious sections with ease. This is very evident in, for example, the musical joke, ‘Walking the Dog’ from Shall We Dance?
After the interval, it is Bernstein’s chance in the limelight. Perhaps predictably, a selection from West Side Story opens this half. The powerful and energetic ‘Mambo’ opens, followed by the delicate ‘Balcony Scene’. To get the required delicacy at the opening, England dispenses with his baton, using his hands to draw the haunting melody from the orchestra before Benn Harris and Newman sing as Tony and Maria. An achingly beautiful rendition from each leaving the audience briefly silent before bursting into applause. By contrast, Sheen and Bell Harris perform the sharp, angry ‘A Boy Like That’ with fire and anguish, Sheen’s Anita at first coldly reprimanding then pleading, finally accepting. Benn Harris again shows off her vocal range with soaring high notes. Sheen is again flirtatious with ‘I Can Cook Too’ from On The Town, while Newman’s rendition of ‘Lonely Town’ is poignant. The finale, ‘New York, New York’ allows all three singers to show off their voices, although again, they were on this occasion sometimes lost in the grandeur of the CBSO’s sound.
A superb night of music from two of the greats of American music.
Reviewed on: 4th July