BBC SSO/Wilson

City Halls, Glasgow

Keith Bruce

four stars

WITH one of those serendipitous coincidences that are a delight of following the arts in Scotland, Thursday afternoon’s concert by the BBC Scottish was sandwiched between performances of Leonard Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti by post-graduate students at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and featured the composer’s Three Dance Episodes from “On the Town”, preceding Samuel Barber’s Knoxville, the text of which, by James Agee, may well have influenced Bernstein’s libretto for the opera.

It was sung here by Elizabeth Reiter, an American soprano plying her trade in Germany and the possessor of a very distinctive voice with broad vibrato which she deployed to dynamic effect on a piece that starts and ends with a beautiful show-tune melody but also incorporates some challenging bold intervals for the singer. The winds walk most of the way with the soloist, and the SSO’s flute, cor anglais and clarinet were perfectly-poised companions.

The Bernstein is surely the best big band music for symphony orchestra in the book, and there was the crispest brass playing from the start here, Mark O’Keeffe on his usual classy form on muted trumpet for the clarinet-underscored Lonely Town, and finally some long-stride walking bass below the sax and trombones for Times Square.

This music is core repertoire for John Wilson, whose final concert as the SSO’s associate guest conductor this was, and whose reputation was established by his performances of Broadway and Holywood music with his own orchestra. It was a continuation of his thoughtful, broader practice during his three years under contract with this orchestra to follow those works with the Third Symphony of Rachmaninov. Following the success of his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, it was the first symphony the exiled Russian composed for an American orchestra and premiered, in the decade before the works in the first half, by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski.

There was a Hollywood sheen to the string-playing here, and lovely solo work from orchestra leader Laura Samuel as well as from guest first horn Lisa Maria Cooper. The brass again had the last word in the brilliant, sparkling final bars.