Festival Music


Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Keith Bruce

Three stars

THE first appearance of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra at the 75th Edinburgh International Festival was titled “Wayne Marshall Plays Gershwin”, but that was only half true.

Not only was much of the programme chosen by the SCO’s guest director not by George Gershwin at all, but Marshall’s way with the composer’s music was very much his own.

This was a vastly augmented chamber orchestra, with three saxophones and a number of RSNO players in the ranks – notably principal clarinet Timothy Orpen, who had the bravura opening glissando of Rhapsody in Blue that began the programme. Marshall’s way with Gershwin’s best-known orchestral work was not as radical as Tommy Smith’s with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra and pianist Brian Kellock, but he nonetheless carved very much his own path.

It was the only part of the night where the guest conductor – who was music director of last year’s A Grand Night for Singing concert – sat at the piano as soloist. Clearly much of the audience enjoyed his long improvised cadenzas, and they were perhaps in the spirit of Gershwin’s own performances, but they sounded a little formless to me, and in a no-man’s land between “classical” and jazz.

For the rest of the evening Marshall was conductor only, with Scotland’s own Paul Harrison sitting at another Steinway behind the harps, and playing very well indeed. His contributions to the suite of music a young Leonard Bernstein wrote for choreographer Jerome Robbins were a highlight. Fancy Free would eventually metamorphose into the film On The Town, and is the start of Bernstein the composer as we know him.

That is also true of Aaron Copland’s El Salon Mexico, now rarely played, but the work that first drew him to popular attention, and was followed a few years later by the ballet score Billy the Kid. It also set a template, in the use of folk themes, with which the composer would find fame.

All fascinating stuff, but a little four-square under Marshall’s baton. There was lack of swing in the Bernstein and the Latin-American rhythms of the Copland seemed a long way from the dancefloor.

We were back with Gershwin for the final piece, but in the shape of the divisive Porgy and Bess: A Symphonic Picture. Robert Russell Bennett’s arrangement of music from the opera, made five years after Gershwin’s death to a commission from Fritz Reiner, contains some of the famous tunes, but not enough of them, and in a style that is also some distance from the score’s jazzy feel.

What many will remember of the evening, however, came right at the end, when Marshall climbed to the manuals of the Usher Hall organ to give an encore of variations on Gershwin’s I Got Rhythm which made ample use of the massive instrument’s mighty power.