north east scotland's festival of new music

press reviews

University of Aberdeen Choral Society and Symphony Orchestra

Written by Alan Cooper


"Landmarks of American music" was this year's focus for the full scale choral and orchestral spectacular staged annually by Aberdeen University in the Music Hall. Gershwin, Bernstein and Morten Lauridsen were the three flagship composers with works spanning nearly a century, from the mid nineteen-twenties to the present day. It was Bernstein's Overture to Candide featuring the orchestra alone that opened the performance. Conductor Paul Mealor was certainly taking no prisoners when he launched this very difficult piece, alive with exciting but treacherous cross rhythms, at a spanking pace. The result was astonishingly impressive considering that this was a student orchestra. In my young days no Aberdeen orchestra and precious few professional ones could have even thought of tackling music such as this. They delivered a performance which encapsulated the full blooded spirit of Bernstein's incisive musical wit, his whiplash exclamations, yelping strings and sweeping principal melody; a fine bracing start to the programme.

Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue got off to a fabulous start with Fiona Johnston's clarinet freely and confidently pouring out the molten notes of what must be one of the most terrifying entries for any orchestral musician. There is no hiding place for this soloist who must, in a few bars, set the pace and define the mood of the entire work. The orchestra was on fine form throughout, generously delivering playing that felt comfortably at home with the half jazz, half classical accent that Gershwin was trying to work into a new American musical voice. There were one or two problems of balance between the soloist Iwan Llewellyn-Jones and the orchestra. There were places where we could have done with slightly less orchestra and a lot more piano. Perhaps a rather more relaxed pace would have helped and from the soloist a more judicious use of the sustain pedal.

If there were a few such problems in the first half, there were none at all when the music of Morten Lauridsen cast its redeeming spell over the entire performance. Lauridsen himself was present not only as judge and spectator but as performer too when he contributed the piano accompaniment to one of his most ravishingly beautiful pieces, Sure on this Shining Night. The starkly moving words of James Agee are given a unique radiance by Lauridsen's warm melodic charm and shining pastel shaded harmonies. Assistant conductor Thomas Henderson led the chorus in an uplifting performance that was surely a balm for any wounded soul - something that lies at the very core of Agee's own personal experience.

Paul Mealor was back to conduct choir and orchestra in another of Lauridsen's redemptive and healing works, Lux Aeterna. Harmonic complexities for the singers come across to the listener with remarkable straightforwardness and seeming simplicity. The gentleness of the Requiem, a sense of hope In Te, Domine, Speravi and above all a special radiance, Lux Aeterna, were all expressed by luminous singing in this performance while the orchestra provided delicate touches of colour whether in rich instrumental mixtures or with just the solo cello played by Ed Jones. Openness, gentleness and warm sympathy, the very best of the American character flow abundantly through this wondrous music.

  • published on 11 November 2010
  • written by Alan Cooper

Reproduced with permission of the author.

reviewed event
  Date Day Time Location Event Details
11Thu 7.30 pmAberdeenUniversity of Aberdeen Choral Society and Symphony Orchestra