CENTENARIES are great for bringing out the forgotten curiosities of a major composer’s output. Earlier this year Glasgow was lucky enough to hear Leonard Bernstein’s Mass, part Godspell, part Ken Russell. Not a million miles away in this paradoxical populist high-art vein is Songfest, Bernstein’s gauche, in-your-face cycle of American poems for six singers and orchestra, the ultimate destination of Thursday’s season opener by the BBC SSO.
BBC SSO, City Halls, Glasgow ****
This was one of principal conductor Thomas Dausgaard’s stimulating Composer Roots programmes, establishing Bernstein’s debts to Copland and Gershwin and his very obvious influence on such American successors as Augusta Read Thomas.
There was a palpable start-of-term freshness to the opening half. Dausgaard seemed to stand back from the burnished brass and welter of percussion, allowing Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man to generate its own spine-tingling energy. The bullish swagger of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue bore similar self-generating momentum, much in response to pianist Marc-André Hamelin’s hard-nosed definition.
Thomas’ Brio certainly owes everything to Bernstein, from its West Side Story rhythms and timbres to its irreverent street rhetoric. There were rocky moments in an otherwise high-voltage performance.
Then the Bernstein, alluringly thuggish and eclectic, in which the solo singers – Tracy Cantin, Kelley O’Connor, Michèle Losier, Paul Appleby, Nmon Ford and Musa Ngqungwana – visibly revelled in the music’s theatrical flamboyance. Couldn’t hear the words, though. Surtitles would have helped.