With the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra bringing Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony to the National Concert Hall and Irish National Opera unveiling its production of Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann simultaneously in Dublin’s O’Reilly Theatre tomorrow evening, it can be safely said that the 2018/19 ‘classical’ season is well underway.
It actually began at the end of August with the NCH’s own International Concert Series and the first visit here of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Marin Alsop, its music director since 2007.
Ms Alsop is also principal conductor of the São Paulo Symphony, which she directed at the NCH five years ago and she was the first woman to conduct the BBC’s Last Night of the Proms in 2013.
As this is Leonard Bernstein’s centenary year – born Lawrence, Massachusetts on August 25, 1918 – it comes as no surprise to have his music dominating the Baltimore’s programme with suites from his musicals On the Town, which had its Broadway première in December 1944, and West Side Story, first seen on Broadway in September 1957.
Playing with enormous zest and vibrancy, the Baltimore’s performances are spectacular. With emblazoned brass, piping woodwind, gutsy strings and palpitating percussion, the visiting musicians, including Bernstein-protégé Marin Alsop, are obviously having a ball.
A little more serious perhaps is Bernstein’s Serenade. Written in 1954 and dealing with various aspects of love, it is really a five-movement violin concerto in all but name. The beguiling Scottish soloist is the enchanting Nicola Benedetti.
One of Bernstein’s own favourite pieces, the Serenade has contrasting poetic and dramatic moments as well as hints of West Side Story to follow but I find a little of its meandering lines goes a long way. Despite the undoubted commitment of all concerned, I breathe a sigh of relief on its conclusion. However, the BSO departs in a blaze of instrumental glory through Bernstein’s extrovert Candide overture.
Under the baton of French conductor Stéphane Denève, the same encore ends the Colburn Orchestra’s earlier concert. The flagship ensemble of the Colburn Conservatory of Music in Los Angeles, its debut programme at the NCH in fact presents more substance than that of its Maryland kinsfolk.
The 90-plus Californian group opens with a sparkling contemporary piece – Nyx by Helsinki-born former conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Dating from 2011 and abounding in constantly changing textures and moods, Nyx finds the Colburn band taking the complex score in its stride.
A late-romantic note is struck with Barber’s Violin Concerto and Rakhmaninov’s Symphonic Dances. Former Colburn pupil, 22-year-old Simone Porter plays the mainly lyrical concerto beautifully. With seamless phrasing and sensitive depth of feeling, Ms Porter’s interpretation suits Barber’s writing perfectly.
The Colburn musicians rise to the demands of Rakhmaninov’s virtuosic masterpiece with unfailing panache. With richness in the quality of their corporate sound, Maestro Denève draws every strand of instrumental colour from his young, but perceptively mature, players. Rakhmaninov wrote “I thank thee, Lord” at the end of his score and, deeply satisfied, I came away from the NCH murmuring the same grateful prayer.