Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra Short Ride in a Fast Machine 8th October 2023

Conductor: Clark Rundell
Pianist Joanna MacGregor

This all American programme began with A Short Ride in a Fast Machine. Familiar as it is from recordings, it doesn’t get too many live outings because of the huge forces it requires so it was a treat to hear it such an exhilarating concert opener. Played here with masses of rhythmic panache, Clark Rundell ensured that we all heard the excited terror which John Adams experienced when he went to the ride in his friend’s new Ferrari and got the idea for one of his best known pieces.

Personally I could do without the chat that MacGregor and Rundell treated us to before the concerto. We get too much of this on Radio 3 without having to endure it in concerts as well. Yes, I suppose it’s informative but we’ve all got (free) programme notes and I, for one, neither need nor want verbal entertainment as well.

The Piano Concerto in F is Gershwin showing us in 1925 that there were plenty more tools in the symphonic bag that had produced the previous year’s Rhapsody in Blue. Joanna MacGregor found smoky silkiness in the first movement as well as being every inch a “team player” in her support of other players – listening rapt, for example, to John Ellwood’s legato trumpet solo which opens the second movement before launching into her saucy little off-beat tune accompanied by pizz violins held horizontally. Yes, of course, it’s a piece full of moods and colours and this performance delivered them in spades. Moreover, it’s always a pleasure to watch MacGregor’s cool, slim-fingered elegance especially, on this occasion in the white heat of the third movement.

The second half began with smaller forces – strings with a wind quartet and one trumpet§§§ – to play Charles Ives’s The Unanswered Question which dates from 1908. It’s a pity that audience bangs and coughs spoiled the pianissimo opening but, unfazed, players maintained their sostenuto softeness for the whole six minutes with admirable control. The piece is almost a mini trumpet concerto and placing Elwood at the back of the gallery added a sense of otherworldliness.

Then came Leonard Bernstein’s The Symphonic Dances from West Side Story which guaranteed that everyone went home singing. Six percussionists plus timps – “Lenny” didn’t do things by halves did he? What an orchestrator he was. And here, in the fine acoustic of Brighton Dome, Rundell ensured that we heard and noticed, for instance, the horn solo in the first adagio picking up from the string quartet, supported by harp and then passing it to trumpet – all played with delicacy and warmth. A programme piece like this must be tremendous fun to play and BPO certainly seemed to be having a grand afternoon, their tone as rich as I’ve ever heard it. The enormous tuba mute was my favourite moment.

Susan Elkin