Music review: RSNO: City Noir

Edinburgh International Festival Scotsman review: RSNO: City Noir at Usher Hall, reviewed by Kenneth Walton

[Conductor Peter Oundjian and the RSNO in rehearsal]

From a programming angle, this was an evening of two disconnected halves. The grand finale, John Adams’ symphonic showpiece City Noir, lent its name to the overall title of the concert. But what did that, and the rest of the all-American second half – including Christopher Rouse’s The Infernal Machine and the premiere of Tod Machover’s Festival City – have in common with the Verdi and Bruch of the opening half?

There was nothing wrong with the RSNO’s emotionally-charged performance of Verdi’s overture La forza del destino, driven hard, fast and theatrically by its chief conductor Peter Oundjian. And, on its own merit, Bruch’s Violin Concerto should have charmed the pants off us had Pinchas Zukerman’s performance, despite the enormity of his tone, not been so unfeeling and impatient.

But all that was a distant memory the moment Oundjian launched into the second half with the high energy, nerve jangling effervescence of Rouse’s restlessly exciting concert piece.

Machover’s new work – a moody soundscape combining recorded audio bites of Edinburgh with bristling, atmospheric live orchestral impressions, and created from material submitted over the internet – was anything but gimmicky. Driven by an underlying drone, suggestive of bagpipes, its success lay in the composer’s ability to mesh the electronic elements in such a way that distinguishing them was often impossible – bird calls intertwining with flute, strings, pre-recorded children’s voices as real as the instruments on stage.

And there was humour in the melange of quotes – lightning snatches of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and more that came and went in an instant, intended to echo Festivals of the past. All in all, a slick occasional piece that drew you in from start to finish.

But the evening’s tour de force was surely Adam’s City Noir, a celebration of California inspired by the charged mood of the 1940s/50s. Oundjian’s reading of the score was both lustrous and lugubrious.

Originally published in The Scotsman