The Detroit Symphony Orchestra appeared at the Festival Hall as part of a European tour. In their programme profile they are described as being 'the most listened-to orchestra in the United States', thanks to the General Motors' 'Mark of Excellence' radio series (although nobody surely would pretend the Detroiters are in the major league of US orchestras). They brought a wide-ranging programme with them which, on paper, appeared to offer a stimulating listening experience.
Beginning the concert with Michael Daugherty's Rosa Parks Boulevard (part of the MotorCity Triptych) certainly must have presented a challenge. Daugherty is the orchestra's present Composer-in-Residence (he is also professor of composition at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor). His music, which frequently takes modern icons as a source of inspiration (Elvis Presley, Liberace, Sinatra, Jackie Onassis etc), has never really taken off this side of the pond. A performance in London several years ago of the Metropolis Symphony (1988-93) revealed a composer with a keen ear for effective orchestration, but precious little else: the Metropolis Symphony suffered from being over-long for its own materials. Rosa Parks Boulevard, from MotorCity Triptych (2000, commissioned by this orchestra to celebrate the 300th birthday of the City of Detroit), although shorter than Metropolis, similarly demonstrated Daugherty's over-reliance on gesture and left a similarly empty impression. Rosa Parks is a woman who helped set in motion the modern civil right's movement and, for the composer, she represents 'the willingness to challenge boundaries and cross over them'. Presumably this cross-refers to Daugherty's inclusion of drum-breaks and bluesy solo trombones (there are three of them), and the occurrence of fragments of the Spiritual Oh Freedom alongside what he calls a 'turbulent bus ride, evoked by atonal polyrhythms'. Like Metropolis Symphony, this is shallow music, as easily forgotten as it is dismissed.
Beethoven's 'Emperor' Concerto provided more of a challenge to the listener. The soloist was Lars Vogt, an EMI artist who has recorded several discs, including the first two Beethoven Piano Concertos with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under Rattle and an all-Brahms disc. When I heard the Brahms disc, I suspected the thin piano tone to be due to the recording's origins with a radio station. Vogt's sound is, however, also brittle in the flesh (only once, in the first movement, did his chords carry real weight). His scales are of the highest calibre, as are his even trills, but his refusal to let the music breathe did the performance no favours. After bright, clearly articulated initial flourishes from Vogt, the orchestra sounded on the surface of this work, and that is where they remained throughout. The balance was curious: despite the presence of eight cellos and six double basses, it still sounded bass-light. Subtlety from both soloist and orchestra was at a low in the (usually) magical slow movement, especially from the wind section. The transition to the finale was, amazingly, robbed of its heart-stopping magic, whilst the final movement itself was distinctly low-voltage. A disappointing end to a disappointing first half.
Pärt's Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten (1977) is a short, hypnotic and powerful reaction to the death of Britten scored for strings and chime. In many ways this was the most successful item of the evening, its haunting atmosphere sustained throughout. The orchestra let its hair down more in Rachmaninov's Symphonic Dances Op. 45. Again, though, more characterful wind contributions would have enhanced the effect, as would more depth to the orchestral sound and more forceful tuttis when required. The shadowy Waltz (the second movement) was the most successful.
Impressions left by this orchestra, it has to be said, were not great and the programme emerged as neither as challenging nor as rewarding as one might have hoped.