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Philharmonia, Marin Alsop, Royal Festival Hall (Susan Elkin reviews)

19 Ocober 2023

Well if you wanted the cobwebs blown away, this all American programme,  part of a series entitled Let Freedom Ring, would certainly do the trick. Freedom dominated the evening at every level. The repertoire was a long way from Mozart and Brahms, we watched/listened to the Philharmonia play syncopated jazz rhythms till the whole hall bounced and there was the wondrous joy of a soloist who is both black and blind.

Marin Alsop is beginning a new collaboration with the Philharmonia to develop some different and innovative projects. This concert was a resounding start and encouraging too because the Royal Festival Hall was fuller than I’ve seen it in quite a while.

We began with a Symphonic poem by James P Johnson of Charleston fame which gave us some virtuosic timpani playing and  energetic kit drum work. Two hours later –  ensemble and audience thoroughly warmed up – they rounded the concert off with another piece by Johnson, Victory Stride, with Alsop almost dancing as she excitedly raised sections of the orchestra to their feet to play their solos like a gigantic jazz band.

Back in the first half of the concert came a nod to European tradition with Samuel Barber’s single movement first symphony.  Lush string work preceded a fine melody led by oboe and harp. Alsop is very attentive to each player and section, leaning on every mood change and nuance, moving round the podium to cue entries. She conducted the entire first half of this concert, incidentally, without score or even a music stand.

The second half started with Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man which was a nice showpiece for brass and percussion and a reminder of how rarely we hear this very familiar piece played live. It was then mirrored (sort of) by Joan Tower’s Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman (1986) which is dedicated to Alsop and involves some virtuosic, complex tongue work.

The big event, however, was Rhapsody in Blue. Now I’ve played the second violin part of Gershwin’s most famous piece and heard it many times in concert but this was a rendering like no other. Downstage behind Alsop on the podium was the Marcus Roberts Trio who gave us part-improvisatory cadenzas. In truth I would probably never have chosen to hear a jazz trio but in this context their work was spell-binding.  Roberts, who has to be led onto the stage, is a sensitive, unshowy pianist finding depth and colour in the rhythms and subtleties of Gershwin’s themes. Martin Jaffe is a terrific bass player and Jason Marsalis a fine drummer – and my goodness, how well the three work together.


It must be daunting for Alsop to conduct a work of such complexity when she knows the main soloist can’t see her but she has, apparently, worked with Roberts a lot and they do it on breathing and body language. Interesting to see Jaffe, though, turning to look at her in almost every bar. Alsop exudes supreme confidence as well as establishing a friendly casual rapport with the audience. During the long cadenzas she simply and unshowily turned on her podium and watched him. The orchestra, meanwhile, played their familiar passages with a lot of incisive warmth.

And here’s my trivial woman thought for the evening: Alsop looks gloriously, unassumingly elegant in her scarlet-lined long jackets. But how on earth does she manage to do all that leaping around without the  jacket riding up? I reckon she has them made with a generous extra gusset under the arms – like a classical male dancer’s blouson. Please can I have the name of her tailor?

Author information
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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