Due to a problem obtaining parts, which robbed us of hearing John Adams’ Shaker Loops, this concert of American music shifted almost entirely to the works of Samuel Barber and Aaron Copland, and with the inclusion of Copland’s Nonet acquired an additional focus.
David Curtis’s carefully moulded reading of this rarely heard piece had no hint of a last-minute substitution, and encapsulated much of its edgy neo-classical romanticism, although his employment of nine violins against three violas and cellos tended to convey an uneasy mix of chamber sparseness and fuller sonorities.
In Barber’s Adagio (such an obvious audience-pleaser, but never mind) the complement of 17 string players was just right, clear enough to suggest the individual voicing of its quartet original, while at the same time producing a perfectly balanced, contoured sound.
The titular star of the occasion was American soprano April Fredrick, who gave a finely nuanced performance of Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915, her top notes and vocal colouring beautifully formulated (though some words failed to reach the Town Hall circle) and gestures subtly expressive.
She also showed a welcome ability to inject poetry into James Agee’s text, a well-nigh impossible feat, given the work’s awkward combination of orchestral tone poem (which Curtis sometimes allowed to dominate) and stream-of-consciousness sung prose.
Copland’s Appalachian Spring was the second highlight of the afternoon. The 21-strong OOTS displayed tremendous verve and sparkle (excellent woodwind, especially Diane Clark’s flute) and Curtis’s direction was a model of elegantly spun phrases and tight rhythms. And, for once, I didn’t even cringe when that dreadful Simple Gifts tune started up.