Indisputable giants

The RBSO recently gave rousing renditions of Aaron Copland and George Gershwin

A profusion of musical joy combined with a palpable sense of shared euphoria was clearly in evidence on the stage at the Thailand Cultural Centre on March 2.

Conducted by their music director Michel Tilkin, the Royal Bangkok Symphony Orchestra charted a course of wondrous musical discovery, navigating through mightily expansive musical vistas which, geographically speaking, may well not be their customary terrain.

It is perhaps ultimately unfair, not to mention objectively questionable, to identify but one musical figure from the New World and assign to him or her the epithet appellation "The Great American Composer". But certainly two of the very greatest indisputable giants were celebrated at this wonderfully programmed and attractively presented evening of exhilarating music-making.

Aaron Copland book-ended the concert, starting with his Fanfare For The Common Man, given a rousing performance here by a clean-sounding brass section and thunderous percussion (the timpani expertly managed by Paopun Amnatham). The second half consisted of the awe-inspiring Symphony No.3, his very finest large-scale work -- begun in 1944 and completed two years later to mark and celebrate the successful outcome of World War II. Meanwhile, the bulk of the first half featured Rhapsody In Blue and three popular songs by George Gershwin (also a Jewish New Yorker, like Copland), representing the very epitome of successful cross-fertilisation in Western classical music. The piano/writer genius fused jazz and classical elements with his effortless talent and the peerless élan of his voice -- a central pillar of the American experience and proud identity in the 20th century.

Thai concert pianist Poom Prommachart gave a thoroughly absorbing and inspired interpretation of Rhapsody, truly wearing his heart on his sleeve, while technically he was secure throughout, negotiating some fiendishly difficult passages with admirable control and focus. Yos Vaneesorn played the famous opening clarinet theme as if it had been written for him, making it sound easy -- just the first of orchestrator Ferde Grofé's brilliant touches in this incredible-sounding score. Tilkin had to keep a tight rein on the RBSO, so as to ensure the piano wasn't drowned out in some of the most enjoyable orchestral music ever composed, but he did allow a glorious choir, so to speak, of three saxophones -- fronted by another of Thailand's finest musical assets, Supat Hanpatanachai -- to cut through the texture and shine.

Poom's three programmed encores tonight were in fact already printed in the concert booklet, presenting some of Gershwin's most familiar and best-loved song melodies in imaginative solo piano arrangements. Moreover, this song-triptych of miniatures described a clever symmetrical tonal arc, opening with Embraceable You based in C major, segueing directly and seamlessly into The Man I Love a minor 3rd higher, in E-flat major, then segueing once again into I Got Rhythm, again another minor 3rd higher, in G-flat major. This subtle device raised the tension most persuasively, finishing most fittingly with daredevil piano acrobatics in I Got Rhythm. Rapturous applause ensued, all but demanding that Poom return for an encore proper. He duly obliged with Chopin's Mazurka In G-sharp Minor Op.33 No.1. As with the Gershwin songs, his rather liberal use of rubato might have been a bit extreme at times for some tastes, often pulling the sense of the bar-line a little too far away from true metrical stability. That said, the delicate touch he displayed was exquisite, his soft sensitivity much in abundance.

Copland's essential American symphony fuses his distinct Americana style of ballets (Rodeo, Billy The Kid, Appalachian Spring) with the form of traditional European symphony, creating that familiar soundscape which found its way into so many future movie soundtracks -- for example, 1978's Superman or 1998's Saving Private Ryan (both with music by John Williams). In his endeavour to paint his vision on a truly expansive musical canvas, the orchestration is suitably extravagant, and his soundscape unashamedly lush.

The first movement opened with a gentle theme for woodwinds and strings, then echoed warmly throughout the orchestra, before quickly heightening into a brass-led intimation of the Fanfare to come. The whirling second movement featured a dashing, boisterous theme introduced by horns, settling into a gentler, pastoral string segment reminiscent of a parallel passage in Charles Ives' New England Holidays symphony of 1912. Movement three opened slowly and contemplatively, featuring Copland's typically sparse and ambiguous harmonies, the two exposed violin sections gelling quite convincingly apart from one or two rogue, imprecisely tuned pitches. Morphing into a frisky dance-like passage, vaguely Latin American in tone, the transition into the finale was carried by an almost imperceptibly audible chord in the violas. A pianissimo version of Fanfare then emerged from principal flautist Teerat Ketmee, before the complete realisation in its fullest glory.

Extremely taxing instrumental writing for all sections was duly handled boldly and confidently by the ranks of the RBSO, who can justifiably feel proud to have managed such a difficult score with considerable aplomb.