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Review: American Dream with John Wilson and Royal Northern Sinfonia

Gateshead-born conductor John Wilson led the Sage's resident orchestra on a tour of American greats

John Wilson of the John Wilson Orchestra
John Wilson

American Dream, John Wilson and Royal Northern Sinfonia, Sage Gateshead

Making a return to his hometown for another of his popular Sunday afternoon concerts, conductor John Wilson, along with the resident orchestra, again hit the jackpot, featuring music of great vitality and feeling from five of North America’s finest 20th Century composers.

In John Adams’ vision of Madame Mao recapturing her youth with her husband in The Chairman Dances, we were treated to a variety of dance rhythms which amply showed off all sections of the orchestra and featured some delightful on- and off-beat percussion.

And if the first piece was hypnotic, the second was truly mesmerising. It brought the acclaimed, multi award-winning British pianist Leon McCawley on stage for George Gershwin’s iconic Piano Concerto in F major.

This was irresistible music played with panache and great freedom, and imbued with so many of Gershwin’s compositional trademarks. The very embodiment of the dazzling creativity and vitality of New York in the mid-1920s, the sound balance between pianist and orchestra was perfect.

The second half continued the upbeat theme with the very familiar Hoe Down from Aaron Copland’s ballet Rodeo, prior to the more introspective Essay No. 1 from Samuel Barber, featuring some wonderfully shimmering strings.

The composer’s Adagio for Strings is his most enduring piece but, as the conductor was keen to stress in his introduction, we shouldn’t just be listening to music we already know.

How right he was in this case, with the music every bit as expressive and impressive. Coincidentally, fans of the very familiar Barber Adagio will have the chance to hear this work in a Hall One concert on Thursday evening.

Leonard Bernstein composer and conductor February 1963
Leonard Bernstein composer and conductor February 1963

In 1957, the groundbreaking West Side Story changed the face of musical theatre forever. Leonard Bernstein’s take on the perennial theme of family feuding was, like the earlier Gershwin work, another embodiment of the New York of the time, this time with its hard-hitting social themes of violence and love in a multi-racial context.

Always a breathtaking score, Bernstein adapted the music he wrote for the stage into his Symphonic Dances. This is a 25-minute whirlwind highlights tour, featuring the brash, the romantic and the emotional.

The orchestra was very much on home ground with this, as with the rest of the programme. It was a memorable finale to a scintillating afternoon’s entertainment, as the sell-out audience was quick to appreciate.

John Wilson devotees should note that his next Sunday afternoon concert is on March 15 and features Sir Thomas Allen with songs from the North East, plus works from a swathe of English composers including Eric Coates, Delius and Walton.

Rob Barnes


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