American Music of Our Time was what this concert promised, but with the gospel specialist André J Thomas returning to the podium as an LSO associate artist this was never going to be a showcase for the usual suspects. Instead it spotlit three African American composers, with four works all receiving their UK premieres.
Two mixed music with speech and had something urgent to say. To Awaken the Sleeper, composed in 2020 by Joel Thompson, provides a musical framework for words by James Baldwin; their quiet dignity came across as spoken by Willard White, his cavernous voice slightly amplified. It started with an arresting cacophony sounding like every holiday piece played by a US marching band at once, but settled into something more conventionally supportive, without much push and pull between words and music. Portrait of a Queen, by Carlos Simon, was similar in length but more ambitious. Courtney D Ware’s sparing text, giving voice to a time-travelling, matriarchal figure, was powerfully delivered by Eska: her yell of “Their lives matter!” at the climax hit home. The music subsided into peaceful affirmation, Eska speaking against the distant recorded voice of a woman leading a Pentecostal prayer.
The Pentecostal church also inspired Simon’s Amen!, full of richly woven strings and razzy brass – it was a good night for the LSO’s brass section, especially lead trombonist Peter Moore – which brought the programme to an exuberant close even if the music seemed to want to finish about a minute before it actually did.
Bebop, boogaloo and the racist musical tropes of minstrelsy all found their way into Wynton Marsalis’s Tuba Concerto, which starred the LSO’s principal player, Ben Thomson, and was snappily conducted by William Long. In the second movement hand claps from the players traced out catchy but tricksy rhythms, the tuba leading the dance like an unexpectedly sprightly great-uncle at a wedding; the lamenting third movement had the orchestra subtly, nightmarishly closing in on the soloist. The busy lines of higher, louder instruments sometimes drew focus, yet Marsalis succeeds in liberating the tuba from its bridesmaid role. And in Thomson’s encore, a wistful and beautifully played solo of Hoagy Carmichael’s Stardust, the focus was entirely, if briefly, on him.