Programme guide

For his third New Year’s Eve Concert as chief conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker in 2008 Sir Simon Rattle set out to explore the history of 20th-century American music. At the head of an orchestra described by the Berlin press as “the best big band in the world”, he conducted works by Gershwin, Barber, Copland and Adams with powerful vocal support from Thomas Quasthoff and the South African soprano Pauline Malefane.

The programme began with George Gershwin’s Cuban Overture, the musical product of a two-week visit to Havana in 1932. According to the Berliner Zeitung, Rattle’s performance of Samuel Barber’s evergreen Adagio for Strings resembled “a rainbow of colours with its own inherent logic”. Aaron Copland’s folksong arrangements, Old American Songs, were performed by Thomas Quasthoff with his velvety Heldenbariton, turning them into what Der Tagesspiegel described as a “collection of thrilling short stories culminating in a kind of ‘Old McQuasthoff Has A Farm’, in which the singer conjured up a veritable bestiary of squeaking, grunting and whinnying animals”.

With his frenzied orchestral piece Short Ride in a Fast Machine, John Adams described the feeling “when someone asks you to ride in a terrific sports car, and then you wish you hadn’t”. A more heartfelt note was struck by Thomas Quasthoff and Pauline Malefane in two excerpts from Porgy and Bess, before Gershwin added a further souvenir of his travels in the form of his quasi-autobiographical tone poem An American in Paris, in which he recounts the impressions left by two study trips to the French capital in 1926 and 1928. After a final visit to Mississippi for Ol’ Man River, the concert ended with Sousa’s march The Liberty Bell, better known as the signature tune of Monty Python’s Flying Circus – perhaps in the hope that the New Year might offer “something completely different”.

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