John Wilson's Sinfonia of London rehearsing at Symphony Hall for the performance

John Wilson's Sinfonia of London

Symphony Hall


There are times sitting in a theatre or concert hall when it is just a privilege to be there and this was such a moment, to sit back and enjoy the magic.

Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue and Ravel’s Boléro are familiar to most, the former a crossover between classical and jazz with a foot in both camps while the latter probably owes much of its popular awareness to Torvill & Dean in much the same way Romeo & Juliet’s Dance of the Knights is seen by many as merely the theme tune to The Apprentice.

I have heard Rhapsody in Blue more times than I care to remember, first being enthralled by it as a schoolboy back when TV was black and white and 21inch telly was the nearest you got to home cinema.

Yet with Martin James Bartlett on the piano this was like hearing it for the first time, he gave it new life, new confidence. In the solo piano pieces he toyed with pace, sometimes racing, sometimes thoughtful or hesitant, he gave the music a voice, sometimes soft and gentle, sometime brash and full of energy. All this was complimented by an orchestra who gave us that heady mix of jazz and classical that made Gershwin’s name, elevating him from tin pan alley song pusher to serious composer.

I have never heard it performed better. It is on Bartlett’s latest CD, appropriately called Rhapsody if you want to get a taste of it.

We even got an unscheduled encore from the brilliant young pianist on his third curtain call when he gave us a slow, jazzy rendition of another Gershwin number, The Man I love, which is also on the CD.

cd cover

Rhapsody in Blue is unusual in that its first performance was virtually a work in progress. The opening is probably one of the most recognisable in music yet it was originally a joke played on Gershwin at rehearsals by Ross Gorman, the star clarinettist in Paul Whiteman’s orchestra.

Whiteman had persuaded Gershwin to write a piece for the all jazz concert in New York he was organising and Gorman changed the 17 note scale in the score into a jazzy glissando. Gershwin loved it and what started as a laugh became a legend.

Gershwin had started work on the piece on 7 January 1924 for the concert on the 12 February which was cutting it fine. The orchestration was finished just eight days before the concert and at the performance Gershwin on piano was improvising, only writing down the solo part after the concert. The result is that we know how Gershwin wanted it to sound but not how it sounded at its premiere. 

The other memorable piece was the Boléro The version we are all familiar with being the result of another deviation from the score. John Wilson told us of a printer’s error which had produced the most famous drum solo, and perhaps the most demanding, in music. The deadly repetitive, insistently repeating drumming equivalent of a dripping tap slowly increasing in volume.

The music was written for a Spanish flavoured ballet for Ravel’s friend, the Russian dancer and actress Ida Rubinstein.

The scene for the boléro was a single girl dancing on a table in a bar slowly joined one by one by the rest of the customers.

But, Wilson tells us, when Ravel saw the first performance he wanted to know why there was just one drummer when the score had been for two! Unfortunately the printer had not spotted Revel’s handwritten scribbles of 1 and 2 against the drummer parts, so a single drum solo had been created out of printer error.

Wilson has gone back to the original1928 ballet score, with the 1 and 2 reinserted, more castanets and a performance to savour. With a snare drum on either side of the orchestra, 20 yards apart, the repetitive beat is handed over like a baton from one side of the orchestra to the other with each change of musical personal. It gives a new element, a new dynamic, a new interest to a familiar piece.

As the numbers of instruments and volume slowly grows each is clearly defined, with suggestions of jazz, hints of Arabian nights all growing to a deafening crescendo. Again, it is a piece I have heard many times, but never better than this, not even close.

Wilson believes that this is the UK premiere of the original ballet piece as written by Ravel. It might be the first time but on this showing it will certainly not be the last. This is boléro 2.0.


Martin James Bartlett acknowledges applause at Symphony Hall

Picture: @jocareadsbooks

The Sinfonia, made up largely of principles and soloists hand picked by John Wilson from other leading orchestras and ensembles, can give any orchestra in the world a run for its money, with a clean and clearly defined sound, each section as one voice in unison while Wilson, who restored the orchestra in 2018, is one of those conductors who can get the best out of any group of musicians, and here he has some of the best orchestra musicians to work with.

The rest of the programme didn’t disappoint either;  we had Ravel again – yes he did do other stuff - with his Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, which is Ravel’s tribute to Franz Schubert who had published his 34 Vasles sentimentales and 12 Vasles nobles almost a century earlier.

Ravel published his eight waltz pieces first for piano in 1911 then as an orchestral piece for the ballet Adélaïde, ou le langage des fleurs (Adelaide: The Language of Flowers) a year later. The mix is modern and impressionist, while for real impressionism we have Debussy’s La Mer from 1903-5.

The proofs were corrected by Debussy, incidentally, while he was on holiday at the Grand Hotel, Eastbourne in July 1905. The three movements are slow and powerful to start, faster and lighter in the middle then a powerful battle between wind and sea to finish.

We opened with Scapino, William Walton’s comedy overture depicting the comic rogue commedia dell'arte character – the character from which we get the word escapade.

The piece is lively, involves the full orchestra and is light, furious and fun.

Walton was from my home town of Oldham, incidentally, which also gave the world fish and chips, rag puddings, had more spindles in its cotton mills than the rest of the world put together when William was a lad and once had a pub for every day of the year including leap years.

Meanwhile John Wilson and his Sinfonia of London will return to Symphony Hall on 9 November 2023 with Hollywood’s Greatest Hits, the orchestra, which only comes together for specific projects and recordings, has a long history of recording music for films from Vertigo to Batman and this will be a concert celebrating the golden age of Hollywood musicals.

Roger Clarke


Index page Symphony Hall Reviews A-Z Reviews by Theatre