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Review of Easterbrook Hall Concert October 2017

20th anniversary concert.

If ever an antidote is needed to a dreich, miserable November Sunday, one can always be found in a Solway Sinfonia concert, and their 20th birthday celebration in the Easterbrook Hall on 26th November proved no exception. What a fabulous evening: a superbly varied programme, three wonderful soloists, orchestra and conductor all on top form. And great to see such a well-filled hall, all of us present privileged to have been in the company of such sumptuous music-making.

Proceedings kicked off with a cracking account of Dmitri Shostakovich’s 1954 Festive Overture, not by any stretch of the imagination his subtlest or most profound utterance, but a great warm warm-up piece for the orchestra. The strident brass fanfares were spot-on, and were matched by the deft and very accurate finger-work of the woodwind, especially the clarinets, which boded well particularly for the Poulenc that was to come later. The syncopated rhythms had great bite, and the hectic pulse of the piece was sustained right to the end; every section has a big part to play, and all the players, especially the young percussionists, were having a ball – a great way to start a party!

A very different mood had to be created for the next item, Edward Elgar’s glorious 1899 song-cycle Sea Pictures, settings of very varied texts by five different poets on various aspects of the sea. Although written for the imposing contralto Clara Butt it has become very much a happy hunting-ground for the mezzo-soprano voice, as celebrated recordings by singers such as Janet Baker and Sarah Connolly have triumphantly shown. I much enjoyed Freya Jacklin’s performance of Berlioz’s Les nuits d’été with the Sinfonia back in 2015, and was very much looking forward to her interpretation of the Elgar. Freya’s is not a big voice, however, and if I have any reservation, it is that she perhaps lacks the raw power to dominate a large romantic orchestra totally convincingly – I do wonder how well she will have been heard at the back of the hall. But what she may lack in strength she more than makes up for with her sensitivity and expressiveness. Freya has wonderful presence, and her very nuanced responses to the texts and her immaculate diction almost hypnotized the audience into the different worlds and stories she created for each song. Under Geoff Keating’s watchful and controlled direction the orchestra matched her sensitivity: highlights included some lovely horn-playing in the opening Sea slumber song, delightful pizzicato strings in In haven, and beautiful brass touches in the dramatic last song The swimmer. I have heard very many versions of these songs, but am not sure that many have moved me quite as much as Freya’s magical, mesmerizing interpretation, especially of Where corals lie. I could have listened to her all night!
Change of mood again for Camille Saint-Saëns’s celebrated and ghoulish 1874 tone poem Danse macabre, in which Death summons the dead from their graves and leads them on a merry dance before they vanish back into the ground as a new day dawns. Death is imaginatively portrayed by a solo violin with the E string tuned down, and Jane Hainey, for many years a member of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, brought experience and great aplomb to the solo part, with a big, full-bodied tone which brooked no argument from the quivering skeletons around her (no offence implied, orchestra!). Geoff Keating encouraged his players to bring terrific dynamic control to this piece, and some beautiful quiet playing generated a suitably atmospheric quality, with none of the underlying tension ever being lost. A great end to an uplifting first half.

I was much taken by Kirsten Jenson’s performance of Dvořák’s celebrated Cello concerto back in 2014, and it was a real pleasure to see her back in action in the original 1876 version of Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s engaging Variations on a Rococo theme, in which the accompaniment, befitting a composition looking back to an earlier age, is limited to just strings, woodwind, and two horns. Kirsten has a lovely warm tone throughout the whole range of her instrument, ideally suited to the character of this work. This was a beautifully thought out interpretation, each variation sensitively executed with great tonal and dynamic subtleties, beginning with the highly effective ‘question and answer’ passage in the introduction. In the third variation the longing and yearning were movingly expressed, which made the contrast with the following allegro and its bustling exchanges between the soloist, the first violins and the first flute particularly effective, everything held together by the very close rapport clearly evident between Kirsten and Geoff Keating. The real highlight, though, arrived with the andante sostenuto eighth variation, with Kirsten’s meltingly beautiful singing tone radiantly filling the hall – these few minutes were worth the cost of the concert ticket alone. As the performance moved towards its conclusion I was particularly struck by how well Dvořák must have known this lovely work when he came to write his concerto, which is particularly appropriate given Kirsten’s impressive rendition of both pieces with the Sinfonia. This was just sublime music-making.

From 1870s’ Russia to 1920s’ Paris, and Francis Poulenc’s five movement suite from his ballet Les biches, so redolent of the period. When I learned the orchestra was to be tackling this work I mentally raised an eyebrow because of some of its fearsome technical demands, but any concerns were blown away right from the start of the opening Rondeau, with terrific interplay between the horns and the brass, and admirable woodwind articulation. Rhythms were crisply delivered, and throughout the whole suite the playing of the first trumpet was quite outstanding. Another ticket’s worth of musical value was delivered in the Adagietto, which was full of brilliant contrasts and was movingly atmospheric with its nostalgic wistfulness; full marks to the horn section too in this movement. Accurate articulation was again to the fore in the Rag-Mazurka, but what particularly impressed was the precision of the tempo and rhythm variations, which was spot-on: all the players certainly seemed to be having great fun, even if they must have been counting out of their skins! Control was again the essence of the Andantino, with the different sections responding well to each other and to the conductor, and this continued into the Finale with its many changes of tempi. In this movement the strings, particularly the first violins and the cellos, were to the fore, but tribute must be paid to every member of the orchestra, all of whom played magnificently and were fully deserving of the wave of warm applause which greeted the conclusion of the concert. Regrets? – half a dozen encores would have been nice, but I suppose they had all earned a rest!

The Solway Sinfonia has been with us now for twenty years, and has become an invaluable part of the musical fabric of our community. Like fine wine it seems to get better with each year that passes, and it was particularly encouraging at this concert to see several younger players amongst the ‘old hands’ on the platform, who can only help to secure the orchestra’s future development. That the twenty year milestone has been so successfully reached is down to the commitment of all the players, to an obviously extremely hardworking committee, and in particular to the foresight and dedication of its founding leader Sarah Berker and its indefatigable founding conductor Geoff Keating. Bravo and thanks to you all!

Geoff Creamer