The evening opened with the wonderful “Hungarian March” that Hector Berlioz based on a traditional melody and which he incorporated into his dramatic cantata “The Damnation of Faust”, completed in 1846. This was a good choice for an ‘opener’, enabling all the sections of the orchestra to let off steam and to get settled in preparation for some of the tougher demands of the programme to come. There was excellent dynamic control, with the long crescendo towards the end of the march particularly impressive and well managed. Special mention must be made of the trombone section which was clearly enjoying itself and which went on to perform outstandingly the whole evening. Overall the performance could possibly have done with a touch more swagger, with the rhythms slightly more pointed especially at the outset, but generally this was an excellent start to proceedings.
The main work of the first half was Jean Sibelius’ Violin Concerto, a bold choice given its reputation as one of the most challenging concertos in the repertoire. Challenging not just for the virtuoso demands of the solo part, but also because of the complexities of the orchestral accompaniment, with its fragmented structure and wide dynamic range, much of it requiring to be played at barely more than a whisper. This is evident right at the outset, as the soloist enters almost immediately over hushed, muted strings providing a shimmering background, a magical effect which regrettably – not the orchestra’s fault – was rather spoiled by a loud intrusive mechanical hum emanating from the back of the hall. (Another ‘management’ detail – although the general lighting level in the hall was beneficially increased, it would have been preferable if the soloist could have been spot-lit in some way). In the first movement the orchestral tuttis were generally together and balanced, but if anything the players were slightly too timid and sounded a little lacking in confidence, perhaps inevitable given the concerto’s challenges. The orchestral contribution in the second movement is dominated by an extended horn chorale, and mention should be made here of the section’s considerable achievements throughout the evening – the instrument’s difficulties are notorious, and the players rose to the programme’s challenges very well indeed. In the third movement the lower strings, always a strength of this group, provided a confidently solid foundation, and throughout the orchestra the dynamic control was excellent.
Leland Chen has become a good friend of the Sinfonia over the years, and it was a real pleasure to see and hear him again in such good form. To deliver a fiendishly difficult solo part with such apparent nonchalance, breathtaking virtuosity, and sensitivity takes a rare talent, and the orchestra quite clearly revels in working with him – there was a real sense of partnership working here in the way that Leland generously interacted with and responded to the players around him, encouraging them and willing them on. It is more a reflection of the curious structure of the piece than a criticism of the players or conductor that he seemed to be supporting the orchestra rather than the other way round. Not surprisingly his faultless performance was greeted with enthusiastic applause, and we were rewarded with a solo encore in the form of an arrangement of Francisco Tarrega’s popular “Memories of the Alhambra”.
After the interval Geoff Keating launched the orchestra into Antonin Dvorak’s glorious final symphony “From the New World” at a cracking pace – in fact almost too cracking as it seemed to take the players slightly by surprise and took them a few bars to settle. Geoff’s body language throughout the piece implied that he clearly loves the work (who can’t?!), but also that he was quite glad to have the concerto behind him! He drove the orchestra hard, which suits Dvorak, but where the music demands, such as in the dancing rhythms of the third movement, he let it breathe. After the pulsating opening movement we were treated to a lovely rendering of the glorious ‘Largo’ in which Gabriel Reid bravely delivered the famous cor anglais solo faultlessly. Dvorak wrote consummately for the woodwind, and the whole section rose to the occasion, performing throughout the concert better than I have ever heard them previously, with good tone and accurate intonation. There was also some lovely string tone in this second movement, especially from the 1sts, and the evening’s highlight for this listener was the brief violin duet reprise of the tune which was exquisitely played by leader Sarah Berker with Susan Smyth. The third movement ‘Scherzo’ is a dance, and it did just that, with the several changes of tempo confidently managed. The final ‘Allegro’ movement was again delivered with aplomb, and brought the concert to a rousing conclusion; the horns and brass were very solid here (the brass almost too solid!) and there was a terrific build up to the final coda, with everyone clearly having a ball.
On a November night there is no-one better than Dvorak to lift the spirits, and the energy that the players brought to the symphony after what would have been a long day for them was rewarded with extended applause. Once again we could leave the hall with a spring in our step after another fascinating and enjoyable concert by the Sinfonia. Lucky us.