Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Orion Symphony Orchestra/Purser @ St John’s, Smith Square, London

15 September 2008

Having, like many I’m sure, spent Sunday 14 September wondering if there really was life after the Proms which had ended the night before it was a happy moment to attend a concert that made me realise how silly I had been for ever feeling down.

The Orion Symphony Orchestra’s concert, England Rediscovered, by focusing on music originating from this sceptred isle, combined a coherency of purpose with exquisite playing throughout the evening.

With the orchestra conducted by Toby Purser, the programme successfully combined famous pieces with lesser known works. The opening piece, Elgar’s Serenade for Strings in E minor, op.20 showed the orchestra to good effect. The piece is both bright and reflective, and the way in which the orchestra played certain passages to heighten one of the two emotions, whilst demonstrating in others that the two are interrelated, raised the performance to the level of the truly ethereal.

Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending followed. Here, the soloist Jamie Campbell captured the importance so often missed in performances of the piece of actually telling a story about the passage of this graceful bird, whilst recognising that the music expresses the movement metaphorically, rather than literally. As the wind took up the central theme, and then the strings did the same, the only weak moment was when the two sections subsequently joined together to repeat it. The resulting sound was slightly raucous, though it seems almost petty to mention this in what was otherwise an incredible performance.

The first half finished with Walter Leigh’s Concertino for Harpsichord and Strings featuring soloist, Jory Vinikour. The orchestra impressed by providing such a bold, but highly effective, response to the solo playing in the first movement. Interestingly, in the second movement, Vinikour brought out the central theme in such a way that the melancholic beauty of his playing alluded to a real sense of despair.

The second half began with Cyril Scott’s Concerto for Harpsichord and Chamber Orchestra, a piece that had never been heard since its original performance in 1938 at the Wigmore Hall. With Scott’s son, Desmond, present at the concert (having flown in especially from America), hearing this piece, which is strongly inspired by Eastern modes, was a deeply moving experience. It was followed by Purcell’s Chacony in G minor, with each repetition of the same eight-bar phrase growing in power and majesty. Within this, the orchestra brought out some beautiful ‘twists’ of calm in the few quieter bars dotted throughout the piece, before the relentless growth in sound then continued unabashed.

The concert finished with Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. With the strings contrasting their own pizzicato playing with a beautiful flowing sound, and several superb solos, this performance succeeded in standing with the one heard at the Vaughan Williams Anniversary Prom on 26 August. Indeed, the intimacy of St John’s, Smith Square, compared to the Albert Hall, was in many ways an advantage in performing so ‘spiritual’ a piece, which invites such a personal response from each listener.

And listening to the beautiful playing of the second orchestra, sometimes ‘accompanying’ the first orchestra whilst at others ‘replying’ to it, was a welcome reminder to me, after two months of promenading, that there are opportunities to hear wonderful music in a variety of settings at all times of the year.

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