“The playing was quite superb, and I could have been fooled into thinking I was listening to a world class orchestra”
The Usher Hall’s excellent series of Sunday afternoon concerts from orchestras all over the world commenced its 2019/20 season with an almost unsustainably high standard. The newly formed Britten-Shostakovich Festival Orchestra, the brainchild of Artistic Director Jan Latham Koenig (a British conductor working in Moscow) and our Ambassador over there, Sir Laurie Bristow, with a membership of Russian and British members all auditioned for their posts, and formed to sustain the legacy of the 2019 Year of Music between Britain and Russia, as well as the close relationship between the eponymous composers, kicked off the proceedings.
Whilst not overtly political or peace promoting in concept (one thinks of the highly successful Barenboim/Said Divan Orchestra made up of Israelis and Palestinians) the combination of musician from both countries is not without political relevance in these troubled times and can be only a force for good.
With an itinerary ranging from Sochi to Basingstoke, the band hit Edinburgh towards the end of their tour and were well into their stride.
As with all the Usher Hall’s Sunday afternoon concerts, the programme was immediately recognisable, accessible and undemanding, but none the worse for that. The playing was quite superb, and I could have been fooled into thinking I was listening to a world class orchestra, emotions were surely touched.
The programme started with Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten. I was struck by the clarity of the strings, warm brass tones and relaxed cohesion of the band as a whole.
We were then treated to Ralph Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending and privileged to hear Jennifer Pike handle the violin solo. This young lady has blossomed since her arguably winning BBC Young Musician of the Year too young, and this, the second time I have heard her play it, was a more rounded, secure rendition that let the glorious music speak for itself, the sign of real artistry. As a violinist of meagre ability myself, I first heard the work played by a school colleague in the Abbey of Dorchester on Thames in the 1960s who went on to be a professor of music at the Royal Academy. I have known it and loved it all my adult life and Jennifer really delivered. Moreover, the orchestra went untroubled into accompaniment mode rather than performing mode, effectively and subtly.
Shostakovich’s Suite for Variety Stage Orchestra was a delightful raucous romp showing the composer’s lighter side and sent us chuckling into the interval.
After refreshment, something more serious, Prokofiev’s Extracts from Romeo and Juliet. Six extracts were chosen, starting with the proud “Montagues and Capulets”, later the searing agony of Death of Tybalt, ending with the serene, if troubled, The Death of Juliet. In all six episodes the orchestra was more than equal to the task which they played with the right balance of restraint and emotion, never brassy nor vulgar, representing their fine musical training and technique.
Our finale was, of course, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. Plenty of opportunities, but none taken, for brassiness or vulgarity here, but, again, a finely judged performance, in particular with a huge tuba, big bass drum amply representing cannon fire, and the triumphant tubular bells. All credit to the incredibly versatile and unflustered percussionist, Uliana Scherbakova, and tubaist Grady Hassan.
One wonders why this excellent orchestra was not performing at the Proms, but of course it was not formed when the programme planning took place. To get such an accomplished band up and running so quickly is a real achievement and shows the energy and vitality that is the international music scene today.
Reviewer: Charles Stokes(Seen 22 September)
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