Wednesday, 21 November 2018

Fairytale evening of orchestral magic proved a real toe-tapper

BERNSTEIN’S Overture to Candide was the brisk curtain-raiser to the RSO’s spring outing to Wokingham.

BERNSTEIN’S Overture to Candide was the brisk curtain-raiser to the RSO’s spring outing to Wokingham.

This perky piece, expertly tossed off, ensured that all the players’ fingers were well warmed up and fully flexible for the musical fireworks that were to come.

Mussorgski’s Night on a Bare Mountain followed — its creepy beginning, as night falls, being vividly portrayed by swirling strings and scurrying woodwind.

The strings displayed impressively disciplined dynamic control that was to be their hallmark throughout the evening.

The same could be said of the solid and well balanced brass section that made itself felt robustly, as only brass can, but without the oft-encountered temptation to swamp everyone else.

Mussorgski’s repetitiveness makes it difficult for the orchestra to sustain the tension this piece demands. The conductor, Stefan Hofkes, solved this problem admirably with subtle variations in tempi and woodwind balance.

Artie Shaw’s rarely heard Clarinet Concerto, written in 1940 and originally with swing band accompaniment, was the gem of the evening.

The orchestra participated with enthusiasm, feeling the beat and getting to their feet to belt out their solos in true swing band tradition.

But the main plaudits must go to the soloist, Nicholas Shipman. In his hands the clarinet became liquid ebony!

His swing-style glissandi were invariably beautifully judged and apparently effortless. His tone was smooth and clear throughout the instrument’s compass, with no concessions made to the technically demanding solo part. His ascent to the final high C was a tour de force. The audience loved it.

After the interval, Ravel’s invocation of children’s fairytales, the Mother Goose suite, provided a complete change of mood.

A spinning wheel, dancing courtiers, Beauty and the Beast, a forest at night, an oriental dance inspired by pagodas and a fairy garden were all conjured up by Ravel’s renowned mastery over tone colours and impressionistic harmonies.

Here the woodwind, harp, piano and solo violin came to the fore, weaving delicate threads of sound with impressive clarity and charm.

A rare solo outing for the contra-bassoon as “the beast” was deliciously threatening. Hofkes exercised well-timed restraint as the long drawn out final crescendo heralded the rising of the sun and Sleeping Beauty’s awakening.

This eclectic programme came to an end with a barn-storming performance of Márquez’s dance extravaganza, Danzón No 2. Hofkes even invited the audience to get up and dance if they felt like it!

The exuberant Mexican cross-rhythms and dramatic harmonic progressions certainly caused some serious foot-tapping among the assembled masses but, the church being somewhat crowded, the invitation had to be regretfully declined.

This stimulating evening’s entertainment was a real triumph for the orchestra. More like it, please.

Review: John Burleigh

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