Southbank Sinfonia (twice)

sbs2.jpg The Southbank Sinfonia is a brilliant idea – a ‘semi-professional’ orchestra employing young instrumentalists between college and a professional career.  To judge by their list of alumni now in orchestral positions, it works.

The orchestra is the brainchild of conductor Simon Over.  It has no state funding (surprise surprise!) and is maintained by a large roster of generous supporters and huge amounts of goodwill, particularly through partnerships with ‘grown up’ orchestras such as the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, the BBC Concert Orchestra and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, who provide coaching, playing opportunities and ‘sit-ins’ alongside professional players.  And imaginative sponsors like accompanist Malcolm Martineau who provides free refreshments at concerts – hooray!

Monday’s concert was part of the lunchtime recital series at the Royal Opera House, though moved into the spacious (and echoey) surroundings of the Paul Hamlyn Hall (formerly the Floral Hall).  A slightly rum programme…

It began with a Vivaldi Concerto for Two Trumpets, bravely performed without a conductor.  The soloists (Christopher Seddon and Rob Wallace) were two cool dudes to whom evidently nothing was a problem – they enjoyed every minute and played faultlessly, stationing themselves antiphonally either side of the band.

Two quibbles:  how could anyone think it’s OK to perform any kind of baroque concerto without a keyboard continuo??  Just because it ‘sort of’ works to have just a cello and bass accompanying the soloists, that doesn’t make it right.  And no, the slow movement is not just ‘a mere six bars long… a passage of modulation played by the strings alone’ – which is how they played it, earnestly and meaninglessly:  no, it’s the basis for something – keyboard improvisation?  Violin improvisation?  (Probably not the trumpets, as they need the rest.)  Something has to happen, and somebody has to take a decision about what.  Awful sinking feeling that STILL nobody in the music colleges is taught anything beyond the received nineteenth-century ways of playing things.

They need to read a certain series of helpful books…

The orchestra was joined by Australian soprano Anita Watson, a rising star in the ROH’s firmament and a radiant smiling presence (I previously enjoyed hearing her in Donizetti’s Rita – read more here).  Her choice of arias – Mozart’s ‘Nehmt meinen Dank’ and the ‘Et incarnatus’ from the C minor Mass, and Richard Strauss’s ‘Morgen’ – suited her to perfection.  Lovely violin solo in the Strauss, from leader Tatiana Byesheva.

In between Anita Watson’s items, Graham Sheen conducted his arrangement of five Danzas Gitanas by Joaquin Turina.  The rather vague programme note did not describe the individual movements or even tell us what forces Graham had arranged them for.  As far as I could see, it was a wind decet (flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns) with extras – piccolo, cor anglais – plus two trumpets and a double bass.  Smashing arrangements, full of vivid colours and rhythmic life.  I slightly felt that the clarinets had a raw deal – perhaps because the trumpets had grabbed their share of the melodic interest?  Very nice anyway, and must have been great fun to play.  I hope they’ll be published.

And a definitely rum item to finish – Manuel de Falla’s Seven Spanish Popular Songs, but with no singer!  Hamlet without the Prince?  I am reliably informed that it was never intended that Anita Watson should sing these.  But they sounded distinctly ‘so-what’-ish in their orchestral guise.  Ah well.

* * * *


Then yesterday (Thursday) – one of the Southbank Sinfonia’s series of ‘rush hour’ concerts at St John’s, Waterloo, chamber music this time.  (Yet another nice old church used as a concert venue:  it used to be very down-at-heel and scruffy, but has been nicely cleaned up, albeit in shades of nursery-school creams and yellows with some awkwardly naïve holy artwork scattered about.)  A great idea to make budding orchestral players play chamber music – keeps them out of bad habits!

First up was Jonathan Dove’s magical Figures in a Garden for wind octet, introduced by my niece Rosie Burton who explained that it was one of a series of wind serenades written for Glyndebourne’s Mozart Bicentenary season in 1991.  Dove’s inspiration was Le nozze di Figaro, and it was fascinating to ‘spot the tunes’ as he wove them into the textures.  It’s one of those pieces that are infuriatingly much harder to play than they sound, particularly the ‘Susanna in the rain’ movement of quietly drizzling background sextuplets.  (And must be all the harder on period instruments, as originally intended.)  Anyway, very atmospheric, lovely music, nicely played (though in the boomy acoustics of St John’s, Waterloo, the horns tended to swamp everything, particularly the slightly underpowered-sounding oboes).  The piece was conducted (which must have made it a lot easier) by David Corkhill, better known as a percussionist but evidently a fine conductor and coach – he is in charge of the Southbank Sinfonia’s chamber activities.

Then a string quartet – Haydn’s Op. 33 No. 2, the ‘Joke’ – very nicely and securely played, very little sense of student earnestness, great intonation and ensemble, lots of character especially for the eponymous joke at the end.

Finally, David Corkhill conducted Britten’s Sinfonietta, Op. 1 – an astonishing piece for an eighteen-year-old RCM student to have written – Frank Bridge meets Schoenberg (the rising horn theme straight out of Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1) .  The young Britten had a hard-edged fire and passion which one can’t help but feel went soggy later in his career – although there are enduring musical thumbprints that are already present here, along with the disciplined thinking and ear for instrumental sounds for which Britten always strove (‘magic and efficiency’, in his own words).  Far too ‘modern’ to be appreciated in the early 1930s, the work is imaginative, colourful, energetic and concise to the point of impatience.

Invidious to single out individuals from the ten players, but some lovely sounds, especially from the flute (Claire Overbury) and bassoon (Rosie! – big warm commanding tone, in what I had previously thought of – from my own student experience – as a tricky and un-gratifying part to play).  I also appreciated the rock-solid horn (Paul Cott) and gutsy double bass (Annabella Leslie).

Good to know that the future of our orchestral players is in safe hands.  Let’s hope there will be jobs for them to go to – and that the dumbed-down Arts Council hasn’t by then starved all the remaining orchestras out of existence, and the dumbed-down education system and our dumbed-down media haven’t deprived potential audiences of any notion of what real music is and why anyone should want to come and hear it.


pictures stolen from the SbS page of the Parliament Choir website and the London SE1 community website — thanks!

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