Sinfonia Cymru orchestra

Sinfonia Cymru: Out of the Box

Nigel Jarrett takes a look at the orchestra Sinfonia Cymru, an exercise with an underlying practical mission, with an upcoming series of concerts tying together classical music and the digital world.

An imaginative and go-getting orchestra should always be looking at different ways of presenting itself in public. For Sinfonia Cymru, the fine chamber orchestra of graduate musicians in the first years of their careers as professionals, that responsibility falls to everyone from its award-winning general manager, Sophie Lewis, to the musicians themselves. What they come up with is not necessarily ground-breaking but it does illustrate the need to be ever-mindful of how jaded it’s possible to become with relatively limited resources. Not that Sinfonia Cymru ever has or ever looks remotely likely to.

One challenge for the orchestra is presented by its very nature. Formed by conductor Gareth Jones in 1996 to give young graduates a foothold in the competitive area of orchestral playing, it always has to expect that its members will want to move on to bigger things, as many of them have. The other is its essentially kaleidoscopic nature, the fact that it is not playing every day of every week of the year. Its activities are based on a series of short concentrated tours of Wales, over in a weekend, though it does play on many other occasions, especially with the blessing and support of its celebrity admirers, such as Bryn Terfel. For example, as an unofficial ‘orchestra-in-residence’ at the Riverfront Theatre, Newport,  it plays there on its tours and various permutations of its members take part in the theatre’s monthly First Wednesday recitals at lunch hour. It’s also recently played ‘live’ in the first performances of Newport-based Ballet Cymru’s production of Prokofiev’s Romeo a Juliet and recorded the music for use by the company on tour. It also does a lot of valuable musical work in the community and in schools, and commissions music from leading Welsh composers. In fact it’s the national chamber orchestra of Wales.

The orchestra’s latest embodiment is as one of the players in a triumvirate that includes guest conductor and soloist. ‘Classic Conversations’ is emblazoned on the flag under which it sails, and the ethos involves the ‘celebs’ becoming actively engaged in music that specially moves them. There’s obviously a nuance in the adverb ‘specially’. The first involved prize-winning pianist Benjamin Grosvenor and former musical director of Welsh National Opera, Carlo Rizzi, and the moving music was Schumann’s Piano Concerto. The conversation is presumably comprehensive and variable, as the rapport between conductor and pianist in the concerto was as interesting as that between conductor and orchestra in Mendelssohn’s Hebrides overture and Beethoven’s Second Symphony. The co-conversationalists when Grosvenor was alone on the platform playing four of Scriabin’s Opus 3 mazurkas must have been the audience and any of the musicians listening in the wings. Grosvenor, as he demonstrated in the Schumann, is also capable of keeping his own company, itself a conversation of sorts.

‘This was probably the most distinguished pairing we’ve been able to assemble for any one series,’ Gareth Jones said. ‘I’m delighted that Carlo agreed to return for a third series with the orchestra. I know he enjoys hugely working with a group that gives so much in terms of their special mix of expertise and energy.’

To tell truth, there have been more interesting ‘conversations’ before the latest promotional ‘strand’ was devised than that promised, on paper at least, by the next one, which will in fact be a regular series of concerts conducted by Gareth Jones. The orchestra has performed with Alina Ibragimova, Chloe Hanslip, Llyr Williams, David Pyatt, Li Wei Qin, Catrin Finch and others; recorded for Deutsche Grammophon and done other things which depend on the merits of two-way rapport. All conversations with Gareth Jones appear to be happy and fruitful, and this next ‘classic’ one will, it’s assumed, be all-roving, as there’s no soloist. Maybe the conversation will be with audiences again, as it includes Chaconne for string orchestra by the promising young composer Mark David Boden, a former student at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama and now a teacher there. All new or unfamiliar music needs the conversation to be conducted with quiet insistence. Perhaps ‘conversion’ would be a better description than ‘conversation’, in that the persuasive voices will be Jones’s and the orchestra’s, with Boden sending the musical message. In any case, there’s a conversation well under way between current guest leader Bartosz Woroch and the rest of the orchestra. In only his late twenties, Woroch’s a professor of violin at the Guildhall School of Music in London. Thanks to orchestra supporter Sara Naudi, Woroch is in place for 2012-13 and moves are under way to continue the association in 2013-14.

But this next series of concerts, in July, scarcely comes within the orchestra’s definition of ‘conversations’ – to wit, ‘Classic Conversations brings world-class artists together with Sinfonia Cymru and creates an unique opportunity for them to develop a whole programme of music collaboratively whilst sharing their passion for it with audiences’. It’s tough running an orchestra of Sinfonia Cymru’s sort, an exercise with an underlying, practical mission and a relatively fluid rank-and-file, so the arrival of such world-class artists will be eagerly awaited. Having announced the new ‘strand’ the orchestra will be obliged to meet the expectations of audiences who have been enthused by it. Most will have a pretty good idea of what’s meant by ‘world-class’.

Meanwhile, the orchestra is finding ways of keeping itself up to speed, with new ideas coming from its Curate, a mixture of its musicians, administrators and others who discuss and share ideas about continuing development. The Curate is supported by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation. Professional orchestral musicians partly running their own affairs are not new, but doing it at an early stage and in circumstances where the ideas are innovative – and sometimes ‘pretty wild’, as one member of the Curate put it – is a valuable experience. Its ‘Unbuttoned’ series of late-night events to be launched in Cardiff this autumn will marry classical music and the digital world. Not wild, but certainly out of the box, as they say.

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Nigel Jarrett is a winner of the Rhys Davies prize for short fiction and, in 2016, the inaugural Templar Shorts award. He’s a former daily-newspaperman and a regular contributor to the Wales Arts Review, Jazz Journal and Acumen poetry magazine, among others. He is also a poet and novelist. His latest story collection, Who Killed Emil Kreisler?, was published in 2016, as was his first novel, Slowly Burning. This year sees the publication of his short fiction pamphlet, A Gloucester Trilogy.