Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama, Cardiff. October 11, 2013.
Pontyberem Memorial Hall. October 12.
The Riverfront, Newport. October 13.
Performances by Sinfonia Cymru, Wales’s unique orchestra of young and variously-mobile professional musicians, have to be predicated on the size it adopts for its regular weekend tours of fixed venues. There’s also the question of marketing a band of musicians which has become a staple of musical life in these parts and is therefore competing for audiences used to frequent appearances by less fluid and sometimes institutionalised ones, such as the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, the Welsh Baroque Orchestra and the Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra.
It is accepted that membership of Sinfonia Cymru means both commitment to its ethos and musical personality and recognition that it’s a staging-post on route to permanent positions elsewhere. Indeed, part of the orchestra’s pride will always emanate from its being the place where musicians who have since found desks in more famous orchestras first discovered what it was like to perform for wages in public under a familiar conductor-MD, the shrewd and experienced Gareth Jones, who founded the orchestra in 1996. The success of that ethos and all the strategies that support it are currently embodied in its general manager, Sophie Lewis, who was chosen as 2012 UK Orchestra Manager of the Year by the Association of British Orchestras.
There were a few new faces on the platform for its latest tour. As always, audiences encountered a chamber orchestra presenting a programme that, if not always heard played by a band with reduced numbers, was judiciously chosen in terms of what a smaller complement of players could bring to it, a feature of many other Sinfonia Cymru concerts.
This was certainly true of Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, which opened proceedings. The irony was that the barely forty musicians on stage probably reflected the number gathered on the stairs of the Villa Triebschen on Lake Lucerne to play it for the first time in public (or in private!) on Christmas Day in 1870. Serenading his new wife Cosima on the stairs outside her bedroom the morning after her birthday with a work based on themes from the opera Siegfried, which she would obviously have recognised, was Wagner’s idea of an unselfconscious Wagnerian gesture – enormous but loving. Gareth Jones refused to force the pace and in doing so fearlessly exposed even more the orchestra’s relatively transparent textures, allowing the wind sections to deliver in conditions of the closest scrutiny. That they held up and bore it was to be a feature of the rest of the programme.
As for marketing, the orchestra is presenting normally routine activities – booking guest musicians and conductors, allowing its members to have a say in what is played (its ‘curacy’), featuring those members as soloists – in a new, attention-grabbing language, which is refreshing as far as it goes. This concert was the latest in a series of ‘Classic Conversations’, in which those involved are deemed to be making music they particularly enjoy for their own and the audience’s delectation. Clearly, such a concept must include any quality additional to what audiences would normally expect as the quid pro quo of buying a ticket. It is for them to decide whether or not they leave the auditorium with an enhanced musical experience.
They had a further opportunity to consider the issue when the orchestra’s current leader, the Polish violinist Bartosz Woroch, stepped up as soloist for Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No 2 in G minor, leaving Pablo Hernan as his able and inspirational deputy for the whole concert. Woroch approached the piece with the intention of not surrendering to its self-sustaining line, which in some hands and in front of a bigger (i.e. augmented) orchestra can justify a large element of self-communing, that bleak solo at the start hinting at what might be on the way. But Woroch seemed to know how this orchestra was never going to follow him if he did cut loose, so his perfect conception, if in the end a little mellow, made the case for ensuring the solo part was fit for purpose. Furthermore, this was Prokofiev determined not to annoy the apparatchiks with too many heretical dissonances.
The orchestra’s strings were on keen form, making Wolf’s Italian Serenade an airy, al fresco piece, the internal voicings of viola, second violin and cello reminding us that this was originally a quartet and a rapidly-constructed one at that. Lightness of touch is one of the orchestra’s noticeable attributes and it was still in evidence in the thematically-linked Italian Symphony of Mendelssohn. Jones is always spot-on with tempi, as his immaculate conducting of Mozart and others with Welsh National Opera testify and, allied to a light but uniformly even fabric, his measured control made this reading of the symphony particularly gratifying. In fact, his approach and the orchestra’s response dovetailed with the easy fluency of the work itself, though towards the end of the final movement’s saltarello, the combined forces gathered instinctively for a more determined attack than the work had hitherto required. To be there at the end is always a mark of focused professionals, however much they see their future in another place.