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Review: City of Cambridge Symphony Orchestra

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A star may be clearly in view when we look at it with slightly averted vision, but becomes elusive, or even seems to vanish altogether when looked at directly. The same, one could say, is true of that curiously undefined term ‘Englishness’ when it is applied to composers such as those we heard from in Saturday evening’s programme by the City of Cambridge Symphony Orchestra at West Road.

Individually, Butterworth, Delius and Elgar were unlike each other in their chosen musical idiom. Yet for many people ‘England’ would often be immediately identified as the source of their inspiration in music even though, for example, one of this trio of so-described very ‘English’ composers, Frederick Delius, was of pure German parentage, lived in France, and was open to contemporary French influences. So a blanket term such as ‘Englishness’ becomes problematic to say the least.

City of Cambridge Symphony Orchestra.
City of Cambridge Symphony Orchestra.

Kilian Meißner, winner of the CCSO young conductor competition, opened the concert with George Butterworth’s ‘The Banks of Green Willow’. Its instantly recognisable melody played on the clarinet can be taken as representative of ‘Englishness’ in music as many have imagined it to be. However, this lovely tune, followed by Butterworth’s captivating orchestration, masks a grim story drawn from the folk lore and its musical traditions which the composer so loved. Kilian Meißner, aged 20, and conducting with aplomb, was in distinguished company. Adrian Boult in 1914, conducting a professional orchestra for the first time, had premiered this identical piece at the age of 24.

Next, CCSO’s resident conductor Robert Hodge, relieving Kilian on the podium, introduced two prominent young musicians, Scottish cellist Hugh Mackay, and violinist Harry Kneeshaw (it was nice to learn that the cello dated from c. 1740 and the violin 1833). They played Delius’ Concerto for Violin & Cello, more of a tone poem than a concerto in one continuous movement, inhabiting the piece gloriously together and with obvious enjoyment. Their distinguished performance of a complex and demanding composition was roundly and deservedly applauded.

CCSO conductor Robert Hodge. (56716785)
CCSO conductor Robert Hodge. (56716785)

Elgar’s 2nd Symphony, music on a large scale and requiring an hour to perform, occupied the second half of the concert. From its vertiginous first movement full of leaps and plunges, through its great climaxes of anguish and despair (part of it reflects the influence of Shelley’s lyric ‘Rarely, rarely comest thou, Spirit of Delight’), to the lovely melodies of its final movement and rather subdued conclusion, this terrific symphony was in the capable hands of Robert Hodge who, as always, elicits the very best from CCSO who prove time and again just what an accomplished and inspiring orchestra they are.


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