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City of Cambridge Symphony Orchestra concert was 'thoughtfully programmed and superbly delivered'

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Ben Goldscheider, photo by Frank John Jerke, supplied by Sheila von Rimscha
Ben Goldscheider, photo by Frank John Jerke, supplied by Sheila von Rimscha

A performance of three somewhat infrequently heard compositions offered an opportunity for the audience to 'experiment' a little away from more familiar territory at West Road Concert Hall on Saturday (March 24).

The City of Cambridge Symphony Orchestra (CCSO), under conductor Robert Hodge, began its programme with the symphonic poem Tintagel by Arnold Bax, sometime Master of the King’s Music and a prolific composer, although now remembered mostly for this work alone.

Bax was a devotee of all things Celtic, and Tintagel not only celebrates the Cornish topography of the castle’s situation but also its association with Arthurian legend.

A delicately played flute opening is succeeded by a powerful brass theme (perhaps a representation of the castle itself is intended) opening onto wide spatial vistas performed by the strings, and all combining to give a sense of the sea whose swell develops into a crescendo, as it were of waves crashing against the rocks of the wild Cornish coast. CCSO delivered this lovely piece with its customary elan.

Next the orchestra was joined by guest soloist and horn player, Ben Goldscheider, winner of the brass category in the BBC Young Musician Competition in 2016.

Ben performed the Horn Concerto by Penderecki, a complex work which calls for a multiplicity of skills on an equally complex instrument and one usually confined to the back of an orchestra, but in this piece centre stage. As such we were allowed to ‘examine’ it, all gold and glinting in the spotlight, for the thing of beauty that it is.

Early on in the concerto the orchestra’s own horn section performed briefly offstage, so that they and the soloist were in dialogue with each other, producing that sound so characteristic of the horn, and perhaps closest to being aptly defined by Wordsworth when describing the call of the cuckoo, “at once far off and near”.

The work itself is deeply atmospheric. A grave rumbling on the bass drum develops into a succession of different moods, from those of the wild, gothic midnight ride, to others plaintive, sinister and eerie, and with echoes here and there of other compositions such as Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet.

Goldscheider is an absolute magician of the instrument, producing a range of techniques for which the word challenging is an understatement.

After the enthusiastic and well-deserved reception for his performance, the CCSO returned for a presentation of Vaughan Williams’s Job: A Masque for Dancing.

Originally conceived as a ballet, this composition of sustained spiritual beauty is known as an orchestral piece in nine sections, each based upon William Blake’s illustrations for The Book of Job.

After the obligatory technical hitch the illustrations came on stream, so that we were able to follow on a screen the synchronicity of music and plates.

The work contains two remarkable solos, one for saxophone in the Dance of Job’s Comforters, a bluesy piece seductively delivered, and a passage for solo violin, reminiscent of Vaughan Williams’s own The Lark Ascending, performed beautifully by orchestra Leader, Julia Frape.

The CCSO gave a balanced rendition of this engaging, and often mesmerising work, equally accentuating passages of tranquillity and those of passionate intensity, the latter reminding us of Blake’s notions of “experience” and that “energy is eternal delight”.

The hauntingly peaceful music which began the work returns in the final section, as we now see Job, arms outstretched in a prefiguring of the crucified Christ, and finally at rest in a pastoral setting, dogs asleep, sheep nibbling the grass,

But this, as we had seen throughout the previous sections, is a peace that has had to be earned. As Blake, himself, would have put it: “Unorganised innocence, an impossibility. Innocence dwells with wisdom, never with ignorance.”

Appropriately, at this point, the orchestra subsided into silence, a silence that was held – and then broken by prolonged applause for an evening of music thoughtfully programmed and superbly delivered.

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