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Review: Cambridge Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus

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The concert by the Cambridge Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus at West Road on Saturday evening (their first since March 2020) represented a more agreeable form of ‘internationalism’ than that of the current pandemic which had silenced them over the months. Conductor Tim Redmond, while pointing out that the music was a celebration of British-Czech friendship, seemed also to have been guided by overlapping influences of literary and musical inheritances on composers he had chosen for the programme.

The Philharmonic Chorus under their genial Chorus Master, Tom Primrose, commenced with Six Moravian Choruses arranged by Janáĉek after composition by Dvořák. These attractive, not often-heard, songs on time-honoured themes (the natural world, affairs of the heart etc.), sometimes light-hearted, sometimes more earnest, were brightly and commendably performed in their original language to the enjoyable piano accompaniment of Dawn Hardwick.

There followed four of the six Songs of Farewell by Hubert Parry, widely known for his composition of the music to Blake’s Jerusalem, and which are settings of various poems that focus, practically at the end of his life, on the composer’s yearning for a happier, celestial state of being. The CPO Chorus again did more than justice to these lovely motets, typified by their affecting performance of Walter Scott’s biographer and son-in-law, John Gibson Lockhart’s poem, ‘There is an old belief.’

Cambridge Philharmonic performed at West Road Concert Hall (52925618)
Cambridge Philharmonic performed at West Road Concert Hall (52925618)

After the interval came an early work by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, the popularity of whose music continued well after his death and into the mid-C20th. His Ballade in A minor with its impassioned and recurring marching theme, a slower section, and a further more Romantic one (redolent of a credit roll at the end of a movie), although nothing short of being worshipped apparently by luminaries like Elgar and Henry Wood, left this reviewer somewhat puzzled at such adulation, albeit a work performed by CPO with all appropriate zest and sensitivity.

The 9th Symphony of Dvořák ‘From the New World’ (composer’s title) is one of the best-known and most loved of all symphonies, giving musical voice to the very essence of a country which, although hard to define, is as recognisably ‘American’ as Parry’s or Elgar’s voice is ‘English’, or Tchaikovsky’s ‘Russian’.

Just as Coleridge-Taylor was inspired by African and African-American musical traditions, Dvořák too found inspiration in the music he borrowed from his native Bohemia (Slavonic Dances) as well as in the African-American folk and spiritual traditions; the flute solo in the first movement of his symphony recalls the spiritual ‘Swing Low’, while a Native-American influence is apparent within the 3rd movement scherzo, and taken from a dance sequence in Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha – inspiration too, of course, for Coleridge Taylor’s most famous work, Hiawatha’s Wedding.

Listening to the familiar strains which reflect the composer’s celebration of open space and New World optimism (Dvořák had been employed to foster a new American school of music), it is difficult not to think of how that optimism, less than a decade before, was already being shown by Mark Twain as compromised. In Huckleberry Finn the natural beauty of the unspoiled Mississippi landscape is at odds with the racial oppression, sharp practice, feuding and murder, endemic among its human inhabitants.

Similar melancholy had been present in Parry’s motets, composed during the First World War which, bringing conflict with his beloved Germany and the loss of so many of his talented students, filled their composer with the despair that probably hastened his death in 1918, the year which saw the onset too of the Spanish ‘flu pandemic.

In Cambridge Philharmonic’s performance of the 9th Symphony was evidence again of just what a powerful and uniformly accomplished orchestra this is, and the capacity audience’s appreciation was obvious. It was marvellous to see the return of CPO on Saturday evening with a bravura presentation from both orchestra and chorus alike. ‘From the New World’, while certainly giving us much to enjoy, was a programme that also gave us much to reflect on.


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