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Review: Cambridge Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus

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The first half of Cambridge Philharmonic Orchestra’s programme on Saturday evening featured its Chorus in a performance of similarly conceived compositions: Libby Larsen’s ‘Alaska Spring’ and Jonathan Dove’s ‘The Passing of the Year’. Both works were beautifully accompanied on piano by Fran Hills and conducted by Tom Primrose.

‘Alaska Spring’ is a paean to the cyclical forces of nature, taking 5 poems from the collections of Tom Sexton, the Poet Laureate of Alaska, and celebrating the hardy persistence of the natural world as it emerges from the grip of a northern winter.

We heard 3 from the set of 5 chosen by the American composer Libby Larsen who had been commissioned to write them for an ensemble’s 25th anniversary concert. I particularly liked the one from ‘Juncos’ where the chorus attempts to imitate the kind of natural Morse code of chattering sparrows. The exchanges could perhaps have been a little more tight and up-front in reproducing a tad more convincingly the ‘telegraph key; dit…dit…dit’ of the calls. But a good idea nonetheless.

Cambridge Philharmonic performed at West Road Concert Hall (56860425)
Cambridge Philharmonic performed at West Road Concert Hall (56860425)

‘The Passing of the Year’, a song cycle written by Jonathan Dove in memory of his mother followed on. It’s a journey through the cycle of the seasons creating musical settings of seven more or less well-known poems by, among others, figures such as Blake and Tennyson.

The presentation of ‘In Time of Plague’ (topical again) by Elizabethan poet Thomas Nashe held our attention in its stark presentation of the last things. There has always been a dispute over the line sung by the Chorus as ‘Brightness falls from the air.’ It may be that Nashe wrote ‘hair’. I’ve always been in the latter camp. ‘Hair’ is much truer to the poem and in keeping with its sense.

The Cambridge Phil’s Chorus in their deeply felt and enjoyable performances of both compositions reminded us again that poetry originates not with words, but with rhythm and with musical and lyrical expression of various kinds. Even today the words of songs are still referred to as ‘lyrics’ (lyre), and some of the Blake poems that were included he himself called ‘Songs’.

After the interval Tim Redmond, Cambridge Phil’s long-time and now former Conductor, returned to his platform for the final work of the programme, Symphony No. 2 in E minor by Rachmaninov. For the orchestra to have also been involved in Part 1, knowing that this demanding symphony was yet to be performed in Part 2 was perhaps something that had been considered in the concert planning.

The Symphony with its variety of moods and sentiments seems, as we listen, to invite us to share in the very process of its composition, its unified form impressively accentuated by Tim Redmond. There was outstanding musicianship from the orchestra in the multiplicity of both supercharged and quiet passages, while a special part of the prolonged applause was reserved of course for the clarinettist who takes centre stage for the Adagio’s ‘big tune’.

Rachmaninov had an ear for pure melody, and an audience’s anticipation of this tune (as for the 18th of the composer’s ‘Paganini Variations’) is always almost tangible. The length of the lovely movement, through which the clarinet weaves its constant spell, allows us to reflect on the sheer power of music to enchant, and Saturday evening’s experience was no exception. ‘All art’, as Walter Pater said, ‘constantly aspires towards the condition of music’, and what we heard on Saturday evening seemed amply to demonstrate the truth of that remark.


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