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Review: City of Cambridge Symphony Orchestra and Chorus

The City of Cambridge Symphony Orchestra with Conductor Robert Hodge performed two broadly related compositions on Saturday evening at West Road, an early twentieth-century orchestral work, Sinfonietta by Janáĉek, and Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.

Providing almost a kind of guide to the orchestra in itself, the Sinfonietta foregrounds a whole range of instruments.

Nationalistic and militaristic in conception, and written as a celebration of freedom for Czechoslovakia, in much the same way as Chopin wrote his Polonaises as a defiant statement of Polish nationalism, Janáĉek’s work begins with a commanding proclamation entitled Fanfare on ranked brass with timpani accompaniment.

CCSO conductor Robert Hodge. (28212771)
CCSO conductor Robert Hodge. (28212771)

Some members of the audience may have recalled Granada Television’s Crown Court series in the 70s and early 80s which used as its title music part of the tune from Sinfonietta’s 4th movement, a staccato brass announcement referring us back to the opening one.

Perhaps a fanfare by Janáĉek was considered particularly appropriate by the series’ producers at a time when the arrival on circuit of the Lord Chief Justice at an Assize court used to be heralded by a trumpet fanfare.

CCSO did full justice (no pun intended) to the demands of this robust and exuberant piece, written by Janáĉek at the age of 72, a man looking back with unabated verve and spirit on his own and his country’s history.

Sinfonietta is a complex, haunting and varied work rising at times to noisy passages of great power, but sometimes also lowering its temperature for intervals of more quiet mood, such as in the lyrical opening of its 5th movement.

Next, Robert Hodge introduced soprano Aimée Fisk to sing a rather lovely musical setting by CCSO’s former Conductor, Leon Lovett, of Robert Bridges’ poem, Nightingales. This was in recognition of the Josephine Baker Trust which sponsors singers at the Royal College of Music and the Royal Academy of Music, as well as all solo singers with the CCSO, including Aimée.

Her performance of Nightingales was flawless, and a tender interval of great beauty and clarity before, one imagines for any orchestra and chorus, the iconic and intimidating work that would shortly follow it.

As noted above with Janáĉek and Chopin, music has often been enlisted in support of political standpoints, and on this particular weekend it was almost impossible to keep the two apart.

CCSO conductor Robert Hodge. (28212774)
CCSO conductor Robert Hodge. (28212774)

At Cambridge Corn Exchange on the previous evening The European Union Chamber Orchestra had concluded its concert a mere 90 minutes before BREXIT was ‘declared’. And at the conclusion of CCSO’s Choral Symphony there was no shortage of EU flag waving by committed pockets of EU ‘Remainers’.

But as the programme notes remarked: ‘Although music has been used and abused in the interests of political and patriotic causes down the ages, it doesn’t have to be’.

And indeed, as has often been said, music is the one great art form that can dispense with all national barriers, something implicit in Leonard Bernstein’s substitution of Freiheit (‘freedom’) for Freude (‘joy’) in his two East and West Berlin performances of Beetoven’s 9th Symphony to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

CCSO’s delivery of the Choral Symphony involved the combined and admirable forces of 4 Cambridge college choirs (Corpus Christi, Fitzwilliam, Girton and St Catharine’s) under Chorus Master, Edward Wickham.

The distinguished soloists, Soprano, Clare Tunney, Mezzo-soprano, Amy Holyland, and Tenor, Peter Harris were introduced by Bass, Ossian Huskinson’s supremely powerful ‘O Freunde’, surely one of the most telling of all transitions in music.

In fact those so well-known opening lines (as far as the exclamatory ‘Freude’) were written, as pointed out, by Beethoven (something I for one didn’t know) and not by Schiller.

In all, it was a mighty performance and another memorable milestone in a repertoire of which CCSO should be duly proud.


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