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Review: City of Cambridge Symphony Orchestra with conductor Richard Hull

There was a brilliant evening of music on Saturday night at West Road Concert Hall with Richard Hull doing a wonderful job at short notice in deputising for CCSO’s conductor Robert Hodge.

Not least among its many strengths is CCSO’s regular inclusion within its programmes of lesser known works by well-known composers, as well as some by composers with whom many have little or no familiarity at all. Recent years have featured music by for example Liadov, Bax, Penderecki, Grofé.

City of Cambridge Symphony Orchestra at West Road Concert Hall.
City of Cambridge Symphony Orchestra at West Road Concert Hall.

Holst (‘Hammersmith’) is another on this list, and Holst was first to feature in the opening of Saturday night’s programme at West Road with a performance of the brief introductory ballet music for his one-act opera ‘The Perfect Fool’ (1918-22).

The opera, premiered in 1923, was apparently less than successful and has been rarely performed. It was broadcast in 1924 in one of the first live transmissions by a BBC then in its infancy. But the brief ten minutes or so of ballet music which stands at the opening of the opera still gets an airing, and served on Saturday as the perfect trial balloon for what this excellent orchestra had up its sleeve for later in the concert.

The full range of orchestration required for ‘The Perfect Fool’ was on display throughout, from the really impressive ‘noise’ of the orchestra representing the ‘earthy’ spirits at the beginning, through the softer passages which reflected the elements of water and air, to the energetic fiery brass, diminishing in sound until the final crash, with its suggestion of the ‘Surprise’ Symphony of Haydn.

Following Holst came ‘Concerto for Marimba No.1’ by the Brazilian composer and percussionist, Ney Rosauro and performed with astonishing skill and musicality by Jordan Ashman, BBC Musician of the Year 2022. Jordan (Impington Village College & Hills Road) joins other local ‘talents’ who have become international stars, Jem Poster (piano, Chesterton), Alison Balsom (trumpet, Hills Road).

Many of us will recall watching Jordan win the televised competition. His musical prowess was obvious then, but to get a proper sense of just how outstanding his talent is we really do have to see it at work in ‘live’ performance. This was our privilege on Saturday.

Jordan coaxed from the marimba every aspect of its versatility. The first movement ‘Greetings’ was at times bewitching, the second, ‘Lament’, had us all mesmerised as he effortlessly (or so he made it seem) found his way through a forest of notes, employing the 4-mallet technique which seemed almost impossible for the human hand to be able to manoeuvre so note-perfectly and faultlessly.

It was refreshing to see a prize-winning virtuoso on a percussive instrument after so long being among the ‘also-rans’ in music competitions. Jordan Ashman is the perfect ambassador for the percussion cause and the enthusiastic audience gave him his deserved ovation.

After the Interval there was a beautiful performance of ‘Ein Heldenleben’ (‘A Hero’s Life’), a lengthy one movement tone poem by Richard Strauss lasting the best part of an hour and which revealed CCSO at the top of their game. In direct line of descent from Berlioz’s Byron-inspired ‘Harold in Italy’, Strauss’s work represents the last gasp of the Hero as an icon of the Romantic Movement.

Strauss had originally provided a descriptive and detailed programme for 6 ‘movements’, but later asked for them to be removed from the score, insisting that he was not the hero of his own composition. This echoes Lord Byron who consistently denied that he was the hero of ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’, until finally throwing in the towel and admitting that he was.

Where each of Berlioz’s descriptions for the 4 movements of his symphony suggest Byron’s poem, his music hardly, if ever, reflects the Byronic verse. Strauss’s music, on the other hand, does reflect his own descriptions and they provide a sort of helpful framework for the listener to make sense of it all.

‘Ein Heldenleben’ contains some huge full orchestral engagement, very obvious in the first set, ‘The Hero’ (in Strauss’s terms), and the fourth, ‘The Hero in Battle’. Each section of the orchestra did sterling work throughout the composition which magnified the nature of their individual participation we had already encountered at the start of the concert in the Holst piece.

Especially outstanding was first violinist Philippa Barton who had provided lovely solo accompaniment to some of Jordan Ashman’s sequences in the Marimba Concerto, and in her very prominent interventions throughout the Strauss symphonic work. Philippa was invited by the amazing Richard Hull to receive the applause rightfully belonging to her at the conclusion of a very enjoyable evening.


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