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Review: launch concert of Cambridge Philharmonic’s new season

Cambridge Philharmonic Orchestra launched their new season of concerts at the weekend
Cambridge Philharmonic Orchestra launched their new season of concerts at the weekend

The first programme of Cambridge Philharmonic’s new season got under way on Saturday night with 3 works perfectly chosen to showcase the full instrumental talents of this distinguished local orchestra.

Cambridge Philharmonic’s conductor, Timothy Redmond, opened the first concert of the season with the Powder Her Face Suite (2017) by Thomas Adès, a composer with whom he has worked closely and by whose music, to judge from his excellent pre-concert talk, he is clearly impassioned.

The Suite is Adès’s own symphonic adaptation of music from Powder Her Face (1995), his hugely successful opera, written when he was only 24, and revealing its composer’s already comprehensive understanding of the operatic mode and virtuosic ability to create dramatic tension and intensity. This suite, lasting about 30 minutes, displays his superb orchestration as well as his inventiveness in making use of allusion to other composers (e.g. Berg, Richard Strauss, Stravinsky, Schubert, Mussorgsky) to provide mordant irony and wit.

The opera itself, based on the melancholy story of society beauty, Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, has gained a certain notoriety through its explicit representation of sex. The scandal which brought about the Duchess’s downfall in 1963 was overshadowed by the Profumo affair of the same year, but those of us around at the time will remember the field day enjoyed by the Press [its suggestive one ‘Mirror’, two ‘Observers’, a ‘Daily Mail’, and any number of ‘Times’] and recalled by the ‘Paperchase’ sequence of the Suite.

The Cambridge Philharmonic was allowed full opportunity to engage with the fascinating and complex structures and dynamics of this powerful work, many of which, such as the tango rhythms which begin and conclude the composition, are deliberately designed to subvert the expectations they set up. Tim Redmond (who better?) took the orchestra expertly through what was only in fact the Powder Her Face Suite’s second UK performance.

Next followed a beautiful presentation of Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme (1877) with acclaimed cello soloist, Richard Harwood. The Variations owe their stylistic form to Mozart but the work is unmistakably Russian, especially in the periodic haunting wind instrument passages.

The exquisite tone in Richard Harwood’s hands of his late seventeenth-century Rugeri cello was particularly noticeable, supplementing the beauty of the composer’s melodic gift in this deeply expressive work. Richard rewarded the packed audience’s enthusiasm with a Bach Sarabande as encore.

The concert concluded with Sheherazade by Rimsky-Korsakov (1888). This wonderful orchestral work is a broad treatment of extracts from the Arabian Nights collection where Sheherazade preserves herself from almost certain death at the hands of her Sultan husband, prolonging for 1001 nights the captivating stories she tells him and eventually managing to appease him.

The Cambridge Philharmonic again gave an outstanding performance. In Rimsky Korsakov’s ability to match his ideas to instrumentation there was a clear parallel with the beginning in Adès’s similar ability to make his orchestration unfold a narrative which did not depend on avocal line.

Especially poignant in Rimsky-Korsakov were the periodic interventions of the solo violin leitmotif standing for Sheherazade herself and her tireless stories. Appropriately, at the conclusion of the piece as the solo violin of orchestra leader, Steve Bingham, faded into silence, it was goodbye not only to Sheharazade but also to Steve himself who is stepping down after 20 years sterling service with the Cambridge Philharmonic. This concert was a fitting end to both his and the orchestra’s outstanding musicality.

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