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Review: ‘Northern Lights’: Cambridge Graduate Orchestra

Northern Lights was the title of Cambridge Graduate Orchestra’s concert at West Road on Saturday night. Sibelius, Grieg and Tchaikovsky all took inspiration from Boreal latitudes, and no one more than Sibelius in Finlandia, his perennially popular work which reflects the very soul of the Land of a Thousand Lakes.

Conductor Simon Fraser took the orchestra through a spirited rendition of it where a slow passage of tender, melodic lyricism modulates into that rousing and familiar theme which has become in Finland’s music, as Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance in Britain, the representative voice of a nation.

West Road’s gleaming Steinway concert grand which occupied centre stage was brand new when Romanian-born Alexandra Dariescu gave the first ever recital on it in 2015. Arriving on Saturday to play the Grieg Piano Concerto which she had played four years ago was her compatriot, multi-award winning pianist, George Todica.

From the drum roll and strident chords of one of the most well-known openings of the piano repertoire, to its stirring, ever so slightly menacing, conclusion, George Todica’s performance of it was a model of concentration and consistency. His visible enjoyment of this wonderful composition was infectious as he inhabited every single nuance of those beautiful melodies for which it is famous. He was completely at home with the tender lyrical moments of the second movement as he was equally with the powerful sections at the end of the first and third.

George brought a maturity of vision to the piece, especially in the second movement with its suggestion of the tragic loss of something emotionally valuable, together with an aching and persistent yearning to recapture it. His approach to the Finale accentuated the Norwegian temperament of this music which draws on the folk and dance traditions of the country.

Each performance of Grieg’s enduring masterpiece invites us to listen again, and carefully, to appreciate fully what it is that has come to make this inspired music so familiar to us in the first place. George Todica’s engagement offered an irresistible invitation for us to do so.

A deep admirer of the concerto, and much influenced by it, was Rachmaninov who shared with Grieg his ear for pure melody. At times it was possible even to imagine that this could have been Rachmaninov’s own composition. It was appropriate, therefore, that George Todica, after his enthusiastic reception, should have performed in tribute one of the composer’s Preludes as his encore.

After the interval, Conductor Tess Jackson replaced Simon Fraser for a performance of Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony. This tour de force, with its competing registers of optimism and despair, is a challenging undertaking for an orchestra.

It variably contains lovely tunes for horn and woodwind, powerful interventions from brass, and stately, confident and ebullient contributions from the strings. Sometimes, as in the third movement (‘Valse’), we are reminded of Tchaikovsky’s ballet music, whereas in the grandiose march-time Finale an assertive nationalistic pride seems to make this symphony a paean to Russian culture and tradition, as much as Sibelius’s and Grieg’s music honour the cultures and traditions of Finland and Norway respectively.

To honour the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Cambridge University Musical Society, Tchaikovsky would visit Cambridge in the last year of his life where (along with Grieg who was too ill to attend) he was to receive an honorary degree and conduct one of his own compositions at the Guildhall. It was gratifying to think in the course of Saturday’s concert that in the first quarter of the 21st Century the Cambridge Graduate Orchestra is part of a continuing musical tradition with which Tchaikovsky and Grieg themselves would be proud to be associated.


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