Glasgow’s West End Festival is a cornucopia of some 400 events throughout June including comedy, historical walks, theatre and all sorts of music with a large classical content. The range covers orchestras, recitals, choral works and even a non-religious event for the pure enjoyment of singing Big Hymns. As part of the festival, the splendid Scottish Diaspora Tapestry was on display round the walls of St Mary’s Cathedral, an atmospheric setting for Amicus Orchestra’s summer concert.

Robert Baxter and Tobias Ringborg in rehearsal © Bill Kean
Robert Baxter and Tobias Ringborg in rehearsal
© Bill Kean

Amicus is a chamber orchestra formed to bridge the gap between amateur and professional orchestras, providing a top quality ensemble for experienced amateurs, music students and professionals. For this concert of lush romantic music from Humperdinck, Bruch and Dvořák, pieces all written within 25 years of each other, Amicus’ chamber forces were augmented by some brass players from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

The guardian angel horns announced Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel overture, a brooding piece opening out to a tour of the lively themes of the opera. Conductor Robert Baxter drew intricate detail from the players, balancing the sections well in a church acoustic which can become muddy in full heroic orchestral passages. The lively woodwind, solid brass and sweeping strings gave an energetic account of Humperdinck’s captivating score, folk music with a burnished Wagnerian edge.

In Glasgow, we are accustomed to seeing Tobias Ringborg in the pit conducting Scottish Opera, so it was intriguing to hear him as a soloist perform Bruch’s Violin Concerto no. 1 in G minor taking a break from conducting the current production of Scottish Opera’s Magic Flute. Ringborg gave an intense account of this popular piece, moving from energetic muscular double-stopping verve to sublime beauty in the Adagio showcasing his instrument’s warm timbre in a sensitive account. Baxter again balanced the orchestra carefully, letting them fly in the strong tutti passages, but sensitive to the soloist throughout. Ringborg’s face was a study in concentration, giving little away to Baxter’s watchful sideways glances adding the exciting frisson of unpredictability which makes live performance so compelling. The piece built to a thrilling finale, orchestra and soloist in surging passionate harmony.

Tobias Ringborg © Bill Kean
Tobias Ringborg
© Bill Kean

The final work was Dvořák’s sunny Symphony no. 8 in G major, composed on the occasion of his election to the Bohemian Emperor Franz Joseph Academy of Science, Literature and Arts. It is relaxed, cheerful and lyrical, drawing on infectious Bohemian folk melodies, but passionate at times, the Amicus strings surging like a summer whirlwind across a flowery meadow. Baxter brought controlled measured playing, the warm rich divisi cellos and horns shaping the calm scene, bird calls also arriving before the thrilling full orchestral passages opened the work out, the energetic players showing huge commitment, leaning into the music. Expressive pointed woodwinds added a spicy edge, with piccolo and a cor anglais making a brief appearance, delightfully jaunty oboes and clarinets and lovely solo flute playing. The adagio was warm, but given a steely edginess in the detached chord passage. A lively waltz in the third movement was topped out by summery notes from the flute before the opening trumpet fanfare bouncing round the cathedral walls announced the final Allegro with its variations and Slavonic dance. Baxter carefully allowed each section to shine through creating a tapestry of contrasts, the string sound building the work to an exciting exuberant finish with a brass and timpani flourish.

The enjoyment of the players was written on their faces, their animated performance and steely focus on the music. And what a joy to see Ringborg smuggled into the back of the violins for the Dvořák, a conductor getting a rare chance to enjoy being in the rank and file, his beaming smile as wide as any of them.

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