It is a wonderful thing to hear the full range and colour of a symphony orchestra used to its full effect during the course of an evening's programme and tonight the BBC Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Finnish conductor Sakari Oramo showed the diversity, versatility and sheer joy which for me really brings the music to life.

Sakari Oramo © Dan Hansson
Sakari Oramo
© Dan Hansson

We started the programme with The Sorcerer's Apprentice by Dukas. Best known for it's interpretation in the 1940 Disney animation Fantasia in which Mickey Mouse, garbed in wizards robes, brings Goethe's magical poem to life, this remains Dukas' best loved work, and rightly so. On the surface the structure is simple, vividly depicting the broom's magical awakening and their subsequent destruction, but the ingenious way in which the themes describe the action is what makes the piece so appealing. The stuttering start, which grabs the audience and draws them into the action from the very beginning, opens out into increasingly cheeky declarations of the unforgettable theme in F minor and gather momentum until the broom is chopped in two. However this is not the end for the poor apprentice - the two halves of the broom get up and start pouring water twice as fast -  cleverly depicted by the theme appearing in imitation with itself in a fugal section. The precise and focused playing of the BBCSO allowed each iteration of the theme to shine through the texture without diminishing the excitement and joy of the music and the final flourish rounded the movement off with a bang.

This was followed by a UK première of Chinese composer Bright Sheng’s Let Fly - Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, performed tonight by Gil Shaham. Inspired by a type of yodelling ‘flying song’ which is found among certain ethnic groups in Southern China, the melodies are distinctly pentatonic and playful, capturing the image of two lovers singing to each other from mountaintop to mountaintop. The theme is passed from violin to winds and back again, with a mysterious and expansive string backdrop, which inspired images of fresh air and wide open spaces. The clarinet solo interweaving with the virtuosic violin playing was particularly magical. The work is continuous, moving from movement to movement without a pause, but the mood swings are palpable and distinct. The dance movement which finishes the piece is a far cry from the contemplative opening, but the whole work hangs together with a simple nursery rhyme which Bright Sheng wrote for his young daughter, FayFay, who provided another inspiration for the work. I was sitting in front of the composer, his wife and his daughter who were all blown away by the performance, and rightly so. 

The second half of tonight’s concert was Bela Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, a piece performed with verve and colour this evening. Written when Bartók was living in the USA in a composer’s retreat in the Adirondack Mountains, the work is a five movement palindromic structure, beginning and ending with large movements in F major and centred around a sombre death song in the middle. The themes are carefully crafted and passed around the orchestra, making use of all the colours and timbres of the instrumental families. Bartók makes full use of the instrumental grouping, using folk inspired dance tunes in the second movement to once more show off the prowess of the individual players - the title of Concerto for Orchestra is certainly apt. The winds in particular deserve a special mention - in the second movement the theme is repeated at different intervals by pairs of solo instruments and this was handily deftly and with great musicality. There was also a wonderful feeling of playfulness and freedom brought to the whole work by Oramo, whose conducting ranged from expansive gestures to bouncing dance moves, which i felt captured and reflected the quicksilver mood swings perfectly. The partnership between conductor and orchestra was a perfect match.

*****