This past weekend offered a taste of the great British summer with temperatures soaring into the high 20s. And yet, despite the lure of an afternoon spent reclining on the sunny beaches of the South Coast, large crowds flocked to the Lighthouse in Poole to watch the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra perform in their annual Benevolent Fund Concert, led by Portuguese conductor Rui Pinheiro. Having grown up on the South Coast, I am no stranger to the sheer class that this coastal town offers in terms of high-quality, live classical music, and the Bournemouth Symphony are undoubtedly the main attraction.

Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra

The stifling heat inside the auditorium was somewhat uncomfortable, yet the orchestra appeared unaffected as they kicked off the afternoon program with a lively and energetic performance of Dvořák’s Carnival Overture. This overture is one of three that Dvořák composed during the winter of 1891-92, with the intention of evoking three contrasting moods. The Carnival Overture has become the most popular of the three, representing the joy and vitality of life. At times, the acoustics of the hall created some balance issues during the louder sections of the piece, resulting in a certain lack of sparkle. However, the lyrical section of the overture was remarkably well balanced, with notable credit due to Rebecca Kozam for her simplistic yet serene cor anglais playing. On the other end of the spectrum, Matt King’s vigorous and powerful tambourine playing provided ample assistance in creating a rousing end to the piece. Any heat-induced fatigue from the audience members was brushed aside, this ebullient rendition ensuring that everyone was now sat upright and attentive in their seats.

Polish pianist Peter Jablonski joined the orchestra for Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor, a work that has deservedly become one of the most famous in the orchestral repertoire. The soloist performed with unassuming assuredness, excelling with poise and charm in the more expressive and sensitive sections. His sound was occasionally shrouded by the orchestra, which appeared to be an unfortunate result of the acoustics. The second movement, though, was once again perfectly balanced and the orchestra provided perhaps the most beautiful rendition of this movement that I have heard to date. Led admirably by Pinheiro, they achieved varying degrees of sensitivity with great subtlety, expanding the sound when necessary, yet always matching that which was set by the soloist. There were some superb solo efforts throughout, in particular the dark, resonant sounds of the principal cellist Jesper Svedberg. Jablonski was finally permitted to let loose in the final movement which captured the rustic essence of this Norwegian dance.

The final piece of the afternoon was Saint-Saëns’ Symphony no. 3 in C minor. Widely considered his most ambitious orchestral work, this ‘organ symphony’ was modelled on ‘symphonic metamorphosis’, a compositional principle that his close friend Franz Liszt used when composing his symphonic poems. It was Liszt for whom this symphony was to be dedicated, but he passed away before it was performed, and so it was subsequently inscribed ‘in memory’. After setting the mood with the opening adagio, the orchestra launched into an impressively meticulous passage carried by the deftly articulate winds and strings. Once again, they were at their most sublime in the adagio section that concludes the first movement. It was exquisitely played, romantic yet solemn. The entrance of the organ initially seemed a little overbearing, more noticeably with certain resonant bass notes, but this did not spoil the overall beauty. Principal clarinettist Kevin Banks created a exquisitely blended duet with the horns and trombones throughout the earlier stage of the adagio section which floated effortlessly over the blanket of warm sound created by the strings.

As was Saint-Saëns’ intention, the most resounding moment of the work was left until the very end of the piece. Here, the full force of the orchestra and organ are unleashed and in this performance, the dynamic sound was taken right to the edge, yet never pushed too extreme. The effect created a powerfully triumphant end to a sunny afternoon programme that left the audience feeling alive and rejuvenated.