Programming a concert must be perhaps one of the most enjoyable ways to spend one's time. The examining of a theme, finding a thread for the concert to follow, with such a vast library to choose from, and with all the offerings of orchestral tone colour, can create an enthralling journey for the audience. The delectable choices made by the Britten Sinfonia were a glorious mix of 20th century Americana, presented in partnership with the fabulous mezzo-soprano, Sarah Connolly. Having witnessed the chemistry between Connolly and the Britten Sinfonia at the 2013 BBC Proms where they chose one of Britten’s last works, the cantata Phaedra, it was undoubtedly going to be the start to a blossoming relationship and one which they have evidently enjoyed already in 2015 as they’ve visited Cambridge, London and Norwich.

Sarah Connolly © Peter Warren
Sarah Connolly
© Peter Warren

With perhaps only Copland's Appalachian Spring being the one recognisable piece on the poster, it's perhaps unsurprising that the audience was sadly lacking in numbers. For those in attendance on a cold January night, perhaps having the willingness to learn more from such recognised performers, the programming was a most enjoyable journey.

From the chilled air outside St Andrew’s Hall, the audience was instantly drawn in by the rich warm sounds of the strings in Elliott Carter’s Elegy for Strings. The brief but effective and uncontroversial work introduced the audience to the theme of the concert, with more than a nod to the orchestra's namesake. Written in 1943, originally as a piece for viola and piano, the Elegy perhaps can be compared to the third movement of Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem composed just three years earlier whilst Britten himself was living in America. Its quiet reflection but heartfelt expressiveness quite disguise its more sinister undertones of lamenting the loss of life through war.

Connolly took to the stage for three songs by that masquerading New Yorker, Richard Rodney Bennett (sorely missed since his death in 2012). Snappy rhythms, superb orchestration and a real sense of panache from both soloist and orchestra made the Foxtrot, Slow Foxtrot and Tango from The History of Thé Dansant stand out as some of the best of their genre. The wistful coda at end was most effective and brought one back to reality having been transported through postcards of a holiday of a bygone era.

Copland's Appalachian Spring, composed in 1944 for Martha Graham’s ballet (simply entitled Ballet for Martha), was first presented to me as an impressionable teenager and both versions – the fully orchestrated one and the chamber version – have been firm favourites for many years. Here, the Britten Sinfonia performed a masterclass in ensemble playing, with incredibly tight entries, clear communication and a beautiful sense of line brought out each section of the ballet, whilst continuing to take the audience on a sensual tour through the wild torrents of rhythms and the soft lyrical lines of interweaving strings and woodwind. The terrific folk dance section sparkled as the notes sprang off the page, and was that a ‘whoop’ heard from the violin section? The pianist, Iain Farrington, stood out as he blended the piano with the colours of the orchestra throughout the lilting images of the dance and the soft tender passages of stillness that evoke the expanse of the Pennsylvanian landscape in which the ballet is set. Copland’s use of the Shaker tune was brought out well, with leader Jacqueline Shave ensuring that the orchestra was totally in tune with her direction and passion. The final, almost hymn like ending after the playing of the Shaker tune, was soft and reverent, and an exquisite moment of peace.

Perhaps the most avant-garde piece in the programme was, ironically, over 80 years old, yet sounded as if it could have been presented for examination at a conservatoire today. Written almost as a harmonic exercise for strings, Ruth Crawford Seeger’s Andante for Strings nicely balanced what had otherwise been a fairly diatonic half, with its extraordinary build up of tone colour and expression. Maybe this dissonance was what the audience had feared? The skill and expression from the players however was well controlled by Jacqueline Shave.

Connolly's second song cycle of the evening returned to Copland who, like Carter, was composing right up until his final days. The Eight Poems of Emily Dickinson bore more than a little resemblance to Copland’s orchestration of Appalachian Spring, but here the Britten Sinfonia added more brass and woodwind to their rank and file, producing a sound that began to infiltrate even the smallest corners of the Hall. Connolly’s expression and wonderful narrative style drew the audience into the five songs they had decided to perform from the set. Yet again, Copland’s ability to paint the wide American skies and pioneering spirit was plain to hear and a joy to behold.

In this world that constantly dwells on negative news, and with a concert audience perhaps seeking an opportunity for escapism, it was a clever gesture for the concert not to finish as advertised with the rather morbid words of a burial service in Going to Heaven! but to finish with two examples of the great American songbook. This time the dream’s on me by Mercer and Arlen, coupled with Gershwin’s “But not for me” from the 1930 musical Girl Crazy. The sumptuous strings, stylish jazz trombone solo and piano tinkling, coupled with Connolly’s clear enjoyment of the genre made for a superb encore.

Is this the precursor to a great American songbook tour? Now that's sure to be an audience winner.