David Curtis displayed his usual deceptively effortless ease on the podium. Perhaps this felt like a handy warm-up for the marathon that he would run, hard on the heels of this concert, in Stratford-upon-Avon, the Orchestra of the Swan’s home territory. He’d be racing to raise funds for musical outreach work in schools, one of OOTS’s laudable trademarks, along with their championing of new and contemporary works. Curtis introduced the performance as a “Welsh sandwich”, as, surrounded by English staples, the centrepiece had been written in 2011 (for tonight’s soloist) by Welshman Huw Watkins, currently their Composer-in-the-House thanks to the Royal Philharmonic Society’s prestigious award. The unmistakably English setting for this flagship performance at the 7th Hagley Festival was in a picturesque village church in a corner of rural Worcestershire, with the sounds of a cricket match occasionally heard beyond the stained glass. Curtis couldn’t remember whether this was their fourth or fifth visit to the Festival, but there were no such issues of timing when it came to the impeccable playing.

David Curtis
David Curtis

The warmth of the strings in the cosy surroundings was immediately apparent as they launched into the gaiety of Holst’s St Paul’s Suite. Holst, initially finding it difficult to earn a living from composing and performing, had become a teacher, and had remained so even after the success of The Planets. Immediately preceding that work, this suite was written at St Paul’s Girls’ School in Hammersmith, where a sound-proof studio had been built for him. The music has a characteristic English bucolic feel, with infectious dance-like rhythms. The effective use of definition and dynamics in the opening Jig brought the melody to life, and exciting acceleration was matched by a poised rallentando. Leader David Le Page’s violin solo in the “Ostinato” was finely balanced against muted pizzicato strings, with well-handled dynamics adding drama. The quiet start to the folk dance final movement, “The Dargason”, had everyone on the edge of their seats in anticipation of the stronger, bolder sounds ushered in, the familiar Greensleeves melody combining with the first theme in joyous energy.

Worcestershire son Edward Elgar was an accomplished violinist, and his Serenade for Strings is a deeply personal work, a tribute to his new bride Alice. It includes facets which herald his later work, including the 12/8 metre, E minor tonality, and the emotion of the central slow movement, its dignity highlighted tonight by sumptuous legato playing. Throughout, the orchestra listened to each other with great sensitivity, from the outset the lightness of the swaying introduction evoking a romantic atmosphere. The music was at its most luscious with all players involved at full tilt, but culminating in an exquisitely placed ending, leaving the applause slow to arrive as nobody seemed willing to break the spell.

Now for the Welsh filling. Curtis introduced Watkins’ Concertino for solo violin and string orchestra as a piece of around twelve minutes – probably a wise move given that an audience of otherwise traditional repertoire likes to know what’s in store with more avant-garde fare – and dubbing it a 21st-century rondo incorporating frantic activity contrasted with periods of calm. Tamsin Waley-Cohen – Associate Artist with Orchestra of the Swan this year – possessed the stage as she tore energetically into a fast spiky theme, the orchestra supporting in contrasting and controlled stillness. After a more lyrical section, the first theme was developed and extended with further improvisation, painting a sense of desperation at the climax, leading then to absolute calm in a slow poignant ending. Waley-Cohen showed an impressive command of a range of techniques, rich tone wrung out through intense concentration, and the audience was happy to anticipate her return after the interval.

Her first entry into Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending seemed to materialise out of nowhere, with the orchestra lending an undulating undercurrent of air beneath the wings, then leaving her to fly solo, during which you could have heard a feather fall. Notwithstanding the impressionistic nature of the composition, its pentatonic scale patterns and cadenzas without bar lines, there was supreme control through quieter passages and in delightful ornamentation alike. The sweetly soaring notes were like the sun coming out, and the delicacy of the hushed conclusion had us envisaging the skylark disappearing into the distance. Definitely a soloist to watch out for again.

Benjamin Britten went a bit overboard in echoing his name’s alliteration when it came to the titles within his early Simple Symphony, which comprises “Boisterous Bourrée”, “Playful Pizzicato”, “Sentimental Sarabande” and “Frolicsome Finale”. However, with its clever contrasts and memorable tunes, this did make for a lovely melodic and light-hearted conclusion to a charming programme. Surely David Curtis sees similar success for his sore sponsored soles surviving Stratford’s streets!

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