No hangovers yesterday in Cheltenham, the night after the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra's gala concert at the Royal Albert Hall. Sixty players asserted themelves in Beethoven's overture to Fidelio under the strict, determined direction of conductor Matthew Halls, making his RPO debut.

Callum Smart © Patrick Allen, operaomnia.co.uk
Callum Smart
© Patrick Allen, operaomnia.co.uk

The RPO's 70th birthday celebrations are drawing big crowds. Cheltenham Town Hall was packed in anticipation of hearing a rising star, Callum Smart, tackling Bruch's Violin Concerto no. 1 in G minor. After the dramatic Fidelio, Halls conducted without a baton, involving and encouraging the orchestra with telling hand movements during Grieg's Two Elegiac Melodies, Op.34, demonstrating the huge contrast between the two opening pieces. Grieg's work shows magnificent scoring, full of tender touches, and was beautifully played with flowing strings, notably the cello contributions with the counter melodies.

The scene was set for the 20-year old Callum Smart, fresh from a further period of intense study at Indiana University Jacobs School of Music with Mauricio Fuks. With an earlier background of tutoring by Maciej Rakowski at Chetham's School of Music, Smart has mapped out the way he wishes his distinctive approach to the violin repertoire to develop, basing it on a belief that the composer's score is paramount, the very first point of reference. Too many interpretations fail to recognise this concerto as a very serious piece in the violin repertoire – its richness very Brahmsian and not a piece to be treated lightly. Smart pays tribute to Fuks and his efforts to help develop a distinctive style. It should be remembered that Fuks studied early in his career with Jascha Heifetz. Smart combines brilliant technique with the confidence to take risks.

As debuts go, this RPO one was notable for conductor achieving a fine balance between Smart's individualistic playng and permitting the orchestra to play at full tilt when the composer gives the soloist down time. Further distinctive performances of the violin repertoire will undoubtedly solidify Smart's career as a soloist. Working well with the engaging Halls, the packed Town Hall audience was privileged to listen to a prodigiously gifted performer whose rhythmic alertness and purity of intonation is to be admired.

Mendelssohn's Symphony no. 3, the “Scottish”, tested Halls' competence to achieve the changing tempos required in the mournful first movement which shows the composer's darker side, the effervescent scherzo, stormy Allegro and the finale's warlike thrust evoking the wild landscapes of Scotland's coastlands and mountains. With horns excelling, the woodwind section too, the disciplined cellos and basses dictated tempos and the finale enjoyed precise, exciting entries from trumpets. With energy levels at a peak, the brass sections continued to deliver remarkable clarity in this fierce movement before a majestic close with clarinets and bassoons echoing each other.