The excellent “Festival Soundbites” podcasts afford potential audience members an opportunity to hear about the raison d'être of a programme or even an ensemble. Formed in 2011, “I, Culture Orchestra” consists of young musicians (under 25) from Poland and the Eastern Partnership States: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. The founding aim is “to foster positive change in the cultural and social development of the countries of Eastern Europe and Southern Caucasus”. Their conductor, 26-year-old Ukranian-born Kirill Karabits, spoke enthusiastically of the challenge of blending together musicians rich in technical experience but perhaps less so in orchestral experience.

Kirill Karabits © Sussie Ahlburg
Kirill Karabits
© Sussie Ahlburg

Rehearsal time being limited one might worry that homogeneity of section might prove elusive. Any such worry melted in the opening bars of Andrzej Panufnik's Sinfonia Elegiaca (1957 revised 1966). The cellos and basses sounded magnificent. In his own programme note, Panufnik (1914-91) described the beginning of the seamless, three-movement “anti-war protest” as expressing “sorrow for the victims of war”. The opening lament yields to a lyrical theme for solo cor anglais which was beautifully delivered. This Molto andante movement is a slow burner and the build up was expertly paced.

The timpanist, having had to execute what is surely one of the quietest tremolos in the repertoire, then featured much more explosively in the Molto allegro, described by the composer as a “protest against inhumanity, madness and violence”. This very cinematic movement kept all four percussionists busy. There were also striking contributions from the very confident horn and string sections. The dramatic close featured an unmissable and lasting cymbal crash.

This crash subsiding, the closing Molto andante featured very fine string playing in what Panufnik described as “material of contemplative character”. The string section's striking legato playing leaving no time-gap between notes, there was an additional glue to this passage where glissando playing allowed no pitch-gap. The following section's odd organ sound turned out to be the woodwind section whose unusual scoring and harmonies added a note of bitterness after the strings’ tenderly pensive music. The work subsided as gradually as it had begun, returning to the barely audible timpani tremolo. This was a very fine performance of a work by a sadly neglected composer who, having experienced war, occupation and the human cost of political ambitions, would surely have resonated with the year's festival theme of culture and conflict.

The remaining piece in this concert of two unequal halves was Shostakovich’s 70 minute Symphony no. 7 in C major “Leningrad”, Op.60. Rather than a reflection on war, this work was, on 9 August 1942, an act of war. Seven months into the German forces’ 28 month siege of Leningrad, the work was broadcast live in Russia, overseas and, via outdoor loudspeakers, to the besieging troops. The opening bars afforded another opportunity for this orchestra’s fine string sound to ring out, immediately contrasted by shrieking woodwind. This is in no sense a pejorative use of the word and the material shortly after reminded us of their ability to deliver the sweet and the lyrical – especially the piccolo.

Soon the seated side-drum player began one of music's longest ostinato-crescendos. The thickening texture of short phrases which fills many minutes thereafter has influenced the scoring of many of cinema’s light-hearted moments. The spirit of mocking defiance, magnified by the piano's jolly riff, was wonderfully captured here. Woodwind entered in ones and twos, followed by quite a spike in energy when the strings entered, further amplified by the mighty brass and percussion sections. In one of the final iterations of the ‘main riff,’ stepwise inner lines produced cinematic sounds reminiscent of low sirens and unwelcome aircraft. The peak of the movement was explosive.

Following the beautifully played oboe solo which opens the second movement, I became aware for the first time of the possibility of pizzicato strings with finely graded dynamics – nicely done! Watching Karabits in this movement I also became aware of varied conducting styles. Throughout the concert he exhibited encouraging but not overly prescriptive direction. Then, in one contrasting moment, he beat every note of a poignantly executed violins’ rallentando.

Highlights of the third movement included deft handling of wildly contrasting textures, an excellent flute solo, a section for violas soli and a cinematic central climax followed by music which seemed somehow to communicate a feeling of triumph, but at considerable cost.

At the close of the symphony the near-capacity audience were rewarded with Garayev's “Waltz” from his suite Seven Beauties a giddy, ironic mix of Johann Strauss and Nino Rota.

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