In a world that has been, and still continues to be, shaped by war, Leamington Sinfonia was invited to this concert to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War, in which over 16 million people lost their lives. Under the heading War & Reflection, the orchestra presented works by Gustav Holst, Sergei Prokofiev and Ralph Vaughan Williams, all of which share the underlying notions of fear and loss. Even though Holst's popular suite The Planets was inspired by the composer's interest in astrology rather than mythology - in Roman myth, Mars is the god of war - this Mars bearing the attribute Bringer of War here, does not fail to convey a sense of imminent danger and doom with its alarming brass lines and threatening timpani rolls. Composed during the war and premiered in its last week, it served the Sinfonia  as a powerful opening with its unsettled col legno over low brass. The orchestra beautifully shaped strong dynamic contrasts and melodic colours despite the work's highly rhythmical structure and dominance of repetition, and even though I had been sceptical as to whether such a piece would dissolve in a church venue, they used the acoustics on site to permeate the nave and instantly pull the listener into a world of unease and danger.

With ears now accustomed to harsh brash patterns, the soft opening bars of the Balcony Scene from Sergei Prokofiev's famous ballet suite Romeo and Juliet appeared to be out of place and did not seem to fit in at first, and yet it bears several signs of conflict. Composed between the First and Secord World War, the composer first struggled for acceptance of the ballet in this native Russia. The Bolshoi turned it down, and it was first performed there only four years after completion. With the plot's background of the hostility between the two families, this second work of the evening brought the topic of loss to a much more personal level. After initial discrepancies in intonation and timing, the orchestra dramatically portrayed the senseless feud with the famous theme of the “Montagues and Capulets”. Wonderfully flowing and deeply emotional flute solos led towards the sad ending of the suite as the star-crossed lovers part.

Ralph Vaughan Williams during the First World War
Ralph Vaughan Williams during the First World War

The programme then moved from the world of war to the stage of reflection in the shape of Ralph Vaughan Williams' Symphony no. 3. Published as “A Pastoral Symphony” (the numeration was added later), it has been much discussed in terms of English landscapes and cows looking over gates (Peter Warlock), yet “it's not lambkins frisking at all”. Instead, Vaughan Williams disclosed that it is in fact wartime music, inspired by his own service with the army, which he joined when war was declared in August 1914 even though he was nearly 42 at the time. As one of the least performed of his symphonies, it contains many of the composers wartime impressions, when he “used to go up night after night with the ambulance wagon at Écoivres, and ...  went up a steep hill and there was a wonderful Corot-like landscape with sunset”.

The first movement's undulating lines and shifting chords give an impression of the landscape and a serene atmosphere, setting the scene for the symphony's generally contemplative mood. As the sun disappears over the horizon, the sound fades into nothing, leaving the listener with a feeling of missing closure. The outlines of the musical landscape were somewhat blurred by intonation differences within single registers, but second movement saw, or rather heard, the characteristic horn solo and the solo cadenza of the Eb trumpet, inspired by another wartime memory of a bugler sounding a seventh instead of an octave, and both the trumpet cadenza with its effect of The Last Post, as well as its echo in the horn, were touchingly played. A stronger sense of unity returned for the Scherzo that, even though not a particularly fast movement, comes close to a ponderous, stolid dance with a folkloristic hue. The symphony's emotional intensity culminates in the wordless soprano cantilena, beautifully sung by Birmingham Conservatoire student, Theodora Raftis. With full-bodied yet gentle voice, her elegy travelled along the pews with great ease and eventually led the orchestra into silence.

Various aspects of war were addressed by this programme, yet despite the symphony's subtle allusions to the horrors its composer had witnessed during service, and the solemn mood with which it closed the concert, it was the opening piece that was most memorable. With its relentless rhythm and the Sinfonia's forceful, energetic playing, it gave a strong impression of the brutality of war, and a sense of unease kept lingering even after the piece had ended as a now silent warning.