On walking into the foyer of Colston Hall, I was greeted by the sound of a jazz band playing The Girl from Ipanema. This was not quite what I expected from the Colston Hall’s “Symphony Project”, but nevertheless a tasteful and welcoming opening, that created a cheerful atmosphere.

Chloë Hanslip © Benjamin Ealovega
Chloë Hanslip
© Benjamin Ealovega

Colston Hall’s “Symphony Project” series celebrates the power of the symphony by dedicating each of its concert to a key symphonic composer and an orchestra from the composer’s home country. This instalment was the turn of the Czech National Symphony Orchestra and Czech composer Antonín Dvořák’s Fifth and Seventh Symphonies. The two pieces demonstrate the range of Dvořák’s compositional style, with the lesser-known Fifth’s more bohemian, pastoral feel contrasting against the fiercely patriotic and brass-heavy Seventh. Programmed between the two symphonies, was German Romantic composer Max Bruch’s First Violin Concerto. This was perhaps a little incongruous as a programme filler, but it actually turned out to be the highlight of the evening.

It is fair to say that this was British violinist Chloë Hanslip’s concert, in her concerto performance. The English violinist is a rising star who is already reaching international prominence and is only in her mid-twenties. She had her BBC Proms debut ten years ago, while still in her teens. Hanslip was captivating from the moment she walked on stage in her elegant, floor-length white gown laced with sequins. She gave a confident performance with her head held high throughout the piece, and didn’t slack even during her bars of rest. She was absorbed in the music and by the look of her nods and smiles at the orchestra, knew every orchestral entry in the piece. Hanslip did not rush her performance. She leant on the right notes, giving the heartwarming melody of the Adagio the right amount of tension and expression. The tone Hanslip produced as she played her 1737 Guarneri del Gesu violin was mellow, rich and resonant. Hanslip’s instrument projected effortlessly to the back of the concert hall and was very easy on the ear. She gave an air of wisdom behind her playing that defied her young age, and although this was a mature and technically very able performance, it was injected with all the energy of a young performer, and a dash of innocence.

Libor Pešek is a conducting veteran and a legend who has already enjoyed an international career spanning over half a century. After a UK tour two seasons ago with the Czech National Symphony Orchestra (of which he is chief conductor), he is back touring the country with them again, in celebration of their 20th anniversary. Perhaps spurred on by Hanslip’s enthusiasm, he was more dynamic in the concerto than for the two symphonies.

There was a noticeably large age range in the orchestra, from musicians with silver hair to a child playing the triangle. Their performance as a whole was polished and professional to the highest standard, though I felt that they had a little more to give. This was perhaps partly down to the direction of Pešek, who appeared a little tired on stage in both of the Dvořák symphonies. The opening work, the F major Fifth Symphony, was a little lacking in energy, and the Scherzo of the D minor Seventh was somewhat bereft of a fast pace. The orchestral highlight of the evening was undoubtedly the big, bold brass passages in the Seventh Symphony’s Finale. The horns were powerfully resonant, especially at the triumphant reappearance of the symphony’s initial melody of the symphony.

Seeing the Czech National Symphony Orchestra and Chloë Hanslip play the Bruch together was a bit like eating dessert in the middle of a feast – a precious, indulgent and memorable moment.