The Aldeburgh World Orchestra, made up of 119 youngsters with 32 different nationalities, only started playing together 3 weeks before this concert. Armed with this knowledge, the expectations of a concert understandably lessen: you expect it to still be good but not brilliant. But the orchestra did end up playing brilliantly, especially in Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 5.

Aldeburgh World Orchestra © Malcolm Watson
Aldeburgh World Orchestra
© Malcolm Watson

Sir Mark Elder is one of those rare conductors who often makes a short speech before the music begins. As always, tonight’s speeches were illuminating and added to the experience, from a very short explanation of Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem and how it was inspired by war, to a longer introduction of Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 5 and the position Shostakovich was in at the time of writing the symphony. Although some audience members will already know all this, I find it a worthwhile addition to the concert experience.

Benjamin Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem consists of three movements that correspond with movements we see in traditional requiems; Lacrimosa, Dies irae and Requiem aeternam. As opposed to his later and more famous War Requiem, the Sinfonia is a purely instrumental work. The Aldeburgh World Orchestra dived in head first; the grief-stricken Lacrimosa had the violins crying and the brass leading the orchestra into what was almost a funeral march. The Dies irae is one of those pieces by Britten that really shows his kinship with Shostakovich; it would not have been misplaced as a scherzo in one of Shostakovich’s symphonies. As such, the orchestra played it with much fervour and a fast pace, again the brass – and especially the trumpets – playing a major role. The third movement, with its more subdued nature, was awarded the clarity that you would want from the Aldeburgh Orchestra. Above all it sounded like daybreak, like new hope that appears after the violence and intensity of the first two movements.

The Adagio from Mahler’s Symphony no. 10 was treated with similar fervour to the Britten piece. It was during this piece that the whole program came together, as its nature and its inherent emotions are very similar to those of the Britten and the Shostakovich. None of these three pieces are particularly happy, but at the same time there is hope and there is light. It is this element of the Adagio that the Aldeburgh Orchestra truly understood, which made their performance wonderful. Though for me the highlight was definitely Shostakovich’s symphony.

Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 5 is one of his most popular symphonies. The risk of playing it lies in its complexity and the fact that many of the audience members will be very familiar with the piece. The Aldeburgh World Orchestra gave an absolutely top-notch performance, however, which bordered on faultless. The decision Elder made with regards to the tempi and contrasts were spot on, the fourth movement (Allegro non troppo) started off quicker than many conductors play it, which worked beautiful, especially when contrasted with the middle section of the same movement in which the tempo was reduced significantly. Again the brass section was very impressive, although in this symphony the violas also confirmed what I had suspected throughout this concert: they are the backbone of this orchestra, the layer on which everyone else can build.

All in all, I found it quite extraordinary that such an inexperienced orchestra (though the musicians were certainly not inexperienced) were able to deliver such a solid and at times phenomenal performance of these works. Their Shostakovich is up there with the best performances I have seen of the Fifth Symphony, and although this is probably for a large part thanks to Sir Mark Elder, the skill, musicality and passion of the musicians was impressive.

****1