I thought it best, given the sub-zero temperatures, to get out of the house and save on heating bills, and so I consulted www.bachtrack.com to see what might be on, and was pleasantly surprised to see that Sibelius 2nd was to be performed in a local church. ‘That’ll do nicely,’ thought I – and so it did, but my modest expectations for amateur orchestra in a local church were exceeded by a considerable margin - indeed, they were blown apart.

Owen Webb (Harlequin) and Gillian Keith (Zerbinetta) - Credit Richard H Smith
Owen Webb (Harlequin) and Gillian Keith (Zerbinetta) - Credit Richard H Smith

The first half of the concert consisted of an audio-visual spectacular, composed, conducted and presented by a spirited young woman, Imogen Heap. She had solicited a collection of short films of ‘nature’ – mountainous landscapes, lakes, waterfalls, shoals of fish, close-ups of insects going about their business, birds, small mammals, large mammals, clouds, sunsets and sunrises – all that sort of thing, not a human being nor a human construction in sight. These had been assembled into themed montages by Thomas Ermacora, with titles such as ‘Chaos’, ‘Grandeur’, ‘Flow’, of a duration that had at some stage been fashioned to accord with a rising and falling Fibionacci series: it began and ended with two pieces of one minute’s duration, built to a central section of 8 minutes. Before the performance Imogen Heap cheerfully asked for a key to commence in, and some wag in the audience offered C sharp minor. As a consequence the orchestra provided a low C sharp tremolando, and we, the audience, were asked to sing along – it sounded for a moment if we were about to commence on the C sharp minor symphony that Bruckner never wrote. Then those in the balcony were required to do some atmospheric heavy breathing.

The music provided for the succeeding sections was always enjoyable, and often memorable. Early on there were some distinctive motives on the brass that put me in mind of Strauss’s Alpine Symphony, or even the opening of Mahler’s 1st with which it often shared the use of a pedal to set off repeated melodic fragments. Later on a drum set came in, and there was a small sort of ‘backing choir’ London Contemporary Voices who were a large ensemble, and the quality of playing and singing was never less that first rate. For the sake of symmetry, come the end, the audience were again called upon to sing the note provided – though in the area I was sitting I seemed to be the only one still prepared to fulfil that obligation.

Come the finish there was plenty of enthusiastic cheering, and it had been a good show, but I wondered whether the ideas of love and the earth had received anything near the full measure they deserve. The title of the piece, 'Love the Earth', is not short of pretension and ambition, but I wasn’t sure that the material provided to present it had commensurate aspirations. That thought was magnified when, in the second half, we were treated to an absolutely stunning performance of Sibelius 2nd symphony, and it was obvious that our love of the earth demands language at least as strong as this – and who is there around today who could provide it?

The Docklands Sinfonia boasts a wind section ‘to die for’. I have rarely heard such a well-balanced and expressive wind choir – when they played together those rhythmic Sibelian sequences, or individually sung the plangent solos that pervade the quieter moments of this symphony, the sheer beauty and precision was phenomenal. Almost as wonderful were the strings – always a risky department in a non-professional orchestra, but not here: they were absolutely ravishing. The conductor, Spencer Down, had rehearsed the orchestra towards an interpretation of sharply focused drama and absolute commitment. It was very well judged, from the innocent joyful beginnings that seductively lead us in, to the recurrent searing climaxes in which we find ourselves confronted by intimations of terror. The second movement, Tempo andante, ma rubato, seemed to describe a tour of a desolate northern landscape leading to a nightmarish vision; the Vivacissimo third movement cut in like seizures of madness alternating with a trio of heart-rending consolation – and finally the ‘big tunes’ finale carrying us aloft into that heroic glory that fires our dreams and commitment to a better future, and maybe even a requited love for the earth.

There was little to fault in the performance, perhaps the first trumpet sounded a touch over-confident, and maybe the closing paragraph had been pre-empted by a tendency to give too much too early in the movement – there could perhaps have been a more subtle gradation through forte to fff throughout. But previously this week I have heard performances of Bruckner by the LPO under Günther Herbig and Schumann and Brahms by the Philharmonia under Christoph von Dohnanyi at the Royal Festival Hall, and yes, of course, the standard of playing was better, more reliable – but neither had been able to provide a musical experience so visceral, one that went straight to the heart, that troubled the brain and brought tears to the eyes, as the Docklands Sinfonia had achieved in Limehouse this evening.

Thanks to Spencer Down and the Docklands Sinfonia, and thanks to bachtrack, for a wonderful life-enhancing evening (and a reduced heating bill).

*****