I watched a programme the other day. It was all about gold-plating and gold leaf. It showed how carefully placed touches of shining brightness can bring something completely to life. And that’s exactly how I felt about the programme that Kirill Karabits had put together to launch the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra’s return to live performing: carefully placed pieces to create a 60-minute delectation of earthly wonders, cosmic questions and life-affirming joy. No mean feat. While Karabits himself was unable to conduct this opening performance because of continuing quarantine restrictions on travel into the UK, his place as master goldsmith was ably taken by Associate Guest Conductor David Hill.

David Hill conducts the BSO in rehearsal
© Mark Allan

The first nugget was almost like comfort food. Karabits’ own arrangement of Bach’s Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (“A Mighty Fortress is our God”), itself a treatment of Martin Luther’s famous hymn, produced a fully-rounded texture with an essentially brass chorale feel, and proved to be an elegant and noble way to present the first few minutes of the BSO’s long-awaited return. 

With just a slight pause, the orchestra adjusted its pace and mindset, and entered the realms of Charles Ives’ brief but transcendental cosmic landscape, The Unanswered Question. The BSO strings played Druid-like, ppp throughout, to give Ives’ enigmatic spacious chords a glacial feel, and Hill directed the players with subtlety, care and a degree of freedom within Ives’ specific instructions. A solo off-stage trumpet repeated the “perennial question of existence” patiently, while a wind quartet, inquisitive at first, tried unsuccessfully to answer, getting increasingly agitated, turning angry and eventually mocking with shrill dissonances before giving up and leaving the trumpet’s final repeat of the question unanswered. This was a real moment in time, and was presented immaculately.

The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in rehearsal
© Mark Allan

Like a child let loose in a sweet shop, the BSO revelled in Mahler’s celebration of nature in Benjamin Britten’s 1941 arrangement of the second movement of his Third Symphony, What the Wild Flowers Tell Me. This was the piece in the concert that had the orchestra first expressing its full glory once more, with a wonderful clarity of sound reverberating around the hall. Hill sculpted a gentle, lilting quality, the orchestra delicate and poised in its playfulness and occasional moments of rapture, with muted brass alongside characterful woodwinds a sheer delight.

And lest we forget that this was Beethoven’s 250th anniversary year, there were no holds barred as Hill powered into his Seventh Symphony, the majestic introduction holding back just enough before rhythmic exultation took over and never looked back. The outer movements resounded gloriously, with superb Beethovenian scrubbing away in the strings, horns blaring over grinding basses and a sense of bowling along like an unbridled roller coaster. The Allegretto garnered controlled tension, though slightly laboured, while the Scherzo was flighty and rambunctious, the hymn-like Trio almost heroic. But amongst all this, there was precision too (a couple of minor horn fluffs aside), although the overriding sensation was of falling just this side of reckless – a terrific way for the BSO to open its account this season.

This performance was reviewed from the BSO's video stream.