The Royal Northern Sinfonia offered up a trio of “Romantic misfits” from the mid-19th century on Friday evening including a sumptuous performance of Louise Farrenc’s Symphony no. 3 in G minor. The orchestra, scaled down to about 30 players, was under the direction of Duncan Ward, an upbeat young conductor with a seemingly endless supply of energy. Ward is Chief Conductor Designate of philharmonie zuidnederland, a role he will assume in September 2021.

Royal Northern Sinfonia
© Royal Northern Sinfonia

Why did Ward cheerily use the term “misfits” in his brief talk to the virtual audience? Each composer was facing challenges or bucking the system in some way when these three works were completed. Robert Schumann’s Overture, Scherzo, and Finale, went through a number of re-conceptions (was it a suite, a symphony, a tone poem, and what happened to the slow movement?). Meanwhile, the story goes that Hector Berlioz reworked an aria for a failed opera and called it Rêverie et Caprice (for violin and orchestra). And Louise Farrenc’s Third Symphony? She faced challenges being a female composer but managed to snag equal pay while teaching at the Paris Conservatoire where she held a prestigious permanent position teaching piano for 30 years. Clearly, she, too, didn't quite fit the mold society had prepared for her. Sometimes being a misfit is a good thing, and it all turned out for the best for those who tuned in to this live concert, followed by 48 hours of streaming access.

Physically distanced across the handsome Sage Gateshead stage, the formally attired musicians did not wear masks while playing and were greeted by canned applause at the conclusion of each dramatic number. I actually preferred the canned applause over authentic silence, since it had a “real” feel and sense of festivity about it, unlike the the stoic hush that has greeted the end of many 2020 performances.

Schumann’s three-movement work opened with Romantic Sturm und Drang, but lightened after a flute entrance, which joined the clarinet in a playful duet. Instruments blended sweetly in the Scherzo section, ending with understated élan. The Finale was bold, the parts melting together with astute deliberation, allowing us glimpses of the structural unity underlying the entire composition.

Lead violinist Pablo Hernán Benedí assumed the mantle of soloist in the Berlioz. Orchestra and soloist performed with a gentle touch providing a respite between the two stormier selections. Benedi’s tone was sweet and clear, and especially evocative in the lower register.

The star of the evening was Farrenc’s symphony, premiered in 1849. What an impressive work this is, with its beguiling melodies, unexpected harmonic shifts, and ability to create massive fields of sound propelled by intelligence and purpose. Throughout its four movements, the work is bold, assertive, even defiant with pockets of irresistible tenderness. Farrenc’s work is influenced by others (a bit of Mozart in the second movement, some obvious Mendelssohn in the third), but no more so than any other master composer.

The Sinfonia provided a delightful break for its virtual audience from the holiday rush and Covid concerns. Three cheers for three misfits, especially Farrenc, whose music is being rediscovered in the 21st century on its own terms, as it was for her time, and as it is for ours.

This performance was reviewed from Sage Gateshead's live video stream