Being the resident band in Stratford-upon-Avon, the Orchestra of the Swan is having a busy time of it right now. Just ten days away from the celebrations marking Shakespeare's 400th anniversary, when OOTS is the orchestra of choice for the Shakespeare Live cinema-streamed extravaganza from the RSC, they programmed a bit of the Bard into today's performance. Their demanding schedule includes the BBC's service from Holy Trinity Church the morning after the night at the theatre, then – somewhat further from home – taking Shakespeare to Turkey!

Tamsin Waley-Cohen © Patrick Allen
Tamsin Waley-Cohen
© Patrick Allen

The Orchestra of the Swan has a loyal following for their Birmingham series and this afternoon's Town Hall audience was sizeable and appreciative. Our helping of Shakespeare wasn't served up through the concert's title composer, Tchaikovsky, though. With imaginative programming, Shostakovich's Hamlet Suite was included as a thrilling illustration of the fact that he wasn't just a symphonic composer but also wrote incidental music for over 50 plays and films, putting himself under suspicion with the Soviet authorities in the process. Today's piece was a synthesis of a staged version in 1932 and a film in 1963, and if anyone expected gloom, angst and tragedy, what we got instead was half an hour of irresistible bombast and swagger, together with a touching interlude of the most delicate of lullabies.

Divided into 13 scenes, the Hamlet Suite gave the different instruments plenty of chances to shine and it was clear from the opening attack that assured percussion was going to be kept busy. Menacing bassoon and clarinet heightened the funeral march, contrasted with brass, flute and triangle lightening the mood with some dance music. Just as you would expect from incidental music, the rapidly unfolding changes of focus truly did conjure images, from serried ranks of troops with the whole orchestra at full throttle, to a rocking cradle from a soulful string quartet. The overall feel was loud and fast, with the carefully-placed nuances of hush and stillness adding to the dramatic effect. It was the sort of invigorating piece that's best heard live, and it got a great reception, the crowd dispersing in the interval in high spirits.

The concert had opened with Mozart's early work Symphony no. 25 in G minor. Written at only 17, its turbulence and driving drama shows an emotional maturity, and it was a pleasure to listen to. As usual, OOTS conveyed a joyful sense of teamwork, the togetherness and democracy underlined by David Curtis conducting not from a podium but the same 'level playing field'. His calm yet charismatic style drew out a lovely sound, the close rapport with his players meaning that a raised eyebrow was just as effective as any sweep of the baton. The liveliness of violin syncopations had us hooked from the off, with lovely oboe contributions and confident horns adding to the energetic mix. The movements effortlessly shifted from lilting and gentle, stately and controlled, through poised staccato sections creating interesting textures, always with a sense of forward momentum.

The second half welcomed OOTS's popular Associate Artist Tamsin Waley-Cohen to the stage for what was originally dubbed the unplayable Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in D major, with early critics alluding to it smelling of rotten cabbages. In a relaxed pre-concert talk Waley-Cohen stated that she didn't view it as a confrontational concerto and that although it's extremely technically demanding, her focus is always on its lyricism, beauty and stillness. The discussion also emphasised the importance (in any performance) of evoking the story behind the music rather than merely the notes, with the insight that the participatory nature of live music is also vital; there's a strong sense of drawing energy from an engaged audience.

During the orchestral introduction, the soloist visibly entered into the soundworld, and this was echoed in the later orchestra-only sections, when her body language showed she was living the music with them. In every sense of the word, there was harmony between all players, a great feeling of supporting each other. The whole concerto was a triumph, but special mention goes to her pin-drop cadenza in the first movement, with eloquent silences and an exciting sense of anticipation.

Affectionate applause was followed by Waley-Cohen's exquisite encore in the shape of J.S. Bach's Sarabande, during which David Curtis sat on one of the steps at the back of the stage - at a guess revelling in a moment of quiet beauty before the next phase of the Shakespeare marathon.