How do composers write music in the middle of a devastating war? How do orchestras perform, when the air waves bombard us with such sad news? In the case of the Royal Northern Sinfonia, the answer to the second, was a performance of the Ukrainian National Anthem, then the audience stood for a minute’s silence.

Thomas Zehetmair
© Wolfgang Schmidt

Now to that first question. Ravel composed Le Tombeau de Couperin in 1917 after he’d suffered a breakdown serving as an ambulance driver during the First World War, written in memory of fallen comrades. What a breath of fresh air the survivors must have felt – right from the start the music is as cheerful as a stroll on a sunny day. And what a tonic for this audience too, because the orchestra played as if neither they nor anyone else had a care in the world. The Prelude rippled through the air with the added clarity that a chamber orchestra gives. This was particularly true of the woodwind section – there are only two of each instrument rather than three or more. So, for instance, the cor anglais’ rich tone was heard in the ensemble as well as the solo work. The Forlane was sprightly, the Menuet graceful and the Rigaudoun, with its quirky rhythms, was ebullient, victorious you might say, yet tightly controlled by Thomas Zehetmair.

Zehetmair began his career as a solo violinist, and then began a parallel career as a conductor with, of course, the Royal Northern Sinfonia. He is now the orchestra’s Conductor Laureate, and in Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola, he returned as violin soloist, with Ruth Killius playing the viola. Cheering music again, but perhaps less tightly controlled, as Zehetmair only occasionally turned round to conduct. The other disadvantage of having a soloist as director is the balance, as it must be hard to gauge the volume of the orchestra when you’re playing. That said, the RNS was only occasionally – and slightly – too loud.

The music after the interval was much less well-known, but very warmly greeted by the rather sparse audience. Mozart’s Entr’actes from Thamos, King of Egypt were written for an obscure German play by an obscure German aristocratic playwright. Dramatic it is and a slightly enlarged orchestra gave it plenty of dramatic contrasts.

Why would you choose, as the concluding work in a concert by a chamber orchestra, a little known symphony written in the middle of the Romantic Era, when orchestras were getting bigger and bigger? Answer – because it was written for small orchestra by a youthful Camille Saint-Saëns. And, even more, because it’s lovely. Classical in form, the Symphony no. 2 in A minor has echoes of Beethoven and Mendelssohn, and in the initial Allegro the strings showed how they can chase each other closely in speedy, memorable counterpoint. In the moving Adagio, once again the strings shone, but so quietly that you could hear the rustle of a distant page being turned. The sprightly Scherzo was followed by an amazingly inventive Presto finale, bringing trumpets and drums to the fore. Then Zehetmair brought off the composer’s surprise with stunning effect. It’s been done before, but if well-written, it always works – the Presto grinds to a halt, then gradually, gradually, a fearsome accelerando speeds over the finishing line. This symphony needs to be in the repertoire of all chamber orchestras if they're as good as the Royal Northern Sinfonia! 

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