Last Fridayâ€™s concert featured a hugely popular piece, Tchaikovskyâ€™s Serenade for Strings, and four pieces of contemporary music.
Conductor David Curtis brought out all the surging grandeur of the opening movement and held nothing back to depict the gallumphing cellos and basses pretending to be delicate and restrained. The distinct moods of all four string instruments was deftly captured throughout the piece, particularly in the third movement which always reminds me of T.S. Eliotâ€™s â€˜glowed into words and then would be savagely stillâ€™ from The Waste Land. In this movement there is a quest to see if stillness can be found which is other than savage. Recourse to jolliness is Tchaikovskyâ€™s first suggestion. The second is extreme introspection and the third a distraction created by a completely different tone and mood. Curtis made this last interestingly strident and rather manic. In this performance there were moments of lyrical beauty but pervasive restlessness was the key mood. At the end, despite all the exploration, despite all the searching for alternatives, we are in the same place as the opening melody is restated. It was a fine and stimulating interpretation.
After this came Shakespeareâ€™s Sonnet No 115 written by Kristina Arakelyan for orchestra and soprano two years ago when she was eighteen, the piece which won the Shakespeare 400 Orchestra of the Swan composition award in 2014. The American soprano April Frederickâ€™s very expressive mood creating and word colouring, together with beautifully controlled sustained long notes gave a good performance but Iâ€™m afraid Stratford ArtsHouse is wickedly unkind to solo voices. However skilled the projection and diction you are lucky to decipher a word unless you are sitting in the front row.
My favourite piece was Huw Watkinsâ€™s three minute Envoi for strings, the epilogue to his stint as resident composer to Orchestra of the Swan. Watkinsâ€™s haunting melody and sparseness make you concentrate on every moment, giving lots of time and space to reflect. As so often with World Premieres such as this I wish that the Orchestra would play it more than once. Although itâ€™s very brief there is a lot to take in and a second hearing, perhaps at the end of the programme, would very much have enhanced the pleasure of the concert.
The other piece was a major work by Dobrinka Tabakova oddly called Sonnets to Sundry Notes of Music, a setting for soprano of three poems (none of them sonnets) from The Passionate Pilgrim. Tabakova traced the mood of the poems beautifully, but I was left wondering whether I might have enjoyed it more reading the poems (helpfully printed in the programme) and just listening to the orchestra. I wasnâ€™t convinced that the use of a soloist enhanced the piece and I didnâ€™t feel that the Orchestra was accompanying the soloist; Tabakova appeared to me to be making them do two different things.