Review: BSO’s Elgar’s Masterpiece

With a programme like Sibelius’ Finlandia, Elgar’s Cello Concerto and Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra could do nothing but start their concert season with a triple forte bang. I should begin with a disclaimer that I perhaps don’t write from the usual perspective of a casual BSO concert-goer, having been connected with the orchestra in varying forms as a spectator, concert steward and President of Exeter Uni Symphony Orchestra for many years now. I always find it interesting seeing the different people that rock up to the BSO concerts: the regulars who have been coming religiously since The Great Hall was built (as one man informed me when I offered to help him find his seat), the well-dressed families having a civilised evening out, the young couples on a classy concert date. This Thursday, the crowds were out in full for the BSO’s return to Exeter with this spectacular programme.

Finlandia was always going to be a great opener to the concert and it did not disappoint. The opening sforzando chords had everyone bristling with anticipation, the lower strings and lower brass standing out in particular in the dramatic murkiness with which Sibelius begins his tribute to Finland. The triumphant melody that soon follows perfectly set the tone for the rest of the concert, with the horn section peeling through the texture and announcing their presence, ready for the heavy part they’d later play in the Tchaikovsky. Marta Gardolińska, with her signature kitten heels, blazer and ponytail, asserted herself from the start as a conductor able to both interact sensitively with the different sections, and shape the piece with well-directed force and weight where appropriate.

The BSO claimed Elgar’s Cello Concerto to be a masterpiece and they were not wrong. Andrei Ioniţă executed the concerto not just with technical brilliance, but also with his own well-mastered performance technique of head-banging, dancing and bow flourishes. The audience were clearly equally as enthralled as I, breaking into a smattering of uncontrollable applause after just one movement. This was undoubtedly due to the impressive assortment of virtuosic techniques displayed by the cello, with rapid string crossing, clean harmonics and dramatic double stopping. Although the second movement was perhaps orchestrally the weaker of the three, it was none-the-less beautifully executed with Ioniţă’s fast vibrato lending to the tone of this slower, elegiac part of the concerto. If any of the rapture of the first movement was lost in the second, it was instantly snatched back as the orchestra launched into the third movement with playful jollity. It was a delight to see the comical exchanges between Ioniţă and the principal violin, Amyn Merchant. Not only were fiddly passages streaming from his cello, but hairs were also flying from Ioniţă’s bow!

After not just one but three calls back to the stage to receive applause, Ioniţă treated us all to a sneak peak of a track from his latest CD, ‘Black Run’ by Svante Henryson. If we weren’t wowed already, this hoe down was an amazing spectacle of double stopping, impressive displays of pizzicato and col legno, and provoked the audience to prematurely erupt into applause mid-performance for the second time that evening.

Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony is, admittedly, my favourite symphony of all time and the past few times I’ve experienced it have been from within the horn section rather than the audience. However, I can definitely vouch for the general collective that this spell-bounding symphony, encompassing moments of glory and euphoria as well as more light-hearted, cheeky passages, was both extremely well-delivered and received. The woodwind soloists all had individual moments where they shone through the meshwork of warm colour, but the principal clarinettist in particular stood out, engaging closely with Gardolińska’s baton and bringing the sonorous second movement to a wistful close with perfectly placed precision. The principal horn, Ben’s, deliciously lyrical performance of the iconic solo in the second movement also deserves a shout-out. The BSO performed this second movement as part of their ‘Smooth Classics’ concert last season and I have to say, this season it was even more heart-wrenching. It had a perfect blend of melodies and counter-melodies and just a dash more rubato from Ben, indulging in that gorgeous opening horn tune, that I felt was a little rushed last time. I loved the speed at which Gardolińska pushed the orchestra to maintain through the finale of the fourth movement (creds to the horns for smashing the double-tongued semi-quavers). For the third time during the evening, the audience were unable to contain their enthusiasm, again clapping before the end, although in fairness Tchaikovsky does tease us with a pause before the coda that finishes the symphony.

When I see the mix of people at a concert like that of the BSO, I often wonder what it is that has drawn them to be there. What is their interest in classical musical? What has led them to be part of this cultural experience that people have been engaging with for centuries but to which so many people don’t know the value of today? The sense of euphoria with which both my housemate and I left the concert made me realise that so many students – a demographic disappointingly unrepresented in the audience – really don’t know what they’re missing out on. It’s a high that you only know if you’ve experienced it and the BSO offer the chance for people to be a part of this, particularly with such a banging opening concert to their season. If you haven’t seen them before, I definitely recommend snapping up one of their student tickets for just £5. Don’t miss their next visit to Exeter on Thursday 10th October with a great line up of Prokofiev, Beethoven and Strauss in their tribute to ‘Love and Loss’.

Laura Page

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