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Dreams and Visions - March 2016

Conventional wisdom has it that afternoon concerts are for a certain sort of audience and will be well peppered with popular classics - and that's exactly how the SSO started on Sunday. Three movements from Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty were suitable post-prandial fare, with plenty of string section verve in the famous waltz and loads of character from the woodwind in the cats' pas de charactere. Efficient playing all round.

L'apres-midi d'un faune, Debussy's revolutionary score, is from only four years later than the Tchaikovsky but the SSO played it as if it was from another world. It was superbly atmospheric. The languid flute line was beautifully sustained by Ian McLauchlan through its myriad developments and transformations. The whole orchestra entered into the dialogue with a real sense of supporting their own; the standard of ensemble made this a riveting performance to be part of - and we as listeners were drawn into it. I was particularly struck by the voicing and balancing of the textures; whether this had been intensively rehearsed or was instinctive doesn't matter, the stillness in the hall spoke of an amazing impression having been conveyed.

Probably the worst kept secret of the last year is the identity of Ricardo de Pandeiros [google pandeiro if you want a mild diversion]. This was a fascinating study in audience behaviour as Sunday's crowd gradually became more and more engrossed in what was going on - the Debussy had set them up well and Darrell Davison's spoken introductions had helped with the rapport. Orchestra and soloists, under Davison's steely direction, coped admirably with the score's complexities, and again it was the textures that delighted and sparkled. We know Darrell is not a huge fan of fugues, but he showed himself adept at a different sort of counterpoint interweaving soloists and orchestra and soloists within the orchestra in multi-layered and freshening ways. I enjoyed the orchestral bassoon's interplay in this. The engaging young soloists Valeria Kurbatova [harp] and Luce Zurita [flutes] seemed to cope admirably with the level of virtuosity and musicality demanded of them - as did the SSO. I have to confess that the programmatic nature of the piece went from my head as soon as it started - thanks to the performers the music had its own logic. It's pretty extraordinary that an orchestra drawn from really quite a narrow local community can provide players of a calibre both willing and able to take on challenging 21st century music and make it work so well. Incidentally it was good [and something to be encouraged] that the soloists followed recent trends and gave us a delightful Jacques Ibert encore after the concerto.

Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique has dreams and nightmares aplenty and I thought the SSO might be drained after the first half but not a bit of it. The gradually increasing tension and horror as the piece progressed reminded us very clearly that this was from the Romantic era of Mary Shelley and Thomas de Quincey. Davison paced the drama well. The first movement sounded almost classical with some very clean, well phrased playing from strings and wind. The waltz, with the chance for two harps taken up, had plenty of lilt - but also pretty much the only actually unsettling moment of poor ensemble in the concert. Movement three again got us into a pastoral dream scene and an atmosphere conjured from simple ideas simply presented, wind and strings doing admirably exactly what the composer asked. The nightmare that is movements four and five enhanced by a forest of bassoons and the hysteria of piccolo and E flat clarinet. A headlong brass drive to the finish. Really classy playing all round. Nobody in the audience snored. They were captivated.

John Hendry

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