It's been something of a day for young musicians today. This morning we had the Minetti Quartet; this evening it was the turn of the youthful Britten-Pears Orchestra, an ensemble that brings together conservatoire students and recent graduates for one of four courses a year. However, very little by way of allowance needs to be made for their youth or the challenges inherent in being effectively a scratch orchestra; indeed, I've heard much less good professional ensembles. Furthermore, as with many such endeavours, you get a sense of fun and sheer joy in the music that isn't always present in more experienced groups. At the podium was the youthful and enthusiastic Antonello Manacorda.
They began with Bach and his fugue BWV1079, albeit arranged by Webern. While they brought out some nice touches in the orchestration, I am not sure how good a choice it was. As can often happen with orchestrated Bach, it felt a little stodgy at times. It is also the case that to really work Bach needs a precision that wasn't always there.
The Haydn that followed, symphony no.90 in C major, was altogether more successful. There was plenty of enthusiasm to their playing, and the work of the woodwinds was particularly fine. However it didn't always have quite the lightness of touch it might have, feeling a little slow and heavy in places, with the faster outer movements being by far the most successful. Then Manacorda provided a somewhat theatrical object lesson in reading your programme notes: having felt I didn't really need to for a Haydn symphony, I had forgotten this was his joke, with four bars of rest following the false end. Of course, Manacorda milked this for all it was worth, giving the impression he really had finished, before turning to the audience with a cheeky grin and playing the final few bars. He then did it again (which I don't think is the score), and while it was fun, a joke repeated is less good the second time around.
After the interval came Bartok's Divertimento for string orchestra. As with the Haydn, this too was at its best in the louder and faster moments. Manacorda did draw some good quiet playing from the orchestra (always a good test of skill), but he did take them down lower than they could fully sustain. For me, he didn't quite shape the work as a whole, leaving it feeling slightly disjointed.
They had saved the best until last though, with some Ravel. I've recently come to the conclusion that I have to do some serious exploration of his work. I used to think I didn't like him at all, but after going to a number of concerts and writing reviews which began "I don't normally like Ravel but...", I'm not so sure. Added to that, a little while back I heard a performance of Bolero (conducted by Abbado, if memory serves) which didn't make me want to kill myself. Furthermore, two musicians I admire (Donald Runnicles and a composer friend of mine) think highly of him. True to form, the Ravel I've heard at this year's festival has been excellent. Tonight it was the turn of his Suite from Ma mere l'oye (or mother goose, to those whose French is as bad as mine and me). It was wonderfully rich and colourful, with so many beautiful aspects of the orchestration being brought out well. The orchestra's playing too was probably their finest of the evening, with exceptional wind solos from the clarinetist and bassoonist/contrabassonist (sadly I am unable to credit them as the musicians are not named in the programme, but if anyone can provide the names I will happily rectify this. Updated 24/6/09 - thanks to Felix in the comments below they are James Meldrum and Rhonwen Jones respectively). Manacorda shaped the movements beautifully.
All in all, it was a good example of why such programmes are a good thing and why they are well worth supporting. As I post this, I realise it's our 200th post since this blog started a little over two years ago. Rather than any ceremony, this review seems a fitting way to mark it.