Review: CUSO

JOE CONWAY hopes that Rosalind Ventris’s sublime performance will help end the notion that Viola players are bimbos.

Classical CUSO Music rosalind ventris

CUSO, 22nd February 2010, 8pm, West Road Concert Hall, £4/£8/£12

Rosalind Ventris's playing at West Road Concert Hall on Monday night overflowed with exuberance and expertise. So much so that it was almost possible to overlook two relatively unusual features. First that she is a viola-player, and second that the concerto she played was written by the long neglected English composer York Bowen.

While listening to Rosie I asked myself why on earth some people still have a downer on this beautiful instrument. And why those awful viola jokes are still going round. You know . . . Question – What's grade 8 viola? Answer – Opening the case! The idea seems to be that viola-players are somehow dumber than their violin and cello-playing counterparts. But why?

Then there's the implication that the viola itself lacks something that other string instruments have. Actually the opposite is the truth, as the viola with its lower tuning has access to sounds not available to violinists. And it's precisely these low notes that give the viola its uniquely sweet and mellow tone.

As for neglected English composers, well, where do we start? Sir Malcolm Arnold, Richard Arnell, William Alwyn, Richard Addinsell – and that's just the letter A! The fact is that stupid fashions in contemporary classical music have done untold damage to the reputations of many excellent 20th century composers. So that whenever any music by these unjustly neglected guys is resurrected it's an occasion for rejoicing!

But back to Rosie. Partnered by Mark Biggins, who conducted the Cambridge University Symphony Orchestra with clarity and insight, she made it clear from the outset that the York Bowen concerto is a work that thoroughly deserves to be championed. A superb opening theme which owes something to Richard Strauss catapults the music into a heady vortex of drama and passion. The second main theme on the other hand lingers meltingly in a way that recalls Elgar. Yet when Bowen's concerto was written in 1907 Elgar's two great concertos were just a twinkle in the great man's eye!

Talking of the viola's low notes, they really come to the fore in the slow movement which is also  embellished by lovely solos for horn, clarinet and
flute. The finale is memorable for a jokey main theme, and later a rousing orchestral climax, followed by a fiendishly tricky cadenza for the viola. This re-introduces the main theme of the first movement – another device found in Elgar's concertos.

From first to last Rosalind Ventris played with intense concentration and conviction. It goes without saying that her exemplary preparation resulted in flawless intonation and brilliant bow management and, above all, in an expressive and eloquent interpretation.

But, now that the hard graft is over and she has made this splendid work her own, Rosie can afford to relax, unwind, and project this lovely music even more successfully. With another performance coming up soon at the prestigious London venue St John's Smith Square, she could perhaps think about coming downstage a step, and turning slightly to her right to engage more with the audience. A physical and symbolic step which would surely enhance communication.

For his part Mark Biggins needs to insure that in the lively acoustic of St John's the viola line isn't masked by the orchestra. There are plenty of opportunities for the players of the CUSO to go full pelt, but whenever the viola is playing the orchestra needs to stay firmly on the backseat.

Also programmed for the London concert is Mahler's Symphony No 4 which was played on Monday night under the effective baton of Christopher Stark. There's still a bit of work to do on some of the taxing lower woodwind parts and the performance would be greatly improved with a full complement of percussion.

As with the York Bowen concerto though, the symphony benefited hugely from having a first-rate soloist. Raphaela Papadakis had just the right kind of light soprano voice to convey Mahler's sweet setting of a child's vision of heaven.