Review: Cambridge Graduate Orchestra

Our Monday Music reviews continue with JOE CONWAY’S look at CGO’s sax appeal.

Classical Graduate Music Saxophone

Cambridge Graduate Orchestra, Friday 26th February, 8pm. West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge. £10/£5

Think saxophone and I guess most of us automatically think jazz, rock, big bands and swing. But there is a classical saxophone repertoire too – works for sax quartets, quintets, and a handful of concertos, though sadly these aren't heard in the concert hall as often as they might be. It was great therefore that one of them, the concerto for alto sax and orchestra by the French composer Henri Tomasi, was given an airing in Friday's concert at West Road.

The persuasive soloist was Francesca Reich, effectively partnered by the Cambridge Graduate Orchestra conducted by Peter Britton, and from the outset it was obvious that the concerto was programmed because of its intrinsic qualities and not just because it's one of a rare breed. It has its own special mid-20th century sound too – atmospheric, mysterious and dark-toned. It's also scored with balance in mind, so that while there are plenty of opportunities for the orchestra to hit the high notes the saxophone line is never obscured.

Constantly busy and restless the solo part bristles with challenges that explore the piercing upper range of the instrument more than its mellow
depths. But Francesca's tone was never shrill and she realised the many intricacies of her part with concentration, control, and commitment. A recurring figure of four descending notes, some spectacular trills, and a more sustained 'waltz-with-a-limp' tune in 5/4 time were some of the memorable features of this worthwhile work.

Before the concerto, the huge orchestra of nearly a hundred players had given a really rousing performance of a much more familiar piece, Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries. No less than eight French horns stage right, engaged in a titanic dialogue with a massive brass section stage left, and made for a glorious racket – with vigorous string scales and tremolos adding to the fun. And it was very much to Peter Britton's credit that he allowed one of Wagner's most famous tunes to unfold at maximum volume and at a comfortable pace.

After the interval, with the first half successfully negotiated, there was the kind of tangible excitement in the hall that only a really large orchestra can generate – not to mention a near-capacity audience. Especially as the final work on the programme was Stravinsky's Rite of Spring.

Its famous world premiere in Paris nearly a hundred years ago caused a riot, and its unprecedented use of harmonic dissonance and unmetrical rhythm have given it a unique place in musical history. More to the point on Friday, the performance provided an opportunity for highly competent musicians to perform a score so notoriously difficult that it's usually reserved only for full-time professional orchestras.

And if you have lingering notion that classical music can be dull or unduly reserved, a quick look at the array of percussion on the back row of the orchestra might have changed your mind. All kinds of drums, gongs, cymbals, tambourines, triangles and assorted paraphernalia were set out amounting to two or three drum-kits, with five players ready to do the honours.

Yet having said all that, sadly the performance didn't get off to a good start. I'm really reluctant to be critical but, to my mind, a performance of something as special as the Rite of Spring needs special preparation on the night. The house lights should dim, followed by a pause of maybe fifteen seconds, then the conductor should slowly raise his arms, and then – from another planet, as it were –  the ethereal high bassoon solo should drift into our consciousness . .

As it was, on Friday none of this happened and the performance just kind of began – without much sign of concentration or focus. And, such is the tragic nature of live music-making in real time, that once it's done it's done, and there's no going back to correct blemishes or infelicities. I know that sounds a bit mean, but the devil really is in the detail. It's so important for all the woodwind instruments playing a chord to speak at the same time, and for plucked strings across the width of the hall to sound simultaneously.

(I almost said it's equally important for players to sit up straight, and for the gents to ensure the horizontality of their bow ties – but I don't want to ask too much or go too far!)

Fortunately the performance grew in stature as it continued and the first half of the piece ended in a fine welter of blazing brass and ferocious percussion. The impressionistic opening of Part 2 could have lingered a bit more perhaps, allowing more time for the many beautiful woodwind and string solos to unfold, but the work moved on inexorably to its famous climax, the Sacrificial Dance.

It's good to report that this most taxing and tricky section of the piece came off best. The hammered string chords, the menacing brass riffs, and the onslaught of tribal drumming were all brilliantly realised. And it was significant that as Peter Britton began to leap and stamp on the podium this grounded, earth-bound music really came to life. Bringing an enterprising concert to a satisfying conclusion.