Review: CUMS II Orchestra

JOE CONWAY enjoyed this admirable effort from a developing orchestra with plenty of joyous moments.

Classical cums Music west road

CUMS II Orchestra, West Road Concert Hall. 10th March, 8pm. £8/£6/£3

Shiry Rashkovsky was in compelling form at the Cambridge Music Society Orchestra's concert on Wednesday night. Her passionate playing and eloquent advocacy of the unfamiliar music she was performing did a lot to raise the orchestra's game and to make the evening a success.
 
Playing from memory, with all the benefits that internalising the music brings, Shiry stood at the very edge of the platform projecting the
sound towards the audience as if determined to make a case for a piece that few would have heard of before, let alone heard. Its title was Rhapsody-Concerto. Its composer was the Czech musician Bohuslav Martinu. And the instrument was the viola.
 
Stop me if you've heard this before, but it's the second time in just over two weeks that a violist has wowed the audience at West Road, playing a rare but worthwhile concerto. In February Rosalind Ventris and the CUSO gave a highly-charged account of the York Bowen concerto, and with Shiry's performance following so soon after, we can maybe hope that this chronically neglected instrument is at last getting some attention – in Cambridge at any rate!
 
To give you some idea of just how thin the repertoire is for solo viola and orchestra, there's really only one 19th century piece that's ever given an airing. As opposed to scores of popular concertos for piano, violin and cello – no pun intended! The 20th century saw something of an improvement in the viola's fortunes and there are a few fine works around in addition to the Bowen and the Martinu pieces.

Comparing these last two concertos is tempting but probably isn't a good idea, as the Bowen has a kind of structural clarity that, at a first hearing, the Martinu lacks. This was so much the case on Wednesday that people in the audience weren't really sure whether the concerto had ended or not. In the absence of any programme notes – tut, tut! – it seemed that the radiant culminating chords might well have been followed by a sizzling finale, but it was not to be . . .
 
Another thing that probably isn't a good idea is to try to describe unfamiliar music in terms of its similarity to better-known composers and their styles. But it's just one of the irritating things reviewers do, so hear goes. Basically if you can imagine a fusion of west meets east or, more specifically, Copland meets Shostakovich – Coplakovich for short! – that would be a start in getting a rough idea of Martinu's musical language.
 
For myself I'd love to hear the Rhapsody-Concerto again. Shiry's commanding playing, especially in the solo passages – complete
with double-stopping, string crossing and swift repeated notes – made the case for the Martinu as a welcome addition to the repertoire. And it's good to report that the CUMS II Orchestra, conducted with authority and skill by Christopher Stark, backed her up splendidly, never masking the viola line but giving plenty of solid support.
 
Earlier they'd performed Ravel's Pavane Pour Une Infante Défunte. It was an novel idea to start the concert with a piece as quiet and tranquil as this wistful lament, but it did put a lot of pressure on the horn section playing from cold at the very outset. However the orchestra was soon in its stride, Ravel's orchestration – with its beautiful woodwind solos and generally plucked strings – working its usual magic.
 
After the interval James Henshaw took over from Christopher Stark, conducting a performance of an equally charming work, Tchaikovsky's Second Symphony. Coincidentally or maybe not, this also starts with an important horn solo which was nicely phrased and mellow-toned, while James's speeds were realistic rather than demanding, and ensured that the players did justice to the score. This is an orchestra that's still developing and it's pointless aiming for some unattainable ideal. Instead the conductor's function is to help the players achieve the best they can in the circumstances, and both Christopher and James succeeded admirably in doing this.
 
Having said that, although there was some understandable caution around, there were also plenty of joyous moments. The magnificent finale with its awesome array of percussion went particularly well and brought a pleasing programme to an irresistibly rousing conclusion.