Review: Cambridge Graduate Orchestra

JOE CONWAY learnt that in good classical music, ‘What you don’t do is dash through it as if you can’t wait to get it over.’

Beethoven Cambridge Graduate Orchestra Classical Vaughan Williams

22nd April 8pm at West Road Concert Hall. £10/£5

I couldn't quite get my head round this concert by the CGO. Take the flyer for instance. It shows a pastoral scene, presumably of the English countryside. You know, the kind of thing Constable liked to paint. Over-printed are the details of the programme. Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony – which kind of fits with the image, except that he was German. Richard Strauss's Symphony for Wind Instruments which doesn't fit at all. And Vaughan Williams' Tallis Fantasia which most people would agree is a work of the spirit rather than the soil.

Of course I'm not really whingeing about the CGO's flyer in itself but rather about the fact that the three works don't really complement each other however you package them. Yet if you look more closely you can just about discern a pattern. There's a work for wind, a work for strings, and then an orchestral work which combines both. So that if a guy named Hegel was around at West Road on Thursday night he would have been heard muttering something about thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.

But, here I go, whingeing again. It may have looked a bit like that on paper but it didn't work out in practice. Mainly because the programme planners reversed the order of the first two works, weirdly placing the gentle and lyrical Vaughan Williams piece ahead of the ebullient and much more substantial Strauss Symphony. Did they make this change so that conductor Mark Austin could begin and end the concert, leaving Peter Britton to conduct the middle work? I ask because I don't know and couldn't read the mixed messages.  If there was any kind of design to this programme it eluded me . . .

Perhaps the only advantage in programming the Vaughan Williams first was that the concert began with one of the most beautiful and luminous chords ever written for string orchestra. As this heavenly music slowly unfolded like a long-awaited spring flower its sheer beauty and surging emotion carried the orchestra along with it. Mark Austin's speeds were well judged here, but he needed a much firmer grip on details like the plucked lower string notes that carry the main theme. To leave these to chance is to court disaster and an untidy bo-boom effect. (How do you spell that thing by the way?)

The Strauss Symphony for sixteen wind instruments got off to a good start under Peter Britton's authoritative baton. The opening movement made an excellent impression with its bright fanfares and scintillating writing for woodwind, including four splendid French horns. I'd not heard it before and wondered why. Half an hour and three substantial movements later I began to guess the answer. But although it's long and demanding for both players and listeners, in another context it might work really well. However I guess you've heard all that before . . .

Concerning the performance of Beethoven's glorious Sixth Symphony I think the least said the better. Of the many lessons crying out to be learned from this experience I'll confine myself to just two. Firstly it's not a good idea to pressurise the musicians you're working with to the point of meltdown. Rather the name of the game is to show them off to their best advantage. And secondly, whatever you're performing you give it 100% respect, but if it's by Beethoven 200%.  What you don't do is dash through it as if you can't wait to get it over.