Review: Cambridge Orchestra at West Road

JOE CONWAY: ‘This excellent concert…demonstrated that English classical music is as valid and vital as that of any other European nation.

Cambridge Orchestra Joo Yeon Sir Sir Edward Elgar

24th April 7,30pm at West Road Concert Hall. £12/£10/£5

It may have been a coincidence that the poster for this concert was resplendent in red-white-and-blue, and featured a splendid picture of Sir Edward Elgar in court ceremonial dress. It may also have been coincidental that this concert of English music took place on the day after St George's day.

But if these were coincidences they were happy ones. I'm sure I'm not alone in feeling impatient with the inferiority complex some people still have about our traditional musical culture. This excellent concert by the Cambridge Orchestra demonstrated that English classical music is as valid and vital as that of any other European nation. Furthermore I'd suggest that the time frame of the programme -1908 to 1953 – just about coincides with English music's golden age.

The portrait of Elgar says a lot about the Pomp and Circumstance side of the composer's personality. (Remember when his picture used to be on the back of £20 notes? That moustache! Those eyes!) But this dynamic performance of his First Symphony showed that there are so many other qualities in Elgar's music – excitement, energy, passion and poignancy. From the very start conductor Darrell Davison emphasised the duality that is always present in Elgar. The first appearance of the famous motto theme was subdued and ethereal, the second nothing less than majestic. But no sooner had this magnificent melody been established than it was swept aside in a stormy torrent of rapidly changing tunes, textures and emotions.

Darrell's characterisation of each of the different themes was crystal clear and supremely effective. In the second movement for example his brisk straight-through line drove the music from one dramatic climax to the next. But at the beginning and end of the slow movement he pulled things back to extract the maximum emotion from this unbearably beautiful music. He was supported by some exceptional leading from Steve Bingham, who contributed playing of real attack when it was needed but also some breathtaking lyrical solos.

Talking of violin solos, the concert had been hugely enhanced by the playing of Joo Yeon Sir before the interval. Joo is a really exceptional 20-year-old Korean violinist who gave a wholly committed performance of Delius's Violin Concerto. This rarely heard work dating from 1916 sounds a bit like the missing link between Elgar's great concerto of 1910 and the concertos by Szymanowski, Bartok and others in the 1930s. Playing with her eyes closed and swaying with the rise and fall of the music she produced a golden tone which really breathed life into this unjustly neglected score.

Before the concerto there'd been two other classic English works. Sir Arnold Bax's Tintagel is an impressionistic masterpiece and its rich orchestral textures gave the Cambridge Orchestra the opportunity for beautiful woodwind solos and for uplifting brass chords. These were well and truly taken, and in Sir William Walton's Orb and Sceptre – which is as Elgarian as anything by the great man himself – there was plenty of evidence of the sheer pleasure that comes with playing gorgeous music in a tight well-directed band.