Review: CUMS II Orchestra

JOE CONWAY : ‘Unfortunately, for many musicians nowadays Sibelius is first and foremost a music-writing computer programme rather than a revered 20th century Finnish composer.’

Cambridge University Chamber Orchestra Chloe Wennersten Chris Stark Oscar Perks Tchaikovsky

13th May 8pm at West Road Concert Hall. £8/£6/£3

It's been a fantastic fortnight for violinist Oscar Perks. Less than two weeks ago the Caius undergraduate led the Cambridge University Chamber Orchestra in one of the most exhilarating concerts that I've attended at West Road. And a few days later he was back again playing the viola with the Endellions, one of the country's leading string quartets.

But on Thursday evening he raised his game to a different level altogether by performing the solo part in Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto with the CUMS II Orchestra conducted by Chloe Wennersten. The Tchaikovsky has always been regarded as one of the most demanding romantic fiddle concertos. Containing a fiendishly difficult cadenza – you know, the showy solo about two thirds of the way through the first movement – and a finale that is daunting even to experienced virtuosos.

Playing the 40-minute long concerto from memory, Oscar not only triumphed over the immense technical difficulties but also gave a coherent and committed account of the whole work. From the melting opening theme of the first movement to the frenetic double stopping of the finale, and from vibrant low G-string notes to perfectly judged high harmonics, he was in commanding form.

Of course this isn't to say that the performance achieved total perfection and that there was nowhere for it to go. Ideally a live performance of a concerto is a partnership between the soloist on the one hand, and the conductor and orchestra on the other. Positive body language, eye-contact, and mutual interaction are signs that the musicians are working together to convey the emotions of the piece. To be honest, there was very little of this in evidence on Thursday. Rather it seemed as if soloist and conductor were enclosed in separate bubbles of their own.

Chloe Wennersten has an admirably clear beat with an extra little flick that's really useful, and had no problems in steering the orchestra through the concerto. But, as I've suggested, moving up to the next level requires a greater sense of partnership – and also more mobility and flexibility. Chloe's performance of Smetana's Vltava which began the concert was similarly safe and steady. But in this charming Czech music, the tune associated with the river rising in the hills really needs to bubble and gurgle, and the gorgeous polka really needs to sweep you off your feet.

After the interval Chris Stark took over the conductor's stick from Chloe in a performance of Sibelius's 7th Symphony. Unfortunately, for many musicians nowadays Sibelius is first and foremost a music-writing computer programme rather than a revered 20th century Finnish composer. How sad is that! A bit like thinking that Churchill is a dog who sells insurance rather than the guy who led us to victory in the Second World War!

In the concert hall Sibelius 2 and Sibelius 5 are performed a lot,1 and 4 occasionally, and the others just about never. Personally I'd not heard Sibelius's 7th played live before, even though many commentators regard it as his greatest symphony. I have to say I was immediately won over by the unusual sonorities – the low writing for woodwind, the thrilling string tremolos, the imaginative use of timps and, above all, by the mystic trombone solo.

Under Chris's expert direction, CUMS II put everything into their performance. Okay, at the beginning, the tuning in the lower strings was a bit dodgy, and some of the woodwind playing lacked conviction. But the tentative start was more than made up for later on. As I've said before, this is a developing orchestra, and Sibelius 7 is a seriously challenging piece. Think of it as a remote and awesome mountain in Finland, and the musicians of CUMS II swarming up its heights and oh so nearly making it to the summit.