CUCO: Mendelssohn, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Italian Symphony, and Beethoven: Violin Concerto

Stephanie Gonley takes a no-nonsense approach to the Romantic greats which set CUCO on fire for HARRY HICKMORE

West Road Concert hall, 8pm, Saturday 5th May, £5/£13/£16

[Rating: 4/5]

CUCO were living dangerously last night after swapping conductor for director/violinist Stephanie Gonley. Without the steady guidance of a baton, the concert, whose programme demanded on the dot precision throughout, was riding the fine line between triumph and disaster.

My worries were cast aside in the programme’s first offering, Mendelssohn’s Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Gonley set a brisk pace, yet the orchestra, clearly inspired by her exuberance, still managed to capture and hone each detail and give a vivid account of the Overture. All the stormy drama of Shakespeare’s work was clearly projected to the audience at West Road as fairy-like string textures were interrupted by the brass’s blaring hunting calls.

The Mendelssohn theme continued after the interval, swapping the forest of the Overture for Italian countryside of the composer’s Fourth Symphony. Although we had switched settings, the storm of the forest never felt far away as Gonley and CUCO painted a darker landscape of Italy than you might expect from Mendelssohn’s depiction. It seemed less Prosecco, more Grappa; as stormy undertones found their way into all four movements of the work.

Once again, Gonley’s metronome didn’t seem to register anything less than 150 BPM as the orchestra raced through the first movement of the symphony. In less able hands we could have been en route to a car crash, but Gonley, who had only been working with the orchestra since Monday, had clearly grasped the orchestra’s capabilities and the lightning pace made for intense and exciting playing. Although we were gifted momentary respite from the train race in the second and third movements, which were played with restrained grace and astonishing dynamic range, the whirlwind swept us back up again in the final movement.

Although I expected this finale to be fast, the blistering pace that Gonley initiated was something that I wasn’t ready for, and by the looks on some of their faces, neither were the orchestra. However, it was testament to their skill that expression and detail were not compromised for speed: the triplet rhythms were never blurred; accents were clearly punctuated; and the dynamic range was as wide as any professional orchestra. This was as wild and rustic an interpretation as you’ll find anywhere.

Before the interval Gonley took on three roles in Beethoven’s Violin Concerto: not only was she director and orchestra member, she had also added soloist to her task list. Once again she didn’t hang about in the Beethoven, quickly dispatching her opening solo phrase with the nonchalance of an unenthusiastic child. This set a precedent for a performance that, like other two works, was as coarse as it was fast (the first movement clocked in at less than 20 minutes, 5 minutes shorter than most performances). The programme notes promised tenderness and repose, this we did not get. Not that I was complaining, Gonley’s no-nonsense interpretation was fiery and impulsive and in her experienced hands, the music took unexpected twist and turns.

The orchestra reacted well to Gonley in her new role; feeding off her infectious energy, and although sometimes the violinist-cum-director was a bit too quick for them, causing the occasional fluffed entry, the synchrony between ensemble and soloist never wavered. The orchestra seemed relaxed in Gonley’s presence; too relaxed some might argue (the brass section seemed to be involved in some sort of in-joke for most of the concert). But generally this rubbed off extremely well on the ensemble’s playing, which was invariably faultless – although I’d advise some players to re-evaluate just what an audience can see going on behind a music stand.

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