REVIEW: Solway Sinfonia excel

The Solway Sinfonia, now in their 15th year, go from strength to strength.

Under the indefatigable leadership of their founder and director, Geoff Keating, the orchestra can muster up to 70 players, and the entire battalion was on parade at the Easterbrook Hall in Dumfries on November 25. They gave a concert which might be described as a romantic journey – heading northwards from the Mediterranean, crossing into Austria and Bohemia, then turning eastwards for a whiff of the Orient.

Our travel diary fell into four episodes, by Verdi, Brahms, Dvorak and Borodin. All were written in the mid-19th century: the period when a high tide of romantic creativity was surging through Europe. But they vividly illustrated some of the many different currents which were swirling within that greater flow, at a time when a rapidly-dawning sense of national pride was eroding the previous supremacy of church and empire.

First off was a thrilling blast of Italian sunlight – Verdi’s rarely-heard overture to Nabucco, in which the celebrated Va, pensiero theme appears in unusual rhythmic guise, set alongside solemn brass chorales and brash circus music. With Keating as whip-cracking ringmaster, the orchestra coped superbly with the violent contrasts, and rounded things off with an authentically raucous Italian Banda sound. This was Verdi not as the subtle poet of Otello, but as the master craftsman of big gestures, who knew exactly how to call a restless, gossiping audience to attention.

Of course, that did not apply to us. And we were on the edge of our seats as we headed across the Alps for the main stage of the evening – the magnificent Violin Concerto by Brahms, with the distinguished Taiwanese violinist Leland Chen as soloist. Brahms’s music holds many challenges for performers and listeners. Apart from its underlying tension, arising from passion restrained by iron rules of formality – and how unfashionable is that in the early 21st century? – its gruff orchestration, dense textures and uncompromising approach to instrumental technique pose multiple issues for interpreters. Keating steered the orchestra safely along this arduous road, providing a transparent and luminous backcloth for Chen’s superb virtuosity, in which expressivity and athleticism were deliciously combined. The oboe solo at the start of the slow movement – loved and feared alike by all oboists – was especially well-shaped.

Our compass then turned north-eastwards, and Chen returned to the platform for a glorious wander, tinged with Slavic melancholy, through the pastoral landscape of Dvorak’s Romance in F minor. He drew a sublime line of sound against Dvorak’s beautiful and finely-balanced orchestral writing, during which we enjoyed a notably fine horn solo.

And so eastwards again, pushing deep into Russia’s Asian heartlands for an exotic final stage in the shape of Borodin’s Symphony No 2. Self-conscious nationalism was on display here: the Russian rebellion against the Germanic symphonic tradition was well under way, and in place of structural, tonal and contrapuntal preoccupations came a delight in rhythm, repetition, modal scales, and the use of harmonic effects as blocks of colour rather than grammatical devices – all pointing the way towards the great ballet scores of Stravinsky, composed nearly half a century later. It is perilous territory for performers, since the effects depend crucially on extreme precision of rhythm, intonation and ensemble. This is not easy, but Keating led his players skilfully across a sound-world of vast steppes, crags and torrents, conjuring up the half-barbaric, fiery world of Tatars and Scythians. After the final Allegro whirl, we roared our approval.

A generous programme, strongly and courageously played: the conductor, soloist and orchestra well deserved their plaudits. All sections of the Sinfonia were in excellent fettle, but if forced to award the palm to only one, I would choose the brass – for their solid ensemble, beautifully-wrought solos, and superbly vehement interjections in the more excitable passages!

Neil Hoyle, former chief executive of the Incorporated Society of Musicians