Saturday 10th November 2018

Bullfight at Westmorland Hall

The Northern Sinfonia’s “Spanish” evening did not disappoint.  An imaginative programme performed with the orchestra’s habitual delicacy and sense of fun, left a packed Westmorland Hall more than satisfied.

Rising star Ben Gernon, making his debut as guest conductor with the Northern this season, seems to have already established the rapport with the players which is its trademark.  From the opening notes of Rossini’s Barber of Seville Overture, a sure way to get any concert going, to the breakneck finale of Mozart’s Haffner symphony which ended proceedings, he exuded calm and authority.

The other star of the evening was Scottish virtuoso guitarist Sean Shibe, looking even younger than his 26 years. Concertos for classical guitar are thin on the ground with Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez the only work to earn its composer the status of being described without his first name (it’s Joaquin).

Shibe won over the audience with his fresh take on this evergreen favourite. “I guess I’m too young to have got bored with it,” he joked afterwards.  He plays with a clear tone, minimal string scrape and great musicality.  So confident was he in his abilities, that for his encore he eschewed pyrotechnics altogether, opting for the soulful Canción No 6, by 20th century Spanish composer Federico Mompou.

The only quibble, a minor one, would be that the amplification for the guitar could have been turned up a touch – the solo passages were fine, but when joined by even the modest forces of the Northern in the ensemble sections, the guitar tended to get lost.  This was particularly noticeable in the slow movement when the dialogue between Gil Callow’s sublime cor anglais and the guitar revealed a gulf in volume.

As all good programmes should, this one had its novelties. Joaquin Turina’s 1925 Bullfighter’s Prayer for strings had all the mournful sweetness that good Spanish classical music should.  But the real surprise of the evening was the Italian-born Boccherini, who spent most of his life in Spain.

His entertaining “Night Music of the Streets of Madrid” is a whimsical piece of “note painting” more 20th century than 18th, with strings masquerading as side-drums and odd discordant sounds.  At one point we had the unusual spectacle of all four cellists strumming their instruments across their knees guitar-style, apparently following precise instructions from the composer, himself a cellist.

The only other reservation would the decision to only bring three violas, which left them somewhat  outgunned by two double basses, four cellos and 13 violins. But this is a minor quibble and will do nothing to dent the Westmorland Hall audience’s lasting fondness for this most friendly of orchestras.

Oliver Wates