Sunday January 20th 2019

Dazzling saxophone, fireworks, and a bull on the roof

Royal Northern Sinfonia Review

Sunday January 20th 2019

There was a hardly a seat in the house when the Royal Northern Sinfonia visited Kendal on Sunday afternoon, January 20. Perhaps the idea of an afternoon concert was appealing in itself; but then it may have been the magnetic personality of solo saxophonist, Jess Gillam, who pulled in the crowd. Whatever the reason, this concert was refreshing in so many ways. The playing of the orchestra, of course, is always a draw but perhaps the nature of the programme was another factor. It broke through the commonly accepted mould of programme planning for an orchestral concert and in place of the overture, concerto, symphony model we heard a series of short and largely unfamiliar works on the fringes of the orchestral repertoire: works by Debussy, Milhaud, Stravinsky and Villa Lobos, all full of colour, good tunes and exciting rhythms.

This imaginative programme revealed yet again the versatility of the Royal Northern Sinfonia and ideally suited the highly talented conductor, Jessica Cottis, whose flamboyant conducting style drew some fine playing from the orchestra. Harpist, Sharron Griffiths, produced lovely delicate sounds from her harp in a sensitive performance of Debussy’s sensuous Danse sacrée et danse profane. And then onto the platform stepped Jess Gillam to perform Milhaud’s witty Scaramouche. Jess is a great ambassador for classical music and her playing never fails to impress. She has a dazzling technique and plays with great freedom, energy and expression; her cantabile playing is breathtakingly beautiful.

Following Scaramouche came Stravinsky’s neo-classical Danses Concertantes, five movements for small orchestra which look back at the paired-down classical style of writing favoured by composers of the 18th century, given a modern twist, of course, by Stravinsky. The solo playing from various members of the orchestra was impressive as they maintained the rhythmic drive necessary to bring off a successful performance of this work.

After the interval came a new work five-minute piece, Fireworks Spirals, written by the young composer, Alex Dakin. This was the winning work in a recent competition run by the orchestra. As the title suggests, it was full of rhythmic excitement and colour, and revealed an impressive command of orchestral writing for a composer still in his undergraduate years.

Debussy’s slow Sarabande lowered the temperature after the whirlwind firework display and after another appearance by Jess in Villa Lobos’ Fantasia for Soprano Saxophone, Milhaud’s jazzy, and slightly crazy, ballet music The Bull on the Roof brought the exhilarating concert to a close.

Clive Walkley