Orchestra of the Swan at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire review

                                    ORCHESTRA OF THE SWAN
                                    Royal Birmingham Conservatoire *****
Orchestra of the Swan's latest residency at the RBC began with an intriguing programme entitled "Tales of the City". Yes, urban soundscapes were certainly there, but we also heard a beautifully evocative aural image of the landscape of Cumberland and Westmoreland.
This was Through Cumbrian Hills by RBC composition student Catherine Mole, and one of the most successful examples thus far of OOTS' collaboration with the RBC. The piece is unashamedly pictorial, and therefore totally audience-friendly (composition teachers everywhere, remember that important tenet).
It begins mistily, evocatively, and builds into singing expressions of quiet glory, flute raptures (Diane Clark) fluttering across the scene. It ends magically, but too soon (part of the brief, I think).
Rebecca Miller conducted a willing OOTS, preceding this premiere with a zinging Rossini Barber of Seville Overture, from which it would be a serious omission not to pick out an amazingly-controlled extended horn trill from Francesca Moore-Bridger.
A huge departure for OOTS, and a tantalising example of the divergency it promises for the future was Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. This was given by probably the largest orchestra I've ever heard this ensemble produce, saxophone phalanx, throbbing banjo, and orchestral piano, all collaborating in an attentive performance under Miller with soloist Viv McLean.
This was really one occasion when it was rewarding to sit on auditorium left, so that we could "see his hands", and what hands they were, interleaving in Gershwin's vibrant keyboard textures, and always with a touch as light as that of the composer himself.
It was wonderful to hear OOTS' idiomatic response, let loose into controlled decadence, led by Sally Harrop's deliciously sleazy clarinet.
Another portrait of New York came with Aaron Copland's Quiet City, atmospheric strings cushioning Hugh Davies' warm, thoughtful, almost vocal trumpet and Louise Braithwaite's ruminative, occasionally echoing, and always gently engaging cor anglais.
Finally came exuberance and genuine greatness in a reading from Rebecca Miller and her inspired orchestra of Mozart's wonderful Prague Symphony. Sparkling woodwind were to the fore (not least the noble bassoons), but every department excelled in this account, the agile, insightful Miller characterising every motif tumbling from this masterwork.
All repeats were observed, and normally this reviewer would grouch at such an automatic recourse. But in the Prague they matter, and how good it was to hear all this exuberance twice around.
*Recorded for future broadcast on Classic FM.
Christopher Morley

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