SINFONIA OF BIRMINGHAM

                                                            CBSO Centre, Birmingham *****

Perhaps it is indeed something in the water, but Birmingham is more than well blessed with amateur orchestras of the highest calibre. I have long hailed the Birmingham Philharmonic Orchestra as one of the finest amateur orchestras in the land, but recently I have noticed coming up on the rails the Sinfonia of Birmingham. Sunday’s concert confirmed its position as one of the front-runners.

The programming itself was worthy of much praise, well-loved repertoire works framing a neglected masterpiece and the world premiere of a substantial work especially written for the occasion.

This latter was Christ on the Road to Emmaus, a concerto for viola and strings by the prolific composer, author, reviewer and editor Robert Matthew-Walker, and composed in memory of Gwyn Williams, Sir Simon Rattle’s principal viola in the CBSO. The soloist was Christopher Yates, Gwyn’s desk-partner, and the conductor was Michael Seal, another string colleague of Gwyn’s in the CBSO.

In three continuous sections, the concerto opens with the solo viola musing lyrically, almost pastorally, quietly supported by the orchestra moving with a simple, effective sense of harmonic direction. A dance-like episode follows, now delicate, now sturdily folklike (another side of pastoralism), before the conclusion brings a consummation of the music’s melodic reachings-out, the soloist adding a most beautiful halo of beatification, crowning all the subtle interplay which has gone before.

Yates’ noble, elegiac tone was delivered with a gripping sense of concentration, and Seal’s orchestra provided devoted and precisely-placed collaboration.

And then Yates went on selflessly to perform Britten’s Lachrymae, a John Dowland-derived work originally written for viola and piano, and poignantly arranged for viola and strings by the composer during the last year of his life, a gem we hear far too rarely.

Yates was gently formidable in this gamut of viola techniques, dark ruminations, mercurial pizzicato among them, and the Sinfonia strings added rich accompaniments until we reached the simple, heart-catching homage to unadorned Dowland which brings about the quiet close.

The full orchestra (and a sizeable one it is) opened with Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture, flowing, richly textured, and with the most gorgeous contributions from solo flute and duetting clarinets.

We ended with Brahms’ Symphony no.4, impressively structured under Seal with an irresistibly onward sense of line. So many wonderful contributions here, supple strings, surging and passionate, the Andante’s warm, consolatory horns, singing violas and cellos, a blazing, bracing Scherzo galvanising all concerned, and a finale highlighting tremendous playing throughout the whole orchestra range, from the lamenting flute to the imperious trombones. One could sense how impressed was the entire audience.

All proceeds from the concert have been devoted to the Gwyn Williams Bursary Fund, which has already assisted viola students at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire and which is now endowing chairs in the viola section of the tri-annual courses of the CBSO Youth Orchestra.

Christopher Morley

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