Sinfonia of London at Symphony Hall ★★★★★

John Wilson established his conducting career as Britain’s Mr Hollywood, forming his own orchestra for a hugely successful series of concerts and recordings of film and American musical classics. His tastes are more catholic and his talents far wider as demonstrated in his recordings with the revivified Sinfonia of London. I’ve been extolling the virtues (critic-speak for raving about) of their award-winning Chandos recordings for the last couple of years. Now they were here in the flesh – could they replicate the recorded magic? In spades. After spending 90 minutes inching one mile through gridlocked Birmingham city centre a pick-me-up was desperately needed. This concert, crowned by a stupendous performance of Ravel’s ‘Bolero’, audience on their feet and applause bouncing from every surface, was the perfect remedy.

Wilson is an affable Geordie with a level of audience rapport that makes most conductors look like shop display mannequins. At ease with the microphone he told us that this was, almost certainly the UK premiere of the original ballet version of ‘Bolero’ composed for Ida Rubinstein in 1928. Extra castanets, a triangle and not one but two drummers, antiphonally placed – a cue for drummers to give us, and each other, a wave. A touch of showbiz chutzpah. The playing was tremendous, the accumulative tension terrific. This is a freelance orchestra of seasoned pros with no passengers or back desk mimers and with oodles of individual flair. Collective flair too, displayed in a sparkling Walton ‘Scapino’ overture – what a Walton first symphony they’d do – a beautifully nuanced and rhythmically tight Ravel ‘Valses Nobles et Sentimentales’, and a Debussy ‘La Mer’ where one could almost see the sun glittering from the foam in ‘Jeux de vagues’ and feel the breeze and salt spray in the final movement.

When the young British pianist Martin James Bartlett strode on stage – tall, innocently rubicund and bespectacled – he looked like Clark Kent from central casting. He was more of a Superman at the keyboard in Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ exhibiting the precise combination of classical accuracy and attention to detail combined with rhythmic flexibility and quasi-improvisatory looseness the work demands. Bartlett made it look fun and effortless – the hard graft buried under the surface. A sinuous slithery clarinet glissando, honking muted trumpet and Wilson in his element. Bartlett’s encore was ideal, a niftily-played Gershwin ‘The Man I Love’.

Norman Stinchcombe

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