All Saints Church, Leamington Spa ****


It is now 30 years since a small group of enthusiasts assembled a new orchestra, the Sinfonia of Birmingham, for a concert in St Mary’s Church, Moseley. Since then the orchestra has grown to acclaim not only in its home city, but also in Germany, the Netherlands, Poland and Italy  “185 concerts, 55 venues, 28 conductors, 27 leaders, 64 soloists, and counting!” emblazons the programme-book for last Sunday’s anniversary concert in one of the Sinfonia’s favourite venues.

This is such a friendly orchestra, friendly both within its ranks and also in its outreaching to a supportive audience, and the warmth it engenders was clearly in evidence in the otherwise chilly but impressive All Saints Church. Michael Seal, a much-loved long-time regular conductor of SoB, presided over a programme in which the number 5 was predominant.

A Fistful of Fives by Adrian Sutton was full of energy, scored with crystalline clarity, and crisply delivered. It had a sure sense of direction but took some time to reach its destination.

Nikos Skalkottas’ Five Greek Dances, much more concise and gripping, found the SoB strings impeccable and lively in its scoring for them alone, and in its resonances of Bartok’s folk-inspired music was a timely reminder of what a lingua franca is shared by music from east of the Alps.

Another five came with Mozart’s Fifth Violin Concerto, not one of that composer’s greatest works (he himself was very lukewarm about it), and one which needed projecting with greater advocacy than that supplied by soloist William Melvin. Melvin’s tone was sweet and pure, but decidedly small in this big acoustic, and there were some vagaries of tempo in the delivery from both soloist and orchestra of this loosely-structured work. For solo violin writing of real engagement from Mozart in an orchestral context look no further than the ineffable Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola.

Matters took a huge turn for the better in the post-interval Fifth Symphony of Sibelius, Seal’s spacious beat allowing his musicians to breathe, right from the horns and woodwind unfurling forest sounds as this magnificent work began. There were huge reserves of power from the busy, alert strings, and a lamenting bassoon led us via noble, portentous brass into a scherzo eventually erupting with coruscating energy. Eventually came the visionary ending, seemingly-random culminating chords cut off with brilliantly-judged unanimity – though we missed the grace-notes of the timpani’s emphatic slamming shut of the covers.

The programme-book brought many delightful reminiscences from members of the Sinfonia, but also one disturbing typo: the great Polish-French composer, conductor and theorist Leibowitz was a Rene, not Renee, and, more seriously the images of Sibelius and Skalkottas were transposed between their two respective programme-notes.

Christopher Morley

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