Mumbles Symphony Orchestra begins to make its mark

Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Kodaly, Glazunov, Bizet: Mumbles Symphony Orchestra, All Saints’ Church, Oystermouth, Kristine Balanas (violin), David John,(conductor), 2.7.2011 (NHR)

Beethoven, Egmont Overture
Tchaikovsky, Violin Concerto in D major, op. 35
Kodaly, Dances of Galanta
Glazunov, Serenade in A, op. 7
Bizet, Symphony in C major

There is an extremely welcome addition to the musical life of the Swansea area in the form of the Mumbles Symphony Orchestra, a 40-strong outfit of professional and semi-professional performers drawn from across South Wales, and established a year ago by the conductor David John, newly arrived from his time with the Dorset Symphony Orchestra. He seems indefatigable, having also taken over the direction of three chamber orchestras in south-west Wales, together with various musical theatre groups, but the Mumbles Symphony looks like being his principal commitment. Their concert in the splendid acoustic of All Saints’ Church, Oystermouth, last Saturday was their third to date, and plans are afoot for a further performance at the same venue on September 10th.

On the face of it they had chosen a quite extraordinarily ambitious programme, and they did begin rather cautiously in the Egmont overture, but soon picked up confidence under John’s unobtrusive and encouraging conducting style. By the time they were well into the Tchaikovsky concerto one was paying them the implicit compliment of forgetting who they were, and simply appreciating the nuances of the music. It was a huge bonus for them to have the young Latvian violinist Kristine Balanas step in at short notice for Aleksandre Tigishvili, who was absurdly prevented from entering the country from Switzerland. Balanas, just turned 21 and already a winner of numerous international prizes, is on her way to stardom. She played with a marvellously rich, warm tone; the concerto’s virtuosic demands seemed to present her not so much with difficult challenges as with fascinating paths to explore and muse over. Gifted young musicians from Eastern Europe seem to have become ever more prominent in this country, but Kristine Balanas stood out for me on account of a winningly modest stage presence and a palpable sense of inwardness with the music that brought the best out of the accompanying players. As if the Tchaikovsky wasn’t enough, Kodaly’s Dances of Galanta certainly put the orchestra through its paces, and it emerged fully intact, to finish with two very youthful, rarely heard works, a Serenade by the eighteen-year-old Glazunov, and Bizet’s only symphony, written when he was a year younger – a tuneful, well-organised piece, giving few hints of the direction he would follow, but well worth hearing.

As for the orchestra itself: the violins probably need a little more weight, and at present, although there is the basis of a very good horn section, accompanying brass is a bit thin on the ground. But there is a full complement of really excellent woodwinds, and although it seems invidious to pick any player out, I wanted particularly to commend the principal oboe Markus Roggenbach (in some ways it seemed to me that the entire programme was built around him, by no means a bad idea). It’s impossible to praise too highly the contribution to cultural life made by small regional orchestras like this, usually working on a shoestring, but taking live symphonic music to communities which might otherwise never experience it, and playing to very high standards with completely professional respect for their art.

Neil Reeve