Mumbles Orchestra Does Justice to an Ambitious Programme

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Wagner, Rachmaninov, Sibelius: Duncan Honeybourne (piano), Mumbles Symphony Orchestra, David John (conductor), All Saints’, Oystermouth, 11.2.2012

Wagner: Overture, Die Meistersinger
Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto no. 2
Sibelius: Symphony no. 1

It was unfortunate that this concert clashed with that given by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales in the Brangwyn Hall just up the road, but it has to be a sign of the health and vitality of Swansea musical life that it can sustain two symphony concerts on the same night. The Mumbles Symphony Orchestra, a mix of amateur and semi-professional players under their director David John, established themselves some two years ago, and are now maturing into a thoroughly honed and dynamic outfit, 50-strong and well capable of doing full justice to an ambitious programme such as this.

They were joined by the excellent pianist Duncan Honeybourne for the perennial Rachmaninov favourite, and after a few first movement bars when one feared things might come rhythmically unstuck, it settled nicely into a clear, strong performance. Honeybourne played with energy and verve and formidable technique, and the orchestra gave him fine support; the opening of the slow movement in particular, with low-register strings and the veiled conversation between piano, flute and clarinet, was managed with real warmth and tenderness. It may not have been the subtlest of performances overall, but I liked the way Honeybourne didn’t linger over the emotional peaks but simply let them emerge from the strict tempo of the music. Recordings suggest that the composer played it this way also.

The opening Meistersinger overture packed plenty of power; there were some inevitable early nervous roughnesses in the brass and the higher reaches of the string playing, but it didn’t take long for David John’s relaxed and encouraging conducting to smooth them out. It’s remarkable, given how few opportunities an orchestra like this has to rehearse and bond together, how quickly attuned to each others’ playing the musicians became, how well-balanced and mutually communicative.

The closing Sibelius was really effective. Not every fully professional orchestra would catch and convey the excitement and the wrestling tensions of the first movement as was done here. The musicians, if anything, grew in confidence as the piece developed, and by the end were playing with some real panache: strong horns, utterly secure woodwinds, and strings converging and gelling for the audience to have complete trust in them. The scherzo was irresistible, and the grand drama of the work was kept going right to the end: this is an ensemble that I believe will make many friends.

Neil Reeve