Energy, Discipline and Clarity from an Outstanding Young Orchestra

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Britten, Barber, Adams: David Adams (violin), Royal Welsh College Symphony Orchestra / David Jones (conductor), St. David’s Hall, Cardiff, 27.01.2015

Benjamin Britten:  Four Sea Interludes
Samuel Barber: Violin Concerto
John Adams: A Short Ride in A Fast Machine


A really good student / youth orchestra has a distinctive quality unlike that of most full-time professional orchestras. While it would be simplistic and silly to talk purely in terms of antitheses such as ‘innocence’ and ‘experience’, ‘excited’ and ‘routine’, it is true that a fine young orchestra (made up, as it is, of ‘amateurs’ in the best sense of the word: those playing for the love of playing) has a freshness sometimes absent from professional orchestras. Perhaps this is because in the student orchestra many of the musicians are themselves effectively in the process of discovering the music being played, are in no danger of feeling excessively sure that they know the work(s) very (too?) well.

Certainly the current incarnation of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama’s Symphony Orchestra gave an impressive and rewarding account of themselves  in this lunchtime concert. It was also a striking occasion insofar as there were many in the audience even younger than the orchestra members on stage. Though not specifically billed as a ‘schools concert’, the front half of the auditorium was occupied by neatly-uniformed (and well-behaved) groups of local primary school children. Most of the children clearly enjoyed what they heard – a few, inevitably, were fidgety, but I saw / heard very little talk or misbehaviour. Indeed the evident engagement and enjoyment of most of the children contributed to my own pleasure in the concert.

The excellence of the orchestra’s woodwinds and brass was evidenced in the first of Benjamin Britten’s Four Sea Interludes, where their playing was both precise and expressive. in the opening of the second ‘interlude’ the work of the string section was refined and forceful, articulation and intonation excellent, while in the third the violas and cellos were particularly impressive, technically assured and poetically responsive. The ‘Storm’ which closes Britten’s sequence was sufficiently powerful to make one little girl of 8 or 9, a row or two in front of me, leave her seat, squeeze past her friends and climb onto her teacher’s knee! (a good healthy reaction to the music, surely). I have heard more seemingly elemental readings of this particular musical storm, but this performance was very much good enough to renew one’s sense of how fine Britten’s orchestration is and to make the 8-10 year olds who made up half of the audience realise just how powerful a full symphony orchestra can be.

David Adams is most familiar to Welsh music lovers as leader of the orchestra of Welsh National Opera – in whose marked improvement in recent years he has played a significant role, along with conductor Lothar Koenigs. He is also an experienced and accomplished chamber musician (as well as a teacher of the violin at the RWCMD). That he should prove to be a fine soloist in Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto came as no surprise. The technical demands of the work did not trouble him and his playing was consistently lyrical, while being disciplined and expressive. In the opening Allegro Adams’s playing captured both the sense of optimism intrinsic to the music and the darker tones which are also an important part of Barber’s palette here. Indeed Adams’s work at the bottom end of his instrument was particularly memorable. In this opening movement, as elsewhere in the concerto, conductor David Jones maintained a well-judged balance between soloist and orchestra. In the slow movement, the lengthy opening theme for the oboe was very well played, both vividly characterised and wholly ‘correct’, by a student I cannot, unfortunately, name. In the brief (but intense and substantial – pace the opinion of Iso Briselli, the violinist for whom the concerto was originally written) final movement, a perpetual-motion presto, Adams sailed through the triplets with unshowy virtuosity and the string section also negotiated very adroitly the rapid passages written for them by Barber.

The energy of Barber’s final movement was, of course, good preparation for the final work on the programme In which we switched from David to John where the Adamses were concerned  –  A Short Ride in A Fast Machine by John Adams. This young orchestra coped admirably with the complex polyrhythms of and the sheer impetus of Adams’s music. This was ride fuller of joy than trepidation (bearing in mind John Adams’s observation that the piece resembled that experience “when someone asks you to ride in a terrific sports car, and then you wish you hadn’t”). one was happy to put one’s trust in both vehicle and driver on this occasion. The exhilaration of the piece was uppermost and infectious. The young children in the audience responded enthusiastically to the rhythmic drive (no pun intended) of the piece with their own healthy energy, including two girls who began to play air-percussion (to adapt a well-known phrase commonly used in connection with a different musical idiom). I thought it rather mean of their teacher to stop them!

It was clear throughout that the members of the orchestra had benefitted greatly from the guiding hand of conductor David Jones, Conductor in Residence at the RWCMD. Jones has extensive professional experience as a conductor, including working with the London Philharmonic, the Hallé, the BBC Philharmonic, Welsh National Opera, Opera North and many others. Such a wealth of experience, and his obvious ability to pass on the fruits of that experience makes him ideal as an exemplar for as student orchestra. He and the young musicians he worked with should both be proud of the very impressive results they achieved in this concert. It is such experiences that will, I am sure, fit many of the members of this orchestra for their future careers. (And, as a bonus, it was clear that most of the children in the audience had very much enjoyed the experience).

Glyn Pursglove

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