Revelation and luminosity from the wonderful Orchestra of the Swan in Stratford-upon-Avon

United KingdomUnited Kingdom M. Richter, Smith Moore, Rameau (arr. D. Gordon), Copland: Orchestra of the Swan / Michael Collins (conductor). Stratford Play House, Stratford-upon-Avon, 6.10.2020. (CC)

Orchestra of the Swan

Max RichterThe Blue Notebooks (2004): ‘On the Nature of Daylight’
Smith MooreAfro-American Suite (1979): Adagio ma appassionato
Rameau (arr. Gordon) – Suite
CoplandAppalachian Spring

The Orchestra of the Swan is based at the Stratford Play House. It is the resident orchestra of the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire and The Courtyard Hereford. Formed some 22 years ago by David Curtis, the Orchestra of the Swan (henceforth OOTS) specialises in ‘immersive residencies’ which work together intensively with venues to provide carefully curated programmes. The orchestra boasts a discography covering some 24 discs, including the world premiere recording of the complete symphonies of Hans Gál.

The Stratford Play House is a lovely venue, with some traditional seating and some cabaret-like tables where one may quaff while listening. The acoustic supports the players well while allowing for clarity.

The OOTS was conducted here by a figure beloved by many in the industry, Michael Collins. Best known for his clarinet activities, Collins has taken up the conductor’s baton and here provided beautifully shaped, individual performances of the works on this varied programme. ‘On the Nature of Daylight’ is the second track from Max Richter’s 2004 album The Blue Notebooks, a disc described by the composer as ‘a meditation on violence’. Via simple means, Richter enables a poignant scene to unfold. Repetition of melodic cells certainly points towards minimalism, and one could justifiably find a sort of Philip Glass-lite about his music. The extended dwelling on texture before the soaring, high violin melody appears is carefully judged, and it was expertly paced here by Michael Collins. The control of the players, and their concentration, was what finally convinced me of this piece.

A thinning of instrumentation for the Adagio from the Afro-American Suite by Undine Smith Moore (1904-1989) meant we had just a trio of piano (David Gordon), flute (Diane Clark) and cello (Chris Allan). The piece initially flowed on easily from the Richter, with its warm piano chords, but soon made its own different way with a flute melody that had an indigenous North American feel. The use of a Fazioli, an instrument naturally bright in sound, for those warm sonorities did raise an eyebrow, but the importance of the opportunity to hear this piece could not be over-stated. Born in Jarratt, Jamaica, the granddaughter of slaves, Undine Smith Moore was granted a scholarship from the Juilliard School; she devoted her life to teaching. Only 26 of her works (numbering over 100) were published in her lifetime. Her music certainly has a modal tinge to it, and this movement is prevailingly gentle.

Pianist David Gordon spreads his time between early music and jazz, so it is perhaps no surprise that he can meld the two so easily. His Rameau Suite took four pieces as starting points: the ‘Entrée de Polymnie’ and a ‘Contredanse en Rondeau’ from Les Boréades, ‘Cruelle mère des amours’ from Hippolyte et Aricie and a ‘Tambourin’ from Dardanus. The ‘Entrée’ has a sort of hypnotic quality; David Gordon’s take is to allow the players’ ‘jamming instincts’ to take over on repeats. Certainly, the marriage of Baroque and jazz is by now a time-honoured one, although one that has primarily so far focussed on Bach. This was a stimulating, charming take on this idea, the rusticity of the ‘Contredanse’ then coming across as notably modern. Phèdre’s air, ‘Cruelle mère des amours’ in an instrumental version formed tender contrast before strings, wind and piano joyously closed the Suite with the ‘Tambourin’.

The most familiar item to many on the programme was surely Copland’s Appalachian Spring, a piece that gifts many a melody to the solo clarinet: no pressure, then, for the OOTS’s Sally Harrop. The performance was wonderfully shaped by Collins, and notable for how he brought out an underlying Stravinsky-like quality that is not always noticed in the score: the angularity of some of the shapes, the spikiness of the harmonies and above all the rhythms that require the utmost tautness to contrast with the more relaxed plateaux. This was a performance that had it all, and more: sterling playing from all, tempos perfectly judged, but most of all revelatory, as if the score had been restored in the manner of an old painting. The jagged moments made the luminosity elsewhere all the more satisfying. A wonderful performance.

I was at the earlier performance: there were two that night of the same programme, to compensate for social distancing. Coming up, OOTS pairs Django Bates with Beethoven at Kings Place on Friday 3 April 2021.

Colin Clarke

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