Friday 19 January 2024

An evening of bold & adventurous programming: wind & brass from Southbank Sinfonia & Britten Sinfonia combine under Nicholas Daniel at St John's Smith Square

Percy Grainger in the uniform of a US Army bandsman, 1917
Percy Grainger in the uniform of a US Army bandsman, 1917

Copland, Mozart, Lindberg, Stravinsky, Alberga, Grainger; Southbank Sinfonia, Britten Sinfonia, Nicholas Daniel; St John's Smith Square
Reviewed by Florence Anna Maunders, 18 January 2024

An enormously successful collaboration between two leading chamber orchestras

Combining the wind, brass and percussion players from two fantastic orchestras together into one ensemble, this was an evening of bold and adventurous programming featuring the combined forces from two different exciting and engaging ensembles. 

At St John's Smith Square on 18 January 2024, members of Southbank Sinfonia and Britten Sinfonia combined under conductor Nicholas Daniel to present a kaleidoscopic and vibrant selection of music originally written for, or specially arranged for, wind and brass (with a sprinkle of percussion too), with music by Copland, Mozart, Magnus Lindberg, Stravinsky, Eleanor Alberga and Percy Grainger.

Things began with a strikingly lyrical performance of Copland's Fanfare For The Common Man, in which the legato, open statements of the brass were placed in opposition to bombastic, overwhelming contributions from the percussion. The large intervals and exposed opening material appear simple, but this work is a daunting prospect for any trumpeter, especially coming in cold at the start of the programme, but this ensemble settled after one phrase into a confident and stirring performance. After such a rousing start to the program, Peter Facer's wind and brass arrangement of Mozart's Masonic Funeral Music conjured up an entirely different world of sonority. Dark hued trombones, bassoons and horns dominated, as the ensemble steadily built to a subtly understated climax.

Gran Duo, from the mercurial Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg, is a substantial piece, which deftly interweaves sparkling silver filigrees of sound with granitic chordal slabs. Frequently Placing groups of woodwinds and brass into opposition rather than cooperation, and demanding virtuosic solo contributions from practically every member of the ensemble, this work is a tour de force of dramatic juxtaposition, rapid metrical modulation and a practical masterclass in orchestrating for winds alone. The combined players from the two orchestras were more than equal to the challenge, with special mentions for the extremely technical, but beautifully performed solos from ever-impressive flautist Thomas Hancox and the wonderfully flexible and powerful trumpet playing of Imogen Whitehead - although to be honest Lindberg's scoring treats the whole ensemble as soloists, and it seems almost unfair to single out anyone for individual contributions – the overall performance was overwhelmingly concentrated, dynamic and totally committed.

After a short interval, Stravinsky's Symphonies of Wind Instruments still sounds incredibly contemporary and fresh, making it difficult to believe it was written over a century ago in 1920. Particularly striking was the precision of attack from the ensemble, especially considering that these players were drawn from two different orchestras, and expanded by a handful of guests. This is music of deceptive naivety and simplicity, which requires a real commonality of musical spirit and purpose to shine - and in this performance it certainly sparkled with life.

In total contrast, the two movements from Eleanor Alberga's Nightscape took the audience on a dark journey through the Jamaican night, creating an atmosphere which held the listeners spellbound through rustling nocturnal noises, lamenting woodwinds, solemn brass chorals, lilting rhythms and lullabies, right to the last pulsing chord. The deeper toned instrumentation of this work, which followed the example of Mozart's Gran Partita, without flutes, but with a pair of basset horns (larger, extended clarinets) and a double bass, lent an air of gravity and nobility to the ensemble, and featured some exquisitely poignant and expressive oboe playing.

The concert finished with a classic mainstay of the wind band repertoire, here in Chris Atkinson's saxophone-free version for the Aldeburgh Festival - the set of six short and colourful folk-song arrangements that form Percy Grainger's Lincolnshire Posy, although perhaps arrangement isn't quite the right term for this raucous, whimsical music, which contains just as much of Grainger's maverick humour as it does English traditional song. Nicholas Daniel clearly enjoyed himself immensely at the helm of this wonderfully responsive crew of wind and percussion, allowing them to relish every twist and turn, drawn out lyrical phrase or toe-tapping dance tune, before deftly wrapping it all up without even the slightest hint of taking it all too seriously.

This concert was a delight from start to finish, a cornucopia of musical abundance, full of variety, with the familiar snugly bundled in next to the wild, strange and unfamiliar. The pretty much packed-out venue (in a Georgian church on a very cold night, too) goes to show the real appetite for the adventurous programming, and the collaboration between two of the UK's most exciting chamber orchestras. An unqualified success from start to finish.

Reviewed by Florence Anna Maunders

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