Exeter University’s campus was buzzing with life on Thursday evening, as fans of classical music descended on the Great Hall for another night of entertainment provided by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. For the final instalment of their 2018/19 concert season, an iconic programme of music by Smetana, Tchaikovsky and Sibelius was on the cards and the BSO did not disappoint, performing with unwavering precision and charisma.
Smetana’s Vltava opened the concert. Composed in 1874, Vltava is a tribute to the river which shares its name. Beginning with a flute duet representing the converging duel sources of the river, the audience was transported on the Vltava’s journey, passing a hunt and a peasant’s wedding, through St. John’s rapids, and into Prague. The strings effortlessly performed the Vltava theme each time it returned, yet they always captured the force of the river. The blend of the brass and woodwind throughout, contributing to the overall sound but never competing for the limelight, was the ultimate mark of professionalism. As the piece came to its distinctive end, my visions of the mighty Vltava river disappearing over the horizon were interrupted by the Great Hall filling with well-deserved applause.
Following a short interlude, with the Great Hall’s stunning Steinway piano now dominating centre stage, the orchestra returned, and we settled down to enjoy Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, performed by soloist Denis Kozhukhin. This piece is arguably the most popular piano concerto ever written. However, when first composed in 1874/5, it initially faced harsh criticism from Tchaikovsky’s mentor, Nikolay Rubinstein, who described it as “worthless and unplayable”. Regardless, Tchaikovsky premiered the piece later that year without altering it, and it proved an instant success.
Kozhukhin’s rendition was a spellbinding demonstration of his skill. My favourite moments during the performance were those with both the soloist and orchestra playing. You could sense the connection between them as they imitated one another’s expression of the themes. Front desk cellists, Jesper Svedberg and Thomas Isaac, kept capturing my attention throughout the evening, with their visual enjoyment of the music and an almost competitive spirit to outperform one another. Yet a joint solo passage during the first movement of the Tchaikovsky demonstrated such unity in their playing I could have mistaken it for just one performer. Overall, it was a triumph of a performance for both Kozhukhin and the BSO.
During the interval I was able to discuss the delights of the first half with my friend and fellow horn player, Tom, who accompanied me to the concert. Tom commented on the unique interpretation guest-conductor Jamie Phillips had brought to the programme, using dynamic contrasts to fully engage the audience and keep us in anticipation of where the music would take us next. We were excited to see how this translated into the final piece of the evening, Sibelius’ Symphony No. 1 in E Minor. Already famous in his native Finland, Sibelius’ composition of his first symphony in the winter of 1998-99 was eagerly anticipated and brought about his international acclaim.
The horn section of BSO proved to be a versatile and perfectly balanced force through the concert, but most noticeably so in the Sibelius. The woodwind section also continued to impress with masterful solos, and my attention was drawn once again to Svedberg, the lead cellist, as he embarked on a theatrical solo during the second movement. The rousing Scherzo third movement introduced a theme initiated by the timpani and subsequently thrown around the orchestra. As this movement reached its climatic end, you could feel a sigh of relief expressed by both orchestra and audience alike. It took everything I had to fight my desire to applaud. The final movement, with its recapitulation of previously heard themes and overall sense of building suspense, brought us to the end of our evening globetrotting with these iconic composers in style.
Perhaps it is because I myself am a musician and lover of classical music, but seeing this professional orchestra perform live was a pleasure to behold. As much a viewing experience as a listening one, I would recommend everyone to take the opportunity to see them in concert, for it is only then that you can appreciate their talent in all its splendour. With £5 student tickets available for all of their concerts, the BSO are doing a magnificent job of keeping classical music alive on our campus.
– Catherine Edington