Kensington Symphony Orchestra: 50th-anniversary Season

Fanfares [World premiere]
Concerto in Pieces (Purcell Variations)
Symphony No.8 (Autumnal Fragments) [UK premiere]
Symphonic Dances, Op.45

Kensington Symphony Orchestra
Russell Keable

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 17 October, 2005
Venue: St John's, Smith Square, London

Fanfares, dances, fragments, and two premieres. Plenty for the Kensington Symphony Orchestra to pack into the first concert of its fiftieth year, and a choice of music once again highlighting conductor Russell Keable’s imaginative programming.

Keable’s own celebratory opus for the occasion, Fanfares, proved a brief but enjoyable piece punctuated by loud percussion crashes, yet finding room for a quieter episode, an evocative oboe-call over held string chords, a strongly diatonic approach by the composer, along with a real sense of ceremony.

Having made the capacity audience sit up, the conductor eloquently set the scene for the Ruders and Sallinen. Poul Ruders’s Concerto in Pieces is written as a theme and variations and marked not only the 300th-anniversary of Purcell’s death but also the 50th of Britten’s ‘Young Person’s Guide’. Stylistically it is the polar opposite; based on the ‘Witches’ Chorus’ from “Dido and Aeneas”, and the Kensington SO gave a hugely entertaining and enthusiastic performance. The dazzling second variation featured impressively flighted woodwind lines, the fourth a free-spirited saxophone solo accompanied by “bending” woodwinds and percussion – tubular bells dipped in water securing an eerie portamento, as striking visually as it was aurally. The final fugato was executed with some panache, its post-Copland gestures taking place within a pure and unadulterated C major until the twist, a deliberately ‘wrong’ clash of chords of B major and C major at the close, evidently enjoyed by the orchestra.

Toward the other end of the emotional scale was the Eighth Symphony of Aulis Sallinen, recently recorded on CPO by Ari Rasilainen, and here receiving its UK premiere. The subtitle of ‘Autumn Fragments’ proved somewhat misleading, for although the piece began in fragmentary fashion, economically scored, the brief ideas are given time to expand and grow in stature. Keable kept an admirable tension, so that when a particularly rich string passage threatened to take hold, the uncertainty when it was broken up was palpable. During the work’s composition, Sallinen was greatly affected by the events of 9/11, and the ending changed course as a result, discordant and anguished, ending with a diminished, morendo chord that made quite an impact: an unexpected conclusion.

To close was Rachmaninov’s final orchestral work. It took the violins a few bars to re-acclimatise from the interval, but there followed a vital and high-spirited account of the first ‘Non allegro’ Dance, the composer’s tempo followed to the letter. A disciplined second Dance made tasteful use of rubato where appropriate, followed by vivid dynamic contrasts within the Third, Keable taking care to highlight inner parts. With the tempo stuttering only fractionally towards the end, the orchestra completed a convincing account, characteristic of the whole concert – a rewarding and stimulating programme.

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