National Musicians’ Symphony Orchestra – 7th May

Photograph of Josef Rheinberger

In the South (Alassio) – Concert Overture, Op.50
Variations on an original theme – Enigma, Op.36
Organ Concerto No.2 in G minor

Andrew Smith (organ)
National Musicians’ Symphony Orchestra conducted by James Blair

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 7 May, 2002
Venue: St John’s, Smith Square, London

The National Musicians’ Symphony Orchestra enables students from music colleges and conservatoires to gain valuable orchestral experience in preparation for future professional careers.

As such, the orchestra as a whole demonstrated that good players are in plentiful supply. One drawback – and at times it was a real problem in this particular programme – was the smaller-then-usual string section. Brassy climaxes tended to all but overwhelm the ensemble. This was especially the caseduring Elgar’s In the South. It was good to hear this piece – all toorarely programmed – being tackled enthusiastically by the comparatively young musicians, and, in the tender episodes, to appreciated the quality of the solo woodwinds. There was also a telling contribution from the principal viola – Jennifer Christie – who played the Berlioz-like solo most beautifully.

The organ concertos of Josef Rheinberger (1839-1901) are real rarities. On this occasion the music really came alive thanks to the imaginative and impressively accurate playing of Andrew Smith. There was remarkable co-ordination between soloist and orchestra – not least because the organ is at the rear of the church – and a real sense of dialogue in both reflective and more dramatic moments.

Richard Strauss, no less, was the conductor of the work’s firstperformance in 1894 and the concerto is certainly redolent of solid19th-century German music. However, there is a certain foursquare approach to counterpoint, for example, and melodies (one in the first movement sounds uncannily like Elgar’s ’Nimrod’ variation) tend to be repeated rather then developed. The last movement is the most impressive, having an almost Dvorak-like drive and energy. With the absence of heavy brass, the balance all-round was good. Soloist and orchestra gave a thoroughly committed performance.

Elgar’s Enigma Variations were given a traditional reading without any special insights. Once again, loud passages were somewhat brass-dominated, but quieter variations were delivered with care and tenderness. Solos from viola and cello (David Kadumukasa) were expressively played. The final variation generated real excitement and the acoustic enabled the organ’s contribution at the conclusion to be fully appreciated.

James Blair is clearly an effective orchestral trainer. If at times hisdirection was efficient rather than inspiring or insightful, he cansurely be proud of his orchestra’s considerable achievement over the past thirty years (formerly known as the Young Musicians’ SO). This particular concert – reservations aside – was overall a thoroughly interesting and enjoyable occasion.

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