Orchestra of the Swan [Joseph Phibbs Premiere]

Rodeo – Hoe-Down [transcribed for strings]
Adagio for Strings, Op.11
Clarinet Concerto
Clarinet Concerto [Commissioned by Orchestra of the Swan: world premiere]
Appalachian Spring – Suite

Sarah Williamson (clarinet)

Orchestra of the Swan
David Curtis

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 28 October, 2009
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

David Curtis. Photograph: davidconductor.comThe enterprising and innovative Orchestra of the Swan is based in Stratford-upon-Avon and offered here an attractive programme of music that regrettably visits the concert-hall infrequently and including a keenly anticipated premiere. That said, the (non-credited) arrangement – with a few bars removed and some other changes – for strings (and thus removing the original’s full-orchestra colour) of Copland’s ‘Hoe-Down’ was given a tame, rather cautious outing. Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings followed; and for all that sixteen players may be thought not enough for music that the composer envisaged for the full string weight of a symphony orchestra, this ‘halfway house’ account (the original is for string quartet) was given a dignified, moving and intense account. (Throughout the evening creaking was apparent, either the Cadogan Hall platform, there was no podium, or Mr Curtis’s shoes!)

A similar inconsistency informed Appalachian Spring, given in Suite form but in the original scoring, with the strings already three-more in number than Copland’s overall instrumentation of 13 musicians, which meant that flute, clarinet and bassoon were lost in the loudest ensemble passages, only the piano making it through. There was no doubting that the slower and reflective passages were susceptible and poignant, but the faster ones didn’t quite have the emotional-coursing that this music needs, an immersed identification rather than the ‘straight bat’ if disciplined and dedicated approach apparent. (The writer regards this as desert-island music.)

Sarah WilliamsonSarah Williamson featured in two clarinet concertos, one a classic, one brand new. Aaron Copland composed his for Benny Goodman, the first movement dominated by one of those indelible melodies that haunts the memory, the second a varied feast. Here, the opening was self-consciously too slow and studied and needed more of an impromptu, from-the-heart quality (it’s difficult to forget recordings by Goodman with the composer conducting and Stanley Drucker with Leonard Bernstein), Williamson’s clarinet a little too loud and edgy-sounding in this acoustic, whereas the second was under-characterised, shying-away from its vividness and contrasts.

Williamson is certainly a technically gifted player; she brought virtuosity and dedication to this premiere performance. Joseph Phibbs has written some fine things to date. The first impression of this three-movement, 15-minute concerto (similarly scored to the Copland, strings and harp, minus the piano) is that it is full of potential but doesn’t quite add up. The first movement suggests the dusk of a new day, quite Romantic, the increase in speed and intensity compelling, but the cut-off seems too abrupt leaving the argument in mid-air, and whatever the contrasts of the second movement, it’s the slow, elegiac finale that leaves the biggest impression if still leaving room for a rounding-off fourth movement that maybe the composer might consider adding.

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