Review: Bath Festival Orchestra with cellist Ella van Poucke at Kings Place

A smaller audience for (what I believe was) the BFO’s second Kings Place appearance, this time with music by Mendelssohn, Florence Price and Alba Rosa Vietor.

In amongst these was a performance of Schumann’s cello concerto given by young Dutch cellist Ella van Poucke.

A commanding and captivating presence on stage, Ella told a compelling story and, importantly, brought the ensemble together with style and panache. Great chemistry was evident between section leaders and soloist throughout. Except for a few under-powered moments in the second movement, it was the concerto where the potential of the BFO in its present guise was made clear. The ensemble was tight, sympathetic, dynamic, supportive and precise.

Vietor’s ‘Symphonic Sketches’ has some really interesting material in it worthy of repeat listens – the final movement ‘Frolics’ is especially fun. But some of the ensemble playing was ragged. Ends of phrases felt uncertain, with some nervy pizzicatos. (One of the front desk players might want to work on a poker face – seeing facial reactions in response to the wind section struggling with intonation was distracting.) The duet encore with cellist Kieran Carter was exquisite – both musicians are a great double act.

Whilst I fully endorse a white knuckle approach to Mendelssohn’s string writing, there were moments where the jeopardy was almost too much in Mendelssohn’s Italian. Varying speeds in the second movement – sometimes the crawling bass felt like it was in danger of letting rip – contributed to a mild sense of unease, though the strings blazed where it mattered most in the final movement saltarello.

I mentioned the print in a previous review, but it’s worth flagging here again. As a curious audience member, I found myself reaching for the programme to explore more about composer Alba Rosa Vietor. There wasn’t much to be found, though there was a considerable amount of the layout given over to the soloist whose biography listed competitions, countries, and artist partnerships. This dearth of space was compounded by an orchestra biography that doesn’t really tell me very much. It is as though the print is serving the orchestra rather than trying to satisfy the audience. Seemingly harsh I know, but the small stuff is important.

Bath Festival Orchestra in London’s King’s Place play Smyth, Helen Grime and Vaughan Williams

Stripped back to a handful of string players the Bath Festival Orchestra opened their London premiere at Kings Place with a thoughtful and restorative two-movement Hymn Tune Preludes by Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Principal oboe Polly Bartlett shone in the opening movement (as she did throughout the programme) with a silky smooth voluptuous tone, supported by modest clarinettists Luke English and Rennie Sutherland who knew their place and occupied it well. Principal horn Olivia Gandee anticipated the placing of the final chord in a beautifully characterful way. Bliss.

The focus was lost a little during the second movement, but programming wise this was a bold start demonstrating the innate confidence of this a sparse band.

That momentary loss of focus was partly because of the meandering quality in the melody, but also  because the lower strings needed a bit more support, something I was reminded of during the third movement of Ethyl Smyth’s joyous Serenade in D.

Smyth opens with Brahms, brushes with Mendelssohn and in the third movement, sidles with Tchaikovsky, outdoing all of them in a work I want to hear a lot more.

The wind excelled throughout the Smyth; the strings creating some rich warm textures in the lower registers and also during the quieter sections.

But there were times during fortissimos when the strings needed more players to compete with the powerful brass (or maybe the brass needed to dial it back a bit for the Kings Place acoustic). In these bravura moments the fortissimo strings sounded a little forced – little surprise given there were eight violins, three violas and two celli. Top marks

Helen Grime’s captivating Clarinet Concerto opened the second half, spotlighting soloist Julian Bliss’ stunning tone and unfussy but taut articulation. I especially appreciated the way in which the clarinet solo blended with the harmonies in the score played by the scaled back band, with key moments pointed to with judicious string pizzicato underpinned with punchy harp. (Thoroughly Good Listening Tip: Grime loves staccato. I love Grime for her love of staccato in an ambient space.)

Helen Grime has a rare quality to her writing: creating something new that is arresting, compelling and leaves me wanting to hear more of her. There’s a lot of discover. I cannot wait to dive in and (seeing as she’s yet another local composer to me) maybe even catching up with her for a podcast.

I didn’t stick around for the last work on the programme – Haydn’s London Symphony. And here I share an unexpected logistical, editorial and/or strategic observation. Post-COVID mitigations I have got rather used to there not being an interval in concerts. Punchy editorial statements uninterrupted by a silly interval mean more than someone creating an evening’s entertainment with a trip to the bar scheduled mid-way).

Don’t start at 8.00pm when there’s clearly no rush in central London, when you could quite easily have started at 7.30pm or even (my preference at 8.00pm). If you need to, cut the Haydn, and finish with the Smyth, sandwiching the clarinet concerto in between.

And another thing (I’m sorry). There’s a thing emerging about programme notes right now. Some bands are adopting a supposedly ‘innovative approach’ producing audio programme notes fronted by recognisable talent, instead of the conventional printed notes. If that’s your plan then stick to it. If you want me to listen to programme notes because you don’t want to print them or you can’t afford to (don’t make out it’s a COVID mitigation), don’t then make printed programmes available on the door.

And if you do, design the programme so that all the interesting information is made available in print. That’s the most accessible way for most of us to process the background information. If you’re going to make it available in audio form, don’t you also need to make it available in print, especially when on location (in King’s Place, Hall One) there’s no 4G and no wifi to access the audio programme notes?