Review – “Young Person’s Guide”

Review of A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra in Ely Cathedral on Saturday March 3rd 2012
by Rosemary Westwell

“A new spark of excitement was created by Steve Bingham when he conducted Ely Sinfonia for their concert A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra in Ely Cathedral last Saturday. Under his baton, not only did the orchestra perform to considerably high standards, but an extra sense of liveliness, camaraderie and joy permeated their performances.

The concert opened with the première performance of Somniare by Alex Cook, winner of the Cambridge Youth Composer of the Year 2011 prize. With small groups of instruments scattered throughout the Cathedral, this budding new composer was able to create an intriguing atmosphere as strands of sounds were suspended in the vaults of the Cathedral and  came together in long enduring sound combinations give a sense of belonging and a feeling that we were immersed in an expansive film score.

Ravel’s Bolero is a very popular addition to the programme. Although the composer is said to have joked about the piece having no music, this orchestra proved otherwise. As the different instruments came in above the constantly repeated rhythm, in the snare drum, it soon became clear that this was no ordinary performance. None of Ravel’s intentions were lost while the soloists added their individual expressions that brought out the uniqueness of their instruments’ sounds while at the same time giving the composition delightful and meaningful colour and development.

I have heard Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra a hundred times and more. (I taught music in schools for years.) Consequently, it was with a little trepidation that I waited to listen to this piece yet again. However, I need not have feared. This performance was definite proof that a live performance beats any recording. Steve exuded enthusiasm as he introduced the piece and added his own limericks to introduce the children to the instruments as they played in turn. It was quite moving to see the youngsters sitting on cushions in the octagon in front of the orchestra remaining quiet and interested throughout the evening’s performance. The extra vitality and colour that this orchestra added to this very well known composition made it a real joy to hear again.

After interval we were taken into a deeper realm with Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. The four movements of the piece reflected a wide range of emotions and expressions. The skill of the composer and the accomplishment of the performers created a sense of poignant stillness that developed into angry outbursts or deep Russian moodiness. Strong vehement themes exuded potency, and in the second movement particularly, different instruments brought extra character and tones to the proceedings. In the third movement Shostakovich’s skill in using intervals and melodic shape to mix the emotions creating an underlying sense of sadness that permeated the work, while also adding tinges of beauty, fondness and hope. There were many glorious moments when a distinctive Russian voice emerged, especially in the deeper instruments. The final movement contained moments of anger and agitation that were momentarily suspended in delightful episodes of respite only to break out again into expressions of frustration and anxiety, ending with a final unfettered declamation by the drum. This was one of the most exhilarating and inspired performances by Ely Sinfonia I have heard.”