Review: Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra at St David’s Hall, Cardiff
For nearly 40 years Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra has delighted audiences in Wales with its rich and varied concerts. Unjustly, it has not made much of an impact beyond Wales – until now.
To play or not to play. That was the question facing the orchestra in the days before its planned concert celebrating the music of Tchaikovsky.
In the end, the orchestra laid itself open to the slings and arrows of outrageous criticism by scrapping its original programme – including the composer’s “Little Russian” symphony and 1812 Overture – in the light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The decision prompted ridicule and opprobrium from leading Classical music critics, comedians and observers far and wide. If music-lovers overseas hadn’t heard of the CPO before this controversy, they probably have now.
The replacement concert had at its heart an air of optimism tempered by a sense of melancholy and introspection.
It was a calm, dignified and touching tribute to the beleaguered people of Ukraine which saw the orchestra’s founder and conductor, Michael Bell, leading his musicians with his usual understated authority.
It is understandable why the orchestra decided to jettison the “Little Russian” given that at the time of its composition Ukraine was frequently referred to as “Little Russia.” The symphony uses three Ukrainian folk songs but has rarely found favour with Ukrainian audiences.
The 1812 Overture, disliked by Tchaikovsky himself who described it as “loud and noisy,” is loved by audiences for that very reason and because many performances end with pyrotechnics, if not canonfire.
In 2018, Classic FM listeners made it their top choice in the station’s annual Hall of Fame. It will be interesting to see how Tchaikovsky and other Russian composers fare in the Hall of Fame this Easter.
The new concert programme, called Classics for All, began with the orchestra playing the National Anthem of Ukraine, before continuing with John Williams’ The Cowboys Overture, from the John Wayne movie, The Cowboys.
The loquacious Mr Bell, who has endeared himself to audiences over the years by giving informative and insightful explanations of the music, pointedly told us that the message of the film was that “right will always be done and that the bullies of this world will always be defeated.”
The piece is a pretty standard score for a Western movie. The orchestra made the most of the material, revelling it its overall exuberance while sensitively rendering the more reflective passages.
The first half of the concert ended with Dvorak’s Symphony No 8. Bell led his players in a stately interpretation of the work which brought out its contrasting moods and colours.
The second movement is a little gem. The orchestra made it sparkle with the lower strings and the brass section of the orchestra being particularly impressive. The sense of optimism at the end of the symphony was enthusiastically captured by the players.
Musing again on what the orchestra opted not to play, it might have been appropriate to include a Shostakovich symphony, given that he was a composer who knew all about living and working under the threatening shadow of an unhinged dictator and yet managed to combat The Terror, albeit in an enigmatic and coded way.
Instead, the revised concert ended with Elgar’s Enigma Variations. The orchestra’s playing of the early variations was strangely remote and uninvolving, but it’s playing of the opening theme, the Nimrod variation, and the last two variations was deeply moving.
This was due in no small measure to the cello section – seven women and one man – who played with remarkable sensitivity, producing a rich, warm sound that went right to the heart.
Bell turned to John Williams again for the encore, Hymn to the Fallen, from the 90 year-old composer’s score for the film Saving Private Ryan. Bell told the audience that on this occasion no further words were needed. He was right.
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