Bishop’s Stortford Sinfonia – Concert at Bishop’s Stortford College – By Iago Núñez
4th May 2019
Last Saturday the Bishop’s Stortford Sinfonia concluded the 2018/19 season with a wonderful programme of orchestral works by Smetana, Stravinsky and Dvořák. The recital began with Vltava, a musical depiction of the eponymous river that runs through Prague, written by the Czech nationalist composer Smetana. From the intricate flute duet at the start of the piece, to the rustic charm of enthusiastic dance rhythms and the arrival of the final major motif, this work gave the Sinfonia an opportunity to explore their magnificent tonal palette. The orchestra was at its finest during the enchanting central episode representing the mermaids in the moonlight. Once again, the flutes shined through their playing as the muted string harmonies prepared the entry of the poignant brass chorale.
Stravinsky’s orchestral suite The Firebird, was the final item in the opening half of the concert. The Sinfonia’s conductor, Rebecca Miller, addressed the audience before the start of the piece to describe the folk tale that inspired the composition and created its central narrative. This is a challenging work that requires excellent instrumentalists and masterful direction from the conductor. The technical demands were fully met and some of the most complex passages of the Infernal Dance were absolutely thrilling. The orchestra’s virtuosity was also apparent in many of the polyphonic sections, giving plenty of opportunities for various section leaders to demonstrate the mastery of their instruments. The moving horn solo at the start of the epilogue was truly magical and Rebecca Miller lead the ensemble to the apotheotic final climax with perfect control of timing.
The second half was entirely dedicated to Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8. As demonstrated in many other memorable concerts with the Sinfonia, Miller’s conducting style is perfectly suited for the large-scale romantic repertoire. She steered the ensemble through complex textures with superlative skill and immaculate taste in her phrasing and tempo choices. This was particularly evident during the mysterious slow movement. The music of the nostalgic and elegant third movement waltz flowed with precise articulation towards the arousing finale. The triumphant closing movement was the perfect showcase for the orchestra’s tonal variety and effervescent power.
We are fortunate to be able to hear such a wonderful repertoire played by a truly outstanding ensemble in Bishop’s Stortford and we are certainly looking forward to new musical highlights with the Sinfonia during their next season.
Bishop’s Stortford Sinfonia – Concert at All Saints Church – By Iago Núñez
20th May 2018
The final concert in the season for the Bishop’s Stortford Sinfonia brought together a group of familiar and little-known pieces to close a wonderful series of recitals this year. The orchestra and its principal conductor, Rebecca Miller, are known for creative and clever programming, clearly in evidence last Sunday 20th of May with the inclusion of Debussy’s masterpiece Prélude à l’aprés-midi d’un faune, the Concertino for Harp and Orchestra by Germaine Tailleferre and Symphony No. 2 by Johannes Brahms.
The celebrated opening flute solo of the Prelude, was accurately described as ushering in Twentieth Century music and bidding farewell to the old traditions of the Romantic Era. Miller waited patiently until every sound died away at the Church and with the evening sun flooding through the windows the recital could not have had a more fitting beginning. The languorous, seductive and at times playful atmosphere of the piece was perfectly captured by the different soloists within the orchestra and the expansive and rich string sonorities were fully complemented by the luscious horn melodies. The sense of timing and allowing the orchestra to linger and enjoy the ecstatic climaxes of the music is crucially important in this work and Rebecca Miller gave the audiences precisely that.
As the Prelude came to an end with the iconic flute melody accompanied by single notes in the harp, it served as a perfect link to the second item in the programme. There were many connections between the sonorities and harmonies of Debussy and Tailleferre, particularly in the second movement, but the stronger influence on this French composer was her contemporary Maurice Ravel. The orchestration, harmonies and interaction between soloist and orchestra in this Concertino for Harp and Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G are very strong and I was very quick to assume that Tailleferre took great inspiration from her more senior colleague. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the Concertino precedes Ravel’s iconic work by three years! The soloist in this occasion was Alex Rider, who brilliantly stepped in at the last minute. There were many memorable musical highlights form the harp, including the exquisite candeza towards the end of the first movement with rapid arpeggios and a beautiful ascending melody dispatched with great virtuosity by the soloist. This work presents us with a more concertante style, where the soloist does not oppose the orchestra in the manner of a romantic concerto, but collaborates with it. There were nevertheless plenty of occasions for the harp to shine both lyrically and as a soloist as well as in dialogue with other instruments of the orchestra.
Rebecca Miller’s conducting style allowed the players to express their musicality and gave them freedom to be individual. In the second half of the concert, she firmly took the reigns of the Sinfonia and presented us with her clear and encompassing vision of the Symphony No. 2 by Brahms. There was drama and intensity in the first movement coupled with melodic lyricism and this symphony became a perfect vehicle to unleash the wonderful orchestral sound of this ensemble. Miller also let the music flow freely in the complex and intriguing second movement and the following Scherzo had equal measures of elegance and virtuosity. The climatic finale began with tremendous simmering energy that quickly erupted into an apotheotic explosion of sound and rhythm. This was a fitting end not only to the concert but also to an extraordinary season of music with the Sinfonia and a reminder of what a great privilege it is to have this quality of music at our doorstep.
Bishop’s Stortford Sinfonia – All Saints Church, Hockerill – By Richard Allaway
18th March 2018
The Bishop’s Stortford Sinfonia returned to the spacious acoustic of All Saints Church on Sunday evening, on this occasion without their Principal Conductor Rebecca Miller; but it quickly became evident that over the two years she has been associated with Stortford’s new orchestra, Rebecca had forged an impressive ensemble for guest conductor Jonathan Mann to work with. Jonathan clearly had no problems in coaxing a full and burnished sound out of the players, but at the same time bringing out the fine detail when required – the chirpy woodwind solos in Mozart’s opening Così fan tutte overture being a good case in point. As Jonathan pointed out in his introduction to Haydn’s Symphony No.99, which later brought the programme to a close, that composer too was very fond of inserting episodes for the woodwinds alone, and these came across with all the brilliant colour and precision Haydn could have wished for. The string sound, meanwhile, was consistently polished throughout the evening.
Prior to the symphony, the predominantly Viennese programme was leavened by something rather more piquant: six tiny Romanian Folk Dances by Bela Bartok. The orchestra took great delight in veering from a confident swagger one moment to wistful delicacy the next, and although All Saints’ heavy echo sometimes made it a challenge to achieve the transparency these miniatures require, the players’ sense of style still delivered an authentic taste of Transylvanian folk music.
There is no doubt, though, that the abiding memory for anybody who was there that evening will be of the young violin soloist Charlie Lovell-Jones, who performed Mendelssohn’s popular Violin Concerto. You might have said, both watching and hearing him, that he had been playing it all his adult life – except that at the age of 18, his adult life is still all ahead of him. His playing was assured and unforced and his technique formidable, but above all his interpretation of this oh-so-familiar music was perfectly judged; even in the achingly beautiful slow movement he allowed the music to speak for itself without any indulgent over-expression.
After much rapturous applause, Charlie returned for an encore, and coolly announced Paganini’s fiendish Caprice No.24 for solo violin. That big acoustic now came into its own as the vaulted roof was filled with cascades of notes from what sounded like at least three instruments, but that we could see was actually all from the hands of this one spectacularly talented young man. Charlie Lovell-Jones is a name you will hear a lot of in the years to come.
Bishop’s Stortford Sinfonia will be back at All Saints on May 20th with music by Debussy, Tailleferre and Brahms – you are strongly recommended to be there!
Sinfonia puts on a convincing Façade – by Oliver Bond
21st January 2018
Bishop’s Stortford Sinfonia’s first musical offering of 2018 was heralded by an announcement on BBC Radio 3 last Sunday morning, boding well for that evening’s broadcast-worthy performance of three twentieth-century chamber works. Reasonable in number despite the inclement weather, their loyal audience settled in for the opening of Martinů’s Nonet; its rhythmic drive, propelled effortlessly by the strings with a well-blended sonority from the winds, created a pleasingly full and tight sound in the URC’s intimate acoustic. Under the expert baton of Rebecca Miller, the ensemble played with calm precision and musicality – clearly now well-used to performing together as solo chamber musicians, as well as part of the larger symphonic orchestra. The Nonet’s lively opening was contrasted by a darker, more brooding second movement. Flashes of impressionist sonority and occasional hints of Beethovian orchestration illustrated the multifarious influences in the composer’s palette, all augmented by some very exquisite lyrical performances, particularly from the woodwind players. Some arresting harmonic curveballs and further rhythmic energy brought the piece to a rousing close.
Martinů’s well-known interest in the musical innovations of twentieth-century France made for an apt pairing of the Nonet with Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin. The piece, as is a feature of many of Sinfonia concerts, was preceded by an informal verbal introduction from the conductor. Her palpable passion for the music, coupled with the self-deprecating humour between her and the ensemble players, added warmth and engagement to the proceedings.
The cinematic soundscape of the Prélude movement was expertly handled by the ensemble, whose intimate size belied the scale of the sound produced, deftly bringing Wolfgang Renz’s colourful orchestration to life. The second movement’s beautifully dovetailed fugal lines were a striking contrast to the spikier articulation of the Martinů earlier. The third movement’s suite-influenced dance motifs, shifting rhythms and tonal tangents were clearly enjoyed by the performers. The Rigaudon featured an exquisite cantabile performance from oboist Julia White, supported by subtle and well-shaped chordal passages from the strings at the close of the movement. The final Toccata, with its angular octave motifs and keyboard-like passages, made for an uplifting end to the first half.
The second half commenced with a witty preface from Richard Sisson (former pianist of ‘Kit and the Widow’), adding some welcomed context to the notoriously fun yet eccentric Façade by Walton, scored for two reciters and six instrumentalists. The precise vocal delivery of Sisson in the Hornpipe highlighted his excellent musicianship, ably matched by Lizzie Byrne, whose vivid portrayals of the quirky texts sometimes verged on a near perfect incarnation of poet Edith Sitwell herself! There were many highlights in this work’s numerous short movements: wonderful cabaret-esque characterisations from Sisson in Mariner; lightning-speed diction in Tango-Pasadoble (Byrne) and hilarious vocal slurring and Scottish inflections in Four in the Morning and Scotch Rhapsody. The instrumentalists were on sparkling form too, with vibrant Latin percussion from Louise Goodwin in Long Steel Grass, jazzy passages handled stylishly by trumpeter Richard Knights in Something Lies beyond the Scene, as well as beautifully-phrased melodic playing from saxophonist Catherine Evison in Popular Song. The piece closed with Byrne’s fabulously strutting spoken syncopation in Fox Trot and Sisson’s nostalgic use of a 1920s acoustic megaphone in the final movement, Sir Beelzebub. Kudos to those responsible for the breadth and variety of the Sinfonia’s programming. Be sure to catch their next concert at All Saints’ Church on 18th March.
Review of Bishop’s Stortford Sinfonia event: Inside the Orchestra – Beethoven’s Fifth – by Richard Allaway
5th November 2017
Last Sunday saw a remarkable event in the Memorial Hall of Bishop’s Stortford College: a chance for members of the public to get “up close and personal” with their local symphony orchestra.
The management team of the Bishop’s Stortford Sinfonia, not content with the achievement of setting up a brand new orchestra in the town, have shrewdly realised that you need to do more nowadays than just put on concerts, which is why they have developed a programme including outreach and educational activities, chamber music recitals with tea and cakes, and Sunday’s unique concert-cum-tutorial.
The audience, which included a heartening number of youngsters of all ages, were encouraged to sit around, behind and even in among the musicians to get the full aural experience, and Principal Conductor Rebecca Miller gave a fascinating insight into the workings of the orchestra, not just with words but by getting the players to demonstrate examples of the difference between the right way and some wrong ways to conduct, and to be conducted. Much fun was had with a number of “not like this” versions of some of poor Beethoven’s music, while the “more like this” examples helped the audience appreciate the skills involved in achieving a great orchestral sound.
Importantly, Rebecca also got many of the musicians to stand up and tell us something about being on the receiving end of her efforts – what helps them perform well and what would not. Who knew that horn players scare easily, for example?
Once the instruments, players and conductor were all familiar to us, the evening ended with a barn-storming rendition of the whole of Beethoven’s iconic Fifth Symphony, and having heard so many extracts from it already, the audience were able to appreciate it all the more deeply. I will never tire of hearing this great work, but this time it came with the added joy of watching a little girl sitting on her father’s lap, within touching distance of the double basses, and expressively miming all the music. Job done, Bishop’s Stortford Sinfonia!
Richard Allaway is Chair of music@stansted and of the Harlow Symphony Orchestra
Bishop’s Stortford Sinfonia: Borodin In the Steppes of Central Asia, Elgar Cello Concerto, Sibelius Symphony No.3 – by Andrew Bruce
If you missed it, you missed a treat and my hearty recommendation is that you get their next concert in your diary (see the end of this review for details). I refer to the simply stunning concert given on Sunday by Stortford’s very own orchestra, the Bishop’s Stortford Sinfonia. To have an orchestra of this quality performing regularly in the town is quite extraordinary. The Sinfonia was established in 2015 thanks to the imagination, determination and energy of the orchestra’s Artistic Director and 1st Flute, Simon Gilliver. Pulling a team together of high calibre players such as those playing on Sunday is no mean feat but two years on from their founding concert they are now a well-established group and, most importantly, they are sounding just that!
Tonight’s concert featured 3 truly great works and, again, I must congratulate those responsible for programming for coming up with 3 contrasting but, actually, complementing pieces which clearly delighted and enthralled the large audience.
The programme opened with Borodin’s ‘In the Steppes of Central Asia’, one of those pieces with a melody which lives with you for some considerable time after the concert has finished. This work has a very tricky opening, very exposed, intimidating even. It requires huge restraint and steadiness from the upper strings and that is exactly what it got. It was a very bold choice of opening piece and I am delighted to say the orchestra, under the skilful baton of their conductor, Rebecca Miller, brought it off superbly. Solos from clarinet and horn were beautiful and were followed by a haunting cor anglais solo, so beautifully phrased. There were subtle pianissimo passages contrasting with dramatic fortissimo moments. This was a fantastic opening to a superb programme.
On then to the Elgar ‘Cello Concerto with the wonderful Oliver Coates as soloist. The fact that this concerto is so well-known inevitably brings its own pressures; everybody thinks they know exactly how it goes and there really is, therefore, nowhere to hide. From Coates’ first notes we knew this was going to be a performance which really reached out to the audience. The boldness of the first few bars were so neatly picked up by the woodwind and then the strings. 30 seconds in to the performance and soloist and orchestra had the audience totally engaged. There was a wonderful balance throughout with Rebecca Miller ensuring the orchestra were suitably restrained to allow the soloist to come through.
Oliver Coates introduced plenty of emotional content where it was required with excellent control of the melodic line. The rubato so crucial to the 3rd movement for example, was beautifully judged and the contrast achieved in the 4th with its dramatic opening and close and a rollercoaster of emotions in-between was spell-binding.
Before starting the second half Rebecca Miller spoke to the audience reflecting on the hours of dedication each member of the orchestra has put in to developing their considerable talent. That talent was very evident throughout the concert, certainly in the playing of solos passages, but also in the way the orchestra worked so well together. There is a real sense of cohesion in this orchestra. She rather modestly spoke about what a pleasure it is for her to work with such dedication and ability. An orchestra however needs to be more than simply the sum of its parts and I felt she did a truly inspirational job of bringing the best out of this excellent group of musicians.
On then to the 2nd half of the programme, Sibelius Symphony No 3, which opened with beautiful articulation from the low strings setting the tone for an atmospheric performance of this great symphony. The tricky runs in the 1st movement were managed effortlessly and in the big chordal moments there was a real richness of tone right through to the huge plagal cadence at the end of the movement. The restrained and atmospheric opening of the 2nd movement was matched by great clarity in the cross-rhythms. This is a very tricky movement for cohesion particularly in some difficult woodwind passages but they played it superbly. The 3rd movement was a great movement to finish the concert with big moments for brass. Again I was impressed with the balance throughout as instruments quietened down to let others through. The horns were particularly impressive!
A truly inspirational concert!
Now, I suggested you might like to get the next one in your diary – Sunday 5th November in the Memorial Hall at Bishop’s Stortford College. This is going to be an in-depth workshop where Rebecca Miller will explore the inner workings of the orchestra culminating in a full performance of that most famous of symphonies, Beethoven’s Symphony No 5. Details of tickets will be on the Bishop’s Stortford Sinfonia web site.
Director of Music at Bishop’s Stortford College and Musical Director of the Harlow Symphony Orchestra.
Review – Brahms Violin Concerto and Dvorak Symphony No. 7
Bishops Stortford Sinfonia – By Oliver Bond
May 21st, 2017
Within the wonderfully atmospheric twilight setting of All Saints’ Church, Bishop’s Stortford Sinfonia presented a programme of Brahms’ Violin Concerto and Dvorak’s 7th Symphony – a weighty and well-matched pairing of East European-influenced works that showcased superb musicianship to a local and very appreciative audience.
The orchestral opening of Brahms’ 1st movement was gentle and profound. The impressive crescendo that followed was augmented sympathetically by the church’s resonant acoustic – a forgiving yet challenging environment to perform in. Rebecca Miller’s sensible choice of tempo and prudent ensemble stage positioning resulted in beautiful shaping of the movement’s lyrical passages, particularly the oboe, retaining a sense of real clarity and warmth.
Violinist Sujin Park’s solo entry was surprisingly subtle and intimate given the cavernous setting, yet the delicate and somewhat sweet tone produced was pleasing, resulting in a well-blended and balanced sound with the orchestra. Miller and Park worked well together, demonstrating excellent attention to detail of the musical line and seamless dovetailing between solo and orchestral passages. Park’s resonant tone in the violin’s upper register was particularly impressive, cutting through the tutti passages very effectively. Her flawlessly executed cadenza was a real highlight, which the audience were fortunate enough to hear performed once more at the end of the 1st half. The calmer ‘adagio’ 2nd movement was noteworthy for the seemingly instinctive unity between players and conductor. Miller was able to once again demonstrate her attention to detail in bringing out the orchestral themes (a real feature of this concert), as well as creating a fine sense of ebb and flow in the changing texture and dynamics throughout.
The final movement of the concerto displayed both the serious character of Brahms’ orchestral writing, juxtaposed with the playfulness of the Hungarian folk themes. This light yet intense mood was echoed skillfully by Park, revealing more spikiness and grit to her sound, showcasing her versatility as a soloist. The rhythmic vitality of the final movement was superbly well-conveyed by Miller and the orchestra and brought the first half to a stirring close.
Despite the Sinfonia’s limited rehearsal opportunities, Miller and the instrumentalists exhibited masterful control of Dvorak’s complex score in the second half, deftly bringing out the subtle colours and principal lyrical passages of the composer’s busy textures with great panache. The darker and brooding Czech-flavoured passages within the work were well-portrayed, particularly by the ensemble’s exciting and powerful brass section. Most noticeably in this performance, the orchestra displayed an instinctive sense of build-up and climax, enabling Miller to focus on the finer details of articulation and phrasing to bring a real sense of energy and vivacity to this piece.
The warm and somewhat yearning orchestral swells were a highlight of the second movement, with the softer and more intimate passages capturing the composer’s personal tragedy effectively. The ‘furiant’ 3rd movement had many echoes of the final movement of Brahms’ concerto, with the orchestra evoking skilfully the wonderful lilt of the Slavic dance rhythms and the Teutonic influences of Dvorak’s more bombastic passages.
The final movement was memorable for its thrilling antiphony between horns and trombones, whose flanked positioning at each side of the ensemble was very effective within the building. The striking clarity of the horns and precision directing by Miller made for a hugely impressive close to this piece, with the uplifting major key finale of the movement yielding a huge applause from the Sinfonia’s large and loyal audience, boding well for their exciting and varied programme for the 2017/18 season.
February 15th, 2016
After Bishop’s Stortford Sinfonia’s hugely successful inaugural concert at All Saints’ Church in October last year, the question on the lips of all music lovers in the area, knowing how much hard work had gone into the organisation and financing of it, was “can they do it again” – or would it turn out to be a flash in the pan?
So it was a special pleasure to be able to hear the orchestra for a second time on Saturday, February 13, and even to learn that a third concert is already in the diary (for Saturday, June 25).
The venue this time was the somewhat smaller United Reformed Church. Its drier, less reverberant acoustic made strenuous demands on the accuracy of the individual players, especially in the transparently-orchestrated Pulcinella suite by Stravinsky which opened proceedings.
This was the start of an imaginative programme, mixing music of diverse styles from the baroque, classical and 20th-century neo-classical periods. The wit and humour of Stravinsky put the audience in the perfect mood to hear the eminent oboist Malcolm Messiter give a spirited performance a concerto by Bach for an eighteenth-century instrument rarely heard today, the oboe d’amore. Listening to the delightful sound of this ‘big cousin’ of the modern oboe was an entrancing novelty which was over all too soon.
In the second half, guest conductor Rebecca Miller greatly enhanced our understanding and enjoyment of Mozart’s Great G Minor symphony, also known as Symphony No. 40, by giving an insightful talk on the structure and themes of the work, illustrated by short excerpts from the orchestra.
Why don’t performers and conductors do this more often? Everybody in the audience got more out of the following performance as a result, and any fears of “not knowing anything about music” were painlessly dispelled.
Once again, a capacity audience of all ages was a tribute to the efforts of the great team who had put the whole event together. Long may they continue to bring such high quality music to Bishop’s Stortford!
Review: Bishop’s Stortford Sinfonia makes its bow with Dvorak and Beethoven – By Sonia Levy
“Herts and Essex Observer”
October 15th, 2015
At last! Bishop’s Stortford has an orchestra.
The Bishop’s Stortford Sinfonia is the creation of Simon Gilliver, a highly regarded musician in the area.
He had an excellent collection of mainly local professional musicians for the inaugural concert in All Saints’ Church, Stansted Road, on Saturday night. And what an auspicious occasion it was.
The programme consisted of just two glorious works: Dvorak’s Cello Concerto and Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony.
The outstanding cellist, Rachel Sanders-Hewett, played the much-loved Dvorak with bravado, displaying all the beauty of her instrument with her technical prowess. She was sensitively accompanied by guest conductor Patrick Bailey.
The resonance of the church occasionally clouded the fine detail of the orchestral sound in the Beethoven symphony, but again, under the assured direction of Bailey, the players demonstrated their excellence both as individuals and as an ensemble.
The concert was extremely well attended, with a heartening number of youngsters clearly enjoying the rousing music on offer and the large audience gave an enthusiastic reception to both works.
Let’s hope it is a taste of things to come.