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Bishop’s Stortford Sinfonia delivers a ‘life-giving fix of humanity’ at concert featuring BBC Young Musician star Jaren Ziegler

Bishop’s Stortford Sinfonia gave the first performance in its eighth season of orchestral concerts under its inspirational conductor Rebecca Miller at Bishop’s Stortford College’s Memorial Hall on Sunday November 5, writes Richard Allaway.

The orchestra – an asset that Stortford can rightly be proud of – has matured and blossomed in those eight years. The quality of its ensemble - the way the various instruments blend together - has developed markedly and the string sound in particular has grown in confidence and expressivity. As a result, they were able to do more than justice to a fascinatingly varied programme of three British works.

They began with the concert overture The Rock by the nowadays little-known composer Dorothy Howell. Miller has been in the vanguard of restoring Howell’s reputation in recent years and has made ground-breaking recordings of many of her works, including this one. Inspired by the sights and sounds of Gibraltar, it evokes the hustle and bustle of life on the island complete with snatches of Spanish guitar and British bugle calls.

Bishop's Stortford Sinfonia conducted by Rebecca Miller
Bishop's Stortford Sinfonia conducted by Rebecca Miller

A chance for many talented soloists amongst the ranks of the Sinfonia to introduce themselves to the audience and a colourful concert opener that definitely deserves to be programmed more widely and often.

It was followed by what has been described as “one of the most important modern concertos for any instrument”, the Viola Concerto by William Walton. This sometimes troubling, sometimes serene, sometimes hectic but ultimately beatific work was brought to life for us by the amazingly talented 18-year-old Jaren Ziegler, winner of the string section of last year’s BBC Young Musician competition. The opportunity to direct this challenging music was given to a guest conductor, the young American John Paul Jennings.

Despite one or two moments which would have benefited from more rehearsal time, John Paul, Jaren and the orchestra delivered a convincing account of Walton’s concerto in all its contrasting moods.

Jaren Ziegler. Picture: Ben Wilkin
Jaren Ziegler. Picture: Ben Wilkin

Finally we had a more familiar British masterpiece, Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations. Much more important than its Britishness, though, in Miller’s (American) opinion, is the powerful depiction of human friendship that runs through it.

The orchestra made the most of Elgar’s skilful orchestration, letting the various solo voices speak eloquently in the quieter passages but packing a serious punch in the fortissimo moments. Each of Elgar’s “friends pictured within”, to quote the work’s dedication, was clearly differentiated and lovingly portrayed.

There was a good deal more to the afternoon, though, than the music we heard. From the start, Miller engaged us with her ideas about music’s potential role in our lives and the ways we could all bring its benefits to a wider audience.

She had created a move-around-if-you-want area at the back of the hall for those who found keeping still difficult and there were giant bean bags at the front so that younger (or older!) listeners could get up close to the orchestra, which they did. The Sinfonia is also developing a wellbeing outreach programme, Sound Mind, beginning with informal listening cafés at Bishop’s Stortford Methodist Church.

To help fill audience seats, Miller issued a challenge: each of us should find someone they knew who had never been to a concert before and persuade them to come to one of the Sinfonia’s events. They will discover that experiencing live, real-time music making is one of the greatest ways to access the joy of human interaction, increasingly under threat from screen-based technology and artificial intelligence.

Certainly that was the experience of the Bishop Stortford Sinfonia’s audience on November 5. We came to hear three great pieces of British music, which we did, and, more than that, we had our mental health boosted by a life-giving fix of humanity.

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