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Review: Bishop's Stortford Sinfonia perform Rachmaninoff Symphony No.2 and Dorothy Howell's Humoresque and Divertissements




It’s now five years since the Bishop’s Stortford Sinfonia were founded, and with their concert at Bishop’s Stortford College on Saturday they showed that they have matured into a formidable ensemble that Stortford can be truly proud of.

The quality of their playing was equalled by the confidence of their programming, combining gems from an almost forgotten British female composer with the mighty second symphony by Rachmaninoff.

Conductor Rebecca Miller deserves considerable credit for the rediscovery of Dorothy Howell, once a much-fêted protegée of Sir Henry Wood. Having stumbled across the name when planning a CD of works by women composers, Rebecca found herself lunching at the home of Dorothy’s niece and nephew surrounded by piles of original scores and manuscripts. “Some of the scores we’ve been working with have Henry Wood’s markings on them,” Rebecca told us with great delight.

Bishop's Stortford Sinfonia and conductor Rebecca Miller accept the audience's warm applause at the end of Saturday's concert in the Memorial Hall at Bishop's Stortford College Picture: John Bruce-Jones (27741742)
Bishop's Stortford Sinfonia and conductor Rebecca Miller accept the audience's warm applause at the end of Saturday's concert in the Memorial Hall at Bishop's Stortford College Picture: John Bruce-Jones (27741742)

Howell’s Humoresque and three Divertissements proved revelatory: the orchestra revelled in the strongly contrasting moods, ranging from flighty and capricious through moonlit mystery to brassy confidence, producing an admirably tailored sound to suit each piece. Dorothy Howell is a name to look out for and we must hope that others will follow the Sinfonia’s lead in programming more of her music.

Rebecca’s affection for the Stortford orchestra – one of 40 or more she has led around the globe – was evident both in her conducting of them and in her words about them when she talked to the audience after the interval, describing them as “better than many professional orchestras in the world” and praising their commitment to bringing great music to the community.

There was a palpable response when she talked about the playing and sharing of music as “restoring some beauty” to a fragile world which seems to be too much about “I” and not enough about “We” these days, as we all hunch over our phones.

The real maturity of the orchestra, under their leader Tanya Barringer, was then revealed in Rachmaninoff’s hour-long, super-romantic second symphony.

This was bold programming: the biggest work they have yet put on, with extended brass, woodwind and percussion sections swelling their ranks to 60 players.

The soulfully surging themes were expertly shaped under Rebecca’s direction, with dynamics tellingly controlled and never excessive. All the same, this was a huge, burnished sound which was well served by the clean acoustic of the College’s Memorial Hall.

Special mention has to go to principal clarinettist Tom Caldecote for the achingly beautiful melody introducing the slow movement, and to the horn section for the brazen hunting calls that opened the demonic scherzo; but throughout the symphony the flawless ensemble and polished tone of the combined orchestra were the hallmark of the evening.

Making our way home, my companions could only keep saying “Knockout concert! Knockout orchestra!” The Bishop’s Stortford Sinfonia deserve to be heard, and supported, by a much bigger audience than has discovered them so far. Those who were fortunate enough to be there on Saturday would all agree: Knockout!

Richard Allaway


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