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Bishop's Stortford Sinfonia allow audience to get inside Tchaikovsky’s Sixth

By Paul Winspear

Inside the Orchestra (6817468)
Inside the Orchestra (6817468)

Bishop’s Stortford Sinfonia’s Sunday performance of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony was preceded by the popular ‘Inside the Orchestra’ event, a family-friendly and interactive tour of the ensemble’s inner workings, led by conductor Rebecca Miller.

The workshop began with contextual information on the piece and its supposed fate-driven narrative, alluded to mysteriously by the composer before his untimely death just after its premiere in 1893.

To aid the unraveling of the story-like elements within the music, Miller selected poignant, stirring and dramatic moments, showcasing the composer’s presentation of themes based around scales.

Particularly enlightening were the passages in which the conductor stripped down the instrumental textures, allowing us to hear lines usually concealed within the larger envelope of sound, thereby enhancing our appreciation of Tchaikovsky’s coruscating and subtle gift for orchestration.

After a brief interval, the first movement commenced with a mournful bassoon figure, accompanied softly by drones in the basses. This soon built to one of several tumultuous forte passages, highlighting the orchestra’s commanding brass and percussion sections and notable clarity of woodwind articulation.

The strings came into their own in the more delicate and intricate passagework, later leading to tutti climaxes as we approached the astonishingly dramatic war-like section near the close of the movement, before the conflict finally gave way to a profound hymn-like close.

The orchestra maintained a sense of poise and elegance throughout the dance-like second movement in the unusual metre of 5/4. This was juxtaposed by the frenetic string opening of the third movement, expertly contained against the broader alternating themes between oboe and brass.

These and other antiphonal exchanges were handled ably by conductor and performers alike, leading to a colossal sonic surge at the end of the section, almost segueing into the shimmering resultant theme of the strings in the closing movement.

Tchaikovsky’s allusions to fate were clearer to discern here, with cascading passages rich in both harmonic tension and beauty, arresting orchestrations of muted brass and, like the opening, plaintive bass drones to conclude the work.

Bishop’s Stortford Sinfonia is to be congratulated for the continuing quality and accessibility of its concerts in the town, with Sunday’s thoughtfully intermingled seating of orchestra and audience within the Memorial Hall at Bishop's Stortford College resulting in a unique ‘surround-sound’ experience.

No doubt those attending their performance at Saffron Hall on March 23 will be in for another unique aural treat – hearing the orchestra finally perform in a purpose-built concert venue for the first time.

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