The evening opened with George Gershwin?s Cuban Overture, to an audience almost matching the 17,000-strong crowd at its première in 1932. Although a little stiff in the first few minutes, the orchestra soon settled into the sway, portraying well the character of the Caribbean tunes that inspired the piece. The vital rhythmic backbone, provided by the tuba, bassoons and basses, was confident without being overbearing, and the brass and flutes in particular played with great flair. The wind solos in the middle section were executed well, before a very stylish recap of the main tune from the whole orchestra.
A second American piece followed: Violin Concerto by Samuel Barber, best known for his famous Adagio for Strings. On the whole, the orchestra accompanied soloist Lukas Medlam very sympathetically, coming to the fore when necessary but allowing the solo passages to shine through. Changes in mood over the first movement, from lyrical to dramatic to (sort of) Scottish, were smooth, and the emotion of the opening oboe solo in the second movement was picked up beautifully by the strings and other wind. Lukas? stunning playing in the third movement made the perpetually moving solo line seem effortless. The orchestra did not appear to completely share his confidence, with the changing rhythms mostly secure but with perhaps a slight tinge of, well, fear. On the whole, however, all musicians rose to the challenge and brought the first half to a brilliant end.
After the introduction of another row of chairs to allow more audience to get in, the second half began with Britten?s Four Sea Interludes from opera Peter Grimes. I admit being biased here ? I love opera in general and this piece in particular ? but for me this was the highlight of the concert. Although technically a little ragged to begin with, the orchestra captured the feeling of the piece magnificently, portraying the varying moods of each movement with great skill whilst maintaining the underlying tension. The upper string pizzicato in the second movement ?Sunday Morning? was accurate and evocative, and the brass were again very effective, rasping menacingly in the final movement ?Storm?.
The evening finished with Rachmaninov?s Isle of the Dead, a similarly dramatic tone poem inspired by Toteninsel by Arnold Böcklin. This painting depicts the final ferry journey of a departing soul, an emotive subject that, as with the Britten, was portrayed excellently by the orchestra. Again, the musicians handled the changes in mood and time signature well, moving from powerful solemnity to passion and back again without either feeling stilted or breaking the tension.
Overall, the orchestra handled some challenging repertoire excellently. ICSO have started the year as I hope they?ll go on, with a wonderful performance to a very appreciative, and very large, audience.