Scheherazade - a ravishing musical banquet
I have a solution to November blues. As the dark nights charge in and the smell of gunpowder tinges the cold air, we need something to cheer us up; what better than some life-lifting music (and a laugh-out loud poem)? The latter is Thomas Hood’s ‘November’, his hilarious observations on the month (look it up and smile). The first was the counter-misery menu provided by the ever-wonderful Cambridge Philharmonic orchestra.
West Road Concert Hall lit up with a ravishing account of Rimsky-Korsakov’s ‘oriental fantasy’ – Scheherazade. Conductor Timothy Redmond – lounge suited and batonless – encouraged a deep, rich and wholly unified sound from the enormous orchestral forces needed for this gorgeous work. The band was in top form in all departments not least the first violins led by Steve Bingham. He had a lot to do in this musical account of the Arabian Nights. His solo violin takes the part of Scheherazade herself – the sultan’s wife who must keep her murder at bay by telling a gripping story to her husband each bedtime for 1001 nights. Bingham is capable of producing the sweetest sound and when needed attack those four strings with power and emotion. Rimsky’s beefy stew needs a big brass section and we got it here with outstanding playing from horns, muted trombones, trumpets and booming tuba. Delicacy was provided by some lovely harp glissandos which, with solid woodwinds and lower strings, told the stories of Sinbad’s doomed ship and the whirling Festival of Baghdad.
The first half of the concert was no less gripping and began with an extraordinarily bold choice – a suite from the opera Powder Her Face by the contemporary composer Thomas Adès. Again requiring a huge band and meticulous timing, the work is a revelation. Here is modern music that is not painful to hear. Adès tells the strange story of a jilted Duchess with audacious orchestration creating a sound world full of cheeky fun and spine-chilling power. There is guffawing laughter, manic tango and crazy ballads. It is an undoubted show-off piece for orchestra and the Philharmonic more than rose to the challenge. I can’t wait to listen to the piece again.
Sandwiched between these two giant works was the delicate and utterly charming Variations on a Rococo Theme by Tchaikovsky. It was the Russian master’s tribute to Mozart and is a set of variations for cello and orchestra on a simple but ear-worming theme. The soloist Richard Harwood – calm and unshowy – was the master of Tchaikovsky’s mix of elegance and playful joy. Redmond brought forth the full colour palette of this concert favourite. Harwood offered a welcome encore – a Bach sarabande which brought a long first half to a close.
No encore was given by Steve Bingham except a short speech by the conductor in tribute to the sad fact that this was to be the violinist’s final concert for the orchestra. His solo interventions in the Adès and the Rimsky were enough to remind us that we are going to miss a great musician.