Orchestra Of The Swan / Cleobury, Gulbenkian Theatre, Canterbury
By Robert Maycock
From The Independent - 29 March 2006
Hailing from Stratford-upon-Avon, the Orchestra of the Swan is one of those essential cogs in the machinery of musical touring that the metropolis usually misses. It has added to the nation's gaiety by becoming resident at Birmingham Airport, and while it didn't actually fly to Manston for its East Kent visit, it thoughtfully showed up with a tribute to Broadstairs boy Richard Rodney Bennett. The composer's 70th birthday is being generously marked by Sounds New, an annual Canterbury festival of contemporary music that usually treats the bewildered residents to tougher stuff: this year's other focus is Peter Maxwell Davies.
Not that Bennett is a soft option. "Reflections on a Theme of William Walton", which opened this string-orchestra concert, chose as its source one of Walton's flirtations with 12-note composing. Midway, Bennett's score unexpectedly turns it into a wrong-note variant of the Pink Panther theme, but most of the time it maintains a restless, edgy atmosphere, beautifully varied in orchestral layout, typical of its composer. In a dry acoustic, the Swan strings sounded tense when exposed, but energetic and well together once some pace developed.
The saxophonist John Harle played solo with his personal mix of punch and sensitivity in the other two Bennett works - the Concerto for alto sax and "Seven Country Dances".
More composer's relish came across from "Photography" by Errollyn Wallen, a Swan commission on its premiere tour. The title was unexplained, though the music went in for reproducing sound images during the first and most substantial of its four movements, as it tossed ideas around over a steady tread and discovered some sumptuous sonorities for divided strings.
Apart from a spot of bother with the flourishes, the orchestra with Nicholas Cleobury conducting gave a warm-toned performance, and it rounded off the evening with the Stravinsky ballet score Apollon-Musagète. Rhythm and well-heard balance were more consistent than fine intonation, but the dominant feature was radiant lyrical splendour - probably more than Stravinsky meant, and all the better for it.