Sinfonia of London
Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham
December 4 2022
Review: William Ruff
A 40th anniversary concert to remember: John Wilson’s ear-opening, virtuoso Sinfonia of London
They sure know how to party at Nottingham’s Royal Concert Hall. Their 40th Anniversary Gala on Sunday was as thrilling as any concert staged there over the last four decades and it left the audience either gasping for breath or standing and cheering at the end. The reason: John Wilson and the Sinfonia of London, his handpicked super-orchestra.
The last few years have seen them produce a stream of rapturously-reviewed CDs focusing on British and French music. Sunday’s concert featured some of this repertoire whilst also highlighting another facet of John Wilson’s musical personality: the devotee of the Golden Age of Hollywood and Broadway musicals and the force behind the John Wilson Orchestra.
John Wilson nailed his orchestra’s colours to the mast with William Walton’s fizzing overture Scapino, inspired by Harlequin’s servant in the Italian commedia dell’arte. From the word go the performance brought the character vividly to life. Strings, woodwind, percussion: all gave virtuoso performances to convey the energy of the rogue who lives by his wits. There is a love interest as well which involved some lovely playing by violas, cor anglais and solo cello. This was the sort of detail in which this orchestra really excels.
Ravel’s Valses Nobles et Sentimentales were again full of subtlety and delicate sonic nuances, the sequence of eight waltzes constantly taking the ear by surprise, not least the exuberantly Viennese seventh waltz with its zesty rhythms and harmonies.
Just before the interval came Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, a piece that changed the course of musical history. What Gershwin showed his doubters was that it was possible to take jazzy material and subject it to classical methods and produce a convincing result – not so much ‘crossover’ but fusion. Sunday’s soloist was Martin James Bartlett, no stranger to the Royal Concert Hall ever since he won the BBC Young Musician award in 2014 and a musician combines a flawless technique with such infectious enthusiasm and ebullient musical wit that it was hard not to leave one’s seat and start dancing in the aisles. In his hands the solo part had all the fantasy you could wish for, without being tipped into idiosyncrasy. And John Wilson’s Sinfonia of London were in their element too.
Vivid orchestral colours were a feature of the entire programme – not least in Debussy’s great sea symphony La Mer. The opening movement traced in revealing detail the course of ‘Dawn to Midday on the Sea’, the whole orchestra (particularly the cellos) playing magnificently. The central ‘Play of the Waves’ captured all the glitter of sun bouncing off the water and the final ‘Dialogue between the wind and the sea’ painted a multi-sensory seascape of the blues, greys and whites of scudding clouds and a restless ocean.
The Gala ended with a Nottingham première: the original 1928 ballet version of Ravel’s Boléro, with its surprising roles for two separated side drums and highly dramatic use of castanets at the tumultuous climax. The colours obtained by the Sinfonia were exquisite, the razor-sharp refinement of their playing revealing what lies under the work’s familiar surface. There’s one variation of the theme for horn, celesta and two piccolos which surely re-opened even the most jaded ears and made the piece seem new-minted.
The audience ovation which erupted at the end was as full-throated and ecstatic as anything witnessed in 40 years of top-level music-making at the Royal Concert Hall.
Sinfonia of London
John Wilson, conductor
Martin James Bartlett, piano