Review: Cambridge University Symphony Orchestra

JOE CONWAY : ‘The powers-that-be had decided to do without an overture or curtain-raiser and the Steinway grand was ready with its lid up, a bit like a lion with its jaws open.’

14th May 8pm at West Road Concert Hall. £12/£6/£4

You can always tell when a university orchestra is playing at West Road. It's not just the over-the-top clapping and stamping, but a tangible feeling of anticipation and appreciation. I guess a lot of this is down to people in the audience rooting for their mates onstage. I'm talking about people you might know in college, in the pub, or out on the town. Suddenly you realise that they have another dimension to their lives. They're musicians . . .

Certainly the vibe felt auspicious for the CUSO concert on Friday night. The powers-that-be had decided to do without an overture or curtain-raiser and the Steinway concert grand was ready with its lid up, a bit like a lion with its jaws open. The orchestra, the conductor Chris Stark, and the soloist Hannah Watson took their places, and with a couple of flourishes Ravel's Piano Concerto got underway in an atmosphere of palpable goodwill.

Hannah was a slight figure sitting at the massive piano, but any fears that this taxing concerto might prove a bridge too far were immediately dismissed. From the opening bravura accompanying passages it was clear that Hannah had the technique and the confidence to carry her through the half-hour long piece, which she played from memory.

The concerto opens with a cocktail of different themes, moods, and speeds. Hannah lingered over the exotic music and the bluesy refrain that follow the first piccolo and trumpet tune. But the lyricism was eventually swept away by her brilliant playing of the fast upward unison passage that ends the exposition. She also did ample justice to the hidden melody played by the left hand thumb, and the delicious right hand trills that accompany it. When the first movement ended with its exhilarating descending scale and bass drum thwack, it was hard not to break into spontaneous applause.

Hannah Watson told me at half time that she'd played the first movement of the concerto once before. So that when she began the E major chords of the slow movement she was breaking fresh ground. This wistful slow waltz could hardly be more different to what had gone before, with its seamless opening melody that's eventually recalled in a gorgeous cor anglais solo. The jaunty finale demands the utmost virtuosity and Hannah also mentioned that she sometimes practised piano studies to help with dexterity and velocity. Certainly she had no problems with hand crossings, cheeky staccato interjections, and the many glittering piano figurations.

CUSO supported her splendidly, urged on by Chris Stark – who had directed a performance by CUMS II at West Road only 24 hours before. He always gives the impression of having a thorough knowledge of the scores he conducts, and is able to convey what he wants directly and clearly. Much the same could be said of Mark Biggins who took over for the second half, maybe bringing with him an extra edge of eagerness and determination.

Shostakovich's 9th Symphony which completed the programme got the composer into trouble with the Soviet authorities at the end of World War 2. No doubt they were expecting yet another turgid hour-long work that moved from despair to exultation like the grim Nos 7 and 8. But this 30-minute piece could hardly be more different. It's not unlike Prokofiev's Classical Symphony in reinstating the dimensions and conventions of a past age. But whereas Prokofiev's work is genuinely genial, Shostakovich produced a piece that rapidly moves from jokey entertainment to shrill outbursts of bitterness in a kind of Jekyll and Hyde transformation.

For the musicians what the symphony has in abundance is the opportunity for some stunning woodwind solos backed up by brilliant writing for brass, strings and percussion. It's good to report that the CUSO players took them all, delivering solos that were clear and well-characterised cameos. The clarinets were cool and commanding in the peculiar second movement, and the long bassoon solo that links the fourth and fifth movements was played with oodles of emotion and some welcome vibrato. But stealing the show was the piccolo solo in the first movement. It may be trite, it may be tongue-in-cheek, but isn't it just about the best solo ever written for the instrument?

In a programme that was short on playing time it was good to hear some snatches of Pachelbel's Canon emerging from the green room during the interval! I'm not sure how it fitted in between Ravel and Shostakovich but it added more smiles to faces that were already beaming.