We’ve been hearing great reports about the relationship between the BBC Philharmonic and its (relatively) new chief conductor Juanjo Mena, but this Lichfield Festival concert was a rare opportunity to hear Mena and his Manchester band live in the West Midlands.
And what was apparent from the very first bars of Mendelssohn’s Hebrides overture was the unmistakable connection between players and conductor: the alert expressions, the violins’ energetic leaning-in, Mena’s understated gestures – all those details that reveal a maestro and an orchestra who simply love making music together.
That made for a larger-than-life, almost Wagnerian reading of the Mendelsssohn, and gloriously fresh accounts of the three British works that followed. Tasmin Little was the soloist in Moeran’s Violin Concerto, and her sound, as ever, was a thing of wonder: her poise, her shamelessly luscious vibrato and the iridescent sheen of her tone making you imagine how Heifetz might have played this beautiful, under-rated work.
Mena responded not with understatement (how much great British music are we missing when we thoughtlessly dismiss it as “pastoral”?), but with red-blooded passion and a lively sense of colour. The central scherzo sounded less like the Irish fair suggested in the perfunctory, uncredited programme note, than Stravinsky’s Petrushka.
Mena’s reading of Elgar’s Enigma Variations might perhaps have had a little more breadth (and depth) in its final bars, but what balletic lightness and wit he found in the music that preceded it! Something felt special about this whole concert, though it was surely just a magical coincidence that the Cathedral’s nine o’clock bell interrupted Little’s performance of The Lark Ascending in exactly the right key and tempo.