Recently back from a three-concert tour of Estonia, where they represented their home city so proudly, the Birmingham Schools’ Symphony Orchestra repeated their programme back on native soil under the clear and encouraging baton of Michael Seal.
Seal himself has been very busy, conducting the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra in Beijing (as you do) a couple of weekends ago, with more work elsewhere to follow, but for this evening so special to the students and their families he pulled out all the stops.
We began with the controlled (despite some stray sounds) rumbustiousness of Vaughan Williams’ ‘Wasps’ Overture, with eloquent horn and violin solos and a splendid unison viola melody.
And the viola certainly came to the fore next, with Seal’s CBSO colleague Chris Yates soloist in Walton’s emotionally elusive Viola Concerto. Yates’ mellifluous rapt poignancy was complemented by Seal’s crisp, alert orchestra, not least a bass clarinet full of personality.
A well-sustained, concentrated Shostakovich Symphony no.5 completed proceedings, rhythms acutely pointed (despite some growly, whiskery lower strings), some excellent solo contributions, flute and oboe among them, and sturdily impressive work from the trumpets.
These youngsters were diligently responsive to Seal’s dynamic shadings, and deeply involved in the music’s context, as explained in the programme-note, written, as all of them are, by orchestra members themselves.
Now the “buts”: intonation was a bit of an issue throughout the evening, but so it is with almost every amateur orchestra, where it seems more important to get one’s fingers around the notes rather than listen to what colleagues are doing. And there was a dispiritingly large number of guest players, including a double-bass section where there was only one genuine school-student (and how well he did), supported by some illustrious deps.
I know there are full years and lean years, but this is evidence of a worrying trend. Are politicians’ philistinisms so quickly coming home to roost?