Review: Central England Ensemble, at Carrs Lane Church Centre

A non-professional orchestra established for a decade, the Central England Ensemble is enterprising and innovative in its programming.

Keenly supporting new works by composers living in Birmingham and surrounding areas, working with primary schools, running workshops with the West Mercia Probation Service and accompanying the Birmingham Festival Chorus, they experience wide-ranging and challenging creativity.

Tchaikovsky’s rarely performed Introduction to opera ‘Mazeppa’ was a showcase for truly Russian woodwinds, firm statements from a lugubrious cello and lively brass leading to warm strings eventually tailing away into a surprisingly weird final diminuendo cadence.

Composer/conductor Tony Bridgewater was the soloist in his Piano Concerto No 2, with associate Lee Armstrong responsible for conducting duties. A heftily scored work, with fat cushions of rhythmical orchestra chords offsetting intermittent solo woodwinds.

Piano cadenzas lost some clarity with over-use of sustaining pedal as much of the overall effect was fortissimo with little let-up in this curiously resonant space.

Plenty of notes to learn, loud and hectic; relief eventually coming with slower quieter passages prior to the final definitive octaves for piano.

Stravinsky’s ‘Firebird Suite’ is always a challenge with everyone having to concentrate, and be daring with technical and musically demanding magic.

Woodwinds triumphed as the dancing colourful Firebird, also lovely was the principal flute, splendid piccolo, oboe and a yearning bassoon solo.

The heart-stopping horn solo after haunting harp notes at the lullaby’s end was truly breathtaking. (A sincere plea, however – do always make sure that instruments are accurately in tune with each other at the very outset.)