Last week I went up to Stratford to attend a concert given by the Orchestra of the Swan, conducted by Tom Hammond, a friend and colleague for whom I have been doing some publicity work.
There’s a nice symmetry in all of this because Tom and I first met online through a blog article he wrote, bemoaning the fact that critics and concert reviewers rarely seem to make the effort to travel outside of the M25, or indeed Zone 6 on the Underground, to cover the excellent and varied music-making which goes on outside the capital. The issue came up for discussion at the Music Into Words event I co-organised back in 2016, where an arts editor from a leading broadsheet newspaper basically admitted that they tend only to cover the “premier division” of concerts, and that these are by and large in London. It’s a great pity because there is so much fantastic music-making going on outside of the capital: since moving to Dorset I have attended three excellent music festivals, which, by the way, attract international artists, and Tom is co-artistic director of an excellent music festival based in Hertfordshire – easily accessible by road and rail from London, but largely overlooked by mainstream critics because, despite also attracting international artists, it takes place in what is sneeringly call “the provinces”.
There is nothing provincial about the Orchestra of the Swan (OOTS), nor the programme at Tuesday night’s concert. Led by David Le Page, one of the most self-contained and sincere musicians I have ever met, OOTS can match any London chamber ensemble in its creative programming and outreach and educational projects. Tom had been invited by David Le Page, who is AD of the orchestra, to create a programme and he chose to focus on Jean Sibelius, whose music first attracted him to classical music when he was a child. Some may regard a programme focusing on a single composer as “a list”, but this imaginative programme combined well-known works, such as The Swan of Tuonela and the layered complexity of the Seventh Syphony, with the rarely-performed Humoresques for Violin & Orchestra and excerpts from the Tempest suite. Entitled Intimate Voices, it gave the audience the opportunity not only to experience some of Sibelius’ lesser-known music but to also appreciate the breadth of his musical imagination and artistic development for the programmed spanned the outer limits of his compositional life. It made for a fascinating and absorbing evening, and the orchestra rose to the challenge of this complex, multi-faceted music with great aplomb. They were joined for the Humoresques by violinist Tamsin Waley-Cohen and there was a very palpable sense of mutual cooperation and enjoyment between soloist and orchestra.
But there was more, beyond the music itself, which made this a particularly enjoyable and uplifting evening, and that was the audience, who filled the Stratford Playhouse auditorium with the kind of warm enthusiasm that many promoters can only dream of. It was quite evident that this audience was as committed as the orchestra, and this created a wonderful sense of a shared experience – which is what music making is all about, after all.