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Vaughan Williams, Tchaikovsky, Bartók:
Royal College of Music Junior Department Symphony Orchestra/Richard Dickins, St John’s Smith Square, London, 12.7.09 (J-PJ)

Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis
Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake Suite
Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra

The Royal College of Music’s Junior Department is a teaching arm which offers weekly training to young musicians aged 8 to 18 during term times. A scan at the players arranged in the nave of St John’s, Smith Square, confirmed just how young they are, although there was nothing juvenile about their professionalism and commitment.

The concert provided an end of year showcase for their talents and training, albeit with mixed results. Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis was a good choice to fill the voluminous acoustics of St Johns. There was an effective balance between the different string sections, although overall delivery did feel overly slow and a little overblown.

Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake Suite provided a good balance of orchestral tutti and solo passages to enable the young performers to show off their ensemble and individual playing. Conductor Richard Dickins effectively directed both these aspects, bringing out some particularly fine solo playing from the lead violinist and harpist in the fourth movement. All performers came together superbly in the resounding final waltz, with some especially bright flute playing.

Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra was probably an ambitious step too far. It is a demanding work for a young orchestra, with its tricky solo writing and alternate ensemble sections. In addition, its popularity and familiarity mean that the work really cries out for a crack orchestra and conductor to bring off something special. The string playing – particularly the violas and cellos – sagged in the first movement, and sounded unpleasantly sour in the third. Although the brass section largely held the first movement together, they reverted to more timid approach thereafter. The sarcastic Intermezzo Interrotto was played well enough, but rather too cautiously and sincerely for the joke that Bartòk intended. The resounding finale, meanwhile, quickly lost its initial momentum and descended into something of a muddle.

John-Pierre Joyce

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