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Brilliant British music for a summer evening

The Bloomsbury Chamber Orchestra’s (BCO) 2017 summer concert is a truly British affair, with music by five native composers. In addition, the orchestra is joined by the outstanding British violinist, Madeleine Mitchell. Madeleine is an international artist whose reputation has been built on her performances not just of the standard violin repertoire, both concerto and chamber, but a deep interest in new and unfamiliar pieces. To this end she has given the first performance of a number of new violin works, recently including Guto Puw’s Violin Concerto – Soft Stillness with the Orchestra of the Swan.

The heart of the BCO’s concert features two popular works by two of the most popular composers of the 20th Century – Elgar and Vaughan Williams. Elgar’s Serenade for Strings evokes the late Victorian era splendidly, with its charming, slightly arch melodic lines contrasting with brief moments of unbridled passion. Elgar seems to switch mood between images of the polite society life found in market towns such as Malvern, Broadway and Evesham and rolling Worcestershire landscapes. While obviously framed within imaginings of the British countryside, Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending (in which Madeleine Mitchell is the soloist) is a wholly different work to the Elgar. Rather than giving us a view of the countryside in which the lark is flying, Vaughan Williams’s work seems to actually inhabit it. You can luxuriate in the summer warmth of the opening orchestral introduction while later, in the central section, you really feel that the lark is being caught by a breeze within the music. It’s marvellously evocative.

Set among and around these two works are three more that are equally British and equally contrasting. Alan Rawsthorne, following parentally-directed false starts as a dentist and architect, finally settled to his favoured career in music and emerged in the late 1930s with some well-assured pieces presented before an international audience. He wrote for films, alongside symphonies, concertos, sonatas, and a host of occasional works including his Divertimento, being performed here by the BCO. This short, three movement work is brim full of orchestral effects and flourishes obtained from a comparatively small ensemble and culminates in an extremely exciting tour de force for the entire ensemble. E J Moeran’s Sinfonietta is equally ebullient. His output was comparatively small but his orchestral works, in particular, are often written on a grand scale, whether one of his short orchestral Rhapsodies or his outstanding Symphony. This Sinfonietta (or little symphony) is hardly a slender affair with charmingly quirky, meandering melodic lines weaving in and out of each other constantly drawing the listener in.

The centre of the concert is given over to the last in a line if new works written for the BCO by its Music Director, Michael Turner. Explorations of Themes by George Butterworth is written for violin (Madeleine Mitchell again) and chamber orchestra and takes a number of themes, motifs and other ideas from the output of George Butterworth who was killed at a tragically early age during WW1. Michael Turner says, “While I present Butterworth’s ideas in a way that would largely be alien to him, I nevertheless utterly admire his music and hope that my treatment of it only goes to reflect that admiration.” Michael Turner trawls all of Butterworth’s small orchestral output and a number of his songs, sometimes presenting themes in their original state, others times stretching and pulling them into totally different shapes while still using the original material – a bit like re-using curtains to make a dress!

The BCO’s concert takes place at 7.30pm on Saturday 1 July at St James, Sussex Gardens, London W2 3UD.