Category Archives: Reviews

Titan, Myth and Legend Review

DECO_TitanMyth&Legend_A5DECO’s October concert was exactly that. On paper, it looked short: Beethoven’s Prometheus overture, Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll and Mozart’s 40th Symphony, under the baton of former Lichfield Cathedral organist Philip Scriven. But there was nothing of the choirstalls about these performances. DECO knows Lichfield Cathedral intimately, and turns an acoustic that some performers find problematic into a positive strength.

So Scriven and his players tore into the Beethoven at a phenomenal lick, and took the outer movements of the Mozart at near-identical tempi – a molto allegro that was very much molto. The Andante lilted along with dance-like poise, while the minuet, conducted by Scriven in a robust three, became an anchor-point for the whole symphonic arc – making the four movements one conception and proving that there are always new perspectives to be found even in music as familiar as this.

The Wagner, meanwhile, benefited from the qualities of DECO’s handpicked woodwind team; George Caird’s rich, articulate oboe tone in particular singing through Wagner’s (at times) near-impressionistic writing. It could almost have been Ravel. DECO may be small, but it’s wonderfully generous with its musicianship.

The Spring Collection Reviews

The Darwin Ensemble Chamber Orchestra called Saturday’s concert “The Spring Collection”, and on paper, at least, it didn’t look particularly meaty – a light summer salad rather than a musical steak dinner. Conductor Philip Scriven and Artistic Director Alex Laing had built the programme around Mozart’s featherweight First Flute Concerto, and neither Handel’s G major “Water Music” suite nor Schubert’s Fifth Symphony are exactly blockbusters.

But as DECO proves time and again, it’s a question of musical quality, not scale.

This band has the knack of making everything it plays sound vibrantly alive. A large and enthusiastic audience and the latest in DECO’s seemingly-inexhaustible store of first-rate soloists – flautist Lisa Nelsen – did the rest. Nelsen played the Mozart with a sunny tone and buckets of charm; DECO matched her with a spirited accompaniment.

Earlier, Scriven had brought a dance-like grace and some deft phrasing to the Handel, and the same qualities made the Schubert a particular delight. In a large modern concert hall, this delicious little teenage Symphony can sound almost toy-like. Not here, though, as keening woodwind and vigorous strings probed each nuance of light and shade. It’s a masterpiece, after all – how satisfying to hear it played like one!


Darwin Ensemble Chamber Orchestra
Leader Alex Laing, conductor Philip Scriven, soloist Lisa Nelson
Venue: Lichfield Cathedral  12th May 2012
By Chris Arnold


Lichfield’s artistic offering has been generous this week, beginning with the spectacular Lichfield Mysteries over the bank holiday and ending with DECO’s spring collection on Saturday.  The evening began with Handel’s Water Music suite number three.  This graceful piece allowed the strings, led by Alex Laing to show off their sweetest tones and most controlled pianissimo.  The dance like finale set many feet tapping.

Undoubtedly the centre piece was the Mozart flute concerto number 1.  All eyes and ears were on Lisa Nelson, the Canadian virtuoso whose silvery tone reminded some more mature concert goers of James Galway.  Her lightness of touch and a confident upper register created a dreamy and sublime atmosphere with audience members closing their eyes to appreciate the moment more.  Particularly pleasing was the contrast between the high flute and the sonorous strings playing in their lower registers.  The cadenzas allowed her to show off her stunning technique whilst paying suitable respect to Mozart.

Schubert was only nineteen when he wrote his fifth symphony.  Conductor Philip Scriven produced a divine opening from the orchestra with beautiful woodwind playing blending perfectly with the strings.  Whilst the brass may have lacked some definition, the overall sounds were lush and conveyed Schubert’s depth of emotion, unusual in such a young composer.

Whatever the music be it rock, jazz, classical, old or contemporary, there is no comparison between a recording and a live performance.  Lichfield is excelling in offering exciting live music to today’s audiences.

Winter Warmers Review

DECO_WinterWarmer_A5Darwin Ensemble Chamber Orchestra
Leader: Alex Laing
Conductor: Philip Scriven
Soloists: George Caird (oboe), Jane Salmon (cello)
Lichfield Cathedral, Saturday 11th February 2012
“Winter Warmers”
Reviewed by Chris Arnold


In these times of economic depression, the opportunity to lose yourself in great music, expertly performed needs to be seized.

The setting of a great cathedral with a generous acoustic can create an atmosphere of awe and majesty.  Saturday’s offering from the Darwin Ensemble Chamber Orchestra was a perfect match with Lichfield Cathedral.  Soloist Jane Salmon’s mastery of the cello expertly captured the mood of Tchaikovsky’s Andante Cantabile with dark brown and even chocolaty resonances.  The muted strings of the orchestra were well balanced to the soloist who brought out the melodic and romantic sense of the piece.  The audience were completely spellbound and the silence at the end attested to the power of the performance.

Samuel Barber is best known for his Adagio for strings.  So popular is it that there are versions for a string quartet, string orchestra and even choir.  The challenge for any live performance is to sustain the line though the longest of crescendos, whilst controlling the fiendishly difficult tuning.  Conductor Philip Scriven furnished an exquisite performance which moved the audience, some to tears.  The ethereal final pianissimo was sublime reminding some that the words used in the choral version are from the Mass – give us peace.

If asked to name British post war composers we might mention Britten, Vaughn Williams and perhaps Tippet.  Few would offer Kenneth Leighton, yet it is Leighton who is probably most performed, his music being popular in Cathedrals and churches.  His “Veris Gratia” was composed whilst still a student at Oxford and provides a very English platform for a string orchestra with solo oboe and cello beautifully played by George Caird and Jane Salmon.  The opening Lento is full of post war emotion depicted by the dazzling technique of soloist George Caird whose oboe playing was as delicate as lace whilst evoking  the emergence of spring from winter. The allegro was so English, you could almost smell the grass and the piece ended with a spiritual feeling suggesting the composer’s future direction.

Barber may be best known for his Adagio, but he was no one hit wonder as the Canzonetta showed. Haunting harmonies supported a melodic line suggesting questions and doubt. The result was sheer beauty.

Grieg’s Holberg Suite provided the opportunity for the whole orchestra, led by Alex Laing to shine.  It is a courtly work depicting love, elegance, conversation and dance.  The ensemble was excellent and the group seemed to enjoy the experience themselves.

Live performances, expertly delivered provide the listener with an experience impossible to replicate by any recording.  The communication between performer and audience is intense.  The sounds of the evening are still going round in my head.  This group is to be congratulated for breaking free of the Classic FM repertoire.

Beethoven: Missa Solemnis Review

Lichfield Cathedral Chorus; Darwin Ensemble Chamber Orchestra
Lichfield Cathedral
Saturday 3rd December 2011

Beethoven’s huge Missa Solemnis attempts the impossible – and so does
any amateur choir that tackles it. It’s nothing less than one of the
greatest creative minds in human history talking directly and
intimately to his God. Even the most perfect performance is unlikely
to do it justice.

So this attempt by the Lichfield Cathedral Chorus, conducted by Ben
Lamb and supported by the expanded Darwin Ensemble Chamber Orchestra,
deserved respect. The Chorus has some clear weaknesses, principally an
underpowered tenor and bass section. But it also has some real
strengths; most notably a general spirit of real musicianship and

Unsurprisingly, Beethoven’s insanely difficult choral writing claimed
a few casualties – at the end of the Gloria, it sounded like the
chorus was hanging on for dear life. Yet there were moments of real
hushed beauty, and in the opening Kyrie, warm lyrical waves of
expressive sound.

With a well-matched team of soloists – Soprano Rowan Baker, Mezzo
Ailsa Cochrane, an impassioned Hugh Hetherington (tenor) and a
sonorous Fran Ambrose (bass) – the spirit of this extraordinary work
shone through regardless. And when the flutes swirled around Alex
Laing’s heartbreakingly pure violin solo in the Sanctus, it came very
close to transcendence.

Richard Bratby