The Darwin Ensemble Chamber Orchestra’s concert at Lichfield Cathedral was a double milestone. This was the first major orchestral concert in the Cathedral since the Lady Chapel was temporarily sealed off in July – a step which many feared would have a damaging effect on the Cathedral’s generally good acoustic. And it was DECO’s first serious venture into the romantic repertoire: a bicentenary tribute to Felix Mendelssohn.
On the basis of this concert, concerns about the acoustic seemed unfounded. Which was good news because, under conductor Philip Scriven, DECO delivered some cherishable moments. There’s an impressive professionalism about the way DECO presents itself, and from the first bars of Mendelssohn’s Hebrides overture it was clear that this wasn’t just confined to appearances.
This was a performance of shapely string phrasing, transparent textures and luminous woodwind solos. It might perhaps have been a little more wet’n’wild; this was Mendelssohn’s seascape as watercolour, rather than oil-painting. But it was obvious that the musicians were responding with conviction to Scriven’s economical beat.
Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, with soloist Peter Sparks, presented greater challenges. With the outer movements taken at a brisk pace, ensemble was less polished, and Mozart’s gorgeous woodwind writing (and the equally lovely playing of DECO’s terrific wind section) occasionally got lost amidst the business of keeping with the soloist.
And no question, Sparks was astonishingly agile. There was rather more light than shade in his exuberant reading; still, it’s good to be reminded that Mozart’s final concerto is, above all, glorious entertainment. Sparks’s unaffected playing in the famous Adagio was all the more touching for its simplicity.
But the second half saw DECO finally off the leash, with a performance of Mendelssohn’s Italian symphony that seemed to dance for joy. True, there were minor weaknesses – DECO’s smallish violin section occasionally sounded underpowered – but they were easily forgiven in a performance spirited as this one. The woodwinds were delightfully perky; first clarinet Luan Shaw, in particular, handling her solos with operatic flair. And Scriven swept the whole thing along with an irresistible swing – drawing enthusiastic applause from the near-capacity crowd. DECO’s next concert deserves to sell out.