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A review of  Royal Northern Sinfonia/Sousa By Matthew Connolly

Westmorland Hall, Kendal, Saturday, 17 February 2024

Athleticism and artistry could not live more happily together than in the English Lake District, to which the town of Kendal, on its southern edge, is known as the gateway. While tourists from across the world come to The Lakes in their many millions, artists and athletes from everywhere also make this their home – they simply can’t resist the inspiring fells, tarns, becks, ghylls … and of course, lakes. The athletes run, ride, walk, climb and swim; the artists paint, write, play, act, sculpt, sing and compose. Some artists are also athletes and join many others of every type and talent, buying a one-way ticket to this uniquely beautiful corner of England between the Irish Sea and the Scots border.  

No finer place, therefore, for the Royal Northern Sinfonia to visit, fresh from the world-class Glasshouse (formerly Sage) in Gateshead, on Saturday, 17 February, at Kendal’s Westmorland Hall, which, in fact, doubles up as the local Leisure Centre, run by the Better social enterprise – a gym and swim, multi-event venue. 

The audience dashed through the Cumbrian rain, subdued their umbrellas and flocked into the concert hall, ‘flock’ being the operative word for a market town whose motto is pannus mihi panis, or ‘wool is my bread’) … and for the fact that more than 600 tickets had been sold for this event. “That’s the biggest audience since Covid,” trumpeted the host of the pre-concert talk on behalf of the Lakeland Sinfonia, this venue’s resident orchestra. 

The pre-concert talk guests were two of the stars of the evening: the Royal Northern Sinfonia’s Principal Conductor, Portuguese-born Dinis Sousa, and the Nottingham-born pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason. Amid chat about the music for the evening (Robert Schumann’s Symphony in G minor, Clara Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor and Beethoven’s Third Symphony), they revealed intriguing insights into their lives off-stage. Sousa, for example, likes to decompress away from music by doing the ironing and gardening, and Kanneh-Mason likes to do her ‘mental piano practice’ on whichever trays and tables appear in front of her on planes and trains as she travels the world as a celebrated virtuoso. 

And so, the concert began, beneath this rather functional building’s tight, impersonal brickwork, on a stage painted and lined with the colours and geometry of a sports hall. The musicians needed to warm up literally, as the giant heaters glowing red on either side of the stage had not yet taken the late-winter nip out of the air. Amid the cacophony of tuning up, the audience (near its 700-ish capacity) chit-chatted away loudly, giving the whole place a pleasantly informal feel. 

The fine, 40-strong Royal Northern Sinfonia began playing Robert Schumann’s symphony, a poor relation of the mighty Beethoven Eroica to come after the interval, but the orchestra gave it as much drama and conviction as they could, as did the agile and precise Sousa, who has a very watchable way of hanging in suspended animation in the pauses between movements. 

“I connect with some orchestras better than others,” Sousa had said candidly in the pre-concert talk, and the rapport was reassuringly strong here as they struck the almost violent final chords of the Schumann first movement. Sousa’s gymnastics (forgive the pun) were matched by those of the orchestra leader, Polish violinist Maria Włoszczowska, whose swaying physicality could have led a circuit-training class here. 

Next came Schumann’s wife, Clara, and her Piano Concerto, and Isata Kanneh-Mason had the honour of setting hands on the Steinway now wheeled to the front of the stage. Kanneh-Mason’s debut album Romance – the Piano Music of Clara Schumann conquered the classical music charts in 2019, so a safe pair of hands in every sense.

Refreshingly informal sartorially, in a cosy-looking green top with sequined silver trousers, she perched at a piano so close to the first row of the audience that any of them could have turned her pages. Not that there were any pages, of course – all in the head, heart, soul, fingers. But what became instantly clear as she performed the concerto (part-composed at 14 by the prodigious Clara) was that she is refreshingly informal as a pianist, too. With subtle, calm power, she dispatched this work by a composer the male-dominated music world has taken several centuries to celebrate, and with tasteful, delicate fingerwork, she duetted with the orchestra, touchingly so with the solo cello in the second movement. 

In her pre-concert comments, Kanneh-Mason had expressed how she likes to practise “at the edge of all barriers, technical, physical and mental” in the quest for freedom of expression. Well, there were many golden edges touched here in her particular blend of the technical precision and emotional freewheeling that every artist and athlete seeks. Her surprisingly static posture helped to focus the audience on the limbs that really matter: arms, hands, fingers, all of which were in full, eloquent flow, no more so than in the racing runs and arpeggios of the third and final movement. 

Informality ruled at the interval, as bars, loos and ice creams were plundered while the orchestra chatted to audience members and Włoszczowska stole the freshly vacated piano stool for herself as she braced herself to lead the orchestra in the Beethoven. 

“I try not to get in the way of the orchestra,” Sousa had said earlier, and he seemed to achieve this early in the first movement of Beethoven’s Third, allowing the immortal melodies to breathe deeply through the orchestra, bowing low as if in deference to his musicians. But he wasn’t afraid to use his arms to quieten players easily roused by music that swelled and sank like giant ocean waves. 

Sousa appeared to facilitate not dictate dynamic control, to empower not exert power, and this combined muscle flexed itself movingly in the solemn second movement, whose funereal tread marched ahead like a slow, dying bear being led out of a cave. You couldn’t help but think of slain political martyr Alexei Navalny, whose death had been announced the day before. 

In the third movement, Sousa and Sinfonia sliced through the scherzo’s crisp opening cuts and sharp final stabs with great precision, and in the final movement, Sousa was like a masterchef, tossing ingredients into the musical mix, sprinkling woodwind on top here, pouring brass in here, making the strings sizzle, but staying clear enough to avoid singeing his eyebrows in the flames of that roaring and brilliant Beethovenian climax. An impossible act to follow, which is maybe why there was no encore.

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