Henley Symphony Orchestra undaunted by Bernstein and Strauss

At the Hexagon, Reading on 9 March, Henley Symphony Orchestra, joined by the Trusler Carroll Wass Trio and directed by Ian Brown, embarked on yet another stretching programme: Gershwin’s Cuban Overture, Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks by Richard Strauss, and Beethoven’s Triple Concerto in C.

The Cuban Overture augured well as its dance rhythms swept us to Havana, courtesy of a brilliant percussion section from the Royal College of Music. It was an electrifying opening, punctuated by confident brass and woodwind solos. After this, without the exuberant foot-tapping fiesta that preceded it, the content of the central part drifted along somewhat apologetically until the evocative rhythms finally surfaced again.

Unappealing to some, yet clearly popular with others, the Triple Concerto was on the back foot from the off, being one of Beethoven’s less convincing pieces. Poor acoustics did it no favours either, exacerbating an imbalance of sound between the cellist, Thomas Carroll, pianist Ashley Wass and violinist, Matthew Trusler. While Carroll enjoyed the best of the subject matter, and attacked it with evident relish, Trusler’s contribution failed to complement it with sufficient passion and power. A move to the front of the stage would have helped audibility. That said, much is down to the venue’s own limitations, which, depending where you sit, create a mixed bag of listening experiences.

If any spirits were dampened, they were soon revitalised by a riveting second half. The Bernstein came off superbly well with not the slightest chink in the orchestra’s armour. A warm string tone came through when it mattered, in Somewhere, Cha Cha (Maria scene) and the Meeting Scene, while the brass and percussion excelled in the Prologue and later in Cool Fugue. Here, the kit drummer showed a slick pair of sticks.

All players continued to be kept on their toes in the Richard Strauss. It was a beautifully moulded account, thanks to Ian Brown’s flawless command of both score and resources. There was a great deal of programmatic playfulness, interspersed with occasional bursts of gorgeous melody. The challenge was to make sense of the work’s disparate nature, and the orchestra responded remarkably well, producing a delightful and satisfying performance. A pity there was not a full house to hear it.

HSO’s summer event under canvas at Shiplake College on 29 June includes Fauré’s Requiem and Rutter’s Gloria. Full details on www.henleysymphonyorchestra.co.uk.

Trevor Howell