New Belfast Sinfonia

Philip Hammond reviews the New Belfast Sinfonia's December concert

St Thomas’s Parish Church on Eglantine Avenue in Belfast serves as a novel though chilly venue for a heart-warming musical event. The church’s Lanyon design of Victorian stone, brickwork and tile has recently been restored to colour co-ordinated freshness. Despite the modern removal of multiple pews no longer necessary for the smaller congregations of contemporary Christianity, there is room aplenty for the reasonably good audience attending this evening’s entertainment.

The New Belfast Sinfonia is not a regular feature of life here in the city. It was founded in 2008 by an enterprising group of young musicians who congregate periodically during their holidays to play through their standard, and not so standard, orchestral repertoire, mostly for the edification and delight of their friends and family. On its website, the Sinfonia’s stated ideal is lofty – 'striving for innovative and professional standard performance, showcasing the best talent the City has to offer, whilst bringing classical music to a wide audience'.

Those are as valid reasons as any and if the public beyond the immediate circle of the Sinfonia’s membership attend, they do so in support of the ethos and to encourage these talented young people. Certainly, I am not here to be critical.

Constructive suggestions however are in order. For example, as the temperature drops, I suggest that the organisers spare a thought for the instrumental problems this will create in terms of tuning and of course for the health of hypochondriacs like me who don’t want to contract pneumonia, no matter how worthy the cause may be.

The Sinfonia is conducted by Adam Cooke, a very capable music student currently attending London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama. In the ranks of his players I recognise several youthful faces from the City of Belfast Youth Orchestra and others from the Ulster Youth Orchestra. Those two groupings account largely for the continuing supply of fine young musicians who then go and study in foreign parts.

Excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake offer tasters of the group’s abilities: the woodwind is strong while the brass and percussion – always an unruly bunch in any orchestra - boom and the strings seem a little uneasy at times. But these problems do not overshadow the Sinfonia’s generally good ensemble approach to the music and Cooke chooses sensible tempi throughout the evening which favour a clean delivery.

In Mozart’s standard classic, his evergreen Clarinet Concerto, the young soloist is Sarah Brown, colourfully dressed for the occasion but perhaps not dressed for the temperature. She gives a good rounded performance and is technically well equipped for the demands of the piece. It’s important for the soloist to explore the phrasing detail of every line in this concerto – every note, dynamic, articulation and attack counts. Brown is clearly a musical player judging by her approach and no doubt her interpretation will grow and expand in years to come.

Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony has probably been chosen for this programme because of its nickname, 'Winter Daydreams' rather than its outstanding musical worth. Conductor and players negotiate their way through the score without serious mishap and as the earnest counterpoint of the last movement draws this rather dull work to a close, I am happy to wish all well but retire as soon as possible to a warmer clime.