Southbank Sinfonia, conductor Mark Forkgen at the Levinsky Hall, Plymouth University, Saturday 4th February 2023

Have you ever had the feeling that you’ve just been a witness to something rather special? On Saturday evening I was overwhelmed by that sensation. The programme featured a Premiere performance of a piece by Christopher Churcher as winner of the Musica Viva Composition Competition and the Southbank Sinfonia which is made up of thirty-five of the best of this year’s conservatoire leavers. These chosen leavers make up the Sinfonia for one year, giving a chance for the talented musicians to showcase themselves and to work together in a unique ensemble for a year under the leadership of Mark Forkgen. The concert I was witnessing was therefore made up entirely of young people, apart from its conductor and the pianist for Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.4., the enormously talented Robert Taub, Professor of Music at Plymouth University, who featured in an earlier review of mine. And what a treat that was to see those focused, earnest faces and listen to their already extraordinary talents.

The programme began with nineteen year-old Churcher’s Premiere, called Breakwater. For this piece he had chosen to describe in a very visual way the musical journey of the River Tamar from source to Plymouth Sound, until it reaches the end, at the Breakwater which divides the Sound from the open sea. The composition conjures up strong images throughout, starting with soft vibrations from the string section, gradually blending with the woodwind which gives a sense of expectation as the water moves from a trickle to a gathering of volume and expectation. Gradually urgency increases until you hear the water overflowing the lip of the upper reaches, the violas creating drips and drops in a charmingly light-hearted touch against the background of the other instruments, until the river swells further in stature and joyfulness when the brass section joins in. Finally, as it heads towards the sea it grows and expands until a more peaceful conjunction of waters is reached.

Churcher’s programme notes give detailed descriptions of how he started from visuals, using drone images, before ‘translating’ the visuals into an orchestral score. The result is a delight. This is a young composer who, although this was his first orchestral piece, has already composed a number of choral pieces. At present in his first year at Oxford, I shall enjoy seeing and hearing his development over time, for this is a young man who will go far.

After the quite short introductory piece, we moved on to two works by Beethoven – his Piano Concerto No.4 in G major and, after an interval, his Symphony No 7 in A Major.

The Piano Concerto, featuring Robert Taub as soloist, was a good complementary work to follow Churcher’s Breakwater. The first movement is full of speedy runs up and down the keyboard, as if that river we ‘saw’ earlier had reached a still-urgent maturity. There is an unusual opening featuring the piano alone, followed by orchestra without piano for a fair length of time, until the piano re-enters. Playing with the central motif, it is largely a treble sound that characterises this movement, those instruments with a lower register only joining in when there are crescendos so that, like a river, the piano flows along between the banks of the orchestral instruments.

There is a clear connection between first and second movements as the demanding octaves from the piano towards the end of that movement are picked up by the first entrance of brass and timpani in this second movement but with the third movement we move from the peaceful almost religious sounds of the end of the second movement into joy and playfulness once more. Beethoven, emphasised by Taub’s interpretation, plays with speed and momentum, introducing abrupt changes in both as well as continuing to develop the main motif first introduced in the first movement.

Robert Taub, as clear and enthusiastic a teacher as he is a performer, pointed out the fact that the work should be seen as one organic whole, each movement complementing and enhancing the one before. As before, I was struck by Taub’s quiet command of his instrument and, because this was not as last time, a solo performance, I was also struck by how closely conductor and soloist worked together, Conductor Mark Forkgen, watching and listening quietly to Taub’s changes of pace and translating these to the attentive orchestra.

The final work was the Symphony No 7, so no more soloist but instead we could admire the togetherness of the orchestra and the way that Forkden guided them through the piece. Also noticeable was the quiet encouragement he gave throughout to the players, turning from one side to the other so that every instrumentalist felt kindly observed and encouraged.

Here is another playful piece, full of joy and jokey moments, such as the hiccupping rhythms and falling broken arpeggios characteristic of this work. The slight feeling of unbalance these rhythmic jokes lend to the work add to the sensation that this is a youthful piece, a helter-skelter, though it was composed towards the end of Beethoven’s life when his deafness was gathering momentum and he was beset by problems. Not that there aren’t darker moments, sudden ominous crescendos, but these are lightened by happy tunes full of sunlight and a feeling of spring and the first movement ends in triumph, a celebration of victory over the darkness.

The tiptoeing quietness of the second movement, with a central melody weaving in and out, creating a golden mesh of notes which rise in volume until the whole fabric is revealed, gives way to restless rhythms that dip in and out of fugue and even round-like structuring. Contrast this with the last two movements, the delicacy and lightness of touch of the third movement – even from the French Horns, where such controlled softness is not easy – who bat the romp between groups of instruments, strings to woodwind and back, leading to the crazy helter-skelter of the last movement. Here the instruments appear to chase each other in a catch-as-catch-can, chasing each other up and down interspersed with heavily accented, dramatic falters and breaks. The whole movement doesn’t sound so much like a happy tumble as an over-balancing, falling and staggering until it speeds up to a breathless end.

All of this was managed beautifully by a conductor who knew where he was going and how to extract every nuance out of this difficult work. The slower than usual beginning made sense as it led to the tumbling triumph of the end and emphasised the youthful exuberance of the whole evening’s entertainment. A wonderful and exhilarating evening.

This article was previously published on Lark Reviews.