Review Strauss’ Don Quixote, BBC NOW, St David’s Hall by James Ellis

I’ve seen much less of our BBC National Orchestra this year, I’ll admit that. Though what I have seen has been dazzling, I’m thinking back to the Charles Ives and John Adams a few weeks ago as a highlight. Our bright, American conductor Ryan Bancroft as Principle is choosing much more stimulating music than usual.

First we begin in Wales with Grace William’s and her Concert Overture. On a sad day, Grace chose to destroy manuscripts of several of her pieces, this overture being one of them. Other copies from previous performances had been salvaged and the piece is saved from being lost. It’s a jumpy, jolting few minutes. Grace’s vibrancy for orchestration is proven in this early work, I’ve never understood why she doesn’t get more love outside of Wales? The strings got a lot of attention from the composer and you can feel a unburdening anticipation to it all.

Next, a fashionable performance of Mozart’s 39th Symphony. Ryan made it breezily cool and light. The only discrepancy was a rogue phone from the audience going off between movements, holting Ryan in setting off into the rest of the symphony. I think we had some new concert attendees who didn’t quite grasp phone etiquette, especially when we are live on national radio. You don’t see Mozart symphonies as much with BBC NOW and I’d be down for more. You can feel the passion and the genius, thanks to our loving conductor who really cares about this music.

For this finale concert for the season, we had a rarity: Richard Strauss’ Don Quixote, a strange tone poem, which is also a cello concerto. Taking Cervantes’ famous epic of the mad Spanish knight, this made for one of the finer discoveries for this year. Lead cellist of the orchestra Alice Neary wowed here, were so used to seeing her in the thick of the other players, all eyes on her here. Not an easy piece to play, she delighted in the odd nature of the beast. The ironic waltzes, loved up romance and the acidic modernism that could only ever be R. Strauss. The discordant bars when Quixote famously mistakes windmills for giants are piercing, no doubt triggering a few audience members. On viola, Rebecca Jones adds to the joy as Quixote’s man servant Sancho Panza, not really a soloist though some curious playing for the much mocked viola is appealing.

Cardiff audiences would love to see BBC NOW players get more soloists roles not just for budgetary reasons. A chance to get to know who we’ve had all along in this marvellous orchestra. I only ever get more proud of BBC NOW.

Listen to this concert on BBC Sounds till 1st July 2023.

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