The Westmorland Orchestra, Kendal Leisure Centre

THE Westmorland Orchestra chose an all-French programme for the opening concert of its 73rd season, reflecting the enthusiasm of conductor Richard Howarth for whom French has always been a particular favourite.

Perhaps the opening piece, Debussy’s well-known and well-loved Prélude a l’apres-midi d’un faune, would have been better placed later in the programme rather than as the opening item. After Philip Gruar’s lovely playing of the unaccompanied flute solo which opens the work, the performance over-all suffered from some nervous moments and some questionable intonation. This said, any thought that this programme might be too taxing for the orchestra was immediately dispelled as the players launched into another well-known work, Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

This is a colourful piece with a story attached to it. An apprentice sorcerer tries out his skills on a broomstick with disastrous results: the room becomes flooded as the broomstick becomes alive. The composer uses this ancient story as a means of building a musical picture of events. Each section of the orchestra gets a chance to shine as the story reaches its climax, and shine they did. There was no holding back in this exuberant performance.

Massenet’s ballet music from his opera Le Cid was next on the programme. Again, this is colourful music and makes a lot of solo demands on sectional principals which showed once again what skilful players make up the Westmorland Orchestra.

Finally, after the interval, we heard less familiar music: Berlioz’s suite of four movements for orchestra and viola known as Harold in Italy. The composer described this work not as a viola concerto but as ‘a series of orchestral scenes in which the solo viola would be involved, to a greater or lesser extent, like an actual person.’ The performance captured this idea well as the viola soloist, Steven Burnard, first positioned himself behind the orchestra entering into a musical conversation with the nearby harp. He then took centre stage for most of the rest of the work. His playing, at times dazzling, at other times beautifully restrained, was masterly in its execution, as one would expect from the principal viola of a major orchestra. The orchestra, too, rose to the challenges of this very demanding score, playing with energy, sensitivity and beauty of tone in quieter passages, and playing throughout with the precision of a professional orchestra.