Ballet Concert with Dance Activate Review by Neil Crutchley

Sunday 24th March 3pm
De Montfort Hall Leicester

There is an admirable generosity of spirit in the Bardi Symphony Orchestra. Whether it be encouraging young musicians, getting together with local choirs or as in this concert, performing alongside Dance Activate, the willingness to share the concert platform brings enormous rewards for everyone involved, not least members of the audience.

That was certainly the case with this hugely enjoyable presentation, the second of the orchestra’s partnerships with Graham Fletcher’s team of talented young dancers. Everyone benefits: the dancers have the opportunity to perform with an excellent orchestra; the orchestra has the chance to play great ballet scores and to have the live dancers in front of them and the audience has the pleasure of both watching and listening.

The main work and the one in which Dance Activate featured, was the whole of the 2nd act of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Ballet with all its familiar characteristic dances and great Pas de Deux.

One of the most difficult aspects of conducting for the ballet (I imagine) is keeping everything together, yet this presentation was beautifully coordinated and Claus Efland as always, conducted with authority and panache. Each of the dances was charmingly characterised and the pacing was spot on – nothing forced or overdone yet full of life and vigour. There was an infectious sweep to the Waltz of the Flowers and in the Pas de deux, (probably the most substantial and emotional piece in the ballet) the conductor graded the climaxes with impressive assurance, only allowing the full force to emerge in the closing bars. Equally compelling was the finale where the various threads were drawn together into a powerful peroration.

I’m not a ballet expert but I think I can confidently say that the dancing was enchanting throughout. It was clear that hours of painstaking rehearsal had gone into reaching so high a standard. The various nationalistic dances with their splendid costumes was a real feast for the eyes and the glorious pas de deux was brilliantly executed by Oliver Speers and Samantha Camejo, both principal artists of the English Youth Ballet. The closing scene was especially affecting, featuring all the young dancers in turn and bringing the curtain down in glittering fashion.

The first half of the concert opened with an invigorating account of the Prelude and Mazurka from Coppelia and this was followed by the Ballet Music from Gounod’s Faust – once a relatively popular concert item but seldom heard nowadays. However it is a delightful piece – especially when played with such charm and affection. There was an infectious lift to the rhythms and the conductor’s ability to stylishly shape and turn a phrase was, as always, very impressive.

The same could be said of Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours, a short ballet from his opera, La Gioconda. This too was once a concert favourite but is less often heard today. It is full of delightful melodies (one of which has been immortalised in a song by Alan Sherman) and the performance sparkled from the first bar to last.

It was very gratifying to see Claus Efland lavish as much care and attention to detail on these charming works as he would on a symphony by Brahms or Nielsen. Some conductors would see this sort of programme as an “easy ride” but happily he’s not one of them and consequently, in the case of the Gounod and Ponchielli, many of us were left thinking “Why on earth aren’t these pieces played more often.” What greater compliment could be paid to the quality of the performances?

The orchestral playing throughout the concert was astoundingly good. Not only as an ensemble, but also in the quality of the soloists within the orchestra – especially the woodwind. The Bardi must be one of the most professional of non-professional orchestras, as for long stretches it was difficult to believe we weren’t listening to a full-time group. Only very occasionally a slight discrepancy in string ensemble gave the game away, but even then the actual tone of the strings was extremely fine. Surprisingly, the sound from where I was sitting was not affected by the orchestra being in a “pit”.

Altogether this was a superb afternoon of music and dance, fully deserving the large audience it attracted.