If you were to count the seats on the stage for CUCO, the Music Society’s flagship orchestra, you would probably be surprised. As a chamber orchestra, it’s undeniably small, and you might be forgiven for thinking that, with such limited forces, it might be unwise to be tackle some of the most famously powerful, intricate and iconic orchestral writing in the world, especially less than a month after some of these players had even arrived in Cambridge. But you’d listen, nonetheless, and realise just how wrong you were.
The programme opened with Mozart’s 'Magic Flute Overture', which brings its own drive in bucketloads. It came as no surprise to learn that guest conductor Peter Stark places a particular rehearsal on tempo relations, as the fast section that follows the opening fanfare has such an organic flow to it: offbeat accents clear yet unobtrusive and a unity of feeling amongst the players that’s visual as well as musical. Stark is the ultimate symbol for this, usually minimal in his movements, but always with clarity. His control is never questioned, but it washes past him to the audience in a way that makes it seem completely inevitable. Already, at their dynamic peak, CUCO can fill a hall like this as marvellously as any symphony orchestra.
David Wong’s clarinet concerto was unquestionably the concert’s highlight. Granted, the orchestral introduction may include some of the more bland passages that Mozart ever wrote, but they are overshadowed by a player of such immense quality, bringing the clarinet as close to an extension of the human voice, both in tone and feeling, as it’s possible to be. Bubbling passages of triplets never sounded frenetic; transitions between higher and lower registers were effortless; virtuoso passages never dwarfed the musical contours – this was an absolute gem of a concerto.
The grand atmosphere created by the first half was only added to by the anticipation of the audience waiting to hear probably the most famous four notes in all of classical music. For an opening designed to shock, it was a great call on Stark’s part to energise the opening bars and knock the audience off their seats with the momentum. Luckily they have no problem building up even from this breathtaking start. A few dodgy moments (split notes from a French horn and a loud early entry from the lower strings) don’t spoil the overall effect of the piece, a confident opening movement, the second movement expansive and melancholy, and such a smashing ending that it got rid of any problems of music not really knowing where it was going. The music has enough charm and cheek to allow the whole orchestra to have fun, and that much was obvious: no one, from the last trombone to the first violin, ever got lost amongst the melee, and that’s the real joy of an orchestra this size. A programme like this is designed to showcase the performers, and it did that in spades. A sign of a great season ahead, no doubt.