The Organ

Poulenc's Organ Concerto, Gounod and Vaughan Williams

Nottingham University Sinfonia with Peter Siepmann
Great Hall, University of Nottingham
19th March 2006

Nottingham University's Great Hall is surprisingly modest in size; an art deco version of a classical box. There is no stage, and with the exception of the wind instruments, performers and audience shared the floor level. The University Sinfonia is an auditioned student orchestra, and with such ensembles you never know whether the performance will put some professional orchestras to shame, or be more akin to a school orchestra - and indeed this often changes from year to year. This year's Sinfonia was somewhere between those extremes, with varying standards of musicianship particularly evident in the wind section.

Gounod's Petite Symphonie for winds was therefore an unfortunate choice to commence the programme, with the Sinfonia's weaker players exposed alongside their more talented (or less nervous) friends. The most memorable part of that performance was the conductor's exaggerated and unintentionally humourous entrance and exit. In contrast, Poulenc's delightful and varied Organ Concerto played to the strengths of the massed strings, and PhD student Peter Siepmann made the most of the varied tones of the Great Hall's HNB/Willis organ.

Within a few notes, it was evident that the temperature had risen distinctly since the organ had been tuned, several reeds being distinctly on the ripe side. The organ sang out clearly from a balcony above the orchestra, threatening to drown the massed strings in the moderate but reverberent acoustic. However soon all that was forgotten as the music swept from chordal declamation to the theme of rising and falling notes that keeps reappearing to carry the work along in urgent fashion, punctuated by periods of reflection and occasional more decadent distractions. While not a perfect performance, both musicians and music pulled the audience along so infectiously that the rather abrupt conclusion was an unwelcome return to normality.

Vaughan Williams' Symphony number 5 in D concluded the evening, with the tiering of the wind musicians again serving to unbalance the overall ensemble and emphasise the disparities among that section. Again, the music soon distracted from any shortcomings in performance, although this work asks more questions than it answers and is hard to divorce from its wartime context. Sitting in the Great Hall and imagining draft-depleted musicians playing despite the threat of a wayward bomb aimed at the Boots works or railway yards, I felt I began to understand a little more of what Vaughan Williams was trying to say.