Bournemouth SO/ Alsop, Wessex Hall, Poole

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The Independent Culture

In Poole last week the Bournemouth Symphony Orch-estra played a programme of Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky and Bartók under its principal conductor designate, Marin Alsop. Things are, it seems, finally looking up for this financially beleaguered band. Wessex Hall, too, is undergoing a makeover, and now has a black-and-white, somewhat severe new decor and, more importantly, rather better focused acoustics.

Some underestimate the good work done by the former chief conductor, Yakov Kreizberg (who shortly reappears with Alfred Brendel and the orchestra). It's nevertheless true that the players' morale has suffered on account of recent uncertainties, including the hiatus involved in the appointment of Kreizberg's successor; and the BSO does remain a somewhat uneven orchestra.

Alsop, an American, has been an active conductor in Britain with a number of major orchestras for several years. In the last month or so she has been establishing herself very firmly here with concerts up and down the country. The BSO clearly admires and likes her; she got its overwhelming vote for the top job. And the Poole audience seemed to respond positively not only to her open-hearted music-making, but also to her carefully prepared and informative talk before the performance of Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra.

On Wednesday, in the second of her recent pair of BSO concerts, Alsop took the bull by the horns by showcasing the orchestra's main weakness, its string section, in the opening performance of Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings. Though lacking the rich sonority and control of the best string sections, at full throttle these players can be quite impressive. It's in softer music that their deficiencies are most fully exposed: a rather thin tone (cellos, in general the strongest department, excepted) and an inability to phrase Tchaikovsky's tunes and inventive part-writing with much nuance. Duncan Riddell, who came to the orchestra as leader last September from the London Philharmonic, should help with such matters.

Riddell's own little duet with Philip Quint was one of the many delights of the ensuing account of Stravinsky's Violin Concerto. This Russian-born American is not only a superb technician, negotiating Stravinsky's complex rhythms and lyrical flights with equal ease, but is also a compellingly mercurial and vivid player, totally at home with this concerto's varied moods; Quint is up for a Grammy Award, along with the BSO itself, for a Naxos recording of the William Schuman concerto. The orchestra had a hard task keeping up with him, but, once settled, offered some keen and biting woodwind playing, the BSO's chief strength at present.

The concluding performance of the Bartók allowed the BSO to show off its very decent brass and percussion sections, as well as its woodwind. The laboured, unmysterious account of the Elegia and a general lack of feeling for long-term tension and release in Alsop's reading suggested, however, more promise than commanding achievement on the part of this orchestra-conductor partnership in what is, after all, still its very early stages.

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