Jason Hewitt attended the inaugural concert of St George’s 2018/19 season as they open the doors to their new £6.3m extension
St George’s Bristol opened their 2018/19 classical season and their new £6.3m extension on Thursday (September 6), welcoming two of the world’s leading young musicians, a star conductor, an orchestra, plus a sell-out audience of more than 500. Chief Executive Suzanne Rolt admitted in her welcome address that it was a close-run affair, taking possession of the building only the day before. She praised the team of staff at the venue, who worked through the night to ensure that the new space was ready for the big night.
Lead by conductor Alpesh Chauhan, the Bristol Ensemble began the evening with those three arresting C minor string stabs, which open Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture. A suitably heroic piece with which to launch this new era at St Geoege’s, its dramatic intensity balanced by a poetic, prayer-like second theme.
The triumphant mood of the evening continued from the opening chord of Haydn’s Cello Concerto No.1 This early work was only discovered in the 1960s and was written for Haydn’s close friend and colleague Joseph Weigl. Soloist Laura van der Heijden demonstrated a musical maturity way beyond her 21 years. She shone especially bright in the Adagio, giving an account that was tender, mournful and open-hearted without succumbing to the saccharine sentimentality of some readings.
After the interval, the audience were treated to a nuanced, intimate performance of Mendelssohn’s Notturno from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, before the arrival on stage of Nicola Benedetti, the undoubted star of the show, for Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2.
This Concerto is regarded as more conservative than Prokofiev’s first; however, it includes some of Prokofiev’s more unconventional choices, that Benedetti illuminated beautifully throughout. Alone for the Concerto’s very first phrase, Benedetti drew out the hope lurking within the melancholy folk-like line. When the orchestra entered the fray, at first it was with a minimum of colour from the strings of the Bristol Ensemble. The mood gradually brightened, anticipating the second theme, seemingly aiming for a simpler means of expression. The virtuosic Benedetti developed these dual motifs with their diverse harmonic and rhythmic flights throughout the first movement.
The sensually warm tone of her violin somehow soared above the Bristol Ensamble’s orchestral massed ranks without ever losing the strong sense of connection between soloist and orchestra.
After the much-admired Andante assai, Benedetti cut loose in the concerto’s vivid finale. A dance in accented triple time, sprinkled with displaced beats. She didn’t shy away from the menacing mood that emerged and during the dramatic coda Benedetti rose to the heights of virtuosity, demonstrating why her name on a programme is a guarantee of a sold-out show and an evening to remember.
The night ended with Benedetti receiving a deserved ovation from St George’s discerning and attentive crowd. The familiar sound of stamping feet amid the applause setting the seal on a triumphant night. Bristol is lucky to have such a vibrant venue for classical performance and with this ambitious and bold extension project now fully realized, the future of music at St Georges feels secure for decades to come.