The Orchestra of Welsh National Opera

“IT IS the lot of the players in opera orchestras to spend much of their lives in the confines of an orchestra pit, so when the members of the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera were given the chance to display their symphonic aspirations in the airy space of St Davids Cathedral, their enthusiasm was almost palpable.
This year is Mendelssohn’s bicentenary, so it was fitting that the 40th Fishguard International Festival should open with one of his most popular works, the Hebrides Overture. From the word go it allowed the young conductor, James Lowe, to show his considerable mettle as he deftly navigated the orchestra through storm and cross-current to bring us securely into the serenity of Fingal’s Cave.

The festival’s president, celebrated pianist Peter Donahoe, then joined the orchestra for Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini. This was no routine performance of that ever-popular work. Donahoe’s pianism was simply dazzling, as delicate in colour as it was dramatic in power, and he was supported by some superbly precise orchestral playing under Lowe’s astute direction.

The second half of the concert was devoted to Schubert’s Ninth Symphony in C major. Although Schubert died shortly after completing it, the symphony is still a young man’s work, and at St Davids it received a fittingly ebullient performance at the hands of another young man who is clearly destined for stardom. Many conductors treat the work with so much reverential deference to its sobriquet ‘great’ that they adopt grandiose gestures and ponderous tempi, but there was nothing ponderous in Lowe’s daring interpretation.

He demanded – and got – some stunning feats of virtuosity from the orchestra, and brought out the work’s exuberance and dramatic force with impressive panache. From the opening horn theme to the measured tread of the slow movement and the daring brilliance of the scherzo we were held in thrall.”

John Rushby Smith, Western Mail