Harold in Italy

Last night at the Southbank Centre, Peter Manning conducted the Bath Festival Orchestra in an all-French programme. This ensemble of early-career orchestral musicians was ‘re-launched’ in 2020, having previously been founded in 1959 by Yehudi Menuhin (he left in 1968).

The highlight of the evening was Berlioz’s Harold in Italy – my first time hearing it live – and violist Dana Zemtsov brought this eccentric, extrovert piece to joyous life. It’s always wonderful to see a performer thoroughly enjoying what they’re doing, and for much of it Zemtsov played with a smile. The programme was completed with the brisk Overture No. 1 by Louise Farrenc and Poulenc’s suave and witty Sinfonietta in the second half. The audience turnout in the Queen Elizabeth Hall – arguably a better acoustic experience than its larger sibling next door – was impressive.

My only quibble with the concert is the way two orchestral players introduced the pieces. Regular readers will know I have Many Thoughts about musicians speaking to the audience, and I generally think this courtesy is not observed often enough. But it’s better done well or not at all, and in this case an apparent effort to be unstuffy and casual veered into disappointing incoherence. But this was a minor mis-step in an otherwise enjoyable evening – and thankfully the playing had much more polish.