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Review: Lichfield Festival 2023

The Lichfield Festival never fails to offer a spectacular orchestral concert in its programme, and the 41st edition of this important event was no exception.

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Composer, guitarist and keyboard player Nitin Sawhney - a leading performer at the Lichfield Festival. Photo John Watson.

The BBC National Orchestra of Wales, under the baton of its principal conductor, Ryan Bancroft, delighted the audience in the city’s cathedral on Saturday with a concert featuring the Overture from Berlioz’s Beatrice et Benedict, followed by the composer’s Les Nuits d’été, with rising-star mezzo soprano Polly Leech as the soloist.

The focus then switched from France to Finland, for two masterpieces by Sibelius: The Swan Of Tuonela, and Symphony No. 5. Glorious music, gorgeously played.

The concert was being recorded for future broadcast, and no doubt the BBC editors faced a nightmare task of eliminating the intrusive sounds of applause between and even during movements, persistent coughing, doors banging shut, plus a noisy drunk who was thankfully led out.

Earlier in the week a splendid gathering of potentially fine orchestral musicians and soloists of the future also appeared in the cathedral. The Yehudi Menuhin School Orchestra was on Wednesday, conducted by Ukrainian-born Maxim Rysanov, who was also featured on viola in JS Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 and in other works.

The Bach was followed by immensely powerful works by Gorecki and Bartok, plus some elegant Elgar. Past graduates of the Menuhin school include violinists Nicola Benedetti and Nigel Kennedy, so who knows what future greatness we heard in the orchestra’s ranks in Lichfield. But Wednesday’s programme was rather too eclectic - a mish-mash of too many styles, however well played, creating a collision of moods.

The festival’s programme has expanded its musical horizons in recent years, with much more jazz, folk, world music and theatre as well as classical music.

Award-winning composer, guitarist and keyboard player Nitin Sawhney is celebrated for creating a strong blend of Asian music and soul, plus a whole array of other worldwide sounds. On the first Friday of the festival, he created a thrilling programme at the cathedral.

He has collaborated with a huge range of musicians, among them Paul McCartney, Sting, Jools Holland and Pink Floyd. Outstanding numbers by his band included Let Her Go from his album Beyond Skin, and You Are from his album Immigrants.

There were very strong contributions from all the band members: percussionist Aref Durvesh, violinist Eos Counsell and singers YVA and Shapla Salique. A consistently strong performance all round, but Nitin’s guitar-percussion duet at the end of the concert was simply stunning.

The four-piece folk-world group Kabantu deliver their music with intense energy and infectious enthusiasm, and their concert at the arts centre The Hub At St Mary’s on Monday was a rollercoaster ride through music from Scotland, Norway, Brazil and beyond, all played with technical aplomb and percussive drive.

Later that evening, one of the jazz world’s greatest saxophonists, Tommy Smith, gave an atmospheric solo concert in the cathedral, the second year running that he had created a captivating performance in the building, using its reverberant stonework to amplify his glorious tone.

His selection of ballads included Summertime, Somewhere Over The Rainbow, and - as an encore - the lovely On Green Dolphin Street.

“I haven’t played it since I was about 16,” he warned the audience.

I don’t doubt his words, but such is his technical mastery it sounded like he had been rehearsing it all his life.

Review by John Watson

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