Review: Lambeth Wind Orchestra plays music by Amy Beach, Louise Farrenc and Elizabeth Winters

There are considerably more amateur and semi-professional groups operating across London than I’ve previously acknowledged.

That South East London sports at least five different groups I know of, many of the membership of which I recognise from concert to concert, says much about the appeal and vibrancy of the amateur music-making scene. It’s not really reflected on in the mainstream media, nor celebrated anywhere near as much by people like me. 

Lambeth Wind Orchestra’s concert this past weekend featuring ‘inspirational music by women for wind orchestra’ at James Allen’s Girls School in North Dulwich is a case in point. 

I was only able to get along to the first half of the concert, but the time I spent there reconnected me with some long forgotten joys of the wind orchestra and amateur music-making scene. 

First, the sense of industry-fuelled anticipation to be savoured whilst you wait for a concert to begin. Hosted in a functional venue rather than one primarily designed for entertainment, the Vaughan Williams Auditorium at James Allen’s Girls School didn’t have the pomposity or grandeur of a usual concert experience, which meant everyone present – audience and performers alike – were relaxed. This combined with a mixed audience of onlookers and supportive friends and relatives, made it a far more intimate and supportive experience. 

To critique the playing would potentially risk appearing disingenuous.

Even so, of note were the flutes and oboes – terrific ensemble in John Holland’s arrangement Louise Farrenc’s Second Overture and enviable diaphragm support in the upper flutes and piccolo during Elizabeth Winters’ Playing with Destiny. Some of the Farrenc arrangement made it a demanding play for the clarinets (not unlike a similarly terrifying arrangement of Berlioz’s Corsaire Overture I played at university), and in places it sometimes felt like the bass parts dominated. But it hung together well, and in the Farrenc in particular I was reminded that there is a catalogue of works by an unfamiliar composer I’m looking forward to exploring in the next few months. 

Where the band undoubtedly thrived was in the contemporary works. Unfazed by unorthodox rhythms and time signatures, LWO tackled Catherine Likhuta’s Me Disagrees with spirit and commitment. Elizabeth Winters’ Playing With Destiny was a thematically more engaging work. And given it was written for LWO in 2010, it was also a work that capitalised on available resources and skills. That made it a more complete performance – packed full of drama and highly-descriptive and evocative writing. 

What especially impressed me above all else was the ambitious programming. Wind orchestra concerts can all too easily fall into the trap of providing crowd pleasers for the audience rather than giving an opportunity to the musicians to explore new works.

This was brave programming seemingly embraced with enthusiasm by the membership. John Holland’s conducting style is clear, precise and efficient too. I found this, his and the LWO’s ambitiousness and enthusiasm, an gratifyingly reassuring thing.

Listen to a Spotify Playlist of music by American composer Amy Beach, including the Pastorale for wind quintet which featured in the LWO programme.

Lambeth Wind Orchestra reconvene for their Christmas concert on Thursday 13 December at Herne Hill United Church, London. 

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