Muscat Strings – The first string orchestra in Oman

The name “Muscat Strings” hardly does justice to the professional quality and musicianship of the new chamber orchestra which gave its inaugural concert on Tuesday evening. Thanks to the inspirational vision and leadership of Italian violinist and tutor, Prof Luca Blasio, thirteen of Muscat’s best string players, Omani and European, were drawn together to begin this long-term project. In the multi-purpose hall of the Royal Flight School, the acoustics were enhanced by a backdrop of soundboards as the musicians, dressed in black to suit the formality of the occasion, took their seats to perform.

The programme chosen by conductor and organiser, Luca Blasio, was beautifully balanced in every sense. It opened with Vivaldi’s ‘Concerto for Strings in D minor’ RV 127 – a composer close to Mr Blasio’s heart – and the intonation and clarity of the combined string playing was sheer perfection. The dynamic range demonstrated was palpable, especially in the lovely central ’Largo’ movement, and the acoustics did indeed prove sympathetic to achieving a clear unison ensemble.
The less familiar, ‘Mozart Divertimento in D Major’ K.136 was equally exquisite with perfect execution of the opening ‘Allegro’. The lyrical ‘Andante’ movement was simply sublime and the work concluded with some fine fugal playing in the Presto finale.
Classical section over, the programme moved firmly into the 20th century with Sir Edward Elgar’s beloved and popular, ‘Serenade for Strings in E minor’ Opus 20. This quintessentially English composition was beautifully warm and resonant in the opening, ‘Allegro Piacevole’ and featured some lovely violin solos from Leader, Richard Thirlwall, in eight-bar snatches. More lush, almost Mahlerian sonorities in the ‘Larghetto’ in Elgar’s romantic style were beautifully phrased, especially from Viola player Timea Szeles’s rich alto playing. The piece rounded off with a gentle, rolling quality in the humorous, ‘Allegretto’. The spell-bound audience responded, offering a much-deserved enthusiastic applause.

Finally, and in complete contrast, came Gustav Holst’s 1913, ‘St. Paul’s Suite’ – written for the Girls School in London where Holst was Director of Music for many years. It is the most familiar and favourite work of his, sounding like an English country dance on the village green, with its folk-inspired, ‘Jig’ opening. The first two movements were underpinned by some foxy rhythms and vibrant playing from ‘Cellists, Laura Chapple and Livie Kolmanova, enhanced by ostinato drones from Graham Boag on Double Bass. The second movement, entitled ‘Ostinato’, featured some colloquial fiddle solos from Mr Thirlwall again, in a very 20th century language. It was a highly rhythmic dance form which got the audience jiggling in their seats. Moving to a more evocative waltz-time in ‘Intermezzo’, the modal sound-world suggested a nod to orientalism. The ensemble playing in the big, sweeping harmonies was superb, melting back into pure, simple melodic lines with tender interpretation. Finally, the famous ‘Fantasia on the Dargason’ movement, much loved by students and adults alike, brought yet more colourful scenes of village fêtes. With plenty of pizzicato punctuation and bass ostinati, the lyrical ‘Greensleeves theme’ was cleverly interwoven between another lively Jig.
It was very good to hear and see Holst’s iconic work performed live in Muscat by this new chamber ensemble. It was even more wonderful to see Omanis, Muadh al Salhi, Juhaina al Balushi and Johar al Mashafri, the best young graduate students of ROSO, playing alongside teachers such as Clara Sanfilippo, Principal of Second Violins. After a standing ovation from the attendees, a short encore was given and the wish expressed for more chamber concerti and string suites from this talented new ensemble.
A vote of thanks and congratulations was given by Royal Flight School Principal, Mrs Margaret-Anne Looker, at the conclusion of this splendid programme, organised by Maestro Luca Blasio. She expressed the hope that this was a taste of things to come. One awaits with eager anticipation for future performances from Muscat Strings – a sentiment surely shared by all who attended this one-hour, “Classical Music Concert”.