This being my first time in this venue I was delighted to experience their still fairly new, state of the art performing arts centre which seats 850 and a stage big enough for a large orchestra and choir. In addition there is a very impressive organ of 40 independent stops and a front of open 16 foot pedal pipes, complete with an echo division in the choir stalls. My initial feeling while walking in, of there being too much carpet in the auditorium, was borne out during the concert by what I thought was an acoustic lacking reverberation. The foyer however is well set out and there is a nice entertainment area with a bar. A nice touch was the complimentary drinks (water and cordial, I think, in large containers on tables) in the foyer unless you wanted something stronger from the bar. Also pleasing was the range of ages in the audience.
The orchestra comprised a wide range of ages ranging from teenagers to people that I suspect were into their late 70’s. When I see this range of ages in amateur orchestras, I always feel heartened as music for me is something that transcends age differences and makes us realise that we are all in this together. Philosophically speaking, I feel orchestral classical music does this much better than any other music. The programme was a challenging one for any orchestra and it was clear that the second and third items on the programme had been thoroughly rehearsed. The orchestra under Prakhoff’s direction showed that it was well capable of a programme of this nature and level of difficulty.
Roger Howell deserves a mention for the programme notes which were informative without being too long. The layout of the programme was good too without a preponderance of advertising such as bombards us with the major orchestras in the larger concert halls.
The concert opened with the Haydn symphony. Once the first movement had “warmed up” things proceeded smoothly and energetically after the mystery and drama of the slow beginning. During the second movement, the mysterious third section had a very interesting change of tempo with the woodwinds. The ensuing placement of the repeat of the opening material brought us to a secure closing of this movement. The third movement was nicely together in ensemble although I thought rather slow for a one in a bar minuet. I’m accustomed to faster tempi. The energy in the fourth movement and the structure of this amazing movement were clearly presented. The central motifs were heard as they moved around the various sections of the orchestra. In general I thought this rendition reliable and safe and all the elements of a Haydn symphony were there.
It was in the Strauss songs that I thought the orchestra really showed what it can do. Many sublime passages with fine balance of tone created a wonderful backdrop for the beautiful soprano of Gordon-Stewart. By the middle, the beauty of this song (Spring) and the wonderful tone of her voice had impressed itself upon me. The second song is entitled “September” which we have to remember is autumn in the northern hemisphere. This was remarkable in that it unfolded simply and logically with a poise where nothing jarred and everything was in its place.
The sublime third song (While going to sleep) was where I felt Gordon-Stewart came into her own, with subtle control of tone never overplaying the melodic material. There was a marvellous sense that the vocal line is part of Strauss’s wonderful orchestration. The violin solo performed by Pierotti the leader, was in similar vein, beautifully restrained and performed with great poise. There was a smattering of spontaneous applause after this song with the wonderful atmosphere created.
“O vast tranquil peace” the opening words of the last song sets the scene for an emotional and yet peaceful acceptance of death and depression the preoccupying forces behind these songs. This song again showed what both the soloist and orchestra could manage.
Overall great control of the orchestral texture and control of vocal quality are needed in these songs and the audience was not disappointed. The orchestra has worked hard on the textures and rubato needed in this work and as such, supported the soloist with great sensitivity. Prakhoff was watching the singer carefully and it was evident that he conducted with close musical rapport.
After the interval the Brahms symphony showed the orchestra in yet another light. This symphony was performed creditably with many fine moments. There was energy and fire and notably the cello section showed in a few sections that they had a fine unified sound, the first time in this concert where these opportunities arose for them particularly in the first movement. There was a considerable amount of excellent wind playing in this work and internally the wind performed as a cohesive section. The first movement with its introspective, slow, two note motif makes for a difficult beginning. After the 3rd and 4th horn entry in the second movement the addition of more of the winds cemented what has to be one of Brahms finer moments in the slow movements of his symphonies. The slow tempo was managed very well and the atmosphere of this movement succeeded in particular with some fine clarinet playing both as solo and section.
The third movement had all the energy a scherzo requires and the horns here showed their best especially under the leadership of Jo Spencer the first horn who throughout the evening showed that he can play with fine tone and precision. The final movement was in a sense, over too soon as I found the drama here was well managed with the vigour needed for a finale.
In this well-conceived programme of final symphonies and songs, I found much to entertain, delight and move me. This orchestra has a fine tradition and is to be commended for its work with musicians of all ages and its ability to market to a wide audience of which there was a creditable following. There were many beautiful moments in the music and some fine work with orchestral textures managed with delicacy and the performance was certainly cohesive. This is an orchestra worth supporting under the fine leadership of their very able conductor.