Monday, 29 November 2010

Exeter Music Group Symphony Orchestra

The Exeter Music Group Symphony Orchestra
Leader Clare Smith
Conductor Marion Wood
Soloist Thomas Gould
Photograph: Nigel Cheffers-Heard
Last Thursday, 25 November, the symphony orchestra of the Exeter Music Group gave their long awaited performance of Beethoven's Violin Concerto with visiting soloist Thomas Gould.  Before Thomas' big moment we had a short orchestral piece, The Prometheus Overture, also by Beethoven.  Some familiar faces were among the orchestral players.  Richard de la Rue and John Walthew of the Clarion Clarinet Quartet (see earlier post) were sitting high up with the woodwind and, among the strings was Lunchtime Concert co-ordinator Clare Greenall playing second violin.  The Prometheus Overture starts with very difficult short soft notes on the violin which test the timekeeping of every player.  The flutes came in perfectly and were then augmented by strong 'cello and woodwind.  Just to complete the sound they were joined by the two trumpets before a perfect finish by the violins.
Marion Wood conducts Beethoven's Violin Concerto
Photograph: Nigel Cheffers-Heard  (0771 261 4514)
Leader of the Clarion Clarinet Quartet
Richard de la Rue
in orchestral mode
Before the Concerto Thomas came in with his 250 year old Gagliano violin, and the orchestra had a brief tune-up.  The piece opened with very beautiful and subdued woodwind and timpani with strident support from the double basses.  Thomas stood relaxed and focused as the theme was systematically developed.  Tall and thin with rosy cheeks, designer stubble and long hair, he looked, in his tie and tails like a young Paganini.  Just as every musical avenue had been explored Thomas raised his violin.  His first notes were gentle and exploratory, with a strange 'rubbery' quality which was very intriguing.  He built up steadily to a sustained trill which was absolutely perfect.  At the end of each phrase conductor Marion Wood would turn to check with Thomas before he played another incredible trill.  Eventually, reluctantly, the solo section came to an end, to give way to luscious slow 'cello and gorgeous trumpet notes above.  Then the fortissimo, violin and 'cello pizzicato followed by soft 'cello and bass pizzicato.  I saw Clare Greenall among the strings grinning in anticipation of what was to come.  An incredible solo cadenza by Thomas.  A fortissimo double stopped explosion of sound, so aggressively attacked the bow seemed to saw through the strings.  As a military theme appeared the timpani came in to augment the beat.  The complexity and ingenuity of the solo inexorably increased - ricochet and glissandi - until something had to give.  Just as the music reached fever pitch, every stringed instrument came in together - pizzicato!  As the first movement drew to a close one bassoon was heard playing - so softly.  An exquisite touch.
Lead 'Cellist Yvonne Ashby
At the end of the first movement a stillness fell.  Some became uncertain and began to applaud - well-deserved, but too soon!  Marion beamed her appreciation.  The orchestra retuned and began the second movement.  This time French horns played a prominent part - although sadly hidden from most of the audience by the ornate stone pulpit.  During the highest sweetest string sections the rain hammered on the roof of the Cathedral adding its own music.  The violin and 'cello sections were incredibly smooth.  Mutes were used to give us the most delicate pizzicato sections.  Violins, 'cellos - and then horns!  Long slow notes by all the violins, using mutes, were just like a swarm of bees.  With the mutes off the strings were able to build from very gentle to loud and bold in the build up to the cadenza.  The fierce strokes on Thomas' violin built to a high squeak before returning, and giving way to the 'cellos who came in right on cue.  More woodwind.  More brass.  And, with a meaningful look from Marion to Thomas she would bring in the entire string section.  In the final rondo the 'cellos were extraordinarily romantic. alternating pizzicato and bow they seemed to question, while the violins tentatively replied.  As the concerto finally drew to a close the real applause began, and continued as Marion and Thomas embraced in celebration of a masterly performance.  Marion also insisted on credit for the other players, including leader Claire Smith and the leader of the 'cellists  Yvonne Ashby.
In response to prolonged applause Thomas returned to play an encore.  A virtuoso display of virtually every skill a violinist could hope to master.  Just as he seemed to have reached the limit of complexity, the next phrase was even more complex.  The highest notes were edging off the end of the fingerboard, and played with perfect pitch.  Everyone was amazed but no one was sure what piece they had heard.  Christopher Holdsworth, still playing 'cello with the EMG after 30 years, was sure it must be Paganini.  He also suspected that some of the more complicated cadenzas in the concerto might not be by Beethoven, but provided by other classical composers - Paganini again, or even Fritz Kreisler.

Pictures at an Exhibition

The Orchestra at Work
Michael Buckland
Great Gate of Kiev
Caroline Kögler
In the second half we heard something quite different.  Mussorgsky's 'Pictures at an Exhibition', written in memory of his friend Viktor Hartman whose work was exhibited at the Academy of Fine Arts in St Petersburg in 1874.  Devon artists provided their own works for an exhibition around the stage at the Cathedral.  Created in response the music at rehearsal, some also reflected Hartman's own work, others paintings of his which are now lost.

EMG Chairman John Welton
Introduces 'Pictures at an Exhibition'
After the interval the audience were summoned by the ship's bell of HMS Exeter.  The Chairman of the Exeter Music Group, John Welton (who is also bass-clarinettist with the Clarion Quartet and the EMG Symphony Orchestra itself) ascended the pulpit to introduce Mussorgsky's great work.  The paintings, he explained, were on sale.  Also on sale were tickets for the 'Lollipop Lottery'.  Prizes include the opportunity to conduct the orchestra in rehearsal and choose a short piece for inclusion in a future concert.
The second half started with a previous winner's 'lollipop' selection, The Sabre Dance from Aram Khachaturian's ballet Gayane.  This opened with xylophone and trombone, soon to be joined by tuba.  Every piece of percussion seemed to be brought in for this short but exhilarating outburst.
'Pictures at an Exhibition' started with the familiar 'Promenade' by the brass section with the strings following pizzicato.  The eerie 'Gnomus' was introduced by the 'cellos followed by the unexpected sound of the horns and cymbal before the strange image unfolded in pizzicato and glissando from the violins and 'cellos alternately.  In the midst of this a wind section featuring the fruity sound of the contra-bassoon was interrupted by a loud snap from the percussion section to give way to a solo for bass-clarinet played by - Chairman John Welton.
'Sabre Dance' and 'Pictures at an Exhibition'
Plenty of work for the percussion section
The sad song of Il Vecchio Castello was provided by Bassoon and 'cello with the saxophone of Sarah Dean (not to mention John Welton's bass clarinet).  The childish squabbling of the Tuilleries was represented by the clarinets and flutes, with the Cathedral clock joining in to chime 9.30pm.  The lumbering Bydlo on 'cello was low and insistent like a piece by Philip Glass. The sound was augmented by timpani, muted horns, double bass pizzicato and euphonium.  (I have since been told that we say 'tenor tuba' rather than euphonium in orchestral circles.)  A flute version of promenade led into the Dance of the Unhatched Chicks with very neatly timed pizzicato on muted 'cellos and violins.  The dialogue between Goldenburg and Schmuyle was taken up by muted trumpet and bass clarinet in very precise phrases.  The frenzied market scene of Limoges gave way to the deep brass of the Catacombes.  The Witches' Ride was eerie as Gnomus but more threatening with ricochet from the strings, blare from the brass and bash from the percussion - giving way to ominously gentle flute and contra-bassoon.  In a final frenzy the brass and bass drum gave way to Promenade from the woodwind.  The final Victory Bells were provided by cymbals.  No help from the Cathedral clock this time unfortunately.  As the last peal faded away the audience roared their appreciation.  Conductor Marion Wood was called back to the stage several times and a huge bouquet was presented to Clare Smith, leader of the orchestra.
Leader Clare Smith receives her bouquet
Leader of the 'cellos Yvonne Ashby on the right
The audience further expressed their pleasure by contributing to the retiring collection - in support of the St John Ambulance Service.

1 comment:

  1. Really enjoy your show every week. Great presentation, Luch.

    Martin Hodge