Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Elgar and Mahler at the Cathedral Thursday 14 April

Conductor and Director of Music: Marion Wood
Leader of the Orchestra: Clare Smith
Soprano (Mahler's Resurrection): Catherine Hamilton
Mezzo Soprano (Elgar and Mahler): Alison Kettlewell
(Photograph: Nigel Cheffers-Heard)
An enormous number of superb local musicians were brought together under the baton of Marion Wood on Thursday night to perform the magnificent Mahler Second Symphony - the "Resurrection".  There was a full orchestra (the Exeter Music Group Symphony Orchestra) with two harps, eight french horns, two sets of timpani and an enormous bass drum.  For the final movement there were two vocal soloists waiting in the wings - along with a huge choir made up of singers from several local choirs.

The full line-up at rehearsal:
Exeter Music Group Symphony Orchestra and Choir
conducted by Marion Wood
(Photography Nigel Cheffers-Heard:
su3264@eclipse.co.uk (0771 261 4514)

Catherine and Alison in rehearsal (NCH)
In rehearsal the sound and sight of the great mass of performers was impressive enough.  In front of a large audience in Exeter Cathedral, in evening dress, they were a truly splendid sight.  Photographer Nigel Cheffers-Heard was there to capture the action from every angle, while Luch was keeping an eye on things from the front row.

Before the music began EMG chairman (and bass clarinettist) John Welton introduced a guest speaker from the Alzheimer's Society to tell us about the wonderful service the Society provides for dementia sufferers, called 'Singing for the Brain'.  We all know that singing is enjoyable and fun, and makes us happy.  But for anyone with Alzheimer's disease, or any other form of dementia, the opportunity to take part in singing events can be a blessed relief from the anxiety and confusion of daily life.

Numerous testimonials from carers and relatives described the immediate and lasting benefits of 'Singing for the Brain'.  Agitation melts away to be replaced by calm and happiness which persists for days.  Clearly this is a very labour- and cost-effective way to relieve suffering and bring relief to sufferers and respite to carers.  Proceeds from the concert will help this very worthwhile work to continue.

For more information about 'Singing for the Brain' groups in Devon, and how the public can help:
call Paul King on 01278 663760 ~ 07590 002598 ~ paul.king@alzheimers.org.uk

Show Time!  (NCH)
Alison takes her place for Elgar's 'Sea Pictures'
As a musical hors d'oeuvre, one of the night's soloists, mezzo-soprano Alison Kettlewell sang Edward Elgar's five 'Sea Pictures'.  Elgar lovers have recently been treated to a performance of the 'Sea Pictures' at Broadclyst where mezzo-soprano Rebecca Smith sang the whole cycle with great passion to the accompaniment of John Scarfe on the piano.  Soprano Val Howels has also given a recital of a selection of the songs recently.
However, the wonderful singing of those soloists was eclipsed on Thursday night by the orchestral arrangement, played by the slightly cut-down but still huge EMG Symphony Orchestra, and the huge voice of Alison Kettlewell.  Harps and horns made 'Sea Slumber Song' incredibly deep and ominous.  In a lighter vein, 'cello pizzicato provided a lively introduction to each verse of 'In Haven'.  In 'Sabbath Morning at Sea' the violin opening gave way to single notes on the horns with 'cello embellishment.  As the full strings returned, the playing of the leader, Clare Smith was beautiful to see and to hear.  'Where Corals Lie' introduced a wonderful combination of 'cello pizzicato and violin bowing which died away to leave a gorgeous woodwind sound involving everyone from flutes to bassoons - and a wonderful opportunity to hear the solo playing of the 'cello leader, Yvonne Ashby.  For the final song, 'The Swimmer', every instrument seemed to be thrown into an almighty fortissimo - even Nigel Browne joining in on the cathedral organ to produce and overwhelming sound.  Even amongst all that sound the oboe players managed to make their wonderful sound heard, in accompaniment to Alison's very impressive voice.  The perfect coordination of all that sound was chiefly down to a very special partnership between the conductor, Marion Wood, and the Leader of the Orchestra, Clare Smith.  After a really stunning performance both were quick to acknowledge each other's contribution, and that of the rest of the orchestra, as the audience applauded wholeheartedly.

Marion acknowledges the Leader, Clare Smith
The musical understanding between Marion and Clare is well tried and tested.  Only five months ago, on 25 November last year, they created the perfect orchestral sound for  a brilliant performance of Beethoven's Violin Concerto by Tom Gould of the Britten Sinfonia, before going on to perform the whole of Mussorgsky's 'Pictures at an Exhibition' in the second half.  A very reliable and creative collaboration.

Leader Clare Smith and 'Cello Leader Yvonne Ashby
On both occasions, as Clare stood on Marion's left, an equally impressive figure stood on her right - 'cello leader Yvonne Ashby.  Yvonne's 'cello playing is quite the equal of Clare's violin.  It is a sheer joy to see them playing side by side.
Yvonne, who is from nearby Branscombe, has a small string ensemble of her own.  We are very much hoping to hear about their next performance via the 'Classical Journey'.  That's pencilled in for some time later in the summer.  Details to follow.

To allow for roughly equal halves, and to avoid overtaxing the stamina of the audience (and players!) The first movement of Mahler's Second Symphony was played before the interval.

The harpists prepare
(Sue Sherratt and Fionnuala Somerville)
As the 'Allegro Maestoso' opened the harps were immediately heard running loudly up and down the scale.  Each downward rush leads ferociously to a cymbal crash.  The recurring theme was strangely reminiscent of Mussorgsky's 'Gnomus' from 'Pictures at an Exhibition' - composed twenty years early in St Petersburg - which the EMGSO played so recently.  As the entire woodwind section threw themselves into the opening movement (including the mighty contra-bassoon) one player sat patiently waiting her turn.  Ruth Avis, who had been first flute in rehearsal, was now fourth, and had to wait her turn.  After a brief respite in the action the sound built again from the tiny sound of the triangle and Ruth added the finishing touch - on the piccolo!  The horns, meanwhile, were doing something of their own, moving tenderly from minor to major.  The overall impression was of ferocity and energy, the whole movement ending with a resounding crash.

Branscombe 'Cellist Yvonne Ashby
(and, in the background, a familiar member
of the 'Exeter Singers' making a swift exit!)
During the interval several performers posed for photographs, including the smiling Yvonne Ashby, who was thrilled by the Elgar and eagerly anticipating the even more exciting Mahler Symphony.  The entire choir, all dressed for the part, but waiting patiently for their big moment, circulated amongst the audience.  Amongst them was local composer Peter Nickol, whose music has featured on the 'Classical Journey' on Phonic FM.  His composition 'New Year' was recently performed by the Chapel Choir of Selwyn College Cambridge at a Joan Armitage Memorial Concert in London on 24 March.  Several members of the Exeter Singers were among the group, and among the tenors was a the familiar face of local poet 'Roverti' (Trevor Germans, whose pen-name is simply the reverse of 'I, Trevor', by the way).

It was also possible to see the full line-up of instruments which would be performing Mahler, many of which would be played off-stage.  No less than eight French horns were present.  They're a self-effacing lot, those horn players.  It wasn't possible to get them all to pose together at one time.  Also essential to the sound were the two concert harps.  The huge effort of transporting and setting up these enormous instruments is fully justified by the unique and glorious sound they provide.

A harmony of horns
That incredibly ebullient 'Allegro Maestoso' was followed by 'Andante Moderato', a perfect contrast - a gentle pastorale.  The strings very gently tapped out the shortest of staccato notes ending each phrase with incredible delicate pizzicato.
In the third movement, 'In ruhig fließender Bewegung' ('With quietly flowing movement'), a sharp opening on the timpani led to an interesting jazzy eastern European sound from the clarinets of the Clarion Quartet of Richard de la Rue, Barry Parsons and John Welton (bass).  Phil Bonser was sitting in for John Welthew, who is sadly not well enough for the rigours of orchestral work at the moment.  We wish you speedy recovery John!  Other delights in the third movement included interesting percussion effects, like the intriguing snap-stick which was used in conjunction with the big bass drum.  Several long passages where Clare and Yvonne played solo with flute accompaniment were simply sublime.
One member of that huge choir,
Exeter Composer and Tenor
Peter Nickol
Finally the vocal element started to appear.  For 'Urlicht. Sehr feierlich, aber schlicht' ('Primordial Light. Very solemn, but simple') Alison Kettlewell reappeared, having changed her relatively plain blue frock for a sumptuous crimson and black evening gown.  Her aria was slow, deep and moving, getting full value from her rich mezzo-soprano voice.  Oboes and harps were joined by gentle muted trumpets.  A huge line-up of trumpeters, some off-stage, producing such a restrained sound.  In their midst we could see Tony Hindley who had played trumpet (and piccolo trumpet) so movingly in Walton's 'Façade' at Lympstone last year (another of John Welton's many successful projects which, sadly, has not yet found a place in these pages).  One very special moment (which Phil Bonser had kindly informed some of us about in advance) was the point where all the instruments, and Alison's voice, died away to allow us to hear the very deepest notes of that marvellous instrument, the contra-bassoon.
A compelling work in itself, Alison's aria ended with the prescient words introducing the big theme of 'resurrection', "Der Liebe Gott wird mir ein Lichtchen geben, wird leuchten mir bis in das ewig selig Leben!" ("The loving God will grant me a little light, which will light me into that eternal blissful life!") 

Yvonne's 'cellists accompany the soloists
in Mahler's 'Resurrection'
(The tenors do their best to match
Catherine for volume!)
Finally, 'Im Tempo des Scherzos' ('In the tempo of the Scherzo') started softly with the familiar 'Gnomus-like' theme.  Gentle strings were accompanied by the roll of the great bass drum.  The bass trombone added the unsettling descending third, melting from major to minor which, half a century after Mahler composed the symphony, was made a central feature of Benjamin Britten's 'Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings', which Mark Padmore and Steve Bell performed so hauntingly at Dartington on 6 Feb this year (with the Britten Sinfonia - and Tom Gould!).  Two very special instruments could also be heard, the cor anglais and the harp, held under by the overshadowing sound of the great drum - all kept together by the superb conducting of Marion Wood.
Marion not only conducts but is also Director of Music at the University of Exeeter and, in occasional fits of quite extravagant generosity, also broadcasts musical commentary for Phonic FM on the 'Classical Journey'.  In the programme on the Tuesday before the concert she had been very keen to explain that, having taken the symphony to such heights in four movements, Mahler needed something more to finish it comprehensively - something big!  That something was a full choir, who scrambled round the cathedral pillars to get into position, even as the instruments were playing.  Also out of the shadows stepped the tall, elegant and beautifully dressed figure of soprano Catherine Hamilton.  Both soloists squeezed together on the small piece of staging in front of a pillar in the midst of Yvonne's 'cello section.  Alison was almost obscured, but her gorgeously deep voice still very audible.  Catherine stood head and shoulders above all and revealed the final superlative touch, her hugely powerful, but sweetly angelic, soprano voice.
Well done again Clare!
As the choir opened up with the full force of "Aufersteh'n, ja Aufersteh'n" ("Rise again, yes, rise again") it seemed that Catherine and Alison would be overwhelmed by the voices of the choir.  (They were by now cheek-by-jowl with an impressive array of tenors.)  Instead their sweetly penetrating voices broke through the apparent wall of sound, again and again.  In a lull in the singing we were aware of an ominous and terrifying sound, as if some awful machine were parked with its motor idling outside the building.  It was not immediately obvious that it was the the bass drum being beaten in an insistent and penetrating drum-roll.  As the drum sound built in intensity the bass trombones added a fanfare leading into flute and the gently understated line, "Was vergangen, auferstehen!" ("What perished, rise again!").  With each reprise the sopranos were joined by the basses before Catherine's sparkling soprano voice cut through all.  At the repeat of "O glaube" ("O believe") she descended almost as low as Alison for the deepest most penetrating notes.
As the final words died away - "Was du geschlagen zu Gott wird es dich tragen!" ("That, for which you suffered, will lead you to God!") - the audience sat transfixed.  The whole experience had been quite overpowering.  Then appreciative applause swelled to a roar while Marion once again acknowledged Clare and Yvonne's outstanding work, also including the entire orchestra and choir in her praise.  As the two soloists swept majestically to the front of the orchestra everyone, orchestra, choir and audience, applauded heartily.  By way of comic relief one of the huge bouquets for the leader and soloists was given to Marion by mistake.  Traditionally there is no bouquet for the conductor, so there was one bunch of flowers short - and Catherine was left empty-handed.  In a very touching moment Marion bowed to Catherine as she returned the bouquet, acknowledging  her wonderful singing in the closing movement.

Posies for the soloists
and the leader

I'm not sure this is right . . .
. . . someone's going without . . .

. . . the culprit!
Red faces all round . . .

. . . but, contrary to appearances, all is forgiven!

Déjà vu!
One last interesting 'development', since the concert, echoes what happened at Hilary Boxer's 'Mellow 'Cellos' concert last year.  In the review of that concert was LCD's photo taken on 11 October.  Hilary's husband Alan's photo, sent in on 12 Oct, was somehow taken at exactly the same moment.  Consider the two pictures above.  It's happened again!  Nigel's photo even shows the camera (bottom left) which took the corresponding picture below.  Photographers seem to have very similar ideas about the perfect 'moment' for a photograph.

Details on what's next for the EMG Symphony Orchestra will appear here shortly . . .

The Exeter Music Group Symphony Orchestra are now preparing a programme of movie scores for performance at St Peter's School Exeter

To include:   Spiderman
                      Pirates of the Caribbean
                      James Bond

Open rehearsal (see 'behind the scenes'):
Thursday 26 May 7.30pm (admission free)

Concert: Saturday 18 June 7.30pm

Concert Tickets: £7 (U18 £5)
Box: 01395 233717 clsmith123@googlemail.com

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