Thursday, 1 December 2011

The Exeter Music Group Symphony Orchestra perform Stravinsky's 'Rite of Spring' and Tchaikovsky Exeter Cathedral Thursday 24 November

The glamorous star attraction
Romanian Concert Pianist Alexandra Dariescu
and the Russian 'Petrof' piano

An incredible line-up for the Stravinsky -
two contra-bassoons, seven tympani, eight French horns
More of everything!
(photography: Nigel Cheffers-Heard

All under the direction of conductor Marion Wood
 (photography: Nigel Cheffers-Heard

EMG Chairman
John Welton
The Exeter Music Group Symphony Orchestra have become known for spectacular concerts, to match the spectacular setting of Exeter's grand and ancient Cathedral. Last year's, Modeste Mussorgsky's 'Pictures at an Exhibition' (q.v.) was followed this year by the Gustav Mahler's great choral second symphony, 'Resurrection' (q.v.). Last Thursday the bar was raised yet again with a breathtaking double bill - Stravinsky's 'Rite of Spring' and Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto.

Marion Wood explains
Rite of Spring
The concert opened with 'Rite of Spring'. The Music Group's Director of Music, Marion Wood, started by introducing the orchestra and the many additional members who had been brought in to play the Stravinsky. For example, an extra contra-bassoon had been drafted in to provide a very special sound. (There are only three in Devon all together.) Marion invited the contra-bassoonists, Gail Hicks and Paul Jones to give a demonstration of 'The Sage' from 'Rite of Spring'. The big bass instruments gave out surprisingly high notes - deliberately intended by Stravinsky to intrigue the ear. Many other instruments and effects were introduced by Marion as well, to prepare the audience for the strange musical landscape that awaited them.

Tympani - Steve Bentley & Christine Lewry
(photography: Nigel Cheffers-Heard
After succinctly setting the scene, Marion set off with the orchestra on a very exciting musical excursion. Opening with a gentle trickle of sound from the bassoon of Michael Vellinga the tune passed to the oboe, cor anglais, flutes, little E flat clarinet and finally EMG Chairman John Welton's bass clarinet. Sophie Brewer got to add a sweet note or two on her piccolo flute followed by Stuart Paul on his piccolo trumpet. Finally every instrument died away to leave the bassoon playing softly. A very sweet opening beautifully controlled by Marion, leading to -

A ferocious onslaught of sound! initially all the strings played fiercely in unison on a single note, then they were joined by eight French horns, five trumpets, three trombones, two tubas and an enormous array of kettle drums - seven all together, needing two players. (Steve Bentley joined Christine Lewry in a beautifully coordinated attack.)

Tony Hindley
Shocking as this was, it only signified the 'Augurs of Spring', and gave way to a gentle 'Dance of the Young Girls' with all those lovely soft instruments coming back again. But the dance became more intense and ominous - what next? To the sound of tinkling bells and gently plucked strings the tension mounts to the moment of - abduction! The horns sounded the alarm as the flutes create the effect of a frantic search for a means of escape. The final fluttering of Ruth Avis' alto flute, like a moth's wings, signified the terrible truth - trapped.

'Cellos - led by Yvonne Ashby

With so many instruments to call on, the subsequent development - through gentle but sinister rituals interspersed with frenzies of unbridled fury - is amazing as it is terrifying. Marion's mastery of the music and the instruments of the orchestra is always impressive, but this was a real tour de force. Everything was cleverly contrived and perfect.

Bass Drum
Drew McGilchrist
The listener could not become complacent at any time. Just as the music seemed to be softening its attack Drew McGilchrist would jump in with his huge bass drum, partly muted but still terrifyingly loud. Standing in full view of the audience he struck the drum repeatedly, with enormous force and deadly accuracy.

Out of site behind the ornate cathedral pulpit other percussionists were at work as well - tam-tam, tambourine, bells - all manner of instruments to shake, scrape or beat out that compelling and disturbing sound.

'Rapturous' applause for Marion Wood's
Rite of Spring
As the final 'Sacrificial Dance of the Chosen One' crashed to its devastating conclusion, it was clear that Marion had managed something quite extraordinary. To bring together so many instrumentalists, coach them in such complex and demanding music, and coordinate such a magical and terrifying spectacle, was a huge achievement. Credit too or course to the orchestra leader Clare Smith, and to all those enlarged sections - horns, trumpets, woodwind, percussion - who worked together so well. (Marion had each section on their feet to receive their well deserved applause.)

Throughout the performance, however, there was something else to intrigue the audience - a large grand piano under a black cover (see photo above). While the audience (and players) reeled and recovered from the mesmerising power of Stravinsky's Rite, some of the extra instrumentalists packed up and left while the piano was uncovered and wheeled into position.

Leader Clare Smith tunes the orchestra to the Petrof grand piano

After the interval the audience and orchestra welcomed a new, and very special, performer. Alexandra Dariescu strode up to the piano looking stunning in a voluminous evening gown of gold and black silk. It is very important for a concert performer to look as good as they sound, and Alexandra's splendid entrance perfectly reflected her superb talent.

Viola - Rebecca Springall
(Instrument Restorer
Devon Strings Workshop)
At Budleigh Salterton this summer (28 July) Alexandra amazed festival-goers with Beethoven, Liszt, Wagner and Chopin. Appropriately, for a partly German recital, she was playing the Austrian 'Bösendorfer' grand piano on that occasion. For last Thursday's performance of Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto she had something even more appropriate - a Russian 'Petrof' grand.

'European' piano's - as Marion explained - have been developed to add 'sparkle' in the normal range, especially the high notes. In Russia, conversely, the dark moods of the great Russian composers create a demand for a more dynamic bass. The Petrof grand is particularly favoured in Russia and eastern European countries. In some countries Petrof is almost the only piano in use, and European pianos are very rare.

During the interval
a mention for the
supported charity
Sue Ryder Foundation
Since she first 'met' a Petrof, Marion has appreciated the wonderful and unique sound the Petrof can produce. Exeter University Music Department recently received a sizeable grant to improve the musical experience of the students, and obvious choice suggested itself - to buy a Petrof.

With some difficulty the department acquired a superb full-size concert Petrof - the only one in the UK! It is a wonderful instrument and clearly the one Alexandra should use to play Tchaikovsky. With the help of their sponsors, 'Ashfords' Solicitors, the EMG were able to have the Petrof brought from the University to the Cathedral - an expensive and technically demanding adventure. The only question then remaining was - how would it sound on the night?

Marion Wood conducts the EMG
Alexandra Dariescu plays the Petrof
Staggering! After checking that Alexandra was quite ready, Marion took the orchestra into the brief brass introduction leading to those crashing opening octave chords. Originally simpler arpeggios, Tchaikovsky changed the piano opening to octaves, regardless of difficulty for the player, to get the right effect - and what an effect. The sound was electrifying. Although the opening chord passage is brief, it ensured total attention from the audience for the wealth of music and emotion to follow.

Marion and Alexandra embrace
Alexandra was utterly magnificent. She clearly understood and was able to convey every complex musical idea and feeling Tchaikovsky had poured into his first, and possibly greatest, concerto. She moved from the tenderest passage to the mightiest eruption of overpowering emotion with simple precision - and that loving touch for which she is already famous. The piano responded with equal precision. The sound and the dynamics of the Petrof are everything we are led to expect.

Alexandra held the audience spell-bound throughout five incredible movements. Molto Maestoso, so gentle, the exciting and emotional con spirito, the delicate and touching simplice, the lively prestissimo and, finally, the headlong rush of the con fuoco. The conclusion could not have been more final - an enormous scale from bass (the mighty bass of the Petrof) to treble topped off with a fanfare of brass chords - fabulous. The Cathedral audience absolutely loved it.

Natasha Ivchenko &
Alexandra Dariescu
discuss music at the photo-shoot
In addition to Alexandra's magnificence, credit must also go to the orchestra, led as always by the very talented Clare Smith. Also a special mention must be given to Ukrainian voice tutor and pianist Natasha Ivchenko who played the Petrof in rehearsal at Exeter University's Kay House. A very passionate player herself Natasha was able to give Marion and the EMG orchestra a very good idea of what to expect at the Cathedral.

Encore? - Yes please!
As a 'little' extra treat, and by popular demand, Alexandra came back to the piano after the Tchaikovsky to play a very special solo piano piece. She played it as an encore at Budleigh as well and everyone loved it. Bacchanal, by Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conductor Constantin Silvestri, charts the lurching progress of a drunken Dionysian up and down - and around - the piano keyboard. Shocking and amusing on the Bösendorfer, the drunkard's career took on a new depth and pathos on the Petrof. A real walk on the wild side! Beautiful and amazing - glorious music from Alexandra Dariescu.

Alexandra returns for the Budleigh Festival again next year - an evening performance at Temple Church on Monday 16th July. That will be a concert not to miss!

Constantin Silvestri's 'Bacchanal' 
And the EMG is already gearing up for a spring concert - Gustav Holst's 'Planets Suite' and Edward Elgar's 'Enigma Variations' - to be performed at Exeter Cathedral on Thursday 21st April 2012.

Next year's EMG autumn concert is also decided already - Gustav Mahler's Eighth Symphony (Symphony of a Thousand) which is such a big production it has been relocated to the Exeter University Great Hall - on Sunday 16th September 2012 at 5pm.

With the help of sponsors Ashfords of Exeter, last Thursday's concert raised money for the Sue Ryder trust, which provides care and counselling for people affected by long term and terminal illness. to find out more about their work, and to support their efforts, visit

Leader, Soloist and Musical Director of the EMG
Clare Smith, Alexandra Dariescu and Marion Wood
(photography: Nigel Cheffers-Heard

Alexandra Dariescu at the Petrof
(background: clarinettists John Walthew &
John Welton discuss woodwind)

Two great Petrof players
Natasha Ivchenco and Alexandra Dariescu

Come back soon!

Alexandra Dariescu
(photograph: Nigel Cheffers-Heard

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