Monday, 15 July 2013

Exeter Symphony Orchestra playing the music of John Adams, Eric Coates, Sergei Prokofiev, Johannes Brahms - conducted by Brian Northcott with special guest pianist Samantha Ward Southernhay United Reformed Church Exeter Saturday 13 July 2013

Jill Crew
Exeter Symphony Orchestra Leader
Southernhay United Reformed Church
Saturday 13th July 2013

It was the hottest day of the summer so far. Admittedly, that's not saying much this year - but it was hot. A capacity audience were glad to take refuge in the cool interior of Southernhay Church to hear a little music.

The music on this particular evening, however, was big! The ambitious programme was carried off with impressive skill and determination by Exeter's number one amateur orchestra.


Brian Northcott
Musical Director
As the musicians took their places - the men in open necked shirts as a concession to the weather - the leader of the second violins, Alan Williams picked out an A on the grand piano. As the orchestra members filled the air with the discordant sound of their tuning a familiar figure was visible at the back. Brian Northcott in a gold-chased black shirt was standing in the percussion session - next to the ominously large bass drum.

Before we could wonder how he would conduct from there, Mark Perry appeared from the wings and stepped up to the rostrum. Close behind came the orchestra leader, Jill Crew, who took up her place next to Alan Williams.

With one flick of his baton, Mark set the entire orchestra in motion. As Brian beat out a lively rhythm on his drum Daphne Harlock added the delicate, lonely sound of the triangle. Also from the percussion section came the sound of cymbals and eerie rattlings - this was Coates' take on the 'Tarantelle' - the delirous dance induced by the spider's bite. This tarantelle was called 'Covent Garden' - and reflected the excited bustle of the farmer's market between the wars.

Mark Perry
conducts Coates
The 'cellos, led by Ruth Lass, and the double basses (Melanie and Garry Lester) had lots of frantic pizzicato to keep them warm. Just as the music was at fever pitch Paul Rycroft's bass trombone and John Harlock's tympani cut in to bring trade to a close. In all the excitement one person remained aloof and played not a note. Sitting in the flute section next to Ruth Molins, Jayne Hannah was clearly saving herself for something very special later . . .

The subsequent 'Meditation' came as a surprise - some had been fooled into giving a round of applause by the finality of the conclusion of 'Covent Garden'. In contrast, 'Westminster' was slow and gentle. Nicky Perry added a very soothing sound with an electric clavier of some kind. Brian tolled a restful peal on tubular bells. Against the sweet and gentle ululation of the violins, Ruth Lass broke through with an impressive 'cello solo.

Melanie Lester
double bass
John Harlock raised the temperature with a rolling crescendo on the cymbal, while Kate Yarwood picked out a celestial tune on the glockenspiel. As Mark Perry willed the violins on from his perch, the glockenspiel was joined by Tracey Alder's horn section in a sudden fanfare - the mighty and the meek in harmony, bringing an end to business at Westminster.

The suite had one more place to visit - Knightsbridge ('In Town Tonight'). After an opening boom from John's tympani, the tinkling triangle accompanied a jolly pizzicato dance - courtesy of Garry and Melanie Lester. Brian brought an end to each phrase with the perfectly timed boom of his bass drum. The violin players swayed as they played - joining in the delightful dance.

A thrilling cymbal crescendo built to Brian's not-quite-conclusive blow on the bass drum. In the tension that followed, with the piece not quite complete, the horns and trumpets threw in their last impressive fanfare against the rhythmic crash of the tympani. Also Sprach Zarathustra!

The trip to London was a rousing success - what a splendid way to spend a summer's evening.


As Jill Crew picked out an A and an F on the piano to start another round of tuning, the rostrum was moved further from the orchestra - to bring that keyboard into view. Brian stepped up to conduct, in that glorious black and gold shirt (but promised to wear his jacket for the more 'austere' Brahms later).

Then it was time to welcome the evening's very special guest - pianist Samantha Ward. Dressed entirely in black, she took command of the piano. An exchange of glances between soloist and conductor established that they really meant business.

and soloist
hard at work
As Samantha waited for her cue, Charlie Sheppard-Vine and Merril Millington set the scene with with a subdued opening clarinet melody - joined on flute by Jayne Hannah. As the pace built, Samantha jumped in with breathtaking precision. The familiar crashes of Prokofiev's short separate phrases on the piano were perfectly timed - and synchronised with the support of the flute section.

Before long Samantha's hands were leaping from one end of the keyboard to the other - with absolute precision. Later, to accent the rhythm to the maximum extent, Samantha would end each right hand phrase by hitting a sharp or flat with all four fingers of her left hand.

From somewhere in the percussion section a mysterious series of sounds came - from an unseen instrument - or instruments. The ethereal sound of the piano was supported by a regular and insistent tremolo from the violins. A switch to the woodwind section marked a change in the piano - crazy scales, against the heart-like beat of the tympani.

Ruth Molins & Jayne Hannah
That thumping heartbeat reflected an increasing excitement, as the string players switched from bowing to explosive pizzicato. Then came a familiar but unexpected sound - Ruth Molins' piccolo flute! Jayne Hannah's flute joined Ruth's in a sensational Prokofiev solo.

As Samantha's hands climbed the keyboard, playing chords and glissandi, again and again, faster and faster, something had to happen. Daphne Harlock let us have it - an almighty crash on the bass drum. That 'andante' had turned into something quite different!

Prokofiev's second movement involved a theme, and some variations. The theme was introduced by Jayne Hannah on the flute - and joined by Andrea Higgins and Sally Kirby on their bassoons. Compared to Beethoven's 'variations' on the mighty Bösendorfer grand piano at Budleigh earlier in the day (q.v.), the Chappell at Southernhay (the piano Brian himself played as a student) produced a much more modest sound, but under Samantha's hands it was full of life.

A new member
of the viola section
Peter McLean-Buechel
As Samantha introduced a new softness to her playing, Brian discreetly held the orchestra under to  create the perfect balance of sound. Stuart Holmes' violas played particularly tenderly. One by one the wind instruments took up the story. Tracey Alder played an enchanting horn solo - followed by Julia Hill's perfect contribution on the oboe - and more spellbinding flute playing by Jayne Hannah.

Brian held all the delicate sounds together, gently bringing each into play. "More horns . . . " A soft serenade from the brass section. Finally the gentle notes of the piano started to take on a harder edge - suggesting a change. The violins accompanied energetically, following Jill Crew's lead, adding force with aggressive ricochet of bows on strings.

As Samantha's playing wound down, the strings took the movement back to its original theme. This time the last word went to Samantha - whose final notes on the piano brought the 'variations' to a satisfying conclusion.

It was the bassoons which opened the final movement, a cheeky fun-filled melody with the violas and piano joining in. The process was repeated, and could have gone on for some time, but angry low chords suggested Prokofiev was getting restless. Suddenly Samantha was in full flight. The complexity of the piano part was made to look easy by Samantha whose hands fell naturally on the keys with child-like ease.

Melanie and Garry joined in a piano and double bass duet - an extraordinary and beautiful combination. As the woodwind sound crept in, Brian turned to Jill Crew for a descending melody. This delightful device was repeated several times, leading each time to another stunning solo by Jayne Hannah. As she waited for each opening, Jayne could be seen, totally focused, counting every single bar to ensure a perfect entry each time.

Leader Jill Crew
Soloist Samantha Ward
In the midst of all this overwhelming tumult of sounds, Brian checked briefly with Samantha before bringing the orchestra to complete halt. After an ominous pause, the bassoons casually reopened proceedings as before. This time, however, the ensuing interplay of instruments was even more manic. Jayne's flute was joined by Ruth's piccolo, which could be heard breaking through as it hit the highest notes.

The tumultuous finale was followed by an uproar of applause. As a sign of appreciation, the customary bouquet of flowers was presented to Samantha - by Jayne Hannah's daughter!


Met Film School students:
Miranda Tasker & Marcus Nield
with Conductor Brian Northcott
The musicians, and conductors, and Samantha herself, all joined audience members in the church hall for refreshments - and a chance to discuss the wonderful music they had just experienced. Two of the people who had been in the audience, were there only by chance. Miranda Tasker and Marcus Nield, students at the Met Film School in London, were here in Devon to work on a documentary about sculptor Adrian Gray (famous for his apparently impossible installations of balanced stones).

Miranda and Marcus had only come into the church to see if they could find somewhere safe to leave their video equipment - but were tempted to stay for the evening's performance. After hearing the first half of the programme, they offered to record the remainder of the performance - an offer which will go down very well with listeners to Phonic FM.

Unsure about how much battery power they had, Miranda and Marcus suggested they would try to record the first piece at least. In the end they managed to record the whole of the second half. Listen out for their early edits on 'Classical Journey'.


Zoe Mack
The sound recording equipment was in position just in time, as Brian and the orchestra flew into a very exciting, and short, orchestral roller-coaster ride. It lasted just four minutes, but seemed longer - a very lively ride!

Daphne Harlock began the piece on woodblock - ticking insistently like a clock. First away at the lights were the flutes - with two piccolos this time Robert Stevenson joining Ruth Molins in adding a steam whistle to Jayne Hannah's high octane flute playing.

At a cymbal crash, the 'cellos began to make sounds like human voices (compare Steve Reich's 'Diff'rent Trains').  The violin notes started to shiver with excitement. The 'cellos and double basses added the thrilling melody - with a teasing echo from Mark Perry on the electric clavier.

That was some drive!
As Myles Taylor and Elizabeth Wood added more gas with a tempestuous trumpet fanfare, Robert and Ruth's piccolos could still be heard cutting through the brass sound. The piccolos and trumpets vied for attention playing high repeated notes. Amazing power, amazing handling.

Suddenly it was over. Short - and sensational!

Miranda smiled with satisfaction. All was recorded. Not only that; Marcus had bagged his own copy on the presenter microphone. With their editing skills that will mean a stunning recording for us all to enjoy, very soon!


Dress for the occasion!
As promised, Brian covered up his golden shirt-front with his trade-mark white jacket for the final piece of the evening.

Brian had suggested Brahms would be 'austere'. 'Soothing' might be a be a better description. The opening of the 'allegro con brio' was gentle and pastoral, leading into a blissful oboe solo by Julia Hill. There was also yet more outstanding solo playing by Jayne Hannah on her flute.

Brahms is serious
The sound of the orchestra steadily grew in warmth and intensity, as Brian 'pulled' more from the violin sections. Ruth and Jayne, alone now in the flute section, played with increasing insistence. Finally everyone was playing at full power. Cue horns! Everyone playing at full stretch at the same time. This second, unexpected, wild ride was brought to a tight finish - under control.

In the subsequent andante the violins initially sat out, Jill watching for Brian's cue. There was a chance to enjoy lovely horns, woodwind and basso continuo. Each time the violins were brought in, they would then concede the ground to the other instruments again - waiting for their next invitation. Always the call came with a request, "soft!"

Ruth Lass
Principal 'Cello
In the 'poco allegretto', horns featured prominently. Meanwhile, in the 'cello section, Ruth Lass led with unshakable calm through incredibly demanding music. Softly Julia Hill returned with another oboe solo. Other familiar sounds joined in - Jayne's flute, and Tracey's French horn. All were held under deftly by Brian for another perfect finish.

Myles Taylor
Principal Trumpet
The final allegro opened with a sense of portent - and power. The trumpets and horns build up the excitement for yet another amazing solo - by Melanie Lester! Now was the opportunity for Melanie (and Garry, who was slightly less visible) to demonstrate her excellent musicianship. Defying any expectation that the double bass might be slow or cumbersome to play, Melanie's fingers jumped dextrously around the fretboard. With her right hand she could switch from bowing to plucking at a moments notice, and back again.

As the symphony wound down, the last notes were soft. A gentle drum roll. Flutes. Silence.

They didn't go away

Marcus Nield &
Miranda Tasker
recorded the Brahms
This was a fabulous evening of music. Exeter Symphony Orchestra are an unsung gem of musicianship here in Devon. So many great musicians give so much time to these magnificent concerts. Every Tuesday they are hard at work at their rehearsal room at Heavitree School. From among their members they bring forward amazing soloists - like Samantha Ward.

Exactly a year ago Ruth Molins played John Rutter's 'Suite Antique' for flute and orchestra, sharing the bill with Jonathan Harris who was soloist for Richard Strauss' Horn Concerto. What next?

There won't be long to wait to find out. Exeter Symphony Orchestra are back on Saturday 16th November with yet another soloist. For Sergei Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto (!!!), the orchestra will be joined by soloist Min Jung Baek. Also in the programme will be a little music by Edward Elgar ('In London Town' - an echo of this week's concert), Ian Crew (not Jill!), and Leonard Bernstein.

Please Sir - I want some more!

Min Jung Baek
Exeter Symphony Orchestra
Southernhay Church Exeter
Saturday 16 November 7.30pm
Edward Elgar: Overture Cockaigne (In London Town)
Ian Crew: Stories of Cornwall & Elsewhere
Leonard Bernstein: Candide Overture
Sergei Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No 2
Conductor: Brian Northcott
Piano soloist: Min Jung Baek
Tickets: £12 (advance £10)
(U18 students accompanied - FREE)
Exeter Phoenix Box Office
01392 667080

And - don't forget! - Ruth Molins joins 'cellist Hilary Boxer and other 'Tasty Music' stars, guitarist David Cottam and 'cellist Jane Greenwood, for a special Tasty Music session at The Corn Barn in Sutton Barton in Cullumpton this Thursday - for an evening revisiting the music they have played in the monthly concerts at Lympstone this year.

Hilary Boxer
& David Cottam
Corn Barn 2 Oct 2011
Ruth Molins
& Hilary Boxer
Corn Barn 4 Dec 2011
Tasty Music
The Corn Barn Cullompton
Thursday 18 July 7.30pm
'Cello: Hilary Boxer
'Cello: Jane Greenwood
Guitar: David Cottam
Flutes: Ruth Molins
Bar and Refreshments
Tickets: £10 (child £2)
Yta Bachelor: 01884 32107
The Corn Barn   Tasty Music
                full details

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