Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Exeter Music Group Symphony Orchestra Triple Bill with multiple soloists at Exeter University Great Hall: Opera Overture Dame Ethel Smyth "The Wreckers", Sir Edward Elgar's 'Cello Concerto in E minor Op 85, Special Guest 'Cellist Laura van der Heijden, Benjamin Britten's "Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra" Special Guest Narrator Alistair Ganley Saturday 22 November 2014

Laura van der Heijden
(photo: Nigel Cheffers-Heard)

St Cecilia's Day is always a good time for an orchestra to unveil their latest work. On this St Cecilia's Day, Marion Wood's 'Exeter Music Group Symphony Orchestra' had three very special works to share with us.

'Unveil' is perhaps not the right word, as Marion always holds at least one open rehearsal where members of the public, especially schoolchildren, are invited to hear, and see, the work in progress. Marion always explains every aspect of the music in a comprehensive and accessible way - and children are always invited to inspect all the instruments and talk to the players. Anyone who has passed their Grade VI exam can even bring their instrument and join in!

This time the orchestra went one better, and prepared Benjamin Britten's "Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra" in open rehearsal - with audience participation. (See details.) In order to include extra instruments, not covered in Brittens original composition, EMG contrabassoonist and percussionist Alfie Pugh wrote new music to extend the 'Guide'. Marion also composed new words to be included in Britten's script - and recited by actor Alistair Ganley.

It is a tribute to the creative abilities of Alfie and Marion, that it is very hard to distinguish between the original Britten and the Pugh/Wood inserts.

Needless to say, on the big night,  Exeter University Great Hall was filled to capacity. Many of the seats were filled by families with children of all ages, all looking forward to the fun and high-jinks of the 'Guide'. However, the programme opened with two other works, apparently unconnected, which such an audience might not have thought to seek out.

The Wreckers

Dame Ethel Smyth
To much excitement, the concert opened with the overture to Dame Ethel Smyth's opera "The Wreckers". Marion has produced this opera before, so it was a natural choice for her orchestra.

However, this choice represented much more than that. The Opera follows the harrowing story of Cornish wreckers, members of isolated communities so desperate, or so greedy, that they counted the lives of others less important than their own personal gain.

George Morland 1799
Daphne du Maurier's novel "Jamaica Inn" is the perfect complement to this piece. It describes perfectly the sociopathic actions of Cornish wreckers in the nineteenth century. By extinguishing warning lights, or creating false ones, they deceived ships' captains into driving their crews onto the murderous rocks off the Cornish coast. (A common trick was to wave a lantern from a cliff-top, in such a way that it would be mistaken for the mast-head light of another ship in safe water.)
While dragging the stolen cargo from the sea, the wreckers would compound their crime by leaving the sailors to drown - or even murdering those who managed to get to the shore. "Pas devant les enfants", surely? However, the overture, while summarising the plot of Smyth's opera, is open to other interpretations. Forty years after the opening of "The Wreckers", Benjamin Britten included its themes in the mix, while creating his musical interpretation of George Crabbe's poem "Peter Grimes" from the collection "The Borough" (written a century before "The Wreckers").

Diving straight in
Just back from New Zealand
Bass Clarinettist
John Welton
The familiar sound of Britten's tale of tragedy, and possible wrongdoing, are prefigured in Smyth's crashing tumult of the sea. Not only that, the piece offers the audience a brief foretaste of the virtuoso instrumental solos, also composed by Britten, which they could look forward to later in the evening. John Welton, newly returned from New Zealand - and somewhat jet-lagged, was first to take centre stage with an ominous bass clarinet solo linking the opening storm to the orchestral interpretation of the arrival or the wreckers themselves.

Just time for a little warm up
In the deceptive calm that followed, Richard de la Rue and John Walthew provided a moving clarinet refrain, joined unexpectedly and impressively by Prue Tasman and Gail Hicks's bassoons and Alfie Pugh's contrabassoon. There is also time to hear Kate Osbourne's plaintive oboe - and the false dawn of Jennifer Campbell's harp. Clare Smith's violins lead us gently up the garden path to - the dreadful act itself. Brian Moore's trumpets and Charles Dowell's trombones build the tension for what we know must happen.
Principal Clarinet
Richard de la Rue

However, the second half of the piece is surprisingly positive. Rather than the panic and pandemonium of disaster at sea, we hear a series of patriotic-sounding themes. This is confusing, and unresolved at the close of the overture. We must remember that this piece is intended only to set the scene for Smyth's opera - not give the whole game away.

This wonderful piece (brilliantly performed by the orchestra) will definitely feature on this week's "Classical Journey". Tune in on Tuesday (10-12am, or listen ot the MixCloud recording) for a chance to hear the live performance at Exeter University Great Hall - and draw your own conclusions.

Elgar 'Cello Concerto

Laura van der Heijden
(photo: Nigel Cheffers-Heard)
As the audience absorbed the impact of the concert's impressive opening, the star of the evening's performance appeared on the stage. 'Cello prodigy of the Brighton Youth Orchestra, Laura van der Heijden, is 17 years old and studying for A-Levels. Somehow she also manages to tour the country playing as a soloist. Her dazzling repertoire includes orchestral works by composers from every period, and many sonatas for 'cello and piano.

On 17 July this year Laura was at the Temple Church in Budleigh Salterton to play an evening concert of sonatas (Brahms and Shostakovich), together with Schubert's Fantasy Pieces and Bach's 'Cello Suite - accompanied where necessary by Japanese pianist Mana Oguchi. Since then, Laura's next performance in Devon has been awaited with eager anticipation. What better vehicle for her return fixture than the Exeter Music Group Symphony Orchestra and Elgar's 'Cello Concerto in E minor?

Sir Edward Elgar
Elgar was a contemporary of Ethel Smyth, but did not live as long. In 1900, shortly before the opening of "The Wreckers", the death of Arthur Sullivan opened the way for Elgar to become the pre-eminent English composer. This expectation was soon realised with Elgar's completion of Dvořák's abandoned project to set John Newman's 'Dream of Gerontius' to music. (See Andrew Daldorph's sensational performance with the Exeter Chamber Choir and East Devon Choral Society in May 2011.)

Subsequently, Elgar's 'Pomp and Circumstance Marches' and 'Enigma Variations' gained him popularity which has never diminished, and his Violin Concerto for Fritz Kreisler appeared to be his crowning accomplishment at the age of 53 in 1910. During the Great War, Elgar continued to compose for the theatre. Despite declining health, he returned briefly to composing chamber music after the Armistice. His last major work was the great 'Cello Concerto.

Jacqueline du Pré
at Dartington
Elgar himself was humiliated at the première, where the orchestra he was conducting "made a public exhibition of its miserable self" (review by Ernest Newman). Elgar blamed Eric Coates who, he claimed, had wasted rehearsal time on his own part of the programme. In any event the Elgar was fortunate to see the success of his composition during his own lifetime. He was able to make the first recording with 'cellist Beatrice Harrison in 1920 which was released by 'His Master's Voice' in 1928. Sir Adrian Boult's recording with Pablo Casals for EMI at the end of the Second War came too late for Elgar, who had died ten years before.

Jacqueline du Pré, one of the early supporters of Rabindranath Tagore and Leonard and Dorothy Elmhirst's project of progressive education and rural reconstruction at Dartington Hall, rekindled public interest in the concerto twenty years later with Sir John Barbirolli and the London Symphony Orchestra. In a sad parallel of Elgar, Jacqueline also became ill soon afterwards (with multiple sclerosis) and was forced to abandon playing within ten years.

Since then a succession of talented musicians have performed and recorded this highly emotional and evocative composition. In Exeter University Great Hall, Laura van der Heijden claimed her rightful place in that roll of honour. Where du Pré played a Stradivarius, Laura brings a new sound with a modern 'cello which was made by Galileo Arcellaschi not long after Elgar's concerto was first performed. The instrument looks almost brand new, but was soon shown to have great depth of tone - mirroring the precocious talent and expressiveness of Laura herself.

Under the high vault of the Great Hall, Laura's playing reached every member of the audience - right to the back of the gallery. As the opening movement switched from grandiose adagio to plaintive moderato, a baby in the arms of its mother in the very back row joined in with lusty cries - perfectly matching the mood that Laura was creating.

Exeter Music Group Symphony Orchestra
Far left: Marion WoodLaura van der Heijden
Right: Yvonne Ashby
Inspired by their illustrious visitor, the orchestra excelled themselves. Under the leadership of Clare Smith, and the masterful direction of Marion Wood, the mood of the overall sound never wavered, and always matched Laura's expression and direction perfectly. It was almost impossible to believe that this is an amateur orchestra, and that they had not met Laura before the day of the performance.

Children, who might have been excused for showing slight signs of restiveness at the delay of the Britten, were captivated by the performance, as were the adults. Many must have gone away determined to become a 'cellist themselves.

Marion Wood conducts
Laura van der Heijden
(photo: Nigel Cheffers-Heard)
The final glorious notes of the concerto were almost lost in the immediate burst of applause which lasted for three curtain calls by the soloist and conductor (with presentation of posies) to the regal exit of the orchestra leader, Clare Smith.

Autographs for the fans
Laura van der Heijden
During the interval, Laura met audience members and enjoyed chatting with everyone. Fans of all ages queued up to ask for her autograph, and the entire complement of Yvonne Ashby's 'cello section stayed to pose with Laura for a group photograph - courtesy of EMG photographer Nigel Cheffers-Heard.

Laura van der Heijden
with the EMG 'cello section
(photo: Nigel Cheffers-Heard)

Britten's "Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra"

Benjamin Britten
As the orchestra resumed their places, Marion Wood returned to the stage with another guest performer. For Britten's "Young Person's Guide" we were joined by drama therapist, and Artistic Director of the Cygnet New Theatre in Exeter, Alistair Ganley. As narrator of this excellent introduction to the instruments of the orchestra, Alistair followed in the footsteps of many great musicians who have shared their enthusiasm through this piece - not least Sir Adrian Boult, some ten years before his recording of the Elgar 'Cello Concerto with Jacqueline du Pré.

Britten created the 'Guide' just after the Second War. He had spent the war in America as a consciencious objector. In an attempt to engage with American culture, Britten wrote his pioneering opera "Paul Bunyan" during the war, but it was not well received by the American public, who objected to a 'limey' analysing their antecedents too closely.

1945 production of "Peter Grimes"
at Sadler's Wells Theatre
As the war drew to a close, Britten was working on his tragic opera "Peter Grimes". Despite initial resistance from various quarters, the opera was a huge success and re-established Britten's reputation in this country. Britten collaborated with Yehudi Menuhin in a tour of Europe to entertain concentration camp survivors. (Menuhin's parents were Belarussian Jews who had fortunately emigrated to the United States immediately after the Great War.) Britten was deeply shocked by what he experienced in Europe.

Muir Mathieson
It is surprising, therefore, that his subsequent collaboration with Muir Mathieson on an educational film "Instruments of the Orchestra" was so filled with fun and excitement. Britten's score was completed within a year of the end of the war and recorded by Malcolm Sargent with the London Symphony Orchestra. Sargent was to be knighted for his services to music the following year. (See a sample of this magnificent production here.)
Alistair Ganley
(photo: Nigel Cheffers-Heard)
Sadly the public address system of the Great Hall did not do justice to Alistair's very skilful presentation, and some of the excitement was lost. However, every time he made his portentious announcement, and the instruments were played, the full impact of the first 1945 performance was revived.

It is soon explained that each instrument will take its turn to play a variation on a theme by Henry Purcell. The theme is the opening rondeau from Purcell's 1695 incidental music for the earlier play "The Moor's Revenge" ("Abdelazar") by seventeenth century Mata Hari, Aphra Behn. (To experience the flavour, sample the overture and rondeau of the original, played - appropriately - by the Britten Sinfonia, here.)

Bass Drum & Trumpet
Charlotte & Tony Hindley
Percussionist & Composer
Alfie Pugh
The Exeter Music Group Symphony Orchestra version was enhanced by additional material composed by Alfie Pugh. He brought together an unprecedented number of percussionists to perform under the able supervision of regular EMG tympanist Ali Board. Amongst others, Alfie was joined by 'cellist Hannah Willson (sister of EMG violist Rebecca Willson), and Charlotte Hindley (daughter of EMG trumpeter Tony Hindley).

Alfie Pugh
Alfie himself also played the solo variation for contrabassoon. Heard briefly at the opening of the "Wreckers" overture, the super-bass woodwind instrument was finally centre-stage, and what a magnificent sound it was. Alfie had also written a special variation for the bass clarinet (almost as deep as the contrabassoon) - to be played by the Clarion Clarinet King himself, John Welton.

First and Second Violins
Jackie Baldwin & Clare Greenall
Naturally the orchestra leader Clare Smith with her principals, Kat
Tremlett (second violins), Richard Wood (violas) and Yvonne Ashby ('cellos), gave a perfect example of their craft. Each string section played a perfect variation of Purcell's original theme - not forgetting the double basses. Lisa Thorne led a thunderous discharge from the deepest strings, with a total of six double basses. Making up this impressive number were jazz duo Pete Canter and James Rintoul.

Viola: Rebecca Willson
Oboes: Kate OsbourneBen Edmunds
Cor Anglais: David Lotinga
Everyone had their moment. Trevor Ives' horn section (Beth Osment, Sally Maya and Mary Saunders) repeatedly stood to demonstrate their brassy prowess. Brian Moore, Tony Hindley and John Bowden trumpetted spectacularly. The trombones of Charles Dowell, Jacqui Burden and Raddon Stephenson completed the brass exposition, with the last and most overpowering word going to regular EMG tuba player Rob O'Dowd.

Prue Tasman and Gail Hicks excelled again on their bassoons, slyly adding a 

definite jazz swing to Britten's score, while Alfie Pugh played his own composition (school of Benjamin Britten) on the contrabassoon. Kate Osbourne's oboe variation was sweet and sensitive, with the subsequent addition of a second oboe by Ben Edmonds - both of which were complemented by another new Alfie Pugh variation for cor anglais, played by David Lotinga.

Harp: Jenny Campbell
The familiar figure of Catherine Clements was joined by Susan Mitchell to demonstrate the bright sound of their silver flutes, while Rob Stephenson made a big impression with a small instrument - the diminutive and shrill piccolo.

Is that everyone? Not quite. Another virtuoso flautist (and singularly creative composer and arranger for "Flute Cake") Jenny Campbell had switched allegiance to a quite different instrument. She played the only orchestral instrument that is exclusively plucked - the highly versatile harp. From the largest instrument came the sweetest sound - celestial.

Finally there was Alfie's percussion section. In addition to Ali Board on tympani, Charlotte Hindley on bass drum and Hannah Willson on triangle and tam-tam, Alfie was joined by Tom Clemo and Joe Darnell playing drums and Zoë Fitzsimmons (EMG viola, and also soprano with Marion Wood's "Starling Octet") playing the exotic castanets and crashing clash cymbals.

Crash, bang, wallop!
Bass Drum: Charlotte Hindley
Clash Cymbals: Zoë Fitzsimmons
(Photo: Nigel Cheffers-Heard)
Only one instrument remained - and this responsibility also fell  to Alfie Pugh. Once again playing his own composition, Alfie crashed the percussion party with an exhilarating soliloquy - on xylophone.

What larks! Benjamin Britten's ageless brilliance brought right up to date by a highly accomplished orchestra. Excellent stage-management, as well as conducting, by Marion Wood, and highly entertaining additional material from Alfie Pugh and Alistair Ganley.

Well worth the price of admission!

Exeter Music Group Symphony Orchestra
Britten: "Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra"
Leader: Clare Smith  Conductor: Marion Wood
Narrator: Alistair Ganley  Principal 'Cello: Yvonne Ashby

Exeter Music Group Symphony Orchestra

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