Saturday, 4 November 2017

EMG Symphony Orchestra Golden Jubilee Concert Exeter Cathedral Friday 3 November 2017

EMG Symphony Orchestra & Singers
Sir Edward Elgar: "The Enigma Variations"
Conductor: Leo Geyer
Soloists: Héloïse West & Michael Graham

(Photograph: Paula Fernley Photography)

First Violinist Jackie Baldwin
tunes up the orchestra
EMG Symphony Orchestra was formed in 1967 with Peter O'Brian as Conductor. Since then, Ronald Smith, Roger Hendy, Marion Wood, Tony Hindley and Leo Geyer have conducted the orchestra. Last night Ronald and Roger (but sadly not Marion) were at the Cathedral with a capacity audience to hear Tony and Leo conduct the Orchestra's official Golden Jubilee Concert.

Leo conducted in the first half, starting with a piece which is also enjoying an anniversary. In 1917 the 33 year old Arnold Bax (later Sir Arnold) was inspired by Tintagel Castle in Cornwall to compose the symphonic poem "Tintagel".

Leader: Clare Smith  Conductor: Leo Geyer
With the singers' staging empty the orchestra launched into a gentle but passionate story of the sea. A soothing sea breeze combines with crashing waves and a heroic theme to evoke the feelings the young Arnold experienced on those high cliffs at the height of a devastating war.

How sweetly the strings wove his soulful tale. Clare Smith, as always, leading the way with her exemplary playing. In the background Catherine Clements' flutes, Kate Osbourne's oboes and Richard de la Rue's clarinets combined colourfully with the French horns, led by Sally Maya.

Tintagel 1917
On the one hand, watery sunshine was delightfully figured by Susan Sheratt on her concert harp, and Laura Hobbs on glockenspiel while, as the storm intensified, Brian Moore's trumpets and Colin Parker's trombones echoed the boom of surf, augmented by the tuba and timpani of Rob O'Byrne and Ali Board, with additional bass drum thunder from Tom Clemo (and/or Gary Evans).

Imagining oneself on the cliffs, or struggling against the elements at sea, or just observing the scene from a comfortable fireside, the picture was equally thrilling - a classic EMG production.

Alfie Pugh: Composer
Percussionist, Contrabassoonist
"Exeter Cityscapes"
From a tone-poem a century old, the orchestra turned to the world première of a brand new composition. Exeter composer Alfie Pugh was in the audience to hear the very first performance of his symphonic suite "Exeter Cityscapes", commissioned especially for the Fiftieth Anniversary of the EMG Symphony Orchestra.

Fellow percussionists Tom Clemo, Steve Douglas, Gary Evans & Laura Hobbs were on their mettle for this unique opportunity to showcase the creative work of their illustrious colleague. From wind-chimes to bass drum, every telling note was perfectly delivered, with Tom Clemo taking charge of the biggest challenge of all - the clash cymbals.

The first of the four movement was the "Festival on the Quay", childhood memories of musicians and performers half-seen and half-heard through the forest of adult legs. The mysterious thud of the dragon-boat drum is provided by Ali Board - a frisson of terror in an atmosphere of light gaiety and holiday spirit. Every instrument joins the carnival, including Susan Sheratt's harp and Laura Hobbs' ride cymbals. A riot of colour.

"Estuary at Sunset"
(Photograph: Nigel Albright 1999)

"Estuary at Sunset" started where the festival left off, with strident drums, but soon mellowed into a combination of soothing woodwind: flutes giving way to French horns, delicate harp, and corruscating windchimes - courtesy of the faultless Tom Clemo, and a sweet oboe solo for Kate Osbourne. The last post went, quite naturally, to Brian Moore's muted trumpet, echoed by the tuba and trombones. In all, the sunset was a soft and reassuring experience washing over the senses like the light swell on the waters of the estuary. The most telling passage went to Clare Smith, whose sublime violin solo, lightly underscored by Ali Board's timpani, guided the golden evening sun under the horizon - with the very final farewell coming from Susan Sherratt on her harp.

the ancient workings of the
Astronomical Clock
- depicted in music

Almost immediately the measured tones of "Cathedral" took our feelings in a new, and more immediate, direction. A very slow and loving reflection of the familiar surroundings we were all enjoying. Peace and tranquility were overlaid by a sense of contentment and joy. Every section was played with subdued measure, a moving demonstration of the marvellous control that the whole orchestra exercise over their sound. Congratulations to the percussion section for their very convincing imitation of the chiming of the Cathedral's astronomical clock, and its whirring mechanism. Sadly, and ironically, on this occasion there was no competition from the real thing.

Earthworks in Cathedral Close 1971
The suite ended with the most creative and expansive movement of all, "Construction". An ominous opening was embellished with various sounds of building work and machinary, including hammering on the 'anvil' (a heavy steel rod).

The theme extended beyond physical labour to a sense of general hustle and bustle in a busy city. Sarah Dean's saxophone solo made a lively link between percussive interludes, while the mild-mannered harp and flutes provided an even greater contrast.

Jennifer Campbell
Contra-Alto Clarinet
A very special soloist for this performance was Jennifer Campbell (the Jennifer Campbell who is one third of Ruth Molins' 'Flute Cake' flute trio - and also played harp in the EMG's "Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra" three years ago). This time Jennifer had a very unusual instrument to play, the contra-alto clarinet. It's profound tone brought new depth to Alfie's music, adding its stentorian sound to John Welton's bass clarinet, Prue Tasman and Gail Hicks' bassoons, and the bass rasp of Paul Jones' contrabassoon.

Harp and double bass were pleasingly combined, with Isabelle Woollcott and the bass section rising to the occasion in style. Gary Evans, who recently joined the EMG for Leonard Bernstein's "West Side Story" at the April Concert, could be heard, together with Laura Hobbs and Steve Douglas adding some extra crash and rumble to the proceedings on the snare drums, bongos and other mysterious instruments hidden somewhere behind the pulpit.

The construction of each movement, and of the whole suite, was fascinating to follow and a joyously immersive experience throughout. Top notch!

Conductor Leo Geyer and the EMG Orchestra
applaud the composer of "Exeter Cityscapes"
Alfie Pugh

Farewell to the harp
Susan Sherratt
and welcome to Associate Conductor
Tony Hindley

Tony Hindley
EMG Orchestra & Singers
Sir Hubert Parry: "I Was Glad"
Trumpets: Brian Moore, Myles Taylor, John Bowden
The second half opened to applause as the EMG's spectacular trumpeter and Associate Conductor, Tony Hindley, mounted the rostrum.

To a mighty orchestral introduction, with organ accompaniment (by Exeter Cathedral Assistant Organist Stephen Tanner), a full choir launched into Sir Hubert Parry's triumphant anthem "I was glad when they said unto me, we will go into the house of the Lord", his 1902 setting of Psalm 122. From behind the pulpit came the sweetly cherubic solo voice of soprano Héloïse West. Sadly missed at recent events owing to illness, Héloïse had saved herself for the night, and sang beautifully. The excitement was augmented by Gary Evans' snare, and also the extravagant fanfares of Brian Moore and the trumpet section - who received special praise from their colleague Tony Hindley at the end of the performance. A skilfull and masterful interpretation of Parry's prayer by conductor and orchestra - and a magnificent vocal ensemble of nearly seventy singers from local choirs and choral societies.

EMG Chairman
Rachel Wieck
Before proceeding to the final item of the evening, there was time for two addresses. First, Volunteer Dementia Friends Champion Gina Awad described the work of Exeter Dementia Action Alliance. In particular she recommended the 'Virtual Dementia Experience', which members of the public can experience at their local headquarters. Through this, participants have gained very useful (and often distressing) insights into the daily experience of dementia sufferers. Audience members were invited to give generously to EDAA, and to try the virtual dementia experience themselves. Details can be found on the EDAA Website.

EMG Chairman, violist Rachel Wieck, also gave a presentation on the history of the Orchestra, from its humble beginnings to the present day, becoming, through many projects and collaborations, the high-calibre ensemble it now is. Rachel expressed her gratitude for all the work by so many amazing musicians over the years - and encouraged the continued support of this august organisation.

Sir Edward Elgar: "Enigma Variations"
Soprano & Tenor Soloists

Héloïse West & Michael Graham
Leo Geyer returned to the conductor's rostrum one last time to present his own extraordinary interpretation of Sir Edward Elgar's "Enigma Variations". To the music of the original suite, the EMG Singers sang the ode "We are the Music Makers" by Arthur O'Shaughnessy, written in 1874, fifteen years before Elgar composed his 'Variations', and itself set to music by Elgar thirteen years afterwards.

This setting, however, was specially created for the Jubilee Concert by Leo himself. In addition to the orchestra and choir, Héloïse West & Michael Graham sang solo parts. Héloïse opened the account as Elgar's wife Caroline Alice (Variation I C.A.E.) and later Michael was very impressive as Elgar's friend Augustus Jaeger (Variation IX 'Nimrod').

Each variation was beautifully orchestrated. Tony Hindley had rejoined the trumpet section, and the percussion players were up one man - joined by the evening's star, Alfie Pugh. The solo voices and choir injected new excitement into a beloved classic - and there were some special  instrumental solos as well.

Lots of Percussion
Elgar's 'Enigma' Variations
Ali Board (Timpani)
Tom Clemo, Alfie Pugh, Gary Evans
Richard de la Rue's clarinet sounded out brightly during Variation VIII (W.N. - i.e. Wilfred Norbury, Secretary of the Worcester Philharmonic Society). Richard Wood, the leader of the violas deftly demonstrated the musical stammer of Dora Penny (Variation X 'Dorabella'), joined by Richard de la Rue's clarinets. Ali Board's timpani came in handy to illustrate the excited paddling and barking of George Robertson Sinclair's bulldog in the River Wye (Variation XI G.R.S.) Amye Farrell, leading the 'cellos, was the natural choice to represent the 'cellist Basil George Nevinson (Variation XII B.G.N) Variation XIII (* * *), depicting the emigration of Elgar's former love gave a lot of scope to the percussion section to mimic the ship's engines, and the big concluding cymbal clash went to - Alfie Pugh.

Elgar's 'Enigma' Variations
Leader & Conductor
Clare Smith & Leo Geyer
The evening was a splendid celebration of the first half-century of the Orchestra's existence, and a fitting tribute to monumental achievements over many years. Leo Geyer has entered into the spirit of EMG with gusto and maintained the incredible momentum created by his predecessor Marion Wood. The continuity provided by Tony Hindley's work as Associate Conductor has ensured that the magic is still very much alive in Exeter's premier orchestra. Alfie Pugh's innovative new work keeps them at the cutting edge of music, and the contributions of everyone involved is invaluable to the development of the whole. The Orchestra seems set to move on to even greater heights for the foreseeable future and - why not? - see another Jubilee in 2042!

A rare vintage
gifts of wine for the 2017 Conductor and Associate Conductor
Leo Geyer & Tony Hindley

and a posie for the ever-popular Leader
Clare Smith