Monday, 4 November 2019

Devon Philharmonic Orchestra & Philippa Mo, Violin, Ligeti, Dvořák & Shostakovich Exeter Cathedral Saturday 2 November 2019

Philippa Mo
Antonin Dvořák
Violin Concerto in A minor

(Photography: Guy Carpenter)

This weekend's inaugural concert by Leo Geyer's 'Devon Philharmonic Orchestra' was an outstanding success, to say the least. After several months of painstaking preparation, Leo brought the musicians - and several impressive guest players - to the Cathedral in Exeter to play three spectacularly atmospheric pieces to an enraptured audience.

Contrabass Clarinet
Sarah Watts.
Their opening work was György Ligeti's 1967 atonal masterpiece, 'Lontano'. After leaving the repressive musical regime of Communist Hungary following the revolution in 1957 Ligeti was free to experiment in new and innovative styles. 'Lontano' is certainly different! Initially a single note is passed from instrument to instrument, the ambient sound modified by the subtle introduction of new tones and rhythms by successive sections of the orchestra. Sitting centre-stage Catherine Clements leading the flutes seemed to be the focus of the ever-changing mêlée of sound. John Welton's bass clarinet made several notable incursions into the fray, but was ultimately eclipsed by visiting woodwind specialist Sarah Watts and her contrabass clarinet - 'The Beast'!

For everyone involved, this, initially apparently simple, concoction involved quite extraordinary precision and cooperation. Each section of the orchestra responded perfectly to Leo's skilled direction to produce a fabulous and unexpected tapestry of sound which perfectly introduced the many talents of the Devon Philharmonic Orchestra to its appreciative audience.

Dvořák Violin Concerto
Philippa Mo

(Photography: Guy Carpenter)
Almost immediately Leo returned to the rostrum, followed by the evening's soloist - violinist Philippa Mo. Philippa first featured on Phonic FM when she appeared on exactly the same platform at Exeter Cathedral with 'cellist Mats Lidström in June 2014. Philippa's  recordings with Harriet MacKenzie as the violin duo 'Rhetorica' have also featured many times. Philippa has since created concert series at The Shortwave Café (Bermondsey's Biscuit Factory), Sladers Yard in Dorset, and the Tate Gallery in St Ives - where she played the première of Leo's own composition 'Guarea'.

Working together again Leo and Philippa launched into an impassioned performance of  Dvořák's exlosive Violin Concerto in A minor. Under Clare Smith's leadership the string section gave Philippa one of the most rousing introductions any violinist could wish for. And she responded with exquisite precision and poise. 
Rapturous Applause
Philippa Mo

There followed three gripping movements of amazing music, with the superbly professional playing of the orchestra framing Philippa's incredibly stylish performance. Long passages seemed to be played using only her left little finger racing back and forth to the very end of her violin's fingerboard. Hypothenar eminance indeed! What a very special treat for an Exeter audience to enjoy such a performance by an international star of Philippa's calibre.

The first half of the concert ended in near-pandemonium as the Leo and Philippa - and then Philippa alone, made repeated returns to the stage to receive well-deserved acclaim from a thrilled audience.

Dmitri Shostakovich
In an inspired programme choice, Leo returned to the outpourings of another musician who had known suppression and control behind the Iron Curtain. Dmitri Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony was written to appease the ultimate arbitrator of Soviet musical creativity, Joseph Stalin. Despite being in the life-threatening dog-house of Stalin's disfavour following the poorly received première of his opera 'Lady MacBeth of Mtensk District', Shostakovich managed to combine orchestral compliance with delightfully imaginative musicality. There were even some subtle musical gags slipped in along the way. A very daring move by a man for whom incurring Stalin's displeasure could mean certain death!

Flute: Catherine Clements
The introduction is somewhat more sombre than Dvořák's, and the opening movement more ponderous. But each section of the orchestra has its chance to shine. Clare Smith amazed the audience again with her own delightful violin solo. There were also special moments for Catherine Clements and her flautists, who included Robert Stephenson and his trademark piccolo, for Isabelle Woollcott's double basses, for Ben Edmond's oboes, Richard de la Rue's clarinets, and the wonderful solo bassoon playing of Prue Tasman.

Trumpet: Myles Taylor
Myles Taylor of the Exeter Symphony Orchestra stood in for Brian Moore (who sadly seems still to be out of action) to lead some splendid trumpet fanfares. High on the stage Harrison Coomber led the three mighty trombones, including Charles Dowell's bass - and the stentorian roar of Rob O'Byrne's tuba. Less visible, but equally prominenet musically, was Beth Osment and her small band of French horn players. Beth and Catherine playing horn and flute duet was a particualarly memorable and beautiful moment.
Harp: Susan Sherratt

Shostakovich also called for special performances on on harp and piano, provided by Susan Sherratt and Dodie Bowman, which were as delightful as they were impressive. Dodie also joined Alfie Pugh and Alex Sadler to provide the most high profile and challenging rôle of all - the percussion. With military precision they punctuated the performance with timpani, snare, vibraphone, cymbals and - to top everything - the big bass drum.

Leader: Clare Smith
Conductor: Leo Geyer
This mesmerising cornucopaea of sound was the perfect foil to Philippa and Dvořák. The overall effect was as stunning as it must have been in Leningrad in 1937. Every section received praise from Leo and the audience for their impassioned performance. The Leader, Clare Smith, in particular was to be praised for her overall contribution as well as her delicate solo performances.

Many thanks to Leo, Clare, Philippa, and all the musicians and supporters of Devon Philharmonic Orchestra for creating such a dazzling evening of music to mark their launch. Rehearsals begin again almost immediately, of course - this time for performances of Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov's orchestral suite 'Scheherazade' and Igor Stravinsky's ballet score 'The Firebird' in a double bill at Exeter Cathedral on Saturday 25 April next year. A spectacle worth waiting for!

Devon Philharmonic Orchestra
Exeter Cathedral
Saturday 25 April
Conductor: Leo Geyer
Leader: Clare Smith
Nicolai Rimsky Korsakov:
Igor Stravinsky: "The Firebird"
Tickets: £17/£14/£12/£10
          (student/U16 half-price)

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