Saturday October 22 2016 Queens Theatre Barnstaple
Liszt Les Préludes
Haydn Trumpet Concerto in E flat
Alan Thomas (trumpet)
Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4 in F minor Op. 36
Reviewed by Antony Hodgson
Queens Theatre Barnstaple has six hundred seats and it was filled to capacity for this performance by North Devon Sinfonia, an amateur orchestra. Much publicity followed their success in the BBC programme All Together Now: The Great Orchestra Challenge where this orchestra won the title defined as: ‘The orchestra that best captures the spirit of great British amateur music-making in the UK’ so maybe this had some influence on attendance. Certainly their adventurous determination to programme major works from the 19th century deserves attention.
Liszt’s romantic Les Préludes opened the concert and conductor Emma Kent’s reading was broader than is usual, moving firmly from one rich melody to another and avoiding any tendency to sentimentalize the temptingly rich melodies. It seemed to justify the suggestion by musicologist Richard Taruskin that this four-part symphonic poem (the first composition ever to be so described) equates to the movements of a conventional symphony even though it is usually assumed merely to depict the extravagant poem by Lamartine on which Liszt’s muse was based. Emma Kent’s beat was bold and clear; she did not indulge in detailed expressive gestures and I feel that this was absolutely right for this orchestra because, although there were some imperfections within orchestral chords, the actual entries were precise. Firmness of ensemble is an admirable quality and it enhanced this convincingly strong, steady, slightly severe performance.
The Haydn Trumpet Concerto was a great success. With the orchestra reduced to chamber size, soloist Alan Thomas, currently principal trumpet of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, gave a notably lyrical reading. The orchestral trumpets, though not an important feature of the orchestral accompaniment, played with bright tone for their fanfare-like passages whereas the soloist was gentle and elegant, shaping the themes expressively. The difficult fiery, moments were included within the structure with never any hint of showiness. Instrumental virtuosity was contained within the structure of the music. The swiftly flowing, poetically expressive Andante preceded a boldly presented performance of the demanding finale, made all the more effective through firm melodic shaping. Orchestral balance was well calculated and featured an impressively accurate contribution by the timpanist (using hard sticks of course) which underpinned this strong reading, notable for its rhythmic strength.
There followed an exciting encore: very much a feature of the evening: the Fantaisie and Variations on The Carnival of Venice by Jean-Baptiste Arban (1825-1889) originally composed for the cornet. I realised from the first few variations that this was the edition but Alan Thomas played it without the original piano accompaniment (and I suspect with a few spectacular additions of his own). I liked the way he paused between variations to take breath (he needed it) just like a jazz musician making a series of improvisatory ‘breaks’. It is great to hear a musician show off his technique when he does it so brilliantly.
Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony is a demanding work – horns are thrown into the music straight away and their opening concertante flourish – repeated in a similar way several times later in the symphony – is challenging for instrumentalists whether professional or not. The horns are not perhaps the strongest feature of the orchestra but only one mid-movement fanfare disappointed – I can give a pass-mark for the remaining examples and must mention an excellent solo from first horn. Particularly impressive were trombones and tuba which they capped the climaxes splendidly – and indeed very accurately. This was an interesting interpretation; Emma Kent generally preferred broad speeds which were firmly held. Hers is not an over-expressive view and it was refreshing to hear each new melody surge forth without the traditional relaxations that can be used to introduce contrasting moments. This resulted in an all-through solid drive which allowed the music to speak for itself. I found the slow movement absolutely convincing – a rare example of a conductor refusing to ‘speed up for the loud bits’ this approach added great nobility – haste would have imposed an unsuitable element of anguish. The close of the movement was sensitively done and I found the forlorn nature of the bassoon solo most touching.
The conductor’s clear-cut approach and resolute beat still allowed musical shaping of phrases – notably from clarinets and oboes and I found the tone of the flutes interesting: they used a little more vibrato that is usual. The quiet, pulsing drum sequences in the first movement were very effective (a change to soft sticks here). Despite the modest string strength (approximately 35) the overall timbre of this section was gritty enough to strike through at big moments despite the considerable power of the brass and the players passed the test of the tricky pizzicato third movement with flying colours.
Bizet – Carmen
Mozart – Exultate Jubilate
Rimsky Korsakov – Scheherezade
Review by Richard Westcote
The Carmen selection turned out to be a perfect choice: the ideal starter, with that shuddering massive opening, moving on through many a familiar and much loved tune – setting not a few toes tapping, not to mention a temptation to join in, Last Night of Proms style.
Yes, this was a full-blooded performance, Emma Kent presenting a wonderfully in-your-face Carmen. That said, those amiable melodic moments (what impeccable woodwind playing!) were beautifully savoured. Really striking was the glorious brass section, from polished high brass – including effective off-stage work – through to those authoritative heavyweights underneath. The audience – or should I say spectators, as this was virtually opera? – were bowled over, if not swept away.
And then it was time for something completely different. Again, it was a nice choice: after all that fire, Gypsy dance and operatic tragedy, we were ready for a classical piece – Mozart’s Exsultate Jubilate was just right. Not that this is a staid piece of music – its celebratory, joyful, even playful message was well served by Catherine Hamilton’s fresh Susanna-style soprano. A suitably reduced orchestra provided the perfect accompaniment – sensitive, well-balanced and attentive. As Emma suggested, there is a particular affinity between the NDS and this fine soloist, which I for one hope may be developed further.
Scheherazade may be a massive work – it filled the second half – but it has its supremely intimate moments. And Dan Kent’s lovely presentation of the Sultana’s sweet voice, appearing soon after that terrifying beginning, recurring throughout and bidding us farewell at the end, was truly memorable. Between, of course, comes just about everything you can find in fairy tales – destruction and tranquillity, love and festivity – all delivered superbly. The fine string section came into its own here; there may have been a hesitant entry or two earlier on, but the huge challenges posed by this Russian score were impressively surmounted with technical confidence and, when called for, marvellously lush playing. As Rimsky (and the Sultana) would have us, we were spellbound.
Another appropriate and pleasant aspect of choosing this piece was its ability to show off individual sections, not to say principals; in some ways, it’s a concerto for orchestra. So the opportunity to enjoy solos from virtually all departments – it feels invidious to single out any one, but I have to offer the example of the superbly assured clarinet – was especially interesting, particularly for an audience with a younger age than is usually seen for a classical music concert in the Queen’s Theatre.
Brahms – Academic Festival Overture
Strauss – Four Last Songs
Tchaikovsky – Symphony No 5
We, in North Devon, are fortunate indeed to have a resident symphony orchestra, under the guidance of an enthusiastic conductor, Emma Kent, who has the courage to tackle the demanding repertoire of the 19th and 20th centuries. Now in its fifth year, the orchestra draws on local players for its members, comprising a mixture of professional experience, amateur talent and youthful endeavour. One of the problems for the conductor of such a group, is whether to “play safe” with the tempi, thereby giving all the performers the chance to engage with the exacting technical demands of the music, or to throw caution to the winds, trust that experience will carry the day and reap the potential reward of an exhilarating performance.
Brahms’ “Academic Festival Overture”, which opened Saturday’s concert, was completed in 1880 as a token of gratitude to the University of Breslau for the conferral upon the composer of an honorary doctorate. He chose for his material, a number of student songs and set them in a classical framework. This might have been construed as a giant “raspberry” to the sedate academic world! As such, it requires an impending sense of bustling fun in the opening bars, imparted by brisk highly rhythmical, staccato phrases, played very quietly. The steady tempo, adopted on Saturday’s performance, didn’t quite have the audience on the edge of its seats, as the result was a lack of incisiveness, which in turn lent an air of insecurity to the quieter passages Confidence grew with the increase in volume, but it wasn’t until the final triumphant declamation of “Gaudeamus Igitur” that we sensed the exuberance of the student spirit.
Far more successful were Richard Strauss’ “Four Last Songs” for soprano and orchestra. Naomi Harvey’s sweeping phrases and soaring tones were most sympathetically accompanied by an orchestra which gave little indication of the difficulty of its task. A good balance was always achieved and the instrumentalists responded well to their conductor’s invitations to greater prominence in the intermediate passages. The string tone was particularly pleasing, as was the unity of the section’s bowing technique – a tribute to the leadership of Dan Kent, together with his beautiful violin solo in “Beim Schlafengehen”. Naomi’s rich soprano voice soared majestically, like the unfettered soul of Hesse’s poem, and led her audience to the peaceful realms of Eichendorff’s “Abendrot”, in the company of two delightful, fluted skylarks. The tranquility with which the songs ended, was serene and satisfying.
The enjoyment felt by the performers of the most extended work of the evening, Tschaikowsky’s glorious Fifth Symphony, reached beyond the stage of Ilfracombe’s Landmark Theatre, which so fittingly accommodated the North Devon Sinfonia. The leitmotif, declared quite slowly by the clarinets at the opening, tended to accentuate a darker mood, less overtly military in style than some interpretations and thus, perhaps, placing the theme of “ultimate victory through strife” at a more personal level. There was excellent dynamic contrast in this first movement, aided and abetted by a powerful and very competent brass section. The lyrical second movement allowed the wind section to display its talents, with very good solo work on horrn, clarinet, oboe and bassoon whilst the lilting waltz of the third movement was memorable for the clean transfer of the semiquaver figure from part to part throughout the woodwind and strings in the Trio Section. The final movement drove ever onward to its exciting climax, in which the timpanist could exercise his full rhythmic powers and the brass, once again, could provide a resonant foundation in an otherwise dry acoustic, carrying both work and concert to their majestic conclusion.
Make a note in your diaries now of Saturday, 18th July, for the next concert of the North Devon Sinfonia, which is so deserving of support. The programme features Verdis exciting overture to “The Force of Destiny”, Butterworths sublime rhapsody “A Shropshire Lad” and Beethovens dramatic “Symphony No, 5.
Schubert – Overture to Rosamunde
Tchaikovsky – Excerpts from Swan Lake
Franck – Symphony in D minor
There was something rather incongruous about hearing the Cesar Franck D minor Symphony in a school hall on the edge of Exmoor. One doesn’t expect to hear a symphony of such gargantuan proportions in North Devon and nor does one expect to find the players to play it. However, at West Buckland School last night, there were doctors, teachers, machine workers, the odd student and an accountant or two all dressed in black tie playing orchestral works with a verve which is rarely heard these days in the professional concert hall. Emma Kent, West Buckland’s Director is the force behind the North Devon Sinfonia and is the Orchestra’s founder and conductor. She clearly knows what she wants and directs with such expertise, clarity and verve it is hardly surprising that she has such a large following. Some members of the Orchestra travel from Camelford and Exeter to participate in her concerts which are all done for love, I might add. Kent has clearly found a much needed niche in the area for where else would these instrumentalists (some of whom are extremely able) have the chance to play vast symphonic repertoire such as Tchaikovsky, Franck, Brahms, Smetana and Dvorak?
Schubert’s Overture to Rosamunde has never been my favourite piece but it is a good opener. After a tentative beginning, the Orchestra gained in confidence with the strings producing a good solid tone in the faster section. It did have one advantage over the remaining works to be played in that its orchestral make-up was somewhat better suited to the size of hall and once the programme had moved on to the Swan Lake excerpts, one was very much aware of the enclosed space.
The music from this ever popular ballet is so frequently heard that there is distinct danger that the ear switches off when hearing it for the umpteenth time. Not so on this occasion. The beauty of amateur orchestras is that the balance is never going to be right and one finds oneself hearing musical lines not normally to the fore. Thus it was that I discovered some wonderful moments belonging to the double bass section and the brass.
The tour de force of the evening was César Franck’s remarkable symphony. As Emma Kent so rightly said in her amusing introduction, the symphony is like Marmite; you either like it or you don’t. Having been familiar with the work since the age of three (it used to be played on LPs during Sunday lunch – I can even remember the precise bit where one had to turn over the record), I love its glorious richness and the slow movement with its haunting cor anglais tune is truly beautiful. Not an easy work to perform, the Orchestra had much more than a brave attempt. They played it for all they were worth and who cares if the hall wasn’t big enough to cope with the sound (thank god the MU weren’t there to check on decibels), it was a fine performance full of energy and guts. I drove home on a high because I had been to a concert which was given by a group of players so fired with enthusiasm that it was infectious. That kind of feeling is all too rarely found in the professional environment when orchestras are tightly bound by union rules. For me, attending concerts (all over the place and loads of them) is part of the job and all too often they are more of a chore than a pleasure. As a result, I anticipated last night’s offering with a small sense of foreboding but was bowled over. The NDS deserves much more support than the 75 people in the audience. The next concert is on 21 April at the Landmark – do go, you won’t be disappointed!
Artistic Director Two Moors Festival Sunday, 28 January 2007
“Woodland to the New World”
MENDELSSOHN – From the outset the players portrayed the feeling of wave movement and restlessness. The irregular drum rolls depicting the stronger waves, with the brass and woodwind imitating gusts of wind and the cries of seagulls, painted a graphic picture for an appreciative audience. We were off to a good start despite temperamental house lights.
MACDOWELL – I and, dare I say it, quite a few in the audience, knew very little of MacDowell’s work prior to this evening, excepting To a Wild Rose, that is. This is a shame, because there is much to enjoy in these sketches and we should thank Emma Kent for bringing them to our attention. The descriptive From an Indian Lodge, in particular, gave a great illustration of its subject, especially when the trombones entered the scene. A Deserted Farm allowed the orchestra to produce a truly eerie feeling of loneliness. Indeed, all eight ‘Woodland Sketches’ benefited from clever interpretation. I for one will pay more attention to this composer in future.
DVORAK – Mention the New World symphony and immediately we think of that beautiful second movement and its famous Goin’ Home melody. But we shouldn’t forget those lovely bits of ragtime between the timpani, flutes and oboes of the first movement. Neither should we overlook the cute Three Blind Mice motif just before the return of Goin’ Home in the fourth. However, pride of place must go to that second movement, where the wistful tune was impeccably played by the solo cor anglais, accompanied by an orchestra who so obviously enjoy their work and who gave us so much pleasure as a result. North Devon Sinfonia’s fame is spreading. There were many more of us at this concert than at the first under this conductor. It was worth experiencing West Buckland’s chilly wind for this fine concert.
North Devon Journal ‘Seven Days’, 21st April 2005
“Music at a superb standard”
Tonight’s concert by the North Devon Sinfonia saw the debut of its new conductor, Emma Kent.
The programme was beautifully balanced: Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, followed by Copland’s Appalachian Spring and, after an interval, Schubert’s Symphony No. 8 (The Unfinished).
The dramatic start to the overture was taken at a ‘good lick’, and the orchestra soon got into their stride. The violins were impressively steady, and the horns played in perfect synchrony. The timpanist was kept busy and played with great panache – praiseworthy indeed, as his ‘usual’ instrument is the saxophone! The strings produced a wonderfully energetic finale.
It was lovely to hear the Copland in its original form, rather than the usual expansive piece for huge orchestra. The evocative opening was magical, and the conversation between the flute, clarinet and bassoon finely balanced. The piano really came into its own, and kept the piece moving along. After some super jazz and ‘hoe down’ rhythms, the orchestra brought this challenging piece to a tranquil close.
The ‘cellos opened the Schubert with a rich, full sound, and were later ably supported by the sensitive playing of the woodwind section and marvellous timing and intonation of the brass. The dynamics were lively and made for exciting listening. The orchestra seemed to relax into the second movement and played with such momentum and enjoyment: the balance was perfect and the piece flowed to its (unfinished) conclusion in great harmony.
Tonight’s concert was a great success – music at a superb standard, excellent programme notes/biographies, interval refreshments. Above all, the orchestra seemed to be enjoying themselves. The audience certainly did.
This orchestra is going places. Emma Kent is taking it. She is ‘a natural’, and North Devon is lucky to have her. Watch this space.
Two Moors Committee
“Skill and professionalism abound”
Not having heard North Devon Sinfonia before, I was immediately impressed by the lovely round tone they produce. Skill and professionalism is there too, in abundance. Add to this fact that this concert was their first under the baton of Emma Kent (director of music at West Buckland School) the combined achievement was remarkable.
Choice of programme too was well considered, in that it gave them a real chance to demonstrate their versatility. How nice it was to see those young musicians given an opportunity alongside more experienced players. The young man on timpani reallyenjoyed himself.
Beethoven’s Overture (Egmont) to Goethe’s tragic drama demonstrated a fine control of dynamics. Emma Kent persuaded her orchestra to move from fortissimo to gentle sadness as the story of a people’s heroic struggle (led by Count Egmont) against Spanish oppression unfolded. A dramatic opening to the evening.
Copland’s ballet Appalachian Spring (1944) inspired by Hart Crane’s poem about a marriage in rural Pennsylvania, gave us a delightful contrast.
The story as a whole was well told musically by North Devon Sinfonia and I thought they really excelled with the dances and the Shaker variations. I noticed the audience particularly enjoyed this, as nods of recognition greeted the emergence of the well known Lord of the Dance theme. The clarinet playing was excellent here.
Schubert’s Unfinished with its exquisite melodies, interrupted by brilliantly explosive outbursts from full orchestra is a masterpiece to equal anything from the orchestral repertoire. North Devon Sinfonia gave us an accomplished performance which was full of colour and sensitivity. I glanced around the players and their faces showed the pleasure in their work. This was really well done.
This fine orchestra deserved all the praise showered on them by a very appreciative audience. They and their charmingly assertive conductor are to be congratulated. North Devon truly has a wealth of musical talent.
North Devon Journal, 30 December 2004