Review – ESO – Spring Concert
The Exeter Symphony Orchestra gave its Spring Concert on Saturday 19th March in the United Reformed Church, Southernhay, Exeter to a large and appreciative audience.
The programme commenced with Ralph Vaughan Williams’ English Folk Song Suite, directed by the deputy conductor, Mark Perry. This work is scored for winds and double basses and made for a lively and tuneful start. The first movement displayed neat rhythmic playing and some good solo work. The second movement, while it might have benefitted from some greater restraint in places, was atmospheric, with a well-judged tempo change for the middle section, with its lively piccolo lead. Even the tuba got to shine melodically here! The final movement returned to the zestful enthusiasm of the opening of this attractive piece. The performance, with its strong dynamic contrasts, captured the simple, direct and readily communicative nature of the music.
Unfortunately, the soloist for the second piece (J S Bach’s Concerto for Oboe D’amore and Strings) was unwell and unable to play, giving the conductor only 2 days’ notice to find a replacement. This must have been somewhat stressful – especially as performers on the oboe d’amore are hardly ten-a-penny! The replacement, Penelope Smith, proved well up to the job. She was possessed of a captivating and lovely tone and captured the wonderful lyricism and intimate joy of the ever-evolving lines of the fast, outer movements. The accompanying strings showed an awareness of balancing such a tender sound but might have given us a little more lightness and sense of the nature of a dance. Original performances of this work would, most likely, have been for smaller numbers. One of the problems with a greater number of players, in music that has such clarity and where every note counts, is that rhythmic tightness and exact intonation is harder to achieve – and even if only slightly out of kilter can muddy the overall effect. The slow, middle movement transported us wonderfully into the world of the longing of the soul, touched with moments of intensity and such personal, intimate yearning, so characteristic of Bach’s slow movements. The elaborate line here was woven purposefully by the soloist with great poise and beauty.
After the interval, we were treated to a performance of Elgar’s Symphony No. 1 in A Flat Major. Brian Northcott, ESO’s conductor, champions English music and directed this performance with a clear understanding of the composer’s expressive intentions. Here the full symphony orchestra performed together for the first time in this concert and all performers were obviously fully involved in the music. The great strength of this orchestra is its ability to grasp and communicate mood and character. For example, the nobilimente opening of the work (a direction so characteristic of Elgar and a mood so typical of his Edwardian sensibilities) was matched in a rich, mellow, well-rounded sound. The second movement achieved great furore, where required, communicating malevolent force. The orchestra has a good dynamic range and makes use of well controlled dynamic articulation. Transitions of mood are also well handled. Balance and blend of timbres are carefully crafted too – as shown in the atmospheric orchestral colouring of the opening of the third movement. The conductor and his players can particularly conjure up that warm bloom of sound that is essential in later Romantic music. This is technically challenging music to perform and occasionally this showed, as, for example, in the more demanding scurrying writing for strings in the second movement, where also slight tuning issues and a need for greater precision of synchronisation in the upper strings in some of the more exposed passages were apparent. However, the merits of this orchestra far outweigh such matters. The ESO gave an emotionally charged rendition of this work which was both gutsy and sensitive. Bravo!
N V Horton