Plymouth Symphony Orchestra with Maria Włoszczowska (violin)
The Minster Church of St Andrew
Plymouth Symphony Orchestra’s regular home base is the Guildhall, but because there was talk of a refurbishment, the venue shifted to The Minster Church of St Andrew, just a stone’s throw away.
The obvious advantages of this enforced change are that, while the Guildhall is virtually devoid of much in the way of an acoustic setting suitable for a symphony orchestra, the church, as would be expected, tends to excel in this area.
Secondly, and I admit somewhat selfishly, it gives me an ideal opportunity to chat with orchestra members, as they prepare to set up for the concert, and which I was able to, on this occasion. However, once the usual pleasantries were done and dusted, everyone I spoke to was simply bursting to tell me about the evening’s violin soloist, and how wonderful she had been in rehearsal, and at the previous performance in Liskeard.
Not simply a most highly-talented Polish violinist, who had only last June been appointed leader of the prestigious Royal Northern Sinfonia (RNS), based at Sage, Gateshead, Maria Włoszczowska had charmed everyone in rehearsals, and was also so encouraging to the orchestra, which, sadly, isn’t always the case when a fully-fledged professional soloist encounters an amateur orchestra. True, Plymouth Symphony Orchestra (PSO) is technically described as ‘amateur’ but in no way does this imply any pejorative connotation. In the true spirit of the word, they simply play for ‘love’ – not for ‘money’. Although the majority had made a conscious choice to follow other career-paths, there are still some really fine players present, who wouldn’t be out of place in a fully-professional ensemble.
Many times I have commented that PSO conductor, Anne Kimber, has a wonderful knack – almost call it ‘sixth sense’ – when it comes to programme planning, and, on this occasion, there was almost a clairvoyant element, too. Due to Covid restrictions, the programme had been planned for last year, but had to wait until now for a performance slot.
At the planning stage, there was little, if any hint of today’s massive humanitarian disaster in Eastern Europe, and Anne had already decided to finish the programme with Tchaikovsky No 5. Cardiff Philharmonic had only recently bowed to peer pressure to remove another work by the Russian master, but given that this was his ‘1812 Overture’, I feel it was probably correct, since this work could be deemed insensitive just now, for its historical associations.
Wisely, however, PSO stood by their original choice, since the epic Fifth Symphony wasn’t nationalistic to any degree. Furthermore, Anne reminded her audience in the interval, that Tchaikovsky himself had spent many summers in Ukraine, as well as living in the country during 1876-9 – clearly he was at least of mixed allegiances.
The evening opened with Bernstein’s barn-storming Overture to ‘Candide’ – a great choice because it’s short, gives everyone an ideal opportunity to warm up and blow the cobwebs away, and has enough tricky rhythms to hone your powers of concentration as quickly as possible. It’s got to be given with real zest and pizzazz to succeed, but that was very much in evidence here, from the very opening bar.
After all the bright lights of New York’s Broadway, the scene changed dramatically to Nordic climes, and the snowy lake-dominated landscape of Finland, for Sibelius’s Violin Concerto – even though I have to say that it rained most of the day I visited the Sibelius Monument in the capital, Helsinki.
It was quite humbling to see Maria Włoszczowska take up her place at the front, as she smiled across at various members of the orchestra she’d made friends with in rehearsal, or the previous concert – and something she did once or twice during the performance, when she had a rare bar or two off. Personally, I found this really touching, as it was clear that this was simply part of her personality, whether leading her professional colleagues at RNS, or playing a concerto with PSO.
The opening of the Sibelius was simply breath-taking and awe-inspiring, and I felt totally captivated from then on, not only by the ravishing sounds and quite formidable technique in a concerto which doesn’t take any prisoners, but also in Maria’s totally natural and spontaneous movements as she experienced every single note. The balance between violin and orchestra was really well-maintained, too, as was the rigid ensemble precision, virtually throughout.
Gorgeous, rich, and well-rounded
Her gorgeous, rich, and well-rounded tone – which owed much to her instrument by Mantuan violin-maker Tomasso Balestrieri active around 1750-60 – proved just perfect for the darker-toned harmonic palette of the slow movement, and while it’s become something of an over-worked cliché, Maria really did make her violin ‘speak’ – and probably in Finnish, rather than Polish, to be fair.
The finale is a triple-metre dance, with a tautly-robust rhythm – somewhat unkindly referred to by a contemporary music scholar – as a ‘Polonaise for Polar bears’. Be that as it may, the PSO had started it at exactly the right tempo for the soloist, who seemed hard-pressed not to indulge in a little spontaneous choreography, while awaiting her first entry – just another special moment to savour. The technical difficulties in the concerto as a whole are formidable, particularly where octave-playing and harmonics are involved, and even more so in the high-spirited and exciting finale, which culminates with what can only be described as a final ‘coup-de-grace’ thrust of the bow, as it finally despatches the concerto to a close.
Just prior to the second half, conductor, Anne Kimber, took time out to address the large audience present. With the current situation in Ukraine, she explained why the final work – a Russian symphony, would, in fact be totally respectful, given the circumstances outlined above. However, as a further gesture of support, the strings spontaneously struck up an extra item – a simple harmonization of the Ukrainian folk-song, Вербова дощечка (‘The Willow Board’), which celebrates the country’s national tree, and had recently been the subject of a moving video, where ninety-four violinists, representing over twenty-five different countries, got together online to accompany Ukrainian fellow-violinists, some of whom were playing in basement shelters.
After all the emotional highs of the previous work, clearly the pure charisma of Maria Włoszczowska still inspired the PSO players to play way beyond what you might legitimately expect from an amateur provincial orchestra – something she had so patently achieved already, in the concerto. Every section was again on top form, with the outstanding string section, so empathetically led on this occasion by Dave Adams, providing the powerhouse and emotional heart of the orchestra throughout. Woodwind, too, especially clarinets and bassoons, deserve a special mention, as does the ever-reliable percussion section, always so willing and able to add their vital contribution whenever the score demanded.
The brass also excelled, and the PSO is so lucky to have such a powerful, yet secure team of players, though which can often the worst-affected section, when strong members occasionally have to relocate to another part of the country for work. Let’s hope they can build on this stability.
There was, of course, a special poignancy about tonight’s performance, in as much as the concert was dedicated to the memory of Susan Durant – PSO’s principal horn from 1968-2021, when she sadly passed away. Sue would have been heard a number of times over the years playing that beautiful, and iconic horn solo from the Tchaikovsky second movement. But I’m sure we’d all agree that Sue would be mightily pleased with tonight’s performance, which was such a fitting tribute to her memory. Call me overly sentimental, but it felt as if each section, when entrusted with the composer’s beautiful melody, played it with truly heartfelt love and added conviction.
So, we’ve heard some wonderful playing not only from our own Plymouth Symphony Orchestra, but also from such an amazingly talented and winning violinist in Maria Włoszczowska – and that’s even without mentioning the music itself.
But all this would have come to nothing, had it not been for the presence of conductor, Anne Kimber – only the sixth person to have assumed the role in over 140 years.
The audience is privy to what happens on the night – they see how Anne has a wonderful rapport, both musically, and socially, with her players, with always an encouraging look, and ne’er a withering scowl, something that not only comes from years of conducting experience, but also as a former player herself.
However, attend a rehearsal, or chat with the players individually, and they will readily confirm what we observe in performance. But more importantly, they will all confirm the respect in which they hold her, and this is simply something they just can’t teach you at music college.
Power and vibrancy
The programme mentions – and I quote – ‘As conductor of the PSO she (Anne) has helped to draw performances of real power and vibrancy from the players, enabling it to become the most accomplished group of its kind in the South West’.
Well, as one who is privileged to taste the fruits of her labour each time, perhaps now there might even be a case for thinking a little further outside the box – geographically-speaking?
Philip R Buttall
top image: PSO Maria Włoszczowska (inset). Dave Adams (leader) [under the inset], Anne Kimber (conductor) [right]
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