Lyricism, fireworks, wall-to-wall melody: PSO and Savitri Grier

Plymouth Symphony Orchestra with Savitri Grier (violin)
Plymouth Guildhall

Followers of Plymouth Symphony Orchestra (PSO) were perhaps a little unhappy when, instead of their usual orchestral concert back in November, the orchestra joined forces with Plymouth Philharmonic Choir for a one-off performance of Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius.

Lush Romantic harmonies and textures

Whether this encouraged conductor Anne Kimber to pick an especially attractive programme to appease its many fans when the PSO returned to the Guildhall for their next regular orchestral concert, is a matter of conjecture. But with works like Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, Bruch’s Violin Concerto, and Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony on the menu, there could scarcely have been anything more appealing for those who love wall-to-wall melody, and lush Romantic harmonies and textures.

The drama to come…

Egmont Overture is always such a great piece to get any concert off to a flying start. Its imposing unison opening immediately grabs your attention, and sets the scene for the drama to come. While the orchestra took a moment or two to settle down early on, once the cellos embarked on the work’s main theme, everything fell into place, with a well-balanced sound and taut ensemble. Anne carefully managed the swelling coda with all the skill of a racing jockey, ensuring that the orchestra didn’t go too early, with nothing then left for the end. This was a finely-paced reading where her players responded admirably, to ensure a truly exciting finish, helped by some robust brass playing and the characteristic contribution from the piccolo in the closing bars.

Bruch’s Violin Concerto is one of the best-loved in the repertoire, demanding great lyricism, yet fireworks, too, from the soloist when required. In young British violinist Savitri Grier PSO simply could not have chosen a finer protagonist, possessing every necessary attribute to make this a very special performance, and one of pure heartfelt emotion. There was fire and passion in the opening movement, where all the technical work was impeccably managed throughout.

Soloist and orchestra as one

Occasionally when a visiting soloist joins the orchestra in a concerto, there can be the odd moment where the ensemble falters, largely due to the amount of rehearsal time to spend together in the venue. But on this occasion, I don’t think I have ever heard soloist and orchestra play more as one – virtually the perfect ensemble. For this to happen, though, there has to be a great understanding between soloist and conductor, and the orchestra has then to be ready to respond to any nuance or subtlety, whether pre-rehearsed, or something spontaneous on the night. Here, Savitri, Anne and the PSO were simply in perfect harmony throughout. Dynamics, too, can pose a problem, especially given the Guildhall’s not-overly-generous acoustics, but not once did the orchestra overpower the soloist, who, at times was using an absolute minimum of bow-pressure to produce the most exquisite pianissimos.

Panache and impetus

The gypsy-like finale was despatched with consummate panache and impetus, and ensured the well-deserved standing ovation from the large audience. But it was in the truly tear-jerking slow movement that Savitri held everyone spellbound – audience and orchestra alike – as she played with a maturity of expression normally seen only in more well-seasoned performers, producing a gloriously rich tone to die for.

After such a surfeit of memorable tunes, it might have been difficult to come up with a symphony to round the evening off in the same vein. But melody and Rachmaninov go together like hand and glove, and his Second Symphony certainly does have more than its fair share of big, expansive tunes in each of its four movements. A lot of this is given over to the strings, and it is here that you can really appreciate just what a tremendous asset the PSO string section is, from the violins, violas, cellos down to double basses. Particularly in the slower sections, they are more than capable of producing a sound that belies the fact that this is still just an amateur orchestra, even if it has been central to the musical life of the city for over 140 years.

Drive, enthusiasm and musicianship

Upper woodwind, too, were really on song here, together with some impressive solo work from clarinet, flute, oboe and cor anglais, matched by some really secure support from horns and brass. Factor in the significant contribution from percussion – glockenspiel in particular, and timpani – that, all in all, it added up to one of the best PSO symphonic performances for some time. This is exclusively down to the drive, enthusiasm and musicianship of the conductor, closely matched by the ever-improving standard of the players themselves. Where the upper strings are concerned, the use of three key-violinists who share the roles of formal leader on the night, with that of first or second violins’ section-leader respectively.

Building a new audience

It was also encouraging to see a good number of young people in the auditorium, possibly benefitting from the support of bodies like Plymouth Music Accord, or individual schools themselves, as this is vital to maintain, and hopefully build on audience numbers in years to come.

It would be equally encouraging if there were some kind of provision whereby up-and-coming young players still at school, were able to sit alongside experienced PSO members at the occasional rehearsal, to ensure a similar continuity in the future.

Quite by chance, tonight’s leader, Dave Adams, is also Deputy Head of the city’s only boys’ grammar school. Perhaps he, or someone similar, might be ideally placed to help set up such an initiative?

A hard act to follow

Of course, having given such an outstanding performance this time, makes it a hard act to follow, especially when the next concert is built around a somewhat different kind of programme.

The best way to find out, though, is to be there on the night, when PSO plays music by Vaughan Williams, Walton, Gershwin, and Copland, again in Plymouth Guildhall, on Wednesday June 19, with a late-afternoon performance at Sterts Theatre, Liskeard the Sunday before.

Philip R Buttall

top image: Plymouth Symphony Orchestra with Savitri Grier

Philip Buttall

Philip R Buttall was the Classical Music Writer at Plymouth Herald from 1997-2017. He is a sought-after piano teacher, composer and arranger, and online concert and CD reviewer. Further information and contact details are available at www.philiprbuttall.co.uk

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