It’s not that often when listening to a local ensemble that you occasionally have to pinch yourself to remind to you that you are hearing an amateur orchestra, rather than a professional outfit that had visited Plymouth in the past.
But last night’s quite superb ‘Summer Concert’ by our own Plymouth Symphony Orchestra (PSO), was certainly one of those magic occasions.
A heady prescription
There’s nothing better than a heady prescription of Verdi to get things off to a great start, and his ‘Force of Destiny’ is certainly one of the composer’s most effective stand-alone operatic overtures. Like so much of Verdi, his orchestration relies on the strength of its brass players and nowhere more so than here, when their presence is felt from the very outset.
I don’t know what the Italian word for ‘steroids’ is, but whether someone laced their pre-concert pasta with a significant dose, their playing, not only here, but throughout the evening, was electrifying. In fact the playing in this one overture exemplified the considerable progress the whole orchestra continues to makes at each successive appearance.
For, not only was the brass in tip-top form throughout, the woodwind shone equally, whether playing as a section, or in the frequent solo contributions throughout the programme. PSO is so lucky to have such talented soloists among its ranks, and without wishing to single out anyone in particular, I just can’t let the excellent contribution from solo clarinet in particular, and oboe, too, go unmentioned.
If the strings are the backbone of any orchestra, then PSO is simply blessed right across the range – violins, violas, cellos and basses – with a formidable body of players, who demonstrated what a glorious massed sound they can produce, but equally just how quietly they can play, where the score’s dynamics require this. Articulation and accuracy are also streets ahead of ‘your average’ amateur orchestra, and which PSO certainly isn’t.
But think Verdi, and you’re also going to encounter a lot of percussion, another area where PSO is fortunate, a point which their final contribution in Tchaikovsky’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ Overture made so forcefully.
The greatest sensitivity
Lyadov’s ‘Enchanted Lake’ is really all about orchestral colours and timbres, which the players despatched with the greatest sensitivity. Even if it feels like some kind of ‘musical meringue’ – one bite and there’s nothing much inside – it sat comfortably between the sheer power of the Verdi and the work that followed.
Khachaturian’s ‘Spartacus’, Suite No 2 is one of those pieces that became famous, due to it being used as a television theme tune – in this case, the opening ‘Adagio’ really put the Armenian composer’s name in lights, when it was the theme-tune for the BBC TV drama series, ‘The Onedin Line’, back in the 1970s.
It does, of course, revolve around a glorious melody, which the composer lushly orchestrates, even if, structurally, it simply seems to lurch from climax to climax. The secret to achieving an ideal performance is to manage these climaxes, in a way that there is always something left in the tank for the final statement – which, needless to say, both conductor and orchestra managed to perfection. As so often happens, though, Khachaturian’s fame rests on this ‘Adagio’, whereas the Suite’s other movements are certainly no lightweights, and really gave the orchestra something to get their teeth into and enjoy.
If the Verdi and Khachaturian had both been about huge theatrical moments, then Butterworth’s ‘A Shropshire Lad’ provided the perfect counterpart. It’s a glorious piece that evokes everything good about the English countryside in pre-Brexit Britain, where simple values and expressions were the hallmark of daily life. Butterworth was killed in action during the Battle of the Somme, but this rhapsody, that evokes an especially attractive part of our country, also seems to have an uncanny feeling of foreboding, which underpins all its lovely melodies, harmonies, and timbres – and where, of course, PSO’s inclusion of a real, rather than virtual harp, made such a telling contribution to their already ravishing performance.
After this sumptuous feast of popular orchestral favourites, there couldn’t have been anything finer to finish with than Tchaikovsky’s swash-buckling ‘Fantasy Overture, Romeo and Juliet’, again where its well-known central theme was used in a famous romantic encounter between Jaws and fellow-astronaut Dolly, in the 1979 Bond film, ‘Moonraker’.
PSO’s performance was stunning, and had you on the edge of your seat throughout; it was the perfect work to end with, as it summed up the individual, and collective achievements of each player and section, in such a way that it was never difficult to visualize’ the action going on in Shakespeare’s play at any time. This, of course, is the rationale for a truly successful and gripping performance of Tchaikovsky’s score.
On this occasion, the orchestra was led by one of its three peripatetic leaders – Cath Smith – who, as ever, did a sterling job in marshalling her troops, as well as contributing a couple of little solo spots along the way.
But, as ever, the expertise you enjoyed last night ultimately depended on conductor, Anne Kimber’s positive, assured, and wholly-encouraging lead from the front. They say it takes ‘two to tango’, which was nowhere better exemplified by this superb ‘Summer Concert’ – even if that South American speciality didn’t actually feature on the programme.
If, like me, you always like to hear the Guildhall’s Steinway Grand Piano given a workout, then I can reliably inform you that Grieg’s ever-popular Piano Concerto in A minor will feature at PSO’s next-scheduled Guildhall date in November – soloist to be announced later.
Plymouth Symphony Orchestra Summer Concert was at the Plymouth Guildhall
Philip R Buttall
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