Torbay Symphony Orchestra – ‘Romantic Weekend’
Ariel Centre, Totnes
A ‘Romantic Weekend’ usually suggests a quiet get-away with your significant other half at some secluded little country hotel. Spending it in a community school’s Performing Arts theatre, with a full symphony orchestra and packed audience in tow, might not seem to share that same degree of intimacy.
But then, if music is the love of your life, then there can surely be no better way of passing two days, enjoying two full-length concerts, and with a number of talks and workshops thrown in. And, when that music is essentially all from the Romantic period, things just get better and better.
Torbay Symphony Orchestra has organised such events in the past, and, a couple of years back, for example, we were privileged to enjoy the McLachlan family’s visit, when Murray, sons Callum and Matthew, and daughter Rose, joined Torbay Symphony Orchestra (TSO) for a wonderful Beethoven Weekend, featuring his five Piano Concertos.
Torbay Symphony Orchestra a ‘Romantic Weekend’
For their ‘Romantic Weekend’, however, TSO was able to present music by a number of composers of the era, while still culminating each evening with a piano concerto. I was unable to get along to any of the workshops or open rehearsals during the daytime, but made sure I was there to enjoy each evening’s musical delights, as well as two pre-concert talks respectively. Those who had attended the other events appeared unanimous in their appraisal of just how successful, informative – and entertaining – these had been.
The first evening began with an interesting talk by academic and composer Frank Denyer about the programme’s opening work, Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ Symphony. Frank has that admirable skill of keeping things factual, enlightening, and, most importantly, light-hearted and not over-technical, but still equally absorbing for any more-knowledgeable aficionados out there. Of course, having the piano, and orchestra there at his disposal too, brought everything to life so much more vividly. It was also a really nice touch that, while Frank was eminently suited to the task of delivering a pre-concert talk, he had been Professor of Composition at nearby Dartington College of Arts from the early 80s until the college merged with University College, Falmouth, in 2010.
The orchestra then gave a good account of Beethoven’s symphony, producing a well-rounded sound from each section, either playing singly or combined, along with some assured solo work along the way. Here, a special word of praise must go to the three horns for their playing in the third-movement Trio.
Russian pianist Irina Lyakovskaya was the soloist for Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto. If there was a league table of the most difficult piano concertos around, then certainly this work would figure very near the top, but unlike Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto, which is often cited as perhaps the most challenging, Brahms’s difficulties are different.
Firstly there are the very real physical demands it makes on the player, given that it has four movements, rather than the conventional three – the Scherzo being added to the mix, so that the work is essentially of symphonic proportions, and lasts around fifty minutes – Rachmaninoff’s Third is some six or so minutes shorter.
But while both composers were virtuoso pianists in their own right, and knew the instrument intimately, some of the bristling technical difficulties in the Brahms pose quite a different problem to the performer, especially with frequent, almost suicidal leaps which either happen, or don’t. With the luxury of a studio recording, any imperfections can largely be ironed out, and the player will normally have the score to hand, even if not directly reading from it – rather like earlier high-wire circus artists, performing without a safety net.
Delicate power and conviction
Irina chose to play from memory which, of course, is the expected norm for a concert pianist, and there were occasional brief lapses of memory, although in the manner of a true professional, the vast majority might well have gone unnoticed, without a good working knowledge of the score itself. Irina played with great power and conviction, and was able to contrast the loudest fortissimo with a delicate pianissimo.
While classed as a Romantic composer, Brahms is sometimes accused of being somewhat too academic, and rooted in the structures and compositional techniques of the earlier Classical Masters like Beethoven, and Irina’s performance was certainly imbued with a fair degree of gravity. The orchestra accompanied most sympathetically throughout, and this is a credit both to the players, soloist, and, of course, conductor, given the amount of rehearsal time available.
The final evening opened with Wagner’s ‘Prelude and Liebestod’ from his opera ‘Tristan and Isolde’. Again, this was preceded by an especially absorbing pre-concert talk, this time focussing more on the specific techniques which Wagner employed in his works generally, and specifically the ‘Prelude and Liebestod’. Again Frank Denyer never overstepped the mark in terms of making his talk overly complex, and again it was the music that was always the prime focus. Once more the TSO players rose to the occasion and coped well with the intonation issues of such chromatic writing, where chords remain unresolved, seamlessly just shifting from one to another.
Poetry conveyed to perfection
Soprano Catherine Hamilton joined the orchestra for a most effective performance of Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs. Soaring effortlessly from one high note to another, always mindful of pitching difficulties, again caused by the angularity of the writing, Catherine conveyed the sentiment of each poem to perfection, aided once again by sympathetic support from conductor and orchestra, and clearly she had more than done her homework, both in terms of the meaning of the German text, but also in its execution and clarity of diction.
After two evenings of such glorious music, it might have been difficult to come up with an appropriate finale. Conductor Richard Gonski knew exactly which work to use, one which would ultimately eclipse all that had been heard before it. While Rachmaninoff once said: “I much prefer my Third Piano Concerto, because my Second is so uncomfortable to play,” it is the Second that has remained one of the most popular and recognisable concertos in the repertoire – as well as largely saving his career as a composer.
Again this is right up there with the most difficult concertos, particularly as it requires a large hand-span, especially at the opening, with its signature wide-spread chords. In fact, Rachmaninoff could span an extraordinary twelve piano keys with either hand, and it has even been speculated that he had Marfan’s syndrome, a disorder of the body’s connective tissues, which allowed him to spread his fingers so wide, and therefore to compose and play such challenging music.
Knowing this made the performance on the night ultimately even more impressive. The soloist on this occasion was Russian-born Veronika Shoot, who moved to the UK aged five, when her father, Vladislav, was appointed Composer-in-Residence at Dartington Hall, where she made her piano-debut at the age of seven in the annual International Summer School there.
Following initial studies at the Yehudi Menuhin, and Purcell Schools of Music, and then at the Royal Academy of Music, and Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Veronika returned to Devon for this one-off performance. I was privileged to be sat just a few feet away from the piano, and can confirm that she has neither the massive span of the composer, and has retained that eminently engaging demeanour she had as that young girl. Even more amazing, though, was that such tremendous power at the keyboard could emanate from such an essentially petite frame.
Sheer presence and confidence
Yes, Veronika did play from music, even coping with two scores on the reading desk, to facilitate page-turning. But such are the scheduling-demands of any pianist with a burgeoning professional diary that it’s not always possible to have every work thoroughly committed to memory on demand, if new repertoire suddenly needs to be learnt. The bottom line is whether the musical score proves any kind of inhibition in performance. I could almost have leant across and turned the pages myself, but such was Veronika’s sheer presence and confidence at the piano, and the fact that she felt every single note she played – which we, as the audience, certainly did, too – meant that there appeared absolutely no barrier whatsoever.
From the very outset, while she was clearly aware of the wide stretches of those opening chords, yet they were delivered with such dignity and import, that size just didn’t matter. Often works like this suffer from being played too fast, so that they lose a good deal of what the composer intended, but Veronika’s pacing always matched the mood of the writing so ideally, that it brought a real feeling of overall freshness to an otherwise overly-familiar work, that can so easily become hackneyed due to easy over-exposure. A perfect case in point was the march-like reprise of the opening main theme later in the first movement.
It’s all too easy to forget that, while this is an exceptionally romantic work, it’s also got an intrinsic Russianness at its heart, and taking that section at a steadier tempo – rather than the ‘look-how-fast-I-can-play-those-octave-chords’ brigade – shows real maturity, and real empathy for the writing.
Great panache and aplomb
From the grandeur of the start, the beauty of the idyllic slow movement, the abundant virtuosity of the finale, and the ultimate ‘big-tune ending, Veronika despatched everything with great panache and aplomb, and benefitted, once again, from overall secure orchestral support, under Richard Gonski’s ever-watchful eye. If the ensemble did waver, he was always there to allow it to settle back naturally, without any hint of panic, indeed the hallmark of the experienced professional. The closing ovation was richly deserved, and Veronika’s fine performance will surely be remembered by those present for some time to come.
It has to be remembered that Torbay Symphony Orchestra is an amateur orchestra and that, while there will be players whose day-to-day work does involve music – like leader Chris Eastman, who did an absolutely sterling job in maintaining such a taut ensemble, and is a Grammar-School Head of Music – many, though, will be playing in the truest sense of the word, as ‘lovers of…’. In his preface Richard Gonski wrote: ‘Our answer, as an orchestra and an organisation is to work as hard as we can… Witness the enthusiasm, commitment and energy of the musicians on the stage and you will understand what I mean’.
Well, with two back-to-back concerts, three guest soloists, workshops, and open- and closed-rehearsals, Torbay Symphony Orchestra couldn’t have worked any harder over the two days, and the other attributes Richard mentions were there in great abundance for all to see. Altogether, then another unqualified success – roll on the next one.
Philip R Buttall
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