On paper, the latest programme by Plymouth Symphony Orchestra (PSO) looked something of a mismatch: the first half given over to three works so well-known that most of the audience could cheerfully have sung along to, followed, in the second half, by an extensive four-movement Russian symphony from someone whose name wasn’t Tchaikovsky.
But on the night, this worked an absolute treat, with the opening three works by Rossini, Bizet, and Verdi respectively, getting everyone in the party spirit for Glazunov’s Fifth Symphony which, despite some truly movingly emotional moments along the way, also had its fair share of fun, too, and brought the evening to a stunning conclusion.
One of the main differences between an amateur, and a professional orchestra, is when they are asked to play quietly. At the loudest end of the spectrum, arguably there’s possibly not a great deal of difference, but when more exposed, nerves and technique can play their part a little – especially when virtually everyone in the amateur orchestra will have come from a wide variety of daytime occupations, unlike their professional colleagues who will most likely have run through the programme in the venue, only a few hours beforehand.
Rossini’s Barber of Seville Overture essentially has a quiet start, and, being the first item on the menu, unsurprisingly there were a couple of minor flutters here and there. But as soon as things got going, PSO were well on song, and finished it off with real panache. Everyone played with such visible enthusiasm and tangible enjoyment, which is really what it’s all about – rather than the need for clinical exactitude in the performance.
Moving from one operatic work to another, PSO continued with a selection from the two Suites of Music arranged from Bizet’s ever-popular Carmen. Conductor Anne Kimber had got it just right in compiling the featured numbers, ensuring that all the most familiar bits in the opera were covered, and that the really big tunes were in place to bring everything to a thrilling conclusion.
A special word of admiration must go to the second bassoon, who suddenly found themself having to play the first part when, for whatever reason, hopefully not ill-health or accident related, their double-reed partner-in-crime went AWOL on the night – and had the music, too. A great bit of last-minute covering up, to the point where the missing score was apparently downloaded, and read from an iPad, helped, but one of the numbers did rely greatly on there being two bassoons present, and while the second player did a truly sterling job on the night, it certainly wasn’t an easy call in the slightest. Amateur they may be by status, but PSO was still every bit as professional by simply taking this in its stride.
There can be few better ways to round off a half than with Verdi’s Grand March from Aida, and here again PSO was on top form. From further back in the hall, at times it felt that the brass section was just a little too enthusiastic when accompanying the melody from other orchestral sections, but they certainly stepped up when required. Of course, the Guildhall’s acoustic is hardly known for its ability to enhance sound or improve clarity.
If the bar was buzzing during the interval, from all the excitement of the first half, equally, quite a few people were wondering whether the Glazunov Symphony was going to be something of a damp squib to go home on. Interestingly PSO had last played his Fifth Symphony in the Guildhall way back in March 1998, in a programme that also opened with a Rossini work – his William Tell Overture – and also included Respighi’s ‘The Birds’.
From the opening bars of Glazunov’s first movement, PSO had everyone’s attention back once again, and the Symphony, in fact, ended up as arguably the evening’s highlight. Just before the concert started, I was talking with the conductor, and she wondered why the work seems to have been completely overlooked, at the expense of other Russian symphonies. Luckily, then, we are greatly indebted to Anne once more, for her programming, which again proved highly-effective on the night.
PSO’s greatest asset – and something that a lot of amateur orchestras sadly miss out on – is its string section. From the richness and overall sure intonation of the violins, down to the double-basses – where just two players are now doing the job of three or four, which used to be the case – their contribution, particularly in the glorious slow movement, was absolutely crucial throughout. Indeed all sections, from woodwind, brass and percussion, really combined so well here to produce such a tremendously uplifting performance. The work is also known as ‘The Heroic’, and PSO’s rendition captured every nuance of such an epithet to sheer perfection.
PSO has a really effective system in place, where the leader is concerned, and which, again, largely came about because of its amateur make-up. The busy schedules of a Grammar School Deputy Head, a Hospital Consultant, or a Marine Biologist have meant that the position of leader is shared by three highly-seasoned and experienced players. On this occasion it was Dave Adams at the helm, but it’s so rewarding, from an outsider’s perspective, to see how well-received each of the three players has been, whenever it was their turn in the chair. Moreover, the regular change-arounds ensure that everyone is kept of their toes, and some little individual niceties pervade each respective performance.
But again, none of this would be possible without the lead from the front, which Anne Kimber takes with true authority, yet is always clear in direction and interpretation – and, of course, her immensely-supportive players, who so rightly all deserved their standing ovation after such a truly impressive performance.
Philip R Buttall
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