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SMCO 40th Anniversary Concert review

Paul Dukas is best known for his Sorcerers Apprentice, and although his fanfare for La Peri was not originally included in the St Matthew’s Chamber Orchestra Subscription Series programme, its inclusion was serendipity. Just over 2 minutes in length, it provided a dynamic introduction and in the very live acoustics of St Matthews Church it kicked this programme off with great impact, as well as featuring the particular talents of the Wind and Brass section of the Orchestra . The fanfare has a crisp brilliance and incorporates some dissonant harmonies which somehow seem to be oddly appropriate in this context. It has become popular as a TV programme theme tune in North America.

Next up was Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks Display. This music was commissioned by King George II and a large crowd gathered to hear it being rehearsed in London’s Vauxhall Gardens several days before it was due to be performed on 27th April 1749. Since then it has had a number of arrangements, particularly by Leopold Stokowski and Sir Hamilton Harty, who was for a long time chief conductor of the Halle Orchestra. The opening movement is marked Maestoso (to be played in stately fashion). This had an uncharacteristically ragged beginning from the orchestra, and one wonders if the hackneyed popularity of the piece led the orchestra to skimp on rehearsal time. However they got things together and the second, third and fourth movements were tighter and lighter. It finished in appropriately grand ceremonial style.

The Brahms concerto for violin and cello proved to be the highlight of the concert. In the opening section of this work the plaintive cor anglais featured and then the cello soloist introduced the musical themes with the violin responding. Both soloists played some spectacular double stopping, which at times sounded like four solo instruments playing as a quartet. This concerto was composed when Brahms had attained maturity in his compositional life and the romantic beauty of his musical ideas contributed to the lasting popularity of this work. His passionate love of Hungarian gypsy music was evident in some of the fragmentary themes that were incorporated in the final movement. Cello soloist Rachel Atkinson and Violinist Isin Cakmakcioglu are husband and wife and their affinity with this work and their combined virtuosity was a real joy to experience. They received well deserved acclaim from a record audience. Indeed it is to the orchestra’s credit that they are able to attract such talented soloists to feature in their concert series.

The final item in this programme was the Cesar Franck Symphony in D Minor. In the opening lento movement, the bass instruments introduce the melody with the bass clarinet contributing to a rather sombre mood, this is developed and moves on to some more boisterous music, which builds up to a stately climax. During the symphony it ebbs and flows with a rather plaintive three note theme that is passed from one section of the orchestra to another in cyclical fashion. Franck uses this almost like a leitmotif giving it different instrumentation and harmonies but maintaining the tautness of the mood that he creates throughout the work. The cor anglais is used to feature the main theme and pizzicato strings are used very effectively.

This symphony projects a great depth of feeling throughout and it deserves to be heard more often.

To celebrate its 40th Anniversary the orchestra invited its supporters to join it at the conclusion of the programme to enjoy wine and cheese. Patrons were able to enjoy CoopersCreek wines a variety of cheese and mingle with the players. This is a significant milestone of which the Orchestra can be justly proud. I look forward to more imaginative programmes in 2013

Reviewed by Bob O’Hara



Reviewer: Robert O’Hara

On a rare overcast autumn day it was pleasant to arrive early to be able to chat to old friends while the conductor took the orchestra through some passages that needed extra final polish. Rossini’s overture Semiramide was the last of his Italian opera overtures and it is clearly his best. Sometimes known as “Signor Crescendo”, Rossini wrote many spirited overtures which have been consistent favourites on the orchestral concert platform. Unlike some of his overtures which were co-opted to serve several operas, Semiramide was written specifically for the opera of that name based on a Voltaire play with a somewhat grisly plot, and contains many of the tunes that feature in the opera. Rossini’s orchestration was masterful but places some demands on virtually every section of the orchestra at some stage, and indeed also on the conductor throughout. Miranda Adams was a diminutive figure on the podium but her conducting was taut and precise, and one suspects that her experience as leader of the string section in an orchestra gave her the unique ability to choose tempi that the players were comfortable with. The first part of the overture features a horn quartet that moves on to solo passages from the clarinet to the flute, the oboe and the piccolo accompanied by pizzicato counter-melodies from the strings. These built up to the usual Rossini crescendi which the orchestra delivered with flair and balance. The four horns acquitted themselves very well and made the most of their opportunity to shine, while the clarinet, flute, oboe and piccolo projected well and were complemented by the string pizzicato. It is not easy to regulate the volume of a plucked string, but I did notice that at times the first violin section pizzicato did not come through as effectively as did the pizzicato of other string sections. The audience clearly appreciated this elegant overture that is a masterpiece of orchestral colour. Rossini at his very best.

New Zealand composer Anthony Ritchie, the son of Professor John Ritchie head of music at Canterbury University and Anita, a very fine soprano, was destined to follow a career in music and is today one of New Zealand’s leading composers. His compositions include 3 symphonies, 7 concertos, an opera (The God Boy) and numerous works for guitar, and both solo and ensemble instrumental groups. His viola concerto has been particularly successful. Robert Ashworth was the featured soloist in the Anthony Ritchie Viola Concerto, and he has had a close association with the conductor Miranda Adams, as fellow members of the Jade Quartet/, and also as leading players in the A.P.O. Robert plays a viola that is shaped differently from the usual but his instrument clearly is very suitable for solo work as it projects its warm tone most effectively. The concerto has a tempestuous opening which gradually subsides and then moves on to simple straightforward passages that highlight the mellow sonority of the viola. While the concerto makes few virtuoso demands on the soloist, it does speak in simple but moving music that requires sensitive playing. The concerto is virtually in two halves – the first in a modern formal style, while the final section features dancelike jazz type rhythms with syncopation that is evocative of Blue Grass, and Country and Western folk music, which is in total contrast to the opening movements. The presentation of this concerto was sensible programming as it introduced the audience toNew Zealand made music that deserves wider exposure.

The final offering was Vaughan Williams’ 5th Symphony. Most people will be familiar with this composer’s “The Lark Ascending” and the “Variations on a Theme of Thomas Tallis” but fewer people will have knowledge of Vaughan Williams’ symphonic works. Those who are familiar with the dissonance of his Symphony No 4 would never believe that his Symphony No 5 was written by the same composer. This is gentle heavenly music. It was inspired by the West Country and the music suggests a spiritual peace and being at one with nature. Parts of the Symphony were “borrowed“ from the composer’s Opera “Pilgrim’s Progress” which was then still a work in progress. The St Matthews Chamber Orchestra’s reading of the Symphony was spirited and captured the character of the work, from the distinctive horn solo early in the Preludio through to the brass trombone and trumpet fanfares in the Scherzo and on to the haunting cor anglais solo in the Romanza. Miranda Adams’ total control of the orchestral resources was particularly evident in the final Passacaglia movement. All in all this was a concert to be savoured by music enthusiasts, of whom there were a number in attendance. There is still plenty of seating in the venue and anyone reading this review is encouraged to attend the next concert on Sunday 17th June at 2-30pm, when the orchestra will be conducted by cellist James Tennant, who will be joined by the brilliant young Columbian cellist Santiago CanonValencia in the seldom heard Vivaldi Concerto for two cellos. The colourful Saint Säens cello concerto also features in this programme.

Robert O’Hara