Review of March 2020 Concert

St Matthews Chamber Orchestra launches its 2020 concert season

What a splendid start to the 2020 Subscription Series of the St Matthews Chamber Orchestra, last Sunday.  If the sizeable audience needed anything to take away thoughts of pandemics and the like, the orchestra provided it in spades.  Peter Thomas was the conductor and his rapport with the orchestra was clearly evident in the orchestra’s disciplined responses to his every gesture. Simon Ansell and Rachel Moxham shared the Concert-Master role with great style.

All three works in the first half have direct or indirect links with England.  Lilburn’s Aotearoa overture was written in England during a period while Lilburn studied there –( including composition lessons with Ralph Vaughan Williams).  The lyrical woodwind opening, followed immediately by the lower strings was played in a reflective style. The strings’ scrupulous handling of the repeated dotted motifs was masterly.  The woodwind themes were reminiscent of New Zealand’s bird life and the rich brass section invoked the beauty and grandeur of the Southern Alps.  A performance as good as you could get anywhere.

The Serenade for Strings by Elgar epitomized the dreaminess of the English countryside so loved by Elgar.  The wistfulness associated with his later cello concerto was very present.  The sweet tone of the violins and the rich cello line made for a splendid late-romantic landscape.  The Larghetto lent itself to lovely rubati, while the Allegretto saw a lifting of atmosphere and well controlled changes in tempi.  It was an electric performance.

Tessa Petersen was soloist in Vaughan Williams’ Violin Concerto.  The work is for solo violin and strings and the soloist was superbly supported throughout.  The soloist begins from the opening bar and Petersen’s confident and heartfelt playing was ideally suited to the brisk and vibrant themes.  A very empathetic cello solo opened the Adagio; here we had rather dreamy softer harmonies.  Written ten years after ‘The Lark Ascending’ there were similarities, with the open harmonies so typical of Vaughan Williams.  Folk-like melodies were to the fore in the final movement and Petersen and the strings maintained infectious energy throughout.  It was a performance where soloist and orchestra were totally attuned.

Dvorak’s Eighth Symphony, as full of influences of his native Bohemia as in so many of his compositions, was a tour de force.  Played with authority, the lower strings and brass led the rich opening theme.  The development saw an increase in tempo with woodwinds hinting at bird song.  The recapitulation was emotionally charged with strong playing from the horns and brass.   The reverberation in the church at the end of the movement was marvellous.  Throughout the symphony all sections seemed to revel in the wonderful melodies – both exciting and lyrical – broad string themes interspersed with woodwind melodies.  The exciting trumpet fanfare at the opening of the fourth movement was matched in vigour by a thrilling cello line played with rich vibrato.  Peter Thomas was almost dancing during the folk-tune-like coda.  The orchestra’s enthusiasm was matched by the reception of the audience.  Conductor and audience acknowledged the solo contributions of the concert master and various section leaders.  Let’s hope that nothing prevents the orchestra building on this brilliant momentum in the rest of the series.

 Review by Rogan Falla