Review of October 2020 Concert

Wind Players to the Fore

St Matthew’s Chamber Orchestra held its first concert post-COVID 19 lockdown on 18 October 2020 to an excited audience comfortably filling the church.  Both audience and players seemed pleased to be back.  There was anticipation in the air – a brilliant soloist, charismatic conductor and a programme of interesting works.

Many in the audience would be familiar with Andrew Beer’s leadership of the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, but perhaps fewer know of his internationally recognised brilliance as a chamber musician and soloist.  Jose Aparicio has conducted SMCO on four previous occasions and his rapport with the orchestra has endeared him to both players and audience.  He has remarkably effective connection with the members of the orchestra and was totally au fait with every nuance of the works.  He conveyed a style, which while looking relaxed held the orchestra very confidently, and he communicated clearly with every player.

The programme was unlike most orchestral concerts.  Usually the woodwind and brass sections play more subsidiary roles – supporting the strings and adding colourful solo themes.  In this concert, the woodwind and brass were of equal importance – their themes being of greater significance to those of the strings in many cases.  Quirky tunes with interesting rhythms and tempi to toss between instruments were paramount.

Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin Suite opened the concert.  Although each of the four movements was dedicated to a friend who had died in combat, the themes were mostly cheerful.  There was excellent interplay of instruments, particularly woodwind.  Noah Rudd on first oboe was outstanding, although the whole orchestra played with French verve and panache.

Andrew Beer was soloist in Julius Conus’s Violin Concerto in E minor.  Conus was from a family of French musicians who moved to Russia.  Composed in the late nineteenth century the work’s instrumentation included harp and full brass.  The orchestral opening  led to the solo violin and a gentle theme.  The solo required a virtuosic technique and Beer was completely equal to its soaring upper register writing.  His double-stopping was breath-taking.  The orchestration was lush and intense but the orchestra never threatened to overwhelm the soloist.  Particular credit was due to the horns in the third movement.  The three movements flowed without pause and the work ended with a long coda.  The legendary Jascha Heifetz played and recorded it in the mid-twentieth century, but never with more skill and passion than Beer demonstrated.

There was hardly a minute for soloist, orchestra or audience to gather their collective breaths before Beer was back to play the Norwegian Christian Sinding’s Suite im alten Stil Opus 10, (Suite in the Old Style).  Although less famous than his Rustle of Spring, this suite also required a virtuosic technique, rapid finger movement in the upper register during the first movement,  and a gentle and delicately haunting theme in the second movement.  The third movement also called for high energy and nimble finger work.  Beer received a very well-deserved quite rapturous reception.  Here is one of Auckland’s musical treasures.  Let us hear more from him in such solo performances.

The concert’s final work was Francis Poulenc’s Sinfonietta.  Poulenc had the benefit of inheriting wealth and after his service in the French army between 1918 and 1921, he was able to devote his life to composition.  The blending of string and woodwind melodies was well accomplished, with a rich tonal range.  Jocular and playful tunes in the second movement were followed by rather nebulous harmonies and pizzicato strings in the third, before a vivacious movement with frequent key changes to finish.

In a concert of lesser known pieces, each offering animated tunes, the players had some very challenging work with sudden key changes, unexpected harmonies and tempi, yet they seemed to revel in the challenges.  A concert where conductor, soloist and orchestra all came out winners.

Review by Rogan Falla