Thursday, November 14, 2013

Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert

14 November 2013

The Northampton Symphony Orchestra’s November concert invariably coincides with the weekend of Bonfire Night and/or Remembrance Sunday. This year we made the most of this coincidence with a remembrance-themed concert at St Matthews Church in Northampton. The music was interspersed with war poems by Wilfred Owen, George Fraser Gallie and Konstantin Simanov, beautifully read by three members of the orchestra – Virginia Henley, Maria King and Nick Bunker. As Virginia stepped forward to start the concert with Owen’s ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, the church bells rang the half hour and she waited a moment for the sound to die away before reading “What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?” – it was a perfect opening to the evening.

The first piece of music was the beautiful pastoral work ‘The Banks of Green Willow’ by George Butterworth – a charming piece with an aching poignancy in this context as Butterworth was killed at the Battle of the Somme at the age of 30. Another delicate, pastoral English work completed the first half of the concert as the orchestra’s leader Stephen Hague gave a stunning performance of ‘The Lark Ascending’ by Ralph Vaughan Williams. That some of the desperately quiet passages were interrupted by the explosions of fireworks outside only served to emphasise the contrast between the peaceful idyll of the countryside and the brutal reality of war.

In the second half of the concert we played the mighty ‘Leningrad Symphony’ by Dimitri Shostakovich. Shostakovich’s seventh symphony was composed during the Siege of Leningrad in 1941-42 and powerfully evokes the horror of the 872 day isolation of the city which saw almost a third of the population (around a million people) die of starvation. Despite being offered the opportunity to escape the siege Shostakovich decided to stay in the city to work on a one-movement symphony which he wanted to dedicate to Leningrad. I can imagine the look on Mrs Shostakovich’s face when he later announced that it now felt like the work actually needed four movements! Shostakovich did complete the composition elsewhere but after the premiere of the symphony by the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra in March 1942, there was a determination to stage a first performance in Leningrad itself, while the siege continued. With many of its players dead or away fighting the war, The Leningrad Radio Orchestra could muster only 14 musicians. Extra players were brought back from the front line and posters were displayed around the city appealing for anyone with a musical instrument to join in. At the end of July an orchestra of professionals and amateurs played the symphony in the Leningrad Philharmonic Hall with the performance broadcast on loudspeakers throughout the city. In a show of defiance there were speakers relaying the concert to German troops stationed outside the city. The NSO concert programme notes suggest that the senior Russian officer on the front was issued with a copy of the score so that he might order his troops to cease fire during the quieter passages!

The Leningrad symphony is a mammoth work, lasting 70 minutes and requiring a large orchestra. In our performance in Northampton, conducted by Alexander Walker, I was one of nine horn players, alongside six trumpets, six trombones, tuba and extensive percussion. This was the first time, as an orchestral musician, that I have genuinely regretted not wearing earplugs for a performance. It was incredibly loud and immensely dramatic – a realisation of the brutality of war in music, though the conflict is contrasted with passages of delicate beauty. There were a host of great solos by Andrea Patis (flute), Kimberley Chang (piccolo), Kathy Roberts (oboe), Simon Cooper (cor anglais), Naomi Muller (clarinet), Peter Dunkley (bass clarinet), Sian Bunker (bassoon) and Nick Bunker (trumpet). And the side drum playing of Matt Butler through the long, relentless, repetitive march that dominates the first movement was truly amazing – controlled, precise and devastating all in its path. For me that famous tune still conjures up childhood memories of the 1978 BBC TV adaptation of John Buchan’s ‘Huntingtower’, but heard in the heart of the symphony it evokes the horror of war, starting as a simple fife and drum melody then growing ever more insistent and grotesque until the bombardment is overwhelming. It was a stunning, moving, exhausting performance and one I will remember for a long time. 

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