Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert

18 June 2019

The Northampton Symphony Orchestra held its first rehearsal on 24 October 1893 with 21 members and gave its first concert in a crowded Northampton Town Hall on 20 January 1894, having grown to 40 players. The programme consisted of a large number of short ‘light’ pieces, including songs. The orchestra’s second concert the following November was a ‘grand success’ and the £10 surplus from the concert was used to buy 31 music stands and a cupboard to keep them in. In the following 125 years the Northampton Symphony Orchestra has gone through many changes but, in celebrating this momentous anniversary with a gala concert at the Derngate in Northampton last Saturday, I think we showed that the orchestra is arguably the biggest and best it has ever been. We had assembled a mammoth orchestra (116 players) for a mammoth programme.

The concert opened with a new piece commissioned by NSO to mark its 125th anniversary. ‘Overture: From the Heart of the Rose’ by the young composer Alga Mau, paints a picture of Northampton and the surrounding countryside from the bustling Victorian town of 1893 to the present day. It is, in part, a deliberate homage to the music of Eric Coates, whose ‘London Suite’ Alga Mau remembers playing during his time in the Northamptonshire County Training Orchestra. The overture is a tuneful, jolly piece which deserves many more performances. It was followed by a rousing performance of William Walton’s ‘Crown Imperial’, written for the coronation of King George VI in 1937, perhaps the best known piece on the programme.

The climax of the first half of the concert was Tchaikovsky’s ‘Piano Concerto No 2’ played by Peter Donohoe, who has been one of the UK’s best known pianists since winning the International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow in 1982. I have fond memories of performing the Grieg Piano Concerto with Peter Donohoe in a youth orchestra concert in Manchester when I was still at school and it was amazing to see him again so many years later with the same virtuoso technique, thrilling style and showmanship. Tchaikovsky’s Second Piano Concerto is a huge and fascinating work but is much less often performed than its more famous predecessor. The first movement lasts more than twenty minutes and feels almost like a complete work in itself: applause from our audience in the Derngate felt natural and deserved, and was smilingly acknowledged by Peter Donohoe. The second movement of the concerto is a beautiful and surprising triple concerto for violin, ‘cello and piano. In Saturday’s concert the orchestra’s Leader, Stephen Hague, and Principal ‘Cellist, Corinne Malitskie, played the solo parts stunningly. It was a mesmerising performance which transfixed the large Derngate audience – a real highpoint of the evening. The final movement of the concerto was a frenetic romp with Peter Donohoe racing the orchestra to a thrilling finish. He then treated us to an encore, playing the teasingly contemplative ‘Dumka’ by Tchaikovsky.

In the second half of the concert we played ‘An Alpine Symphony’ by Richard Strauss – a piece most French horn players dream of playing but rarely have the opportunity. The symphony is scored for 20 horns – 8 horns on stage (including 4 also playing Wagner tubas) and 12 offstage horns (4 playing each of 3 parts). Given that most orchestras usually have 4 horn players it is a major challenge to amass sufficient forces. We managed to bring together 17 horn players (from orchestras in Northampton, Milton Keynes, Bedford, Luton and Windsor & Maidenhead) which allowed us to cover all the parts and sounded fantastic. ‘An Alpine Symphony’ was one of the first pieces I played with NSO – in a one-day workshop with members of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in 2000 – and it was amazing to finally get the chance to perform the symphony in a concert 19 years later, as part of this massive horn section.

Richard Strauss’s programmatic symphony tells the story, in 22 short movements, of a mountain climb in the Alps. The trek begins before dawn, witnesses sunrise before embarking on the main ascent, travels through woods, by a brook and past a waterfall. It continues through flowering meadows, past cattle grazing on high pasture, emerging into bright sunlight on the glacier then reaching the summit. In the descent the party are caught in a furious storm before the symphony finishes back at the foot of the mountain with sunset and a return to night.

One of the most memorable moments of the symphony is the sound of a hunt in the distance, created by an offstage brass section. This offstage section only lasts about 40 seconds, and happens about 6 minutes after the start of this long symphony, so I am particularly grateful to everyone who joined us on Saturday just to create this brief but vital musical moment. I think the offstage section went even better in performance than it had in rehearsal, perfectly co-ordinated with the orchestra on stage, and it sounded fantastic.

The Alpine Symphony was a considerable challenge for the orchestra but I think our performance was really special. NSO conductor John Gibbons, who was deservedly awarded a British Empire Medal, for services to music, in the Queen’s Birthday Honours last week, managed to create a moving, disciplined and powerful performance from the mass of performers on and off stage. There were so many highlights it would be impossible to mention them all but I particularly loved our brilliant percussion section who created a terrifying storm, and the brass section were outstanding with amazingly piercing high notes from the trumpets. For me, however, there was nothing better than that magical moment, at the summit of the mountain, when the 12 onstage horns all played together for the first time. It was incredible to be part of this huge team effort, and it was a wonderful way to celebrate 125 years of the Northampton Symphony Orchestra.

[Many thanks to Graham Tear's excellent programme notes from which I have blatantly pinched!]

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