Saturday, 16 March 2019

REVIEW: The Northern Chamber Orchestra - The Stoller Hall, Manchester.


The Northern Chamber Orchestra continued their 2108/2019concert season with a varied programmeof lesser played music, this evening at The Stoller Hall in Manchester.

French composer Charles Gounod dedicated most of his work to sacred music but in this opening piece he was commissioned by flautist Paul Taffanel to write a piece that would showcase the abilities of the woodwind family. At that time, the woodwind family had been redesigned using new technology to improve projection, tone, intonation and ease of playing, and so Gounod composed his Petite Symphonie in 1885. As Taffanel was to play flute at the premiere, it was composed for pairs of clarinets, oboes, bassoons and French horns but for one flute. The eighteenth century saw epic development of the symphony as a form, but as the title suggests, this little symphony is light and fairly short – this matches the mood of the Belle Epoque during which this piece was written and performed.

The NCO did not disappoint with their performance of this piece – while it does not have much emotional depth, the refreshing melodies and instrumental dexterity made for a thoroughly pleasant and entertaining experience. As always, it is great to see the musicians enjoy their music, showing satisfaction at the end of one movement, or an exciting expectancy for a movement about to begin. This is not a smug reaction to a job well done on the part of the musicians, but to the music itself and the pleasure it provides. I think this is a key element to the success of this orchestra – yes, of course the level of skill and the amount of hard work and dedication and good leadership all are vital, but that these musicians are quite clearly enjoying the music as much as the audience adds to the experience. Too many orchestras either have po-faced musicians who seem dead behind the eyes, or are too egoistical and make the music about themselves.

The woodwind ensemble, led by flautist Conrad Marshall, certainly displayed virtuosity in every instrument and a wonderful variety of tone and technique which created a delightful performance.

The second piece of the evening was written forty years earlier in 1845 – Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor. This was his only piano concerto and was first performed by his wife, the famous pianist Clara Schumann. Schumann himself was a tragic figure who had to give up the pursuit of a career as a musician due to an unknown disfigurement to his hand. He instead dedicated his life to composing. As an adolescent, he began a novel with two opposing characters – Florestan and Eusebius. These are polarised creations representing dark and light, extroversion and introversion, war and peace… He continued to use these characters in his music, although this was not something that the audience needed to know. Indeed they were present in this piano concerto with clear contrasting passages, and while this idea is not unique to Schumann – most symphonies and concertos use contrasting themes in their composition – it was made clear by the NCO that these contrasts were quite clear and dramatic episodes.

The first movement opened with a fierce blast from the orchestra that was swiftly followed with an opening statement on piano by Martin Roscoe and then that beautiful first melody - first a pining melancholy then a sullen despair. As soon as the opening notes began on the piano it was clear that we would be taken through the tumultuous story that Schumann had crafted with virtuosity. A beautiful moment was had in the second movement with the woodwind leading over a pulsing string accompaniment then dialoguing with the piano. Roscoe played masterfully – Schumann uses virtuosity in this piece not to show off, but to reach in to the listener and sing the lyricism of his melodies. Roscoe did just that – indeed there were many stunning moments of virtuosity but it was always the heart-wrenching melody that won out. The segue from movement two to three allowed the drama to build and in spite of a dark opening, the NCO along with Roscoe brought us to a rewarding and dramatic finish with optimism and energy.

After the break, the NCO performed an unusual and not often performed piece from Grazyna Bacewicz, the prolific, Polish neo-classical composer, orchestra leader and violinist. Bacewicz studied briefly under Boulanger in Paris, as did nearly any 20th century composer worth their salt, and while the NCO has made a point of wanting to be more diverse through promoting and playing music composed by women, it must be said that no distinction can really be made between music composed by any gender. Except of course that the circumstances in which women have been subjected to to allow them to compose or perform have been – and are - much, much more difficult than they ever have been for men. The language of the music is the same for all.

I really enjoyed this concerto for strings and was completely unfamiliar with Bacewicz’ works. Elements of baroque were wonderfully married to a distinct 20th century sound. It was both familiar and new – Bacewicz explores the string family’s wonderful array of sounds and techniques with driving, pulsing rhythms and fragments of melodies or motifs creating a soundworld that is playful and soulful. This was composed and premiered in Poland just a few years after the second world war and while this strives to be music for music’s sake with no programmed meaning, there were undertones of both sorrow and hope.

The NCO string orchestra clearly relished performing this piece with the challenges and opportunities for expression that it offered. Various solo lines floated out throughout the composition and were fittingly sung out.

I have reviewed the NCO a few times already now, and each time I am always impressed by how this orchestra works without a conductor. This was one of those pieces that had me scratching the head – how do they do it?! Not a beat was lost and the energy was driving at moments of tension, and floating at moments of peace. Pace and sonority are key to this type of playing and the NCO outshone themselves – through sheer hard work – to perform this piece with the technical instrument and rhythmic precision that was needed alongside a wonderfully expressive and far reaching freedom. This was the highlight of the night for me.

The final piece was Mozart’s Haffner symphony, composed in 1783. Orchestra leader, and artistic director for the NCO, Nicholas Ward, joked that Mozart wrote this towards the start of the mature period of his compositional output – at age 27! It was a light hearted symphony, written for the celebrations for the son of a wealthy merchant who had been given an aristocratic title. It was a commission that was perhaps more about money than musical craft. Nevertheless, it was well received, particularly by the emperor who was in attendance at the premiere. It embodies all that is typical of Mozart and the classical period – grace, balance and refinement with hints of stormy tension and memorable melodies. Ward also tells us that the final moment – Presto – was to be performed as fast as possible. For the 21st century orchestra, that can be very fast indeed given the improvements in the instruments and techniques since the day of Mozart!

This symphony was a walk in the park for the NCO and thoroughly enjoyable to listen to and to watch and indeed the final movement raced through cheekily without distorting the spirit of it. The audience loved it, and indeed every piece tonight was warmly received by an almost full house at the fantastic Stoller Hall. This was another wonderfully successful evening of music performed by the Northern Chamber Orchestra.

Reviewer - Aaron Loughrey
on- 15/3/19

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