Sunday, 21 October 2018

REVIEW: MUMS Symphony Orchestra Concert - The Martin Harris Centre, Manchester.

The Symphony Orchestra of Manchester University Music Society (MUMS) came under the spotlight this evening as they played three pieces of orchestral music. In the first half it was Rachmaninov and Frampton, whilst the second half gave way to Tchaikovsky. Although seemingly on paper at least these three works had little in common, it was clear that after further investigation and upon listening to them, they were much more similar than I had at first realised.

The first piece, Rachmaninov's brooding and highly moody emotive writing for The Isle Of The Dead [Die Toteninsel], which is basically a tone poem telling an imagined story of this island (perhaps we, ourselves, are actually on the island and living this story) based on a painting of this forbidding land by Arnold Boecklin.  Rachmaninov uses Russian melodies both sacred and profane to great effect in this piece, perhaps the most obvious being the Orthodox chant used for the Dies Irae in their Mass ( a tune which finds itself cropping up every so often interwoven into the works of many Russian composers ). The work is bleak and unforgiving, and if not too careful the piece can become very 'samey'; the conductor needs to find many smaller variations of 'expression' - not necessarily volume or pace, just the thought process behind the playing can sometimes make change enough in the sound or 'feel' of the piece. Student conductor Hugh Morris tried hard but not enough changes in the dynamic were brought forward and the soundscape did become, apart from the huge orgiastic climax in the central section, very static. It is a hugely difficult piece to attempt as a conductor though in my opinion, so Morris was indeed very brave.  The orchestra worked well and I could feel that they were listening to and responding from each superbly here.

The second piece was by Will Frampton, a young man currently at Manchester University and in attendance this evening to hear the orchestra play his Sinfonia Malacia. In many ways this piece was the modern 'Toteninsel'. This, like the Rachmaninov, was not really a tone poem in the conventional sense - one which tells a story - but rather the music takes you on a journey, and you create your own story from the way the piece has been crafted. Frampton's piece used Britten's Sinfonia Da Requiem as a starting point for inspiration, and there were a few instances within the piece where this was abundantly evident no matter how cleverly disguised. His composition style, at least for this work - this work being the only piece I have thus far heard of his - is quite lyrical and modular when compared with other contemporary composers and his use of minimalism throughout was interesting. The work starts with a single short phrase repeated several times from the flutes, and this phrase crops up many more times throughout the piece in one variation or another, even when the violins are being asked to screech loud and high, the melody can still be clearly discerned. Like the Rachmaninov piece, the climax comes before the end and the piece ends simply and quietly. Student conductor Jasmine Allpress gave this her best shot. Not knowing the piece nor the composer's intent it was impossible to tell, but judging from Frampton's reaction afterwards, he was jolly pleased with the rendition!

After the interval and back to terra firma and a piece I know very well indeed. Tchaikovsky's wonderful 5th symphony.  It was simply sublime and magnificent. Conducted by Robert Guy I have never heard the MUMS Symphony Orchestra play better - ever! This is a symphony of four movements and basically four melodies, as Tchaikovsky cleverly and deftly adapts, extends, extemporises and varies the melody for each movement into the whole movement; starting with a beautiful Russian folk tune for the first movement, through two Russian dance tunes for the middle sections, and finishing with a hymn tune for the very patriotic finale. The dynamics were superb and just watching Guy's control and obvious love of both the music and his job was wonderful, and also to see how the orchestra responded to him - a masterclass in conducting right there in front of my eyes!

The connections that I spoke about with all the pieces in this concert is first of all, death and mortality. The first two movements of this symphony, especially the first, are sombre and grave, whether intentionally so or not; and secondly all three pieces very cleverly utilise single melodic phrases to their 'nth extent, either through simple repetition of the same phrase (minimalism) or by variations and extemporisation

Tchaikovsky's 5th symphony is both a firm favourite of mine and of the concert platform in general, and I have heard this work many times indeed. This evening it was played with vigour, youthful zeal, but mostly with talent, skill and under Guy's direction, a whole sound filling the auditorium with loads of red, blue and green!! [Tchaikovsky was synesthesic, and so undoubtedly this is what he would have said!] An incredible high to finish the concert on. Super!

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 20/10/18

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