Friday, 15 February 2019

REVIEW: Chetham's Symphony Orchestra Concert - The Stoller Hall, Manchester

What could be a better way of celebrating the feast of St. Valentine than by listening to classical music? Not music of the Romantic period - that would have been a little too 'obvious' perhaps, but instead music from just afterwards, the early to middle 20th century. This evening we listened to three pieces, all surprisingly similar in their differences, and played superbly by the Symphony Orchestra of Chetham's School Of Music.

I have said it before, and will undoubtedly say it again, that the quality and musicianship on display from an almost 100-piece ensemble the eldest of which could be a maximum of 18 years old, and some a good 3 or 4 years younger, is absolutely astounding. Close your eyes and it could easily be an adult professional orchestra that was playing. And moreover, how on earth do they all fit on such a small stage!?

Chetham's Music School is celebrating it's demi-centenary this year, and as such their music ensembles are giving a few more special concerts to acknowledge this. Further, their long time Director, Stephen Threlfall will be retiring too, and so one should grab every opportunity to watch him conduct - as he did this evening - before we say a fond farewell.

The opening of this evening's concert was the only music from Brittens' Peter Grimes that I actually know; a concert suite of 'Four Sea Interludes' which, when played together as they nearly always are, sounds very cinematic and dramatic. Not being a huge Britten fan I don't really listen to much of his music and tend to avoid concerts where his music features, but for all my misgivings, I found these pieces, as I revisited them this evening, quite delightful, and much more harmonic in structure and thematic in development than I remembered them to be. And the final few bars of 'The Storm' is a real crowd-pleaser. Written in 1945, the music cannot help but to be a product of an Englishman (and all that that stood for at that time) living in California away from ravaged Europe. His music is brooding, patriotic, but deeply nostalgic.

Following this we heard, in reverse chronology, Sibelius' Vioin Concerto (1904). Surely the opening passage of this piece is one of the most beautiful of any violin concerto ever written; capturing with it not just the Finland ( Karelia) of Sibelius, but also his passion and love for it and the music and traditions of this, his homeland. Admittedly, it does wander after this with a lot of 'unnecessary' notes in the solo violin part, but is soon brought back to pulling at our emotional strings with deep and sonorous chords coming from the wind and string sections.

Overall, Sibelius' work is a patchwork or jigsaw of folk and traditional melodies; partially played or augmented and developed, and this continues throughout all three movements of this 35 minute piece, and his only concerto.

The first movement is broody but hopeful, whilst the second movement, an adagio, gives us a lovely and simple folk tune opening, quiet and unassuming in its own wonderful reverie, building in volume to a central crescendo before dying down to finish with an almost inaudible single note. Don't let this fool you though; Sibelius's scores were hugely orchestral and grandiose and this just lulls the listener into a false sense of calm before the third movement opens to a lively traditional dance which is extemporised and metamorphosed along the way bringing the whole to a fantastic and bravura finale.

The violin this evening was played by 18 year old Molin Han, and currently is studying at Chetham's, before going to The Royal Academy Of Music in London in September to continue her studies. Han's playing was vigorous and passionate and she seemed to 'attack' the vioin at times as she allowed her whole psyche to involve itself in her playing. Spellbinding.

After the interval and we continued the chronological descent and just missing the 20th century with the 1899 scoring of Edward Elgar's famous Enigma Variations.

Again, I must have heard this piece a thousand times, and each time I hear something new, so wonderful and clever is its composition. The 'theme' doesn't just crop up in its variant forms each movement but fragments of it can also be heard in other instruments as they make the counter-melodies, harmonies and passing phrases. It really is quite amazing just how far a single phrase can go! Of course we were all waiting for the middle of the work, the variation known as NIMROD - and we were absolutely not disappointed, as the famous air lept from the strings and out towards the audience we were bathed in pure sound.  My favourite movement however is not this at all, but the one that immediately succeeds it, 'Dorabella'. a quiet but jaunty little country dance with the melody in the wind instruments whilst the strings play pizzicato accompaniment. And of course, this, just like the two pieces before it has a loud and symphonic style showstopping ending.

I stated at the beginning of this review that these three pieces were similar in their differences. Their differences are obvious, but all three pieces are staunchly patriotic and are a product not just of their epoch but of their generations' ideologies and national pride. All three pieces have taken single simple melodies and developed them into huge orchestral works; and all three pieces are dramatic and bombastic in their scoring.

Condurted by Stephen Threlfall, who really put his all behind these pieces as he controlled each section from the stand, this was a wonderful concert, excellent music, supebly played, by (in my humble opinion) one of the best youth orchestra's in the country!

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 14/2/19

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