Programmes & Reviews
Overture to Candide
Charm, charisma and class | Maria Włoszczowska and PSO
By Philip R Buttall
Plymouth Symphony Orchestra’s regular home base is the Guildhall, but because there was talk of a refurbishment, the venue shifted to The Minster Church of St Andrew, just a stone’s throw away.
The obvious advantages of this enforced change are that, while the Guildhall is virtually devoid of much in the way of an acoustic setting suitable for a symphony orchestra, the church, as would be expected, tends to excel in this area.
Secondly, and I admit somewhat selfishly, it gives me an ideal opportunity to chat with orchestra members, as they prepare to set up for the concert, and which I was able to, on this occasion. However, once the usual pleasantries were done and dusted, everyone I spoke to was simply bursting to tell me about the evening’s violin soloist, and how wonderful she had been in rehearsal, and at the previous performance in Liskeard.
Not simply a most highly-talented Polish violinist, who had only last June been appointed leader of the prestigious Royal Northern Sinfonia (RNS), based at Sage, Gateshead, Maria Włoszczowska had charmed everyone in rehearsals, and was also so encouraging to the orchestra, which, sadly, isn’t always the case when a fully-fledged professional soloist encounters an amateur orchestra. True, Plymouth Symphony Orchestra (PSO) is technically described as ‘amateur’ but in no way does this imply any pejorative connotation. In the true spirit of the word, they simply play for ‘love’ – not for ‘money’. Although the majority had made a conscious choice to follow other career-paths, there are still some really fine players present, who wouldn’t be out of place in a fully-professional ensemble.
Programmes & Reviews
Fanfare for the Common Man
Rhapsody in Blue
Soloist – Joanna MacGregor CBE
Symphonic Dances from West Side Story
Symphony No.9 ‘From the New World’
By Philip R Buttall
Pzazz | Plymouth Symphony Orchestra with Joanna MacGregor
If you ever wondered what a heady cocktail is like, all would have been revealed, if you’d been lucky enough to have been in the Guildhall, to enjoy our own Plymouth Symphony Orchestra’s (PSO) triumphant return to the venue, after some two years’ Covid inactivity.
3 celebrations rolled into one
Conductor Anne Kimber had chosen a barnstorming programme with a strong American connection, intended to incorporate last year’s aborted Mayflower 400 Celebrations. November to our American cousins means Thanksgiving, and because Independence Day back in July was also hit by Covid restrictions, we finally ended up with a joyous mix of all three celebrations rolled into one.
A wonderful renaissance
And what a fabulous evening’s music-making it turned out to be, made all the more rewarding by being a complete sell-out – such a wonderful renaissance for the Guildhall as a concert venue once more.
Piano Concerto No.2
Soloist – Giuseppe Guarrera
Symphony No.3 ‘Eroica’
By Philip R Buttall
Frisson and élan! – PSO with Mihai Ritivoiu (piano)
Everything was coming along nicely for Plymouth Symphony Orchestra’s regular November date in the Guildhall. In fact I had only just posted on social media, where I alluded to some welcome Sicilian sunshine on the day, courtesy of the Sicilian-born pianist joining the orchestra in Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No 2.
Violin Concerto No.1
Soloist – Savitri Grier
Lyricism, fireworks, wall-to-wall melody: PSO and Savitri Grier
Bruch’s Violin Concerto is one of the best-loved in the repertoire, demanding great lyricism, yet fireworks, too, from the soloist when required. In young British violinist Savitri Grier PSO simply could not have chosen a finer protagonist, possessing every necessary attribute to make this a very special performance, and one of pure heartfelt emotion. There was fire and passion in the opening movement, where all the technical work was impeccably managed throughout.
Barber of Seville Overture
Suites from Carmen
Grand March from Aida
Ride of the Valkyries – Wagner
Sadko – Rimsky-Korsakov
Things to Come – Bliss
Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso
Fratres – Arvo Part
Swan Lake Suite (excerpts) – Tchaikovsky
Prince Igor Overture – Borodin
Adagio – Albinoni
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini – Rachmaninov
Soloist: Alexander Ullman
Symphony No.2 – Brahms
CONCERT REVIEW FOR ARTSCULTURE
If Saint Cecilia – patron saint of music and musicians – was up there watching a live streaming of Plymouth Symphony Orchestra’s (PSO) latest concert, which took place appropriately enough on her annual saint’s feast day, I’m sure she would have been really delighted with what she saw, and heard.
Before even a note was played, she would have picked up on the fact that there was a sizeable audience present and on a night when it was raining heavily. More so, she would have been really pleased to see a good number of young people among them – and not just the ones who came along in the past when given a free ticket, where the programme was decidedly more easy-listening, like movie themes, and when they’d probably been promised a Big Mac stop-off on the way home. No, conductor Anne Kimber has realised for some time now that, if you make a programme popular, then you’re always more likely to get a good response – and with relatively little professional classical music visiting the city apart from opera companies, this becomes even more crucial.
Another sure-fire audience-winner is to include a visiting professional soloist in a concerto, especially for piano or violin. Yes, it would be great to do this every time, and when support is good – as was the case last night – PSO will be able to bring back violinist Ben Baker next March, following his superb performance of the Lark Ascending here, almost a year ago to the day – no doubt tonight’s soloist, too.
A full-blooded rendition of Borodin’s Prince Igor Overture got things off to a great start, where powerful full-orchestra moments, particularly with the brass involved, contrasted well with those of real sensitivity from the woodwind, and all compellingly supported by the orchestra’s undoubted best asset – its string section. Here, even though the basses were down to two, there was still sufficient weight at the bottom end to carry the full weight of the harmony above. Percussion, too, made its telling contribution throughout.
Serving as a fine aperitif to the concerto to come, Albinoni’s hauntingly-beautiful Adagio received a fine performance in the hands of the evening’s leader Dawn Ashby. PSO have an admirable plan in place whereby there are effectively three lead-violinists, who take it in turns to act in that capacity in a kind of rota situation. This not only keeps everyone on their toes, but also provides some variety in the way the conductor’s intentions are conveyed to what is the backbone of any orchestra. Dawn played with heartfelt, simple sincerity, displaying a rich and full-bodied tone, and unrelenting consistency in terms of intonation. Along with the sympathetic string backing, Paul Foster made a very effective use of an electronic keyboard to mimic the original organ accompaniment, providing strong and realistic support which never overpowered the soloist, in a reading which was tasteful, but never simply mawkish.
London-born pianist Alexander Ullman joined the orchestra for the concerto – in fact a concertante work for piano and orchestra, rather than a fully-fledged concerto on this occasion. But if this might have suggested an easier option, then a quick glance at the piano score of Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini would soon dispel that myth. Even from the work’s simply-conceived opening, it was clear that there were soon going to be fireworks galore as Alexander started to get into the swing of these twenty-four variations which comprise Rachmaninov’s brilliant showpiece for virtuoso pianist and where, it must be said, the orchestra doesn’t get let off that lightly either.
Alexander dealt with every death-defying difficulty with great panache, totally confident in his immense pianist powers, which saw him make light work of the composer’s bristling technical difficulties. From the rapid, scalic passages, to the glorious warmth and emotion of the famous central slow-section, Alexander’s performance was frankly as good as you’re ever likely to hear with eminently more prestigious orchestra and not just in UK venues. Anne Kimber did an absolutely stalwart job in holding everything together, and ensuring that the soloist was rarely, if ever, overwhelmed by the orchestra. An immediate well-deserved standing ovation from all present clearly showed what the audience thought, and Alex had also, meanwhile won over the hearts of the orchestra during the relatively short rehearsal time available. To reward his listeners – both behind him on stage and in the hall – as an encore Alexander generously obliged with Liszt’s own take on Paganini’s Twenty-fourth Caprice, another fiendishly difficult piece, especially after the exigencies of the Rachmaninov that had just preceded it.
On paper at least, the second half looked to be something of an anti-climax, given that Brahms’s Second Symphony isn’t his most dramatic, and is essentially sunny, to the degree that it has been described as his ‘Pastoral Symphony, something that wouldn’t generally apply to his output. As more of a classical romantic, though, there is still more than enough music to get your teeth into, but you do have to bite a little more deeply into it – something that wouldn’t really be the case with a Tchaikovsky symphony, where you can just sit back and let the swathe of tunes and their lavish orchestration simply wash over you.
Nonetheless, Anne and her players strove to find the inner music in Brahms’s Second Symphony and, while the performance wasn’t technically unflawed, the essential nuances of the composer’s score were still conveyed effectively.
PSO continues to do a tremendous job in making good-quality symphonic repertoire available in an area where no large professional ensemble seems to tread. Without them we wouldn’t have heard the likes of Alexander Ullmann, or any of the other soloists who have played with them in the past – at least without making a forty-five mile trip up the A38, that is.
Plymouth audiences remain very much indebted to the players’ dedication and expertise, and, most of all, to PSO conductor Anne Kimber, not only for her choice of programme and artists, but more so for her ongoing enthusiasm and drive on the concert platform itself.
CLASSICAL WITH PHILIP R BUTTALL
Romeo and Juliet Overture – Tchaikovsky
Adagio from Spartacus
(Theme from The Onedin Line)
Finlandia – Sibelius
Symphony No 6 – ‘Pastoral’ – Beethoven
CONCERT REVIEW FOR PLYMOUTH HERALD
Orchestra’s enjoyable show ended in heroic fashion
The city has always been fortunate to have an amateur orchestra of the size and quality of Plymouth Symphony Orchestra on its doorstep.
Unlike many similar outfits around the country, though, the orchestra has a particularly strong and vibrant string section, indeed one of its richest assets, and which was very much in evidence in this programme of Orchestral Favourites. But on last night’s showing, woodwind and brass in particular did come a very close second, with only the occasional solo slip here and there, possibly due to the somewhat unfavourable on-stage temperature.
In planning her programme this time, conductor Anne Kimber did something really quite simple, but which proved eminently effective on the night. She chose to start with the symphony, and then end with a real orchestral tour de force that would involve virtually everyone at the end of the evening, thereby building perfectly towards a final climax – something which wouldn’t really have happened with Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony coming last.
Under the assured and inspired leadership of Cath Smith, and Anne’s well-studied direction, the orchestra still gave a well-paced performance of the Beethoven, following this with a really impressive rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Overture, arguably the evening’s highlight. The well-known Adagio from Spartacus ticked most of the boxes, leaving Sibelius’s epic tone-poem Finlandia to round off this most enjoyable concert in truly heroic fashion.
PHILIP R BUTTALL