Monday, 1 July 2013

In Review: Haffner Orchestra at Ashton Hall,

In Review: Haffner Orchestra at Ashton Hall, Lancaster, Saturday, 19th June 2013
Reviewed by Henry Prince

The audience almost filled the town hall on Saturday night. Many will have dragged themselves away from Wimbledon coverage to hear the Haffner Orchestra in its final concert of the season. Two hours later, they were congratulating themselves on their choice of entertainment for the evening, the spectacle of Serena looking for another ‘double bagel’ win over some hapless opponent having been replaced with the exquisite sounds of Bartok, Holst, Hummel and Beethoven played by this exceptional group of amateur musicians.

As a patron of this orchestra, I have come to expect a Haffner evening to be educational. On this occasion, I learned both from the programme notes and from the value-added pre-concert talk by the evening’s trumpet soloist.

The soloist Peter Lawrence (originally from Barrow-in-Furness) has lived with his family in the north eastern Bavarian town of Hof for 20 years. He told us that there were many more orchestras in Germany than in the UK and that many British and American musicians live in Germany precisely because of the greater availability of work.

Although he had been asked by the Haffner to perform the popular Haydn trumpet concerto, he had requested that he be allowed to perform the less-well-known Hummel concerto, a work that, unlike the Haydn, which was the standard work for every trumpet audition, he had not played and heard to death over the years. The audience loved his choice.

Listeners unfamiliar with the use of sonata form in a classical concerto may well have wondered why the soloist was simply standing around on the stage for the first few minutes of the piece but that question will have been quickly forgotten once the orchestral rendition of the exposition was out of the way. Lawrence’s infectious enthusiasm for music and obvious delight in performance promoted a very warm reception of his contribution to the evening’s enjoyment. We were so carried away by his playing that we forgot to watch out for his employment of the unusual fourth valve on his instrument or to wonder how close modern E-flat major tonality sounds to the composition’s original key of E major, which in Hummel’s day over 200 years ago was significantly flatter than today’s standard orchestral pitch.

One would have thought that the Hummel trumpet concerto gave pleasure enough for one concert. It was a bonus then that the whole of the second half was given over to Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony. Always a hugely popular work, this amateur group took it on wholeheartedly and showed off their considerable playing skills in every department. Everyone did exactly what he or she was supposed to do as we arrived in the countryside and were escorted past the babbling brook towards the peasants’ festival. Lots of nice woodwind, brass and inner strings work. Then came the storm...

Holy Moses! What a storm! Roll over Beethoven! If the lights in the Ashton Hall had so much as flickered, many of us would have dived under our seats for self-preservation. Every piece of orchestral kit was brought into play for what seemed like ages and it was genuinely a time for joining the shepherds in thanksgiving when the programmatic clouds parted and we at last heard the musical rainbow.

There are plenty of places to hide musically in a storm. There are fewer hiding places when most instruments are propped on laps while rests are being counted, as was the case at the beginning of the Holst tone poem ‘Egdon Heath’. The opening bars (the LSO under Britten) are not difficult but they are nevertheless exposed and the breath the basses took before playing them was not quite deep enough. A case of nerves taking over - always an occupational hazard for the amateur orchestral player. When the motif was later reprised, they played it fine.

The piece is extraordinarily beautiful. Holst himself regarded it as “possibly his finest achievement”, according to the programme notes. And very demanding! It contains countless opportunities for musical failure but this orchestra converted those time and again into opportunities to demonstrate just how good they are. I am sure many of us would have liked to have heard the piece played again.

The evening’s opening piece was Bartok’s Rumanian Folk Dances. Composed in 1915 for piano and two years later transcribed by the composer for orchestra, these seven Transylvanian tunes were delightfully and competently played.

It was nice to see the much-loved Natalia Luis-Bassa once again waving the baton. As we all know, an orchestra needs someone to organise everybody and ensure that all perform in the same way. Natalia does that well. I hope one day soon she will find a solution to the occasional tendency of the lowest strings to play just behind the beat and just below the tonal centre of a note. My bet remains that all they need is a hug. It must be difficult for back row players to avoid feeling isolated when they are at such a large physical distance from the conductor. The metaphorical distance is even greater when the players see only her profile.

H. Prince

Artist website: http://www.haffnerorchestra.org/

Concert Programme:
Bartok: Rumanian Folk Dances
Holst: Egdon Heath (Homage to Hardy)
Hummel: Trumpet Concerto in E flat major
Beethoven: Symphony No.6 in F major ‘Pastoral’

Tickets were priced:  Adults £12.50, Concessions £11.50, 18 and under free

Next Haffner Concert: Saturday 16 November 2013

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