Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Review: Haffner Orchestra

Haffner Orchestra
Saturday, 28 June 2014
in Ashton Hall, Lancaster

Reviewed by Henry Prince

Natalia Luis-Bassa
It was much-loved Natalia’s final appearance as principal conductor and Musical Director of the Haffner. The decade-long vast improvement in the orchestra’s collective musicianship and skills has been widely linked directly to her decade-long association with this group. In the opinion of this patron of the orchestra, there can be little doubt that her infectious enthusiasm has played its part in what has clearly been an amazing line of progress in recent years. As was said in public tribute at the close of Saturday’s concert, the orchestra had hoped to be lucky enough to retain Ms Luis-Bassa’s services for five years and had in fact been doubly fortunate to keep her for twice that long.

What a great way to go! Berlioz, Mozart and especially Brahms, whose second symphony received pride of place as the final work of the evening. Rich with frequently changing tempi and dynamics, the Brahms gave every opportunity for the orchestra to show off how much it has developed under Ms Luis-Bassa’s baton since 2004. It was clear that the players felt secure and in good hands and the performance was pretty much as perfect as could ever be hoped for by a bunch of part-time musicians. I thought the whole piece was played magnificently!

I particularly enjoyed the horns and woodwinds at the outset of the first movement and the theme for cellos and violas shortly thereafter. I also loved the woodwinds with pizzicato cello accompaniment at the beginning of the third movement. The last movement was appropriately ‘con spirito’ but controlled throughout.

The programme began with Berlioz’s King Lear Overture. The challenging unison opening was tricky to settle into but once this was behind them, the orchestra produced some truly delightful and relaxed rubato playing with minimal but effective direction from the stick. Certainly a daring choice to start an amateur orchestral concert but successful nonetheless with the ensemble building and carrying forward the confidence it would need for the programme to follow.

Marianne Thorsen’s rendition of Mozart’s second violin concerto was splendid and the audience got the opportunity to hear a good Stradivarius played exceptionally well. (The soloist told the pre-concert talk gathering that some of these old Cremonese instruments do not in fact live up to their billings.) Unfortunately, the performance of the Mozart was somewhat spoiled, for me, by the overabundance of lower strings. Somehow I don’t think an army of four double basses and six or seven cellos was quite what the composer had in mind when he scored this nimble chamber work.

Marianne Thorsen
Two of the concerto cadenzas deserve special note. The one in the second movement stood out as quite remarkable for its delicacy and spell-binding pianissimo—capturing 100% of the audience’s attention: a packed house so quiet that it was difficult to believe that so many human beings could be so silent all at once.

The other cadenza of special note came at the end of the first movement. Why was it so special? Because it coincided with the quiet chiming of 8 pm by the Town Hall clock situated directly above the concert hall. The pitch of the chime was exactly the dominant of the movement’s key and gave the impression of a sympathetically resonating harmonic on an open string elsewhere in the orchestra. A very curious occurrence that would have been a disaster had the chime sounded at any other pitch!

Farewell, Natalia!
No announcement of a replacement Musical Director has yet been published. Hopefully, the orchestra will be able to engage someone with the potential to be equally as effective as Natalia has been. Might someone with a local connection to Lancaster be available and willing to take on the role?

H. Prince

Orchestra’s website: http://www.haffnerorchestra.org/
Artist’s website: http://www.worldwideartists.com/Marianne_Thorsen.htm

Concert Programme:
Berlioz: Overture King Lear
Mozart: Violin Concerto No.4
Brahms: Symphony No.2

Tickets were priced:  Adults £13, Concessions £12, 18 and under free

Next Haffner concert: Saturday, 15 November 2014, Great Hall, Lancaster University

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