Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Review: Haffner Orchestra

Haffner Orchestra
Saturday, 20 June 2015
In the Ashton Hall, Lancaster

Reviewed by Henry Prince

Haffner Orchestra, Ashton Hall, Lancaster
One of the great joys of attending a live orchestral concert is that not only does one hear the music and feel the atmosphere, one can also ‘see’ the music. Many listeners may not be aware, for example, that the soloist’s first note of the Elgar cello concerto is accompanied. Despite hearing the work many times in radio or television broadcasts or seeing it played on DVD and on YouTube, unless one has access to the score, that fact can be easily missed because it is hidden by the visual attention normally devoted exclusively to the soloist. In fact the low strings supply the root in the opening E minor chord, the solo cello sounding the same note unaccompanied only in the second statement of the chord.

Other examples of the value of ‘seeing’ the music occurred in the opening Larghetto. The first note of the movement is an open-string G marked piano for first violins. Only a visual observer could have experienced the effort that was exerted by the section in preparing to play that first quiet sound perfectly. Another example: when the low strings at one point take a break from playing and bows go down, the listener is immediately alerted to pay closer attention to the exquisite three-part ensemble of first and second violins and violas. There were many such visual nuggets to be found in the performance.

It must be daunting to play the Elgar cello concerto. Surely there is always the risk that any deviation from the well-known Du Pré recording will be considered unacceptable. Thank you for your bravery, Megan Rolf. Your performance was wonderful. You and the orchestra seemed to inspire each other to give your best. Everything was solid: strings, wind, soloist.

The second half of the concert was given over entirely to Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony—a massive work stuffed full of contrasts and climaxes. By the time Beethoven was writing it in the early years of the 19th century, all the tools ever to be required by him or any other future composer had already been invented and were in the bag. During his lifetime, Beethoven used them all and employed quite a large number of them (maybe all) in this work alone. Key change, imitation, homophony, polyphony, fugue, theme and variation, AB form, augmentation, diminution—everything is there. The compositional device he preferred, however, was the sonata form element known as ‘development’.

Beethoven could develop any motif, however unsuitable it might seem. The Eroica is one huge swimming pool of developing themes. Trying to spot them all is hugely entertaining. Beethoven loved to pluck a passing rhythm or group of notes and blow it up like a toy balloon almost to bursting point, only to let it go and look for another to play with. Whereas the Classical composer kept the development section neatly boxed between exposition and recapitulation, Beethoven seemed to delight in seeing how much music he could wring out of as little material as possible.

Of course, the listener does not need to be aware of all the compositional games going on to enjoy the exciting sounds coming from the concert platform. But occasionally a little knowledge is needed to avoid being tricked by the composer. The programme note drew attention to the fact that critics at the first performance wrote that the horn had commenced the recapitulation section in the first movement a bar or so early. It certainly sounded that way on Saturday but we all knew that it was only Beethoven’s little joke.

The members of the orchestra clearly enjoyed the Eroica enormously, as did the house. What a pleasure to see so many smiling faces! The orchestra believed it had done well and the audience agreed.

Megan Rolf and Bob Chasey
It is always well worth the effort to arrive a little early in order to hear the customary pre-concert talk. It is then that the listener has the opportunity to be made aware of what to listen for in the performance. In my on-going quest to find a rational explanation for why this orchestra, of which I continue to be a patron, seems to have improved every time I hear it, I took a mental note of two points made, respectively, by soloist Megan Rolf and conductor Bob Chasey. The first was that the player had observed that the members of the orchestra did not cocoon themselves in their individual parts but instead looked up and engaged with the whole of the performance. The other point was that the conductor’s job was not to entertain the audience but to facilitate the performers.

Putting the two pre-concert-talk points together with the fact that, as I learned later, the orchestra had been encouraged to play without a conductor at times during rehearsals, it seems to this reviewer that the players’ potential is simply being released little by little. Under a conductor who is able to harness that collective capability, this orchestra cannot help but continue to get better and better.

H. Prince

Haffner Orchestra’s website: http://www.haffnerorchestra.org

Concert Programme:
Elgar: Larghetto from Serenade for Strings
Elgar: Cello Concerto
Beethoven: Symphony No.3 (Eroica)

Tickets were priced:  Adults £13.50, Concessions £12.50, 18 and under free

Next Haffner Orchestra concert: Saturday, 28 November 2015, Great Hall, Lancaster University

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