Monday, 11 February 2013

In Review: The Haffner Orchestra in the Great Hall

Haffner Orchestra
in the Great Hall, Lancaster University
Saturday, 9 February 2013, 7.30 pm
Reviewed by Henry Prince

I must declare an interest at the outset in that I am listed among this orchestra's patrons and have been delighted by it for three decades, from the days when it used to play in a steamed-up Princess Margaretha Hall (RIP 2007) at the former St Martin’s College.  Saturday’s players could just about have squeezed into that venue but there wouldn’t have been any room left over for the rest of us. How far this orchestra has advanced over those years!

It remains an amateur orchestra but it no longer sounds like one. In the old days, one could tell immediately which piece had absorbed most of the rehearsal time. And the strings sounded like amateur strings, by which I mean that the intonation was insecure.

The vast improvement in the intonation of this orchestra’s strings was demonstrated tonight in the opening bars of the opening piece. Search ‘Britten Dawn’ on YouTube (or try this Bernstein version) to hear the huge risk that this orchestra took. Sixteen amateur violinists starting cold on a note somewhere on the E-string way up the fingerboard! None of the old ‘you, you and you just pretend to play’ trick. No re-arrangement of the score, as in ‘Julian will start off alone so that the rest of you can get the right pitch.’ No, all 16 went for it and they nailed it! If there had been 15 not quite right notes, what chance would there have been to pick out and follow the leader’s true pitch?  But there were 16 bang on notes!  There is no way they could have done that in the old days!

Was it a huge risk? Probably not anymore. Yes, there can still be bum-clenching moments from time to time with this orchestra but there were none tonight. Even the horns were secure! (Horns, you have never sounded better and did not deserve to be hidden away so far from the front of the stage!)

If 16 violins can play as one, why can’t 12 lower strings do the same? There was a point in the Prokofiev when I would have gladly de-coupled the rear carriage from the rest of the train. Is it a lack of sectional rehearsals? Or is it simply that these clearly equally-talented people don’t get enough TLC? I have noticed a tendency in the conductors of this orchestra to give more attention to players on their left - the opposite of the way QI’s Stephen Fry tends to give his attention to those on his right.

Audiences seem to demand that every band have a flamboyant frontman (Bernstein, Mercury, Dudamel), even though that person be largely decorative once the rehearsals have been concluded and the public performance begins (OK, not Freddie). But the frontman of an amateur orchestra must expect to have to work during the performance itself. Inevitably things will go wrong when amateurs play together and they will need help. Something did go wrong a couple of times, with players sounding uncertain where the beat was.  They knew they were not playing together but could not agree who was ‘right’. Effectively, they were crying for help and, frankly, not getting much.  It happened in the third movement of the Britten and again in the Prokofiev, as players struggled to reach consensus as to exactly where the pulse lay. A clear and unambiguous indication of the beat is all that was needed and the fa-lump fa-lump fa-lump would have evaporated.

But that was all that was wrong with the Romeo and Juliet. What a marvellous performance! An atmospheric viola solo and a scary but confident high woodwind contribution to the final orchestral chord (which lasted forever). Lovely music, very well delivered.

The curiosity on the programme was John Carmichael’s Concierto FolklĪŒrico, written as a conventional piano concerto and arranged later by the composer for four hands (that is, played by two pianists on one piano). In the pre-concert talk - always an excellent value for money event at Haffner Orchestra concerts because it is free! - the composer himself and the two pianists (Geoffrey Pratley and Anne Applin) spoke at length about the piece, which was premiered by this duo in 2011, and about the tribulations of performing piano duets. We learned that players commonly annotate the score with ‘high wrist’, ‘low wrist’ and ‘lean out of the way’ to avoid collisions during performances. We were also told that sometimes a scale passage conventionally fingered 3-2-1-4-3-2 might sometimes have to be played 5-4-5-4-5-4 to avoid obstructing the other player and that it was not unknown for one player to be holding a note when the other was required to play that note as well! So we anticipated contortions and were not disappointed.

I am not convinced that there were enough notes for three hands, let alone four, and suspect that the arrangement for four hands grew out of the friendship that exists between the composer and the evening’s two performers.  But that doesn’t matter because duets are so very entertaining.  I enjoyed the piece very much and was particularly enchanted by the second movement, with its Russian influence, and the 3-time lyrical mid section of the last movement.  Strong cello and violin solos.

So which piece absorbed most of the rehearsal time? Frankly, I couldn’t tell. If you were not at this concert, you certainly should have been. You missed a treat!

H. Prince

Artist website:

Concert Programme:
Britten: Four Sea Interludes
John Carmichael: Concierto Folklorico
Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet Suite No.2

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

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