Monday, 17 February 2014

Review: Haffner Orchestra

Haffner Orchestra
Saturday, 15 February 2014
in the Great Hall, Lancaster University

Reviewed by Henry Prince

Haffner Orchestra
This patron could not have been more pleased to hear the evening’s professional soloist declaim in the pre-concert talk that this amateur orchestra is “absolutely bloody marvellous”! Saved me saying it yet again and running the risk of being accused of unnecessary hyperbole.

Given that the description applies equally to the soloist herself, it is interesting to catalogue the series of happy coincidences that led to the bringing of Shostakovich’s second piano concerto to Lancaster University on Saturday night. Kathryn Stott had hinted in the pre-concert talk that the second movement of the work was something special. In the event, it may have afforded the only chance of a glimpse of Nirvana that some of us will ever get.

So what was required to set the scene? First, there must be a lass growing up in a house in Nelson which happens to have an upright piano in one room. When the young girl is about 8 years old, someone needs to suggest to her parents that they send her to the Menuhin School in Surrey for the next 8 years of her life where she will live with other similarly gifted “kids” like Nigel Kennedy and in time will move on to the Royal College of Music where she will, incidentally, meet Yo-Yo Ma (in his underpants!), with whom she will collaborate musically for decades to come.

Kathryn Stott
Photo: Lorenzo Cicconi Massi
The next ingredient in the mix is to put the young lady in a position where she begins to form strong musical opinions—whether, for example, she likes chamber music (she loves it) or she likes to play from memory (she doesn’t). Then throw the 19-year-old into the Leeds Piano Competition “for the experience” where she was scared witless (was that the word she refused to use?) when she found herself in the final with an under-prepared Beethoven ‘Emperor’ to play under television lights in the Town Hall. She somehow got through it with her dignity intact and was declared a prize-winner to boot.

Roll the calendar forward and the Haffner Orchestra approaches KS. Gone are the days when she allows others to choose her repertoire. She now plays what she wants to play and it is safe to assume that she also decides with whom she will play. Fortunately, her opinion of the Haffner was good and she said, “Yes.” Equally fortunate, for the audience, was the fact that she wanted to play the Shostakovich. A deal was struck and on Saturday evening a packed house was transported by the work’s second movement to a part of the universe normally closed off because of its very special spiritual nature.

The sojourn was brief but will last in the memory forever, it seems. Don’t expect to find that experience re-created on YouTube or indeed on any CD. It cannot be captured. You had to be in the Great Hall on Saturday to know what I am talking about. Orchestra and soloist disembodied together and hovering somewhere above the pilgrim’s way. When the moment was over, there may possibly have been a dry eye here and there, but not many. Mostly there was stunned silence, not least from the orchestral players themselves who will have been astonished at their successful control of so much emotional energy.

The outer movements of the Shostakovich were technically demanding and often flashy, but I could not help feeling that the first movement was in fact played more as a chamber work than as a full-throated concerto. I believe this must have been owing to the specific selection of tempi and dynamics. Some passages were taken very slowly and at pianissimo, with the piano part barely audible and the orchestral accompaniment even quieter. The effect was beautiful.

The evening’s programme began with a competent rendition of Beethoven’s Leonore no.1 and finished with a 15-year-old Mendelssohn’s first symphony. The exposed opening bars of the Beethoven were competently dispatched and the remainder of the piece was played with precision, control and confidence, with just the right amount of help coming from the baton.

The Mendelssohn was also well-played but betrayed in the second movement a persistent less-than-perfect attention to intonation by one of the string sections. The habit of attacking a note from its flat side (as if the note were, say, a D-flat instead of a C-sharp) and then correcting its pitch upwards is, in my opinion, the single most obvious ‘amateur’ badge remaining. Eradicate this fault and many listeners would simply disbelieve that the Haffner is not a professional orchestra.

The Arensky variations, played immediately after the interval, were a delight to hear. The theme-and-variations form is fun at any time and these were just inventive enough to be interesting but not to confuse any listener who was keeping count of the seven variations. The programme notes said that the piece, scored for strings only, was originally written for inclusion in a string quartet. It certainly had a chamber music feel and gave the Haffner strings the opportunity to show off their remarkable capability, which they did.

This orchestra is all about its players. A collection of amateur musicians from all walks of life (pushers of pens, prams and what-all) bound together by a common personal need to play music together. The better they are, the better they become. The better they become, the greater the chance to play with outstanding professionals like Kathryn Stott. It all works together for the good of everyone, including us, the listeners, who get to be there when it all comes together, as it did on Saturday evening in the Great Hall.

It was nice to see the orchestra’s principal conductor Natalia Luis-Bassa back behind the stick and giving the steady unadorned musical support that allows the Haffner to play at its best.

How can this orchestra get any better!

H. Prince

Orchestra’s website:
Artist’s website:

Concert Programme:
Beethoven: Leonore Overture no.1
Shostakovich: Piano Concerto no.2
Arensky: Variations on a Theme by Tchaikovsky
Mendelssohn: Symphony no.1

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

Next Haffner concert: Saturday, 28 June 2014, Ashton Hall, Lancaster

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