Saturday, August 11, 2018

ELGAR CELLO CONCERTO - National Capital Orchestra

Directed by Leonard Weiss
Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, August 5.

Reviewed by TONY MAGEE

Somerset county provides a rich tapestry of musical heritage and Gustav Holst explored this when he composed his “A Somerset Rhapsody” in 1907, using themes drawn from the collected works of his friend Cecil Sharp, who had amassed over 1500 folk songs from the region.  Also home to the Glastonbury Festival, Somerset is a Mecca for musicians and music-lovers from around the world.

Somerset Scene

So began the National Capital Orchestra’s concert at Queanbeyan’s beautiful “Q” Theatre. A fine opening piece and well played by the orchestra with particularly melodious work from the combined unison violas and cellos.

Second on the program was the world premiere of “Autonomy” by Canberra composer Chloe Sinclair. The work was marred by a disastrous tuneup which left the orchestra struggling to find any common pitch. It is a rhythmically challenging work and tested the orchestra to its limits, sometimes a bit beyond. The work itself is admirable and showcases Sinclair’s passion and talent for unusual polyrhythms and block chordal writing contrasted with complex polyphony. It must have been quite a thrill to hear her new work performed by a full orchestra for the first time. More rehearsal would be a great idea and hopefully there will be another and more successful performance in the near future.

The Symphony No.8 by Ralph Vaughan Williams is a brilliant showcase for an expanded percussion section and of particular note in this performance was the beautiful doubling between woodwinds and vibraphone and later in the final movement, the inclusion of celeste. The woodwind section is of a high standard in this orchestra and actually carried the sound for a great deal of the entire concert. Unfortunately, due to stage limitations, the gong had to be placed in the wings and I could’t hear it from the centre of the theatre. Perhaps other listeners in different locations could.

Tuning was poor to start the symphony, although it did improve. Not enough care and attention to detail was placed on this critical part of preparation for a performance. This is something that could be corrected easily in rehearsal. Spend an entire rehearsal or more just on tuning practices if necessary.

In the final movement the orchestra projected the power and drama of the piece very well and in particular the strings captured the essence of the Vaughan Williams sound with the classic sweeping parallel octaves and fifths (a huge “no-no” in classical harmony!), sometimes reminiscent of his “Tallis Fantasia”. Violin solos were nicely played by orchestra leader Thea Lau, reflecting themes from “The Lark Ascending”.

Christopher Pidcock

Elgar’s “Cello Concerto” with soloist Christopher Pidcock closed the concert and was a stand-out performance. The orchestra transformed as Pidcock, dressed in a stunning pale blue linen jacket over white T-shirt, led the way with a masterful reading full of conviction, emotion, fire and delicacy. He plays a 12 year old Schnabel cello, especially made for him in Germany and uses a modern French bow. His powerful projection of pitch and intonation seemed to pull the orchestra together and the sound was beautifully harmonious. Of particular note was the fine ensemble playing and intonation from the quartet of French Horns. Which just proves that the National Capital Orchestra can do it, if only they would concentrate on details, pay more attention to their conductor and listen to what is happening around them.

To quote Sir Thomas Beecham in a 1961 interview for BBC Television: “In rehearsal, I pinpoint the details - all the little tricky bits. We go over those a few times. The rest generally falls into place. Or as my father used to say, referring to his Pills empire, ‘If you look after the pennies, the pounds will take care of themselves’”.