The New Queens Hall Orchestra was founded by John Boyden in 1992; so this year it is celebrating the start of its 20th anniversary season. At St. Martin in the Fields last night (13th September) , the strings of the orchestra gave a concert which both launched the new season and celebrated Boyden's 75th birthday.
The orchestra was founded to experiment with both instruments and playing styles from the early part of the 20th century. So that the brass instruments are narrow bore and the strings play on gut strings. In terms of playing style, the strings tend to use rather less vibrato than is common today and the performance last night had a gentle sprinkling of portamenti, a technique which can easily be overused but when done with taste, as here, is immensely evocative and expressive. But almost as important as these technical issues is the group's ethos; they deny the tyranny of the metronome and the modern day desire for orchestral players to combine into a single, slick, uniform machine. In common with styles from the early 20th century, players are encouraged to be individually expressive.
The results were obvious from the first notes of conductor Paul Murphy's rather brisk account of Mozart's Divertimento in D, K 136. The tones of the strings were warmer than usual, with an interesting depth of tone and more strength from the inner parts. The combination of the gut strings and the sparing vibrato meant that 1st violin tone was not as all encompassing as usual, leaving the results attractively warm and varied.
In Elgar's short but atmospheric Elegy for Strings, Opus 58, the textures really responded to the sound of the gut strings, giving music an inner glow. The discreet use of portamenti was nicely expressive and perfectly in style, it made you realise how much we miss on the clean, bright lines of the modern orchestra.
Hamilton Harty's arrangement of The Londonderry Air for solo violin, strings and harp was something of a period piece in itself. Written in 1924 it had very much the feel of the Edwardian salon. The way the string players are encouraged to be individuality expressive lent an interesting richness of texture.
This individuality led, at times, to hints of lack of unanimity; this is very much in the period style. This was a different world, a group of characterful players rather than a homogenised single entity, with each player aiming to play exactly the same as the next. At times of crisis the sound threatened to move from expressive to untidy, but never actually made the leap, thus leaving us to delight in the multifariously varied palate of sounds created.
Puccini's Criantemi was enlivened by some wonderfully Italianate portamenti, worthy of an Italian diva, lending personality to the line. Peter Warlock's Capriol Suite was played in a rather more sober style, the mellow sound world evoking something like the mahogany tones of Arbeau's originals.
At the end of the first half we had a clutch of speeches with a short, but uncompromising one from John Boyden, with a fascinating encore: The 4th movement of Beethovens Opus 130 Quartet, a piece that meant a lot to Boyden.
For the second half there was just one work, Tchaikovsky's Serenade. Here the orchestra surprised by the sheer volume they were capable of, combined with richness of sound. The Waltz had a light dancing feel (Murphy does after all conduct quite a lot of ballet), but combined with a nice mellowness. In the Elegy the textures were magically transparent and all ended in a fine, lively Finale.
Whilst it would have been interesting to hear the full orchestra in a group of chamber works, this concert enabled us to experience what fascination the strings on their own were capable of. The orchestra's concert series continues on Wednesday 23rd November at the Fairfield Concert Hall, Croydon with a programme including Beethoven's Egmont Overture, Bruch's 1st Violin Concerto (with Lydia Mordkovitch) and Brahms's Symphony No. 4. The concert will be recorded and issued, with minimal intervention, on the orchestra's new record label. It will be interesting to see how much Mordkovtich modifies her tone and style to suit the orchestra's ethos. Further ahead there is a concert of music from Hitchcock films (lots of Bernard Hermann) with verteran actress Tippi Hedren in attendance.