Saturday, 7 May 2016

Side-by-Side - Elgar's Symphony No. 1 from Trinity Laban Symphony Orchestra & members of WNO Orchestra

George Jackson
George Jackson
Elgar Symphony No. 1 Side-by Side; Trinity Laban Symphony Orchestra, members of Welsh National Opera Orchestra, George Jackson; Blackheath Halls, Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on May 6 2016
Students playing alongside professionals in an impressive performance assembled in a single, intense day

Playing large-scale mainstream repertoire, and receiving coaching from established professionals are two of the key components in any conservatoire training for orchestral musicians. But Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance's Side-by-Side performances put the two together with an added twist; professional musicians play alongside the students and the whole is put together in just one day of intense rehearsal. Jonathan Tilbrook, Trinity Laban's Head of Orchestral Studies, refers to the 'focus and discipline required to prepare a performance in limited rehearsal time' as 'a crucial discipline for the aspiring professional orchestral musician'.

On Friday 6 May 2016 at Blackheath Halls, I heard the fruits of Trinity Laban's latest Side-by-Side project as the Trinity Laban Symphony Orchestra with members of the Welsh National Opera Orchestra performed Elgar's Symphony No. 1, conducted by George Jackson. Jackson is not on the staff of Trinity Laban, he is the Charles Mackerras Junior Conducting Fellow, and won the 2015 Aspen Conducting Prize.

In his spoken introduction to the concert Jonathan Tilbrook pointed out a number of other Mackerras links, Sir Charles was the president of Trinity Laban as well as being a former music director of Welsh National Opera, and he had recorded regularly in Blackheath Halls the last time being his 2006 recording of Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel. And members of the Mackerras family were in the audience to hear the results of Jackson's impressive achievement marshalling his huge forces in this large scale romantic symphony.

Elgar's symphony was written relatively late in his career, he was over 50 when it was premiered though it took 10 years to come to fruition and an intention to commemorate General Gordon relaxed into a more general imperial feel. But conductors more recently have shown the symphony is far more complex than this jingoistic ideal might suggest, and the symphony has many links to developments in Continental Europe where Elgar was highly regarded as a progressive composer.

From the very outset of the symphony it was clear that Jackson took a strong classical view of the music, the nobilmente motto theme was notable for the long-breathed lines, with a lovely even sense t the phrasing even in the tutti passages. Throughout the symphony Jackson took a long-distance architectural view and there was little in the way over-developed romantic throbbing, or pulling phrases about, nor did he make the motto them too grandly imperial. That said, the result certainly wasn't boring, quite the opposite. The players brought an immediacy and vibrancy to the music, but there was an admirable clarity to it too. Jackson clearly has an ear for detail so that throughout I was pleased to hear lots of the intricate colourations and woodwind figures which can get lost.

Partly this was a result of the strings (around 45 of them) having quite a lithe sound so they did not swamp the orchestra. The orchestra numbered nearly 80 players of which 14 were from the WNO Orchestra (one for each section).

The Allegro molto second movement was strong in character, with a lovely menace to the bass contribution at the opening and a nice swagger to the main them when it appears on the violas. Whilst not being the most skittish of performances, Jackson built a fine sense of excitement combined with a feeling of serious intent. Even when the tempo relaxed, the sense of excitement continued and we did have some lovely skittish moments in the end! The Adagio third movement had a restrained, expressive classical feel but with a strong sense of character and lovely flurries. The ending with its muted strings and horn echoes of the main theme was pure magic. The opening of the final movement had a rather haunted feel to it. The flurries here had an uneasy feel, and sense of the disciplined main theme being overwhelmed by passionate waves of sound. This was a performance which brought out the complex emotional dynamics under the steady exterior. The final pages had a superb build of of excitement achieved through attention to detail such as the crispness of rhythmic motifs or a fluid turn of phrase. There was a wonderful moment when the motto theme returned in the brass, to be overwhelmed by the strings leading to a superb climax.

I have to confess that I had not realised that the performance had been assembled on such a tight time-scale until afterwards (the students had sectional rehearsals on the day before with intense rehearsals with the WNO musicians on the day). Perhaps the only indication of this the lack of a certain sheen on the string tone, something which only time can bring, but what the performance did have was a wonderful vibrancy and energy of sound. An enormously impressive and enjoyable experience.

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