Wednesday 20 February 2013

Salomon Orchestra 50th anniversary concert

Boecklin - Isle of the Dead
The Salomon Orchestra celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Founded by Nicholas Braithwate in 1983, the orchestra remains one of the best non-professional ensembles in London. The orchestra started its celebrations in typically challenging style at St John's Smith Square on 19 February 2013 with a programme of Prokofiev's Seventh Symphony, Rachmaninov's Isle of the Dead and Britten's Sinfonia da Requiem conducted by Adrian Brown, who first conducted the orchestra 30 years ago.

All three works on the programme were written for a large orchestra with largely triple woodwind, and the platform at St John's Smith Square was full to over-flowing. Conductor Adrian Brown introduced each item, the three works not linked but each a piece which he clearly feels strongly about.

Prokofiev's seventh and last symphony was completed in 1952, during a period overshadowed by the composer's ill-health and by the threats of censure and censorship from the Soviet authorities. The work was successfully premiered in Moscow, the last public success of the composer's life-time. From the opening notes of the first movement, with the use of orchestral piano, Prokofiev makes us aware of the distinctive texture of his orchestra writing. The material for the first movement uses a melody which could come out of one of the composer's ballets, and the orchestra caught the grand sweep of this movement. But as with much of Prokofiev, the attention to detail was what counted.

The second movement, by turns skittish and graceful, seemed to have a satirical edge to it with the musicians whipped up by Brown towards a violent end. The third movement was a complex weave of elements, which though gracious, never quite came together as a single entity. For the last movement we were back in the realm of jolly tunes with satirical undertones. The symphony seemed an unsettled work, a weave of good tunes and distinctly edgy moments. Brown and the orchestra gave it a strong, direct performance but I think something nervier, edgier was wanted I think and not all the element quite knitted together.

Rachmaninov's symphonic poem The Isle of the Dead could not be more different. Based on a painting by Arnold Boecklin, Rachmaninov uses the rhythm of the boat-man's oars, and we presume the boat-man to be Charon. But what gives the piece its distinctive feel is that Rachmaninov uses a quintuple rhythm, either 2+3 or 3+2, which imbues the whole of the piece. From the opening notes it was clear that Brown and the players had a strong feel for the texture and feel of Rachmaninov's writing, with its gorgeous dark, chocolaty instrumental writing. Though Rachmaninov wrote in quite long breathed lines, the use of the underlying quintuple rhythm gave the work a restless feel, not the nervous energy of the Prokofiev but more underlying, a sort of steady throb.  Brown controlled the flow of the work in masterly fashion, ensuring that we had the feeling of a slow but steady progress towards climax. When it came, the climax was followed by Rachmaninov's eerie passage based on the Dies Irae, with the instrumentalists relishing the mysterious textures.  

It is difficult to understand why The Isle of the Dead is not performed more often. Clearly, the Salomon Orchestra and Adrian Brown took the piece to their hearts, relishing Rachmaninov's warmly sympathetic orchestral writing.

Benjamin Britten's Sinfonia da Requiem is an altogether edgier, nervous affair. Though the key of the work's opening movement relates back to Mozart's Requiem, the sound-world which Britten conjures up looks forward to the edgy writing of his own War Requiem. The Sinfonia da Requiem was an altogether strange piece to write for the commission to celebrate 2600th anniversary of the Imperial dynasty, but from the outset Britten seems to have planned a requiem symphony in memory of his parents who died in the mid 1930's but which also expressed his anti-war sentiments. Britten wrote the piece in 1940 and after being rejected by the Japanese, it was premiered in New York in March 1941 with the New York Philharmonic conducted by John Barbirolli.

The orchestra brought a keening quality to the opening Lachrymosa, the intensity reinforced by the incessant, throbbing underlying beat. Middle Dies Irae movement is full of detail and apparent delicacy, but needs to feel strong and powerful underneath. It was interesting here, and in the opening movement, how Britten quite brilliantly affects the sound-world of the piece simply by adding a saxophone to the instrumental mix. For the close of the Dies Irae, Brown whipped the orchestra up into a frenzy of brilliant violence. The opening of the final movement, Requiem Aeternam used a lot of bass clarinet and had hints of Copland's writing in his ballet Rodeo (A work which premiered in 1942). But ultimately this movement seems rather bleak, and a little comfortless. 

Their performance of the work was very emotionally up-front and direct, without the feeling of febrile energy which some ensembles bring to the piece. Despite a deeply felt performance, Brown and his players could not disguise that the closing pages of the movement hardly promised eternal rest. 

The concert showed the Salomon Orchestra at the top of its form and responding well to Adrian Brown, a conductor clearly loved by the players. I look forward to further concerts in the orchestra's 50th anniversary season.

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