Review of Folkestone Symphony Concert – Holy Trinity Church – Saturday 4th November 2017

Notwithstanding the swirling rain and competition from Guy Fawkes fireworks, Folkestone Symphony once again attracted an audience of over 200 to their concert in Holy Trinity Church, Folkestone on Saturday November 4th. Those in attendance at this event, which included a raffle to raise money for the Charity Odyssey, were well rewarded.

The evening opened with the Karelia Overture by Sibelius, a composer who is becoming a real speciality for this group of players. They explored with dexterity and care the fabric of the Finnish composer’s typically evocative portrayal of his homeland in this opening section of the music written to portray the beauty of his native land – the violas, in particular, providing luxuriance of tone. The whole range of a widely scored wind section captured the raw and passionate invention of the young Sibelius, even if we yearned for the strong tunes and rhythmic drive of the movements of his more familiar Suite.

The first half was completed by the fourth of Beethoven’s five piano concertos. We perhaps always expect a tempestuous sound from this composer (and, indeed Beethoven playing himself in the first performance of this concerto knocked both candlesticks off the instrument) but this performance, by pianist Eleanor Meynell was lyrical and touching in its gentleness.

It is an unusual piece with the piano starting by itself and this soloist’s intensely quiet and contemplative beginning set the tone for the whole piece. The first movement blossomed richly with delicate pizzicato and beautifully sensitive accompaniment masterfully directed by the conductor, Rupert Bond. The second movement – in which no wind instrument plays and the orchestra and piano never sound together – was a fascinating discourse. It really is music ahead of its time, and in the capable hands of this string section, led with authority and composure by Flo Peycelon, we were treated to every bitter-sweet twist and nuance of the relationship between soloist and players – both always controlled but never overstated. It was in the third movement that the brilliance of Miss Meynell really shone through – such evenness in the contrary runs which are the centre of this rondo, and you could just feel the fun that the orchestra were having playing counterpoint to the jaunty melody and embellishments accomplished with finesse by the soloist.

Despite its familiarity, the imposing end piece to this concert – Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 in E minor – is another repertoire standard which defies norms. It is in turns brooding and celebratory; it is carefully structured, but it twists and evolves in extraordinary directions; it has provoked slating criticism and yet was hailed as the saviour of a nation during the Leningrad siege of 1941; above all, its glorious tunes, its flamboyance, its drive and the way it speaks to the soul make it a piece always anticipated with pleasure.

From the opening hushed tones of the clarinets stating the motto theme, it was clear that Folkestone Symphony were not going to disappoint. The movement grew with measured tension – plaintive rather than tragic but always pulsating with drama. Tchaikovsky was a master of orchestral dialogue and no department here was found wanting, although perhaps the syncopated downward motif of the brass at the climax deserves special mention as does the well-ordered pacing theme in the ‘cellos and basses which ends the movement.

The Andante cantabile which follows is justly famous and tonight it began wonderfully with the tantalisingly soft but lush tones of the lower strings preparing us for that horn solo , played by Tracey Golding, which was, well, just immaculate. The audience was spellbound as the music grew, eloquent melody mounting on each flowing phrase with the clarinet introduction of the second theme breaking through with magnificence. Fate intervenes again in the form of the motto powerfully delivered – and the music reaches a moment of pause before the strings begin the accompaniment again like a giant harp. This time, the theme played on the first violins was just gorgeous with an equally lovely descant on the oboe.

The third movement is tricky – all its waltzes requiring precision playing and neat rubato – well accomplished on this occasion. By the time the motto theme returned the coherence of tonight’s interpretation of the symphony was becoming apparent – variety of theme and mood as it should be, but held together with that sense of foreboding so characteristic of the composer, but foreboding which is ultimately, we know, to be transcended by triumph.

That sense of impending victory shone out as the motto theme, this time in the major key, began the finale. The ensuing march was furious but well balanced and every member of the band threw themselves into working the music up to a rewarding climax. The final maestoso treatment of the motto theme, although perhaps a little rushed, was exultant in mood and had the audience on their feet – a fitting end to a splendid evening of music.

 

Review by David Pestell

Review of Folkestone Symphony Concert – Holy Trinity Church – Saturday 8th July 2017

Concerts by Folkestone Symphony (FHOS) have developed into eagerly-awaited events.  The large audience in Holy Trinity Church completely filled the central nave, with the overspill resorting to seats in the north and south aisles. The pre-concert atmosphere was one of anticipation of the delights to come, well met by the performances that followed.

This local orchestra has developed into a proficient group capable of delivering fine performances of the standard repertory.  The adjective ‘amateur’ should be avoided because its standards are such that it has attracted to its ranks more than a sprinkling of players who are or were professional musicians, to the great advantage of the overall sound.  In particular, the quality of the strings is now quite remarkable, with a sound that is rich, deep and, when required, powerful and passionate.  The result is that the overall balance is what one would expect to hear from a fully professional symphony orchestra, with the strings and other sections in the appropriate proportions within the tutti sound.  Since I last heard Folkestone Symphony in this venue there have been other welcome improvements, most noticeably the better location (and hence audibility) of the timpani.

The highlight of the evening was the third item, Saint-Saens Symphony No 3 – the ‘Organ Symphony’. Here one could comfortably forget that this was a local band and simply accept the high standard and enjoy the music.  The first movement was exciting and well-tuned. The start of the second was magical, underpinned by lowest note of Holy Trinity’s Walker organ; the strings for one moment lost precision in their imitative entries but this hardly mattered given their exemplary playing earlier. The tricky fast third movement, with its complex sparkling orchestration including added piano, was secure and its loud passages weighty.   If the transition passage into the fourth movement lacked mystery, it was compensated by the explosive force of the organ’s entry, in which a good approximation of a French instrument was provided by Tim Parsons. The familiar ‘big tune’ sounded heroic and a triumphant brass-filled (but never swamped) conclusion was achieved.  Overall this was an astoundingly accomplished performance.  The audience’s enthusiastic applause was well deserved.

Earlier the strings and harp had shone in Vaughan-Williams Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus (a tune familiar to English folk-song enthusiasts), with the lower instruments particularly sonorous.   All sections summoned up power and passion for the climaxes, which were most impressive.

The first half comprised Brahms’ Piano Concerto No 1. This is a tough assignment for any orchestra, particularly as Brahms writes in a way that often uses the woodwind as a choir, so that any imperfections in tuning – even of the odd note by a single player – are exposed cruelly.  The balance with the majesterial soloist Amit Yahav was good; the warm sound of the church’s Blüthner piano was rather like instruments known by Brahms, less projecting than a new concert grand but probably more authentic.   The first movement was the least happy of the evening, with woodwind tuning problems and a tendency for them and the horns to play too loudly in passages marked piano or quieter, with lines marked solo standing out too much.  There should be greater attention to players blending within the overall sound of the orchestra, something that fully professional bands seem to manage.  However, by the second movement things had settled down, with a glowing Adagio.  In the third movement tuning was fine, even in the loud passages, balance was excellent, and the work came to a very satisfying close.

In short, Rupert Bond and his splendid group of orchestral players have made enormous progress and deliver concerts of a standard of which they should be proud.  Congratulations.

 

Review by Berkeley Hill

Review of Folkestone Symphony Concert – Holy Trinity Church – Saturday 1st April 2017

Sibelius – The Swan of Tuonela
Shostakovich – Symphony No.1 in F Minor Op.10
Tchaikovsky – Violin Concert in D major Op.35

 

It was a canny move by Folkestone Symphony to invite young Bulgarian-born violinist, Tudor Trita, to perform Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto with them in their spring concert at Holy Trinity Church in Folkestone.  For, not only is Tchaikovsky’s daunting masterpiece a dead-cert audience-pleaser, the near sell-out audience were clearly in expectant and excited mood following Trita’s superb account of the Bruch Concerto with the orchestra in 2015.

And, Trita did not disappoint them.  He plays with poise, exhibits a clean, strong tone – with a particularly powerful, ringing high E-string which had no trouble penetrating through the orchestral heft – and has an assured technique.

In this unfussy performance, Trita let the music speak for itself; he did not pull the tempo around too much or apply excessive coloration, relishing instead the simplicity and charm of Tchaikovsky’s melodic writing, though I felt that he might have invested the first movement’s themes with more warmth.

The more demanding the challenges set by Tchaikovsky, the more Trita seemed to relish the technical exigencies.  The double-stopped passage in the Allegro Moderato that Eduard Hanslick described as ‘beating the violin black and blue’ was lightly and securely negotiated.

This is clearly a ‘work in progress’ though (Trita did not perform the concerto from memory), but that’s not necessarily a bad thing given the soloist’s youth, for as he ‘grows into’ the concerto more maturity will undoubtedly bring fresh ideas, a deeper Romantic spirit and a more dramatic expressive commitment.

For, while the (multitude of) notes were securely under the fingers, I would have liked to see Trita taking more delight in individual phrases and communicating more explicitly how they cohere into larger structures.  There was a telling moment in the Caznonetta where the soloist’s melody is echoed by the orchestra’s first flute, and Trita’s elegance was supplemented by John Hall’s considered eloquence.  More dynamic contrast in this movement would have extended the emotional range too; one does not want undue self-consciousness, just a little more expressive freedom, while respecting the classicism underlying the form.

Trita was the embodiment of concentrated focus throughout; however, during the tutti episodes I did not sense that he was listening and enjoying the orchestra’s development of the material, but rather reflecting on the forthcoming challenges of his own part.  He looked a little anxious before the first movement cadenza, and there were some initial slips of intonation; technically, though, his virtuosity could not fail to impress, though I’d have liked to have seen Trita exploring the details of the cadenza more and inhabiting its temporal and dynamic flexibility.

It’s easy to say it, when one is not grappling with the trials of the soloist’s part oneself, but I longed for Trita to ‘let his hair down’ a bit and indulge in greater bravura at the climax of the racing runs he exchanges with the orchestra; more Romantic richness in the reprise of the first theme of the Allegro; or more bucolic swagger, then grit and stamp, in third movement’s second theme.

Conductor Rupert Bond, while unfailingly attentive to his soloist, certainly encouraged the orchestra to kick up a bit of a storm in the tutti passages; the orchestra pizzicatos had real bite, and the violin sections produced a sheen in the lyrical climaxes which belied their fairly small numbers.  The woodwind soloists acquitted themselves well, although they struggled to settle the tuning at the start of the Canzonetta.

Bond is an economical and precise conductor who – clearly having done his preparation – is alert to every detail in the score and provides his players with consistent support.  No wonder they play with confidence under his attentive baton.  The pick-ups with the soloist were almost all clean and efficient, and any small wobbles were swiftly ironed out, not least because of the clear direction offered by leader Floriane Peycelon.  But, while keeping his ear firmly attuned to his soloist, Bond did not neglect to cue practically every instrumental entry, with a quick flick of the baton, a nod or prompting smile.  The segue flip from the easeful rallentando which closes the Canzonetta into the restless tension of the introduction to the Allegro vivacissimo was deftly done, and Trita and the Folkestone Symphony whipped up a tangible exhilaration as the movement accelerated to its close.

Unusually, the concerto followed the interval (and was the only work in the second half of the concert).  Perhaps Bond did not have confidence in the good burghers of Folkestone’s enthusiasm for Shostakovich’s seldom performed First Symphony in F minor Op.10 – a work written by the eighteen-year-old composer as a graduation piece to complete his studies at the Leningrad Conservatory.

The score may be unfamiliar, but the style is not: the symphony exhibits all of Shostakovich’s musical trademarks and there are heaving helpings of sarcasm and wit alongside quasi-Mahlerian contemplation and Brahmsian Romantic passion.

It’s a demandingly virtuosic work but the players of Folkestone Symphony proved equal to its challenges.  Bond created a transparent texture in the first movement, allowing the dialogues between individual instruments – solo bassoon and trumpet, for example – to be discerned.  There’s a lot of diverse material – the flute’s waltz-like theme stood out – and the orchestra did well to create a sense of coherence.  Duncan Lord enjoyed the piano’s soloistic contributions, surprising the audience with his pounding entry in the high-spirited Scherzo; in the subsequent trio the percussion added to the eeriness.  Oboist David Montague and cellist Julie Peat were confident soloists in the dark third movement, while the significance of Floriane’s Peycelon’s contribution to the orchestra’s achievement was fully in evidence in the final movement with its almost schizophrenic mood swings and changes of tempo.  Once again, Bond impressed with the straightforward efficiency of his means and methods.

The concert had opened with Sibelius’s haunting tone poem The Swan of Tuonela.  This is a difficult work to pull off; one doesn’t just need a sterling cor anglais player and an expressive lead cellist, both of whom were present and correct here, but string sections that can recreate the magic and mournfulness of the mists that embrace the mythical swan as it glides around Tuonela, the island of the dead – which essentially means large sections, playing with a veiled softness.  Bond didn’t quite get the balance right between the strings and soloists, and the latter might have been given – or taken? – a little more time and space to allow the eloquence of the swan’s song to make its expressive mark.

But, overall, this was a very impressive performance from the orchestra, which seems to be going from strength to strength under Bond’s direction.  And, it’s particularly pleasing to see Folkestone Symphony taking some risks with their programming and offering both players and audiences fresh musical experiences.

 

Review by Claire Seymour