Mark Eager Steps Down from Welsh Sinfonia

19/03/2018

Beethoven, Rodrigo, Rossini, Charlie Barber: Saki Kato (guitar), Welsh Sinfonia / Mark Eager (conductor). Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff, 17.3.2018. (PCG)

Rossini – Overture, Il signor Bruschino 
RodrigoConcerto de Aranjuez
Charlie BarberLudwig
Beethoven – Symphony No.7 in A major Op.92

It has been over five years now since I first reviewed a concert in September 2012 by the Welsh Sinfonia. During that time they have come a long way under the inspiring baton of Mark Eager, from an enthusiastic but sometimes fallible group of players to a solid and technically assured body who at this concert hardly put a foot wrong. It is a shame that Mark Eager has now relinquished his direction of the chamber orchestra – this was his final concert in that capacity – but I am pleased to learn that he intends to maintain his contacts with the band in future years, following their relocation to Swansea where they are taking up residency in the coming seasons.

Over the years, Eager has presented a number of major Beethoven scores, and one of the hallmarks of his chamber interpretations has been his unwillingness to accept that the smaller number of players inevitably means a smaller scale of interpretation. This was demonstrated at its most forceful best in the passage of the second movement of the Seventh Symphony where the first violins’ counterpoint to the principal theme is often masked even in performances with full symphonic bodies of strings; here the balance was exactly calculated, precisely gauged and extremely effective. The playing throughout was scintillating, full of the energy and bounce that this score so trenchantly demands. The fact that we were given the score exactly as Beethoven wrote it – with every repeat faithfully observed – gave us the right sense of proportion that the composer intended; the third movement in particular gained symphonic stature from this treatment. Nor were these repeats simply mechanically delivered: the opportunity was taken to furnish fresh insights with each reiteration of the material. I have in the past expressed a wish that Eager split his violins left and right across the stage, to allow for the stereophonic byplay with Beethoven would have expected from his players; but in view of the fact that this score demands less in this manner than many of the other symphonies, and the ideal balance that resulted from the more modern disposition of the players, I do not feel inclined to complain on this occasion.

The orchestral balance, again, was a matter for wonder in the Rodrigo concerto which formed the centrepiece of the first half of the concert. In large halls it is always necessary to amplify the solo guitar in order to ensure audibility, a procedure that can lead to nonsensical results if over-enthusiastically applied (I have heard performance where the guitar sounds louder than the full orchestra). Similarly in smaller auditoria, the orchestral interjections can be over-emphatic and indeed sound noisy. Here discreet amplification was applied to the solo instrument, just sufficient to ensure audibility without any suspicion of artificiality. The orchestral texture was neatly and precisely judged to scintillate without any suspicion of hectoring (one or two isolated trumpet passages did obtrude, but this is clearly the composer’s fault rather than the result of any misjudgement on the part of the performers). And Saki Kato thoroughly deserved such a carefully considered and modulated accompaniment; she delivered plenty of weight and force where required, and at the same time etched delicate traceries of line (especially during the famous second movement) which left the listener enchanted. In a tribute to his young Japanese soloist, Mark Eager predicted a stellar future for her (she is currently studying at the Royal Academy of Music in London), and I have a very strong suspicion that he will be proved right.

Following the concerto, we heard the second performance of Charlie Barber’s Ludwig, which these same forces had premièred on 23 February at the Wiltshire Live Music Centre. This was a light-hearted piece, but its three substantial movements constituted rather more than the collage on Beethovenian material that the composer’s programme note had suggested. The danger with techniques which are founded on juxtapositions of material by earlier composers with modern variations on them can be that the new music fails to live up to the expectations roused by the old. Here Barber, while strongly suggesting the Beethovenian model and indeed quoting specific material, reworked it thoroughly within his own style to produce a fusion that never descended into mere imitation, and produced a vigorous dramatic charge of its own. The slow movement, a sort of meditation on the opening phrases of the Moonlight Sonata, had a sense of still rapture. The finale developed a headlong sense of dash, ending with an abruptly truncated Beethovenian coda which left the audience in high good humour. It is not perhaps the most profound of the many premières Eager has given with this orchestra over the years – I have very fond memories of the scores by Michael Csányi-Wills (which Eager recorded commercially a couple of years ago) – but it was certainly a crowd-pleaser which deserves to be heard again.

The concert had opened with a brisk performance of Rossini’s Signor Bruschino overture, perhaps best-known nowadays for Rossini’s suggestion that the second violins should tap their bows on their music-stands during the course of the composition. Here Mark Eager tapped his baton on his own music-stand, perhaps a wise substitution in the days when orchestral stands are no longer the solid wooden constructions that they were in Rossini’s day, but also open to misinterpretation by unsuspecting members of the audience who might have thought he was correcting a mistake and that something had gone wrong. The conductor also made his usual contributions to proceedings by giving brief impromptu introductions to the works on the programme, an enjoyable feature of these concerts over the years and always a welcome one.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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