Smooth Classics from the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra on Tour

03/08/2018

Various composers: Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra / Victor Aviat (conductor). Plymouth Guildhall, 1.8.2018. (PRB)

Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra with Victor Aviat (inset)

GriegMorning, from Peer Gynt
GluckThe Dance of the Blessed Spirits
Rachmaninov Vocalise
Handel – Largo from Xerxes
Dvořák Largo from Symphony No.9, ‘From the New World’
Fauré Pavane
Elgar Chanson de Matin
Beethoven – Shepherds’ Song from Symphony No.6 ‘Pastoral’
Bizet – Intermezzo from Carmen
Mascagni – Intermezzo from Cavalleria rusticana
Offenbach Barcarolle from Tales of Hoffmann
Tchaikovsky Andante Cantabile from Symphony No.5
Debussy Clair de lune

Since its foundation in 1893, the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (BSO) has become one of the most highly-regarded provincial orchestras in the UK, not only admired on national and international platforms. Notably, the BSO serves communities across the South and South West of the country, bringing top-quality symphonic performances to those smaller towns and areas where, otherwise, the only option is a less convenient drive to one of the large conurbations in the area. Years ago, in Plymouth’s classical-music heyday, the orchestra was still a regular visitor to the city, but the situation and times have changed. In 2018, the orchestra will have appeared here on just two separate occasions. When compared with the number of visits it makes to Exeter – a city virtually half the size of Plymouth, but the county town and some 45 miles closer to the BSO’s base in Dorset – it still would seem that Plymouth emerges as the poor relation. But, judging by the welcome the BSO received at its second Plymouth concert, and, in, fact, the number of audience-members present, rank-and-file classical-music lovers in the city definitely want to see the BSO returning with ever-increasing frequency, though, as we all know, this desire also needs to be shared and supported by the city fathers.

The concert was advertised as ‘Smooth Classics’, a term which has become synonymous with the UK’s leading commercial provider of classical-music, Classic FM, BSO’s principal media partner. Here, music tends to come conveniently packaged for a number of activities – relaxing, sleeping, having breakfast, going on holiday, and far more besides. Some people will prefer this format to the more regular one of overture, concerto and symphony, but interestingly the difference in audience numbers between these two kinds of events, as far as Plymouth goes, is not that significant.

Of course, for the seasoned and perhaps more experienced concert-goer, the suggestion to ‘relax and unwind in a concert of some of the most beautiful classical music ever written, especially selected for a soothing evening…’ on paper might feel more like a sugar-overload, laced with Valium.

I have to admit that this was my initial reaction as the players opened with Grieg’s Morning from Peer Gynt – nicely played, and a suitably calm choice for an opener, even if we were now well past breakfast. Similarly, while there was some charming flute and woodwind work in Gluck’s Dance of the Blessed Spirits, all most-delicately accompanied by the rest of the orchestra, it still made me think of those self-help relaxation tapes where some extraneous soothing outdoor sounds were often added to the mix.

French conductor Victor Aviat did his best to talk us through each successive work in the programme, though the many-times-refurbished Guildhall sound-system could not always cope with his slight accent, to the effect that perhaps not every word was audible everywhere in the hall.

If the first two items in the programme had been somewhat ordinary in terms of their musical content, Rachmaninov’s Vocalise really gave the first opportunity for the BSO to show what they are really capable of. Their rich, yet delicately heartfelt reading definitely tugged at the heart-strings. While there were not, of course, the same opportunities in Handel’s Largo as in the previous Rachmaninov, now there were richly-drawn and thrilling climaxes, again succeeding in giving another old chestnut a fresh lease of life.

As the conductor pointed out, a number of the pieces in the programme had become famous often for the wrong reasons. The next item, for example, the Largo from Dvořák’s New World Symphony was well-known for its use as a TV advert for Hovis bread, way back in 1973, and has been voted Britain’s favourite advert of all time. But there was certainly nothing dough-like in the performance: the beautifully-intoned cor anglais solo at the start, and some equally entrancing flute-playing later. It just made all those present long for the other three movements played in the same enticing manner. Here, though, Aviat could at least appease his audience to some degree. He told us that the composer’s Symphony No.8  will be part of their next visit to Plymouth in 2019.

There was real delicacy in Fauré’s plaintive Pavane, where, once again, the flute, in particular, came into its own, with a most tenderly-felt performance. Perhaps Aviat did not show quite the same empathy for Elgar. The ensuing reading of the composer’s Chanson de Matin did feel just a tad business-like.

The Finale from Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony showed what the orchestra was truly capable of, coming up with a single-movement that nevertheless still managed to provide a wholesome-enough finale, without the preceding movements played on the night.

The Intermezzi from Carmen and Cavalleria rusticana provided an interesting insight into the nature of their respective composers’ homelands. The slightly reserved French feel of Bizet’s writing – where flute and harp were again most prominent – compared with the ‘heart on sleeve’ full-blooded, and passionately Italianate emotion from Mascagni, reinforced a comment to this effect, which the conductor had made earlier.

Offenbach’s suavely melodic and gently undulating Barcarolle from The Tales of Hoffmann emotionally let us down after the Mascagni. This was only to be short-lived, when the players began their penultimate offering – the Andante cantabile slow movement from Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. The horn solo must be one of the most famous in the repertoire. We were treated to a virtually perfect performance here, a glorious, rich full tone, and the kind of pitching and intonation you would expect from one of the country’s top orchestras. But there was so much more to this playing. Despite its familiarity, its overtly sentimental nature, and the well-documented struggles the composer was experiencing at the time, the BSO really stepped up a gear and produced one of the best performances of the single movement I have been privileged to hear live in the concert hall, so unequivocally moving it was throughout.

While the evening had opened with a ‘morning’ piece, it might have been better to have left it there with the Tchaikovsky as the end of the programme proper. The final, unscheduled piece – an orchestral arrangement of Debussy’s piano piece Clair de lune – could then have been offered by way of an encore, which everyone would have been delighted with. Although it was effectively orchestrated, unlike Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, the original Clair de lune Debussy setting for piano still remains more effective and idiomatic.

The fact that Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra is such a well-honed and disciplined ensemble is almost solely attributable to the quality of the individual players, and the strong, and often long-standing professional and social bond between them. As the evening’s conductor, Maestro Aviat certainly will have had an input, too, though this was seemingly achieved with ne’er a glance across to the cellos, bass and percussion side, who, presumably, were able to be left to their own devices, the one exception appearing to be the start of the Tchaikovsky, where the rest of the orchestra is largely uninvolved.

Altogether, though, this proved a superb evening’s music-making, which everyone present clearly enjoyed.

Philip R Buttall

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