Creative Collaborations in Cardiff make for Enjoyable Concerts

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Gorb, Davoren, R.Strauss, Woolfenden: Orchestra of Welsh National Opera (with Students of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama), Stephen Wood (conductor), Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff, 28.6.2012(GP)

Mendelssohn, Bach, Grieg: Orchestra of Welsh National Opera (with Students of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama), David Adams (violin), Catriona Mackinnon (oboe), Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff, 28.6.2012(GP)

Gorb: Awayday
: Looking In
Richard Strauss
: Serenade for 13 Wind Instruments, Op. 7
:Illyrian Dancers

Mendelssohn: String Symphony No.10 in B minor
J.S. Bach
: Concerto for Violin and Oboe in C minor, BWV 1060R
: Holberg Suite, Op.40

These two concerts – given at lunchtime and early evening on the same day – grew out of the placement scheme on which the Royal Welsh College of Music and drama and Welsh National Opera collaborate. They made an exemplary illustration of the excellent work which our best conservatoires do. In this scheme, students (in their third and fourth year of studies or postgraduates) apply and are auditioned by WNO; successful students are given opportunities to work with the orchestra, in rehearsals and elsewhere For some students this has led to the chance to work as deputies in concerts and to begin to establish themselves in the professional orchestral world. This project also leads to occasional collaborative concerts such as this. The two programmes presented featured, first, a wind orchestra and second a string orchestra. In each case the orchestras mixed professionals and students, although in different proportions; the wind orchestra drew on 55 musicians, 31 of whom were students; the string orchestra, 44 strong, found room for 10 placement students. Throughout the level of performance was high, although I understand that rehearsal time had been quite brief.

The Wind Orchestra began with a performance of Adam Gorb’s Awayday. Gorb is Head of Composition at the Royal Northern College of Music and this piece was premiered in the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester in 1996. It was envisaged as a tribute (the piece is some six minutes long) to the Broadway Musical with (in the composer’s own words,) ‘its irresistible brashness and irrepressible high spirits’; the music is planned as an exhilarating journey (while returning clear sonata form). The work’s eclecticism with its frequent changes of tempo and rhythm, its echoes of jazz and film music as well as of the American Musical, is full of fun, sequences of climax and release which keep performers and audience on the edges of their seats and carry them on a high-speed trip. There was plenty of panache in the way it was played, Stephen Wood’s energetic and precise conducting captured the spirit of the work well and the performers (and this was predominantly a student orchestra, strengthened at key points by members of the orchestra of Welsh National Opera) handled its demands impressively.

Gorb’s piece was an effective curtain raiser for a particularly interesting work by the young composer Tom Davoren (born 1986). Himself a player of the tuba and a student (indeed a placement student) in the Royal Welsh College, Davoren’s promising career as an instrumentalist was cut short by focal dystonia, which caused irretrievable embouchure collapse. Out of the resulting distress, Davoren has built himself a new musical life as a composer. Looking In is some 10 minutes long and in five section: Contemplation-Consideration-Balance-Confusion-Valediction. It can be read as an attempt to come to terms with the sense of exclusion that the loss of his instrumental ability entailed (looking in onto a world he could no longer be part of), and also of ‘looking in’ on to a world (of composition) in which he was now seeking to find a place. There is, fittingly, some sardonic, angry, even bitter writing; but there are many contrasts of mood, a sense of fluctuating emotions. The writing is very resourceful, not only for brass and wind but also for percussion and the whole, for all its brevity, has that sense of the final reconciliation of conflicting emotions within a single structure that suggests that this young composer (Davoren was born in 1986) can go on to bigger, more complex works and to the use of musical resources of a more various kind. By the end there was a sense of a journey not so much completed as properly begun, a sense if not of ‘triumph’ then of anticipated possibility, of ‘Looking Onward’ or ‘Looking Beyond’ not merely ‘Looking In’. Though the origins of the music may have been in some respects personal (painfully personal indeed), the shape and thrust of the music has resonances that go well beyond the personal. A striking and promising piece played with commitment and intelligence.

Members of the orchestra followed with a piece whose composer was even younger than Davoren at the time of its composition – the Serenade for 13 Wind Instruments written when Richard Strauss was still in his late teens. Strauss later called it – perhaps with mock modesty – ‘the respectable work of a music student’, but the Serenade is rather more than that; the writing may be ‘correct’, but it also has a vivacity and charm that the work of most ‘respectable’ students lacks! It also suggests how early Strauss’s ear for distinctive effects of instrumental colour had developed. It deserves, at the very least, an honourable place in the tradition of wind serenades and it was a delight to hear it played with assurance and sensitivity in the very fitting acoustics of the Dora Stoutzker Hall (though more might perhaps have been made of the work’s contrasts of tempo). Still, as Christopher Marlowe wrote, translating Ovid, ‘Jove send me more such afternoons as this’.

This first concert ended with an implicit allusion to Marlowe’s contemporary William Shakespeare. Guy Woolfenden (himself an experienced horn player) was Head of Music at the Royal Shakespeare Company between 1963 and 1988. His Illyrian Dances evidently grows out of work on Twelfth Night: ‘What should I do in Illyria?’ asks Viola – and dancing is not a bad answer to the question. Woolfenden’s suite contains three dances: Rondeau-Aubade-Gigue. This is, indeed, music full of entrances and exits, music that is sociable, slightly wry and very English (but so too is Shakespeare’s Sir Toby Belch). The rondeau was played with wit and vigour, the aubade with graceful lyricism and the gigue had, at moments, a declamatory fanfare-like quality. If lovers woke at dawn (not that any do in Twelfth Night) in the aubade, then they were in church rather than bedroom in the gigue. Woolfenden’s Illyria is no direct transcript of Shakespeare’s play and this is not programme music. It is a work of freer imagination than that, here played confidently and colourfully (Woolfenden often uses individual instruments and sections in slightly unexpected ways).  

The programme of the day’s second concert was made up, it would be fair to say, of more thoroughly canonical music – as the names of the composers listed above make clear. Mendelssohn won the day’s prize for youngest composer, his astonishing String Symphony No.10 having been written when he was a mere thirteen or fourteen; the dramatist we had to think of this time was Ludwig Holberg.

David Adams led the conductorless orchestra from first violin and there was an impressive togetherness to pretty well all that the orchestra did. The Mendelssohn String Symphony may be only ten minutes in length but it is in many respects quite ‘large-scale’ in thought. It got a performance full of rich string textures, a performance which found room for both punch and elegance. Its one movement begins with an adagio section clearly hallmarked by the young composer’s familiarity with Bach, and if later parts of the movement make one think of Haydn and Rossini, that isn’t to deny that (remarkably) there is already something distinctly Mendelssohnian about the writing. This is already work characterised by high musical intelligence and that intelligence was well communicated in an enjoyable and engaging performance.

David Adams was joined by Catriona Mackinnon, Principal Oboe of the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera, for a performance of Bach’s Concerto for Violin and Oboe, the music of which survives only as a concerto for two harpsichords, believed to be based on an earlier concerto for violin and oboe and which was re-arranged for its presumed original instrumentation by Max Schneider in the 1930s. The fugal opening allegro was crisply accented throughout, perhaps sometimes in ways that robbed the music of a degree of graciousness, but which had vigour and energy aplenty. The heart of this work is surely to be found in n the ravishing siciliano of the central adagio. The two solo voices intertwine and cross, echoing one another as they do so. Adams and Mackinnon were expressive and agile solo voices, singing their lines and their ‘dialogue’ with real beauty and with a sense of interplay that made for a kind of sublimation of the arts of conversation. The ritornello structures of the closing allegro were well handled and the result was exhilarating.

Another kind of dialogue plays a role in Grieg’s Holberg Suite. It was written for the bicentenary of the birth of Ludwig Holberg (1684-1754), the Norwegian born and Danish-domiciled dramatist and essayist. A man of robust humour, Holberg’s plays are richly comic in their treatment of both character and manners. Grieg’s music, originally titled From Holberg’s Time: Suite in Olden Style, was originally conceived and performed (by Grieg himself) as a piano suite and later orchestrated. Though there is no sense of pastiche, or even of any kind of neo-classicism, Grieg’s music does employ a kind of dialogue with its baroque prototypes; that the titles of the five sections (Prelude, Sarabande, Gavotte/Musette, Air, Rigaudon) might almost be those of a dance suite of Holberg’s own time (interesting that he should have been an almost exact contemporary of Bach) is not irrelevant. The sound world is Grieg’s own but in more than one of the pieces it grows from (and sometimes returns to) quasi-baroque beginnings, as most noticeably in the Sarabande, the Gavotte and the Rigaudon. Add in Grieg’s responsive re-articulation of the folk music of Norway and the resulting mixture is, in this composer’s skilled hands, a delightful tribute which implies, as it were, Holberg’s continuing interest as a writer, his capacity to be a foundation stone for later creators, rather than placing him safely and distantly in the past. There was obvious relishing of Grieg’s themes and colours in this performance; several section leaders, such as cellist Rosie Biss and violist Philip Heyman played prominent and very effective roles in the success of the performance, always vital when working without a conductor. Phrasing and intonation were excellent, whether in the agile boisterousness of the Rigaudon, the elegance of the Sarabande or the sophisticated interplay of the Air.

All in all, as well as providing real pleasure for their audiences, these two concerts spoke eloquently of the ongoing value of the collaboration between the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama and Welsh National Opera.


Glyn Pursglove