United Kingdom Humperdinck, Brahms, Dvořák: Kristine Balanas (violin), Mumbles Symphony Orchestra, David John (conductor), St. Mary’s Church, Swansea, 14.7.2012 (GPu)
Humperdinck: Hansel and Gretel Overture
Brahms: Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77
Dvořák: Symphony No.9, “From the New World”
It is all too easy to use the word ‘amateur’ in a disparaging way, sometimes not altogether intentionally. In a world as mercenary as ours, ‘amateur’ or ‘amateurish’ can seem like synonyms for ‘inferior’; “s(h)e was thoroughly professional” / “s(he) was decidedly amateurish”. It is as well, however, to remember the roots of the word amateur; it means one who does something with, or out of, love. When we hear good ‘amateur’ music making and call it that, we ought to mean both that it was not played as a source of income, that it was, rather, played out of, and with, love – and that it was good! If I say that the Mumbles Symphony Orchestra is a good amateur orchestra (which it is) I definitely mean all of these things; and out of their love of what they are doing (and, of course, out of the considerable musical abilities that are in the service of that love) they produce some fine and thoroughly enjoyable music.
Like even the best of amateur orchestras, they have sometimes to cope with deficiencies (in numbers, if nothing else) in certain sections. The MSO are understaffed, for example, in the brass – though the members they have do their best to make up for non-existent colleagues, as it were. Occasionally these issues mean that the balance between sections is less than perfect, but the astute and sensitive conducting of David John does much to mitigate such problems. Only very rarely did one feel, listening to this demanding programme, that there were technical problems; the general standard of playing was high and the sections of the orchestra were largely very sensitive to one another. Give or take one or two minor blemishes in the Dvořák there was little need for any ‘special allowances’. That says much for the quality of the individual musicians who make up the orchestra and for the work of David John (who used to be musical director of the Dorset Philharmonic Orchestra) and leader Paul Lewis.
Humperdinck’s overture (though he disliked the use of the French word!) to Hansel and Gretel made a pleasant enough start to the evening. The horns handled the opening chorale (later to serve as the children’s evening prayer) very well; the strings produced some delightful colours; and the relatively complex interweaving of themes in the later stages was played with pleasing clarity a little of the poetry of the final bars was missing, but it was also largely absent last time I heard a professional orchestra play this overture in the opera house!
The absolute highlight of the evening was undoubtedly the performance, which followed, of Brahms’ Violin Concerto, with the very impressive soloist being the young Latvian Kristine Balanas. In her early twenties, Balanas (now studying with Gyorgy Pauk at the Royal Academy of Music) has already won several competitions and played extensively all around Europe. She was technically assured, seemingly fearless and played with great expressivity; moreover she has the gift of communicating with an audience. In the opening allegro she expounded Brahms’s long lines very engagingly, and made light of the double and triple-stopping required of her. David John’s conducting was admirably supportive. Balanas’s playing of the cadenza was beautifully paced and phrased. The woodwinds of the orchestra, notably the oboe of Markus Roggenbach, were a delight at the opening of the andante and the ensuing work of the violinist was a lyrical tour-de-force, rhapsodic and singing, but never self-indulgent. The closing allegro showed how well she can make her instrument (which is, I believe an 1808 Giovanni Rota, on loan from the Royal Academy of Music) dance, too. Her response to Brahms’s gipsy rhythms and phrasing was striking and her playing here (as throughout) fused discipline and passion in equal measure. Balanas has a growing reputation; I very much hope that she will, in the years to come, get the opportunities and praise she shows every sign of deserving.
It was perhaps inevitable that the performance of Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony couldn’t quite maintain the exceptionally high standard of what we had just heard. Stamina can be a problem for amateur orchestras in a demanding programme, and perhaps that was the case here; or perhaps more rehearsal time had gone into making sure that they could support their guest soloist properly (and the orchestra did that very well indeed). For whatever reason(s) there were just a few moments of uncertainty, a few problems of intonation, in this closing work. But, it should be stressed, this was by no means a bad performance. Any listener hearing the symphony for the first time in this performance would, I am sure, have gone away well aware of what a powerful and impressive work it is and any performance of which that can be said has achieved much. The long allegro section of the first movement was crisply accented and the whole (not least the movement’s close) had a strong sense of drama. In the largo the cor anglais of Sally Johnson did something like full justice to the famous melody and the whole movement was conducted with a good sense of shape and proportion. Even if there were one or two local blemishes, this was a genuinely poetic reading. In the scherzo and the final allegro the strings were particularly impressive, and the brass section did their striking best to make up in weight of sound what they lacked in numbers; the structurally complex last movement was played and directed with a confident sense of shape. A few moments of slight raggedness did little or nothing to detract from an exciting and satisfying performance.
David John has put together an impressive group of musicians and their strong response to his intelligent conductorly prompting is clear. The investment of love in this ‘amateur’ orchestra is evident, and so are its dividends. I hope the Mumbles Symphony Orchestra will go from strength to strength.