Leland Chen Launches Classical Masters Series in Plymouth

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Haydn: Leland Chen (violin),Ten Tors Orchestra / Simon Ible (conductor), St Andrew’s Minster Church, Plymouth UK 27.4. 2013 (PRB)

Beethoven: ‘Coriolan’ Overture, Op 62
Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in E minor, Op 64
Haydn: Symphony No 104 in D major, ‘London’

TTO (credit Philip R Buttall)
TTO (credit Philip R Buttall)

There are certainly advantages in living in a part of any country that is a good way away from the major population sprawl. In the case of Plymouth, the largest city in South West England, with almost 260,000 inhabitants, there is both excellent coastal, and inland scenery with the background of the rolling hills of Dartmoor. The weather, too, is often less severe than in the rest of the UK, and the pace of life generally not so hectic.

The downside, of course, is that cultural provision is somewhat less generous. True – the city still enjoys annual visits from Glyndebourne and Welsh National Opera, but large-scale orchestral performances are now largely the domain of the city’s own first-rate, yet amateur symphony orchestra.

Given Plymouth’s south-coast location, for many years it still benefitted from regular seasons from the first-rate Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (BSO) on tour, an association, in fact, going back some fifty years.  But since the city council withdrew a small annual subsidy back in 1995, the BSO’s visits have tended to be just once a year, leaving Devon’s far smaller county town of Exeter the nearest location where they still regularly perform – some forty-five miles away, and a rather strange anomaly when Plymouth is seen to be mounting a bid for the 2017 City of Culture award.

However, one good thing to emerge from the city’s remoter location, was that a number of leading players from London orchestras came to the area to teach and perform at the then Dartington College of Arts, some twenty or so miles away. Among these was violinist, Malcolm Latchem, with many years’ experience with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields and various other leading national orchestras. With the demise of Dartington as an academic institution, Latchem was among a number of players who decided to semi-retire in the South West.

Consequently, when the Ten Tors Orchestra (TTO) – which takes its name from the many Tors, the highest points around Dartmoor – was originally established in 1998, Latchem proved the ideal person to lead it. It has since become the resident professional ensemble of Peninsula Arts, Plymouth University, under the direction of conductor, Simon Ible. It draws on the finest available players, many of whom will travel over a hundred miles to take part.

The TTO is already a well-established part of the annual Contemporary Music Festival promoted in partnership with Plymouth University’s Interdisciplinary Centre for Computer Music Research. (See my review of this year’s event on this website.) It also brings regular high-quality orchestral performances to the city and surrounding area, and is now embarking on a fresh initiative – the Classical Masters Series.

In fact there could surely have been no better way to get this new Classical Masters Series off to a flying start than this outstanding concert by the Orchestra  in Plymouth’s Mother Church.

From the taut opening bars of Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture, conductor Ible drew an intuitive performance from his players, perceptively capturing the essential dramatic contrast in the writing, between the eponymous ancient-Roman general’s aggressive personality, and the gentler nature of the women who were influential in making him give up his plans for fratricide. Here the decision to use two double basses proved especially effective in supporting the greater instrumental weight above, with the somewhat larger orchestral forces used on the night.

While a programme of three very well-known works is especially enjoyable, there is always a risk that little new can sometimes be added.

Directors seeking to give a well-worn opera a complete make-over, at least have the option to shift the action to a completely different time and/or location – this can sometimes still work well with the musical intentions, but equally can produce an incongruous miss-match, which serves no artistic purpose at all – merely change for its own sake.

Players and conductors, however, have far less room to manoeuvre. Unless they wish to take often unjustified liberties particularly with the choice of tempi, they are still largely governed by the composer’s notes on the page, although that is not, of course, to discount the very real need still for an individual interpretation.

Mendelssohn’s eminently well-written and abundantly tuneful Violin Concerto in E minor can so easily fall into the category of being simply all too familiar to the listener – the soloist’s almost immediate appearance without the customary orchestral exposition, the single held bassoon-note introducing the sugary-sweet slow movement, the short preamble before the vivacious finale with its Midsummer Night’s Dream filigree lightness – these hold no big surprises in store for most listeners.

L_Chen (credit Peninsula Arts)
L_Chen (credit Peninsula Arts)

Enter Taiwanese-born violinist, Leland Chen. From the very opening phrase it felt like the work now had something different to say. The essential virtuosity was always to the fore in the outer movements, with particularly impressively-delivered cadenzas, and the Andante achieved a beauty and richness of tone rarely heard. But Chen’s superb playing and insight simply breathed new life into Mendelssohn’s perfectly-formed creation by way of a quite inspirational approach to the melodic line and phrasing, while never seeking to turn the work into a bigger, and far less appropriate, ‘warhorse’ concerto.

Such was Chen’s confidence in this, that his intentions so readily communicated themselves to the orchestra via Ible’s as-ever fully-sympathetic approach to accompanying, to create a near-perfect ensemble, and an immensely satisfying performance.

Haydn’s effervescent London Symphony rounded the evening off with great aplomb, always so well-disciplined, yet never short of the composer’s vital humour, and allowing each section of the well-balanced orchestra, simply to perform at its highest level. Here special praise must go to some accomplished individual woodwind contributions, an especially homogenous sound from the paired horns, and Latchem’s once more sterling leadership of the impeccable string section.

Philip R Buttall