United Kingdom Mozart, Strauss, Sibelius: Hallam Sinfonia, Ella Taylor, soprano, Hallam Sinfonia / Gavin Usher (conductor), High Storrs School, Sheffield, 9.5.2015 (JK)
Mozart Selections from the Marriage of Figaro
Strauss: Death and Transfiguration
Sibelius: Symphony no. 2
Sheffield boasts three superb locations for the performance of chamber music: Bradfield Parish Church, St Andrew’s Psalter Lane and the Crucible Studio. Each features its own festival of fine music whilst the city awaits a similar location for the performance of symphonic work. The awful acoustic of the City Hall and the constant traffic noise at the University’s Firth Hall drives orchestras like the Hallam Sinfonia into school halls like High Storrs. So it was with some trepidation that I decided to attend this concert.
My worst fears seemed likely to be realised when I surveyed the audience of about 150 facing an orchestra of amateur musicians about to take on Death and Transfiguration. Mahler symphonies and Strauss tone poems are typical abysses into which amateur orchestras traditionally sink as they and their conductor bite off more than they can chew. But on this occasion I was in for a surprise.
I should have been better prepared as the Strauss was programmed to follow the Mozart whose performance standard matched the best professional presentations. Gavin Usher drove the orchestra through a thrilling account of the overture to Figaro and Ella Taylor sang with a pleasant purity of tone and affection that drew in the audience. Then the heavy brass arrived for the Strauss and the inevitable mismatch between them and the four-desk of strings gave the conductor significant problems of balance. After some slight hesitancy in the lower woodwind, the work settled down under the baton of their guest conductor.
Gavin Usher is a conductor for whom any orchestra would yearn. His clarity of beat navigated the orchestra through the difficult tempo changes required in the Strauss. His vision of the work permitted many details to be brought forward as he indicated how he wanted different sound landscapes to be painted. The orchestra played superbly for him, especially through the technically difficult second section of the work and followed him as he took the final transfiguration at a tempo of which Strauss (the original conductor) and others who knew the composer would have been proud.
In the interval I thought about leaving. After such an outstanding performance of the Strauss I expected an anticlimax with the Sibelius. I am glad that I stayed. Again, the conductor excelled himself. Gavin Usher brought the second symphony to life in a way that many experienced conductors fail to do. The players, who must have been tired at the end of a day of rehearsals and Strauss, rose to the Sibelius as if it was a work for which they all had a passion. Gavin Usher’s feat only became really apparent in the finale. There he managed what few conductors achieve. He had his musicians playing for each other: as if it were a piece of chamber music in which the role of conductor disappears. The audience sat wrapped and still throughout experiencing a unique moment in this unappetising school hall. An extraordinary end to an extraordinary concert led by an extraordinarily fine conductor.