United Kingdom Janáček, Ireland, Holst: Rebeca Omordia (piano), Ealing Symphony Orchestra, John Gibbons (conductor), St Barnabas Church, Ealing, London, 18.7.2015 (AS)
Janáček: Taras Bulba
Ireland: Legend, for piano and orchestra
Holst: The Planets
On its website, the Ealing Symphony Orchestra is described as a “voluntary” orchestra, which is a more appropriate word than “amateur”, for its standard of playing is a good deal better than that usually implied by the latter term. The Achilles heel of most amateur ensembles is poor string intonation, but in this respect the ESO does not suffer, and at times the string tone in this concert was impressively warm.
The conductor John Gibbons strives to provide programmes that mix familiar and unusual repertoire, and given that he is Chairman of the British Music Society, what is usually described as “English” music strongly features. He is also not afraid to play works that present big technical challenges for his players. Thus this concert provided a rarity in the shape of Ireland’s Legend, the popular Planets, and the demanding Taras Bulba.
The Holst and Janáček works both contain significant parts for the organ, and the orchestra was not in its usual position at the front of the church, but placed at the back, near the impressive three-manual instrument. The intention was of course to enable good ensemble between organ and orchestra, but there seemed another benefit in that the usually somewhat boomy acoustic of this church was reduced a little.
In his introduction to the concert John Gibbons pointed out that the subject of all three Taras Bulba movements is Death; and it fact all three works in the programme had certain life and death connections, since Ireland’s piece depicts the composer’s supernatural experience of seeing a ghostly group of children dance briefly in front of him on the Sussex Downs, and Holst’s suite deals with the astrological character of each of the seven planets that were then known to exist (the controversial Pluto had yet to be discovered).
A feature of Taras Bulba is its violent contrasts of dynamics, tempo and metre. To experience these qualities at absolutely maximum effect it is necessary to hear the extraordinarily free-spirited 1950s recordings conducted by Janáček’s pupil Břetislav Bakala, but John Gibbons steered his players through the music’s complexities very skillfully. Perhaps he would have wanted to bring out its dramatic qualities still more, but he still drove his forces pretty hard, and succeeded in bringing out the fervour and violence of Janáček’s inspiration.
The young pianist Rebeca Omordia was born to Rumanian and Nigerian parents, and after study in Rumania, Birmingham and London won the Delius Prize in 2009. The adjudicator on that occasion was the eminent cellist Julian Lloyd Webber, and as a result Omordia and Lloyd Webber worked together for three years before the cellist’s enforced retirement through injury. Through Lloyd Webber Omordia will have become exposed to John Ireland’s music and she has become a notable champion of his piano works.
Her performance of the solo part in the Legend was technically brilliant, tonally beautiful, and highly sensitive to the music’s potent atmosphere, while Gibbons and the orchestra played their part notably in bringing out its basically dark, mysterious nature and also the chillingly bright episode that depicts the dance of the ghostly children. At a mere 13 minutes or so in length the piece is not really long enough to fill the role of a concerto in a concert, so it was good that Rebeca Omordia returned to give an evocative performance of a solo Ireland piece, The Island Spell.
With its brilliant, colourful, clear-cut scoring and inspired invention Holst’s Planets retains its justified popularity among listeners, and on this occasion it looked as if the players were relishing its delights too. John Gibbons’ tempo for the opening ‘Mars’ was a shade deliberate, but perhaps he wanted to retain total rhythmic control over his players and clarity in the over-generous St Barnabas acoustic. The peaceful quality of ‘Venus’ was well conveyed, with an impressively expressive contribution from the upper strings, but caution did rather prevail in the tricky ‘Mercury’, whose quicksilver, volatile qualities were dampened a little by a slightly sedate tempo. The stirring ‘Jupiter’ with its big tune came across particularly well, and the remaining movements were all effectively and strongly characterised. For the wordless choir at the end of ‘Neptune’ Gibbons used pre-recorded voices digitally recorded and then reproduced using “sampling” techniques.
After the concert the conductor told me that he had used this device in order to avoid previous experiences of using voices that tended to lose pitch under live performance stress. Apparently the recorded voices had sounded too loud in rehearsal; in the concert they proved to be a little too reticent. But this was a small defect in an evening of highly committed performances that provided much enjoyment and satisfaction.