Cheryl Frances-Hoad and the London Chamber Orchestra Successfully Draw Young People into Music-Making

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Catel, Haydn, Frances-Hoad, Beethoven: London Chamber Orchestra/Christopher Warren-Green (conductor), Cadogan Hall, London, 6.5.2016 (CS)

Catel: Overture to Sémiramis
Haydn: Symphony No.100 (Military)
Cheryl Frances-Hoad: I am You, Brave and Strong (world premiere)
Beethoven: Egmont Overture 

“You are not merely about to hear a piece of classical music, you are deeply involved in the future of humanity”: the words of conductor Christopher Warren-Green before the London Chamber Orchestra launched into a fiery rendition of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture to conclude this stirring concert at the Cadogan Hall.

Warren-Green’s entreaty might sound a little hyperbolic, until one reflects on the fact that Arts Council England has had its government grant cut by almost 40 per cent since 2010 and that local authorities have endured continuing cuts from Westminster, resulting in the closure of many local authority-run venues.  Moreover, since the Conservatives assumed office there has been a shocking fall in the number of children taking part in extra-curricular cultural activities like art, dance, music, and drama.  The Department for Culture, Media and Sport has itself acknowledged that the percentage of primary school-age children who had visited a theatre in the previous 12 months fell from almost half in 2008-09 to less than a third in 2014-15.

So, it really must feel like a ‘battleground’ to those who are committed to the arts and who hold a profound belief in their moral and spiritual value, and the LCO’s programme evoked a fighting spirit.  Concluding a season-long exploration of the life and times of Napoleon Bonaparte, the concert comprised Haydn’s vivid symphonic evocation of the battlefield, Beethoven’s paean to Count Egmont – the heroic Dutch nobleman who rebelled against Spanish oppression – and the little-known overture to Sémiramis by Charles-Simon Catel, who Warren-Green describes as ‘the go-to-guy for military music in Napoleonic France’.  In addition, and at the heart of the programme, was a world premiere of a new work, I Am You, Brave and Strong, by Cheryl Frances-Hoad which was commissioned for the orchestra’s Music Junction outreach project.

At a time when young people are being cut off from a world of creativity, if anyone in the Cadogan Hall had any doubts that inclusive artistic programmes such as LCO’s Music Junction are essential – serving as a vital platform to develop aspiration, showcase young talent and enable potential to thrive – then this performance of I Am You, Brave and Strong will have disabused them.

Featuring 130 young people aged between nine and seventeen (drawn from fourteen state and independent schools and organisations across Havering, Waltham Forest, Kent and Berkshire), the performance was uplifting, and remarkable for its inclusiveness and boldness.  Alongside the players of the LCO were amassed both skilled young musicians and those who had only recently begun playing an instrument.  The Cadogan Hall platform and galleries overflowed with music-makers: there were flute choirs aloft; electric guitars nestled alongside timpani; bright, multi-coloured ranks of string players, some seated, some standing.

Frances-Hoad’s composition is divided into three parts.  In the first, a folk-nuanced theme that was given last year to the LCO’s Education and Outreach Artistic Director, Rosemary Warren-Green, by the late Sir Peter Maxwell Davies is passed around the players, acquiring different hues and textures, and accumulating increasing force.  The second movement integrated music composed by each of the participants.  Frances-Hoad’s skilfully crafted score took the listener on a journey through each orchestral section, as initially tentative gestures – which exploited the instruments’ unique capabilities and characteristic sound-worlds – bloomed with forceful momentum and fiery animation.  Vigorous string crossings, an exciting expanse of woodwind tessitura, and the glowing warmth of brass and horns built to a rousing climax whose repeating military triplet-fanfare tattoo was topped with dazzling cymbals.  But Frances-Hoad also ensured that the more experienced among the young players had solo opportunities to showcase their skill.

The final movement was a setting of a collectively written text, ‘I Am You, Brave and Strong’, to a dynamic score, whose Scotch-snap rhythm and strong stepwise bass line created persuasive propulsion.  Commencing with a call to attention from the timpani and a quirky violin solo, the movement struggled through a literal and figurative ‘storm’ – ‘A clap of thunder, lighting up the sky,/ A blast of light the sourness fades’ – then garnered the positive energy of marching timpani beats and pizzicato string retorts to a triumphant conclusion: ‘With courage we’re back, so hear our song!/  Brave and strong!’

Charles-Simon Catel made his name writing Revolutionary hymns, marches and military symphonies for the Garde National band, and the overture to Sémiramis – a tragédie lyrique based on the 1748 tragedy of the same name by Voltaire which concerns the legendary Queen Sémiramis of Babylon –could have served a similar purpose.  Warren-Green and the LCO indulged its more melodramatic qualities – from the strange harmonic contortions of the slow introduction to the tingling string tremolos and hard-stick thwacks from the timpani – though the trumpet fanfares might have been even more dazzling.  There were some nicely graded dynamic contrasts but the overall balance was not always controlled, and there was some messy string playing at the start of the Allegro.

There was plenty of drama, too, in Haydn’s ‘Military’ Symphony, not least the arrival of standard bearer, triangle, bass drum and cymbals down the Cadogan Hall aisle in the final Presto.  Before that we had a graceful Adagio introduction with warm playing by the strings, from which the first movement Allegro burst forth with bright busyness – though I’d have liked a little more air so that the woodwind solos could shine through with greater sunshine.  The development was, however, marked by strong contrasts of texture and dynamics.  Perhaps the humour latent in Haydn’s score could have been acknowledged still further though, especially with the arrival of the recapitulation, which introduced some pleasing antiphonal interplay between first and second violins.

There was much lovely lyricism from woodwinds and horns in the opening of the Allegretto, until bass drum and cymbal shattered the bucolic calm – one could almost hear Haydn chuckling from the grave!  Strong playing from the basses gave direction to the string episode which intervened before the trumpet unleashed the composer’s disconcertingly askance fanfare.  Tight turns and accents characterised the Menuetto, and I was impressed by the sustained grace of the string playing.  In the Presto, string unisons were well-tuned and notable for the fleet playing of the cellos, while the falling motif which recurs in the woodwind added some sentiment before it was blasted away by the arrival of the Turkish battery.

Beethoven’s Egmont drama shares with the preceding Catel overture an F major tonality and a fiery F minor conclusion.  But, there the similarities end, for Beethoven’s music – as revealed by the LCO – has a seriousness and urgency which underscored Warren-Green’s prefatory petition perfectly.

Claire Seymour

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