The Most Inspirational Orchestra Plays Wilson, Gershwin and Holst

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Wilson, Gershwin, Holst: Dominic Carter (piano), North Devon Sinfonia/Emma Kent (conductor), St Eustachius’ Parish Church, Tavistock. 6.5.2017. (PRB)

North Devon Sinfonia with Dominic Carter; photo credit Philip R Buttall.
North Devon Sinfonia with Dominic Carter (c) Philip R Buttall

Andrew Wilson – Hartland Point
Gershwin – Rhapsody in Blue
HolstThe Planets, Op.32

This was my second visit to this year’s Tavistock Festival, whose full details can be found in my earlier review of a concert with the Dante String Quartet and pianist Mark Bebbington.

In many ways, the present event could be seen as the complete antithesis of that chamber music recital. Unlike the Dantes and Bebbington, North Devon Sinfonia (NDS) is an amateur orchestra, made up of the typical mix of professional musicians, those who decided on a different chosen career, and its mainstay of well-practised and devoted amateurs. In fact, writing about Holst’s Planets, NDS Press Officer David Taylor had commented earlier: “The orchestra has mustered no fewer than eighty musicians from across Devon, Somerset, and Cornwall, to tackle the work!”

But this, then, again reflects the whole ethos of Tavistock’s highly-successful annual Festival: the ability to accommodate the widest range of genres, with the equal desire to mix the amateur and professional so seamlessly. NDS, though, is not just your average regional local ensemble.

Following their success last year in the BBC TV series “All Together Now—the Great Orchestra Challenge”, NDS was crowned the UK’s “most inspirational” orchestra. It has now been invited to represent the UK at the 2017 Seoul International Community Orchestra Festival in South Korea this September, which will include similar outfits from as far apart as Germany, Japan and Paraguay.

With this new accolade, it was no surprise that Tavistock’s charming Parish Church should be filled to capacity for the event. Virtually every bit of available space was used to house a significantly large orchestra, and a matching audience. In fact, it was a credit to the players’ discipline and attention that the percussion section, nestled so far back at the altar, still maintained their precision practically throughout.

Tavistock Festival has another definite plus—the fact that its recently appointed President is a prolific composer in his own right. For many years, Andrew Wilson was Director of Music at Tavistock’s Kelly College, where he combined his educational responsibilities with composing. On leaving full-time school-teaching, he has been able to concentrate on composition. His works have been performed around the world, have garnered a number of prestigious prizes and awards, and have been heard on BBC Radio 3. Commissions have figured prominently here, too, and the concert-opener—Wilson’s Hartland Point Overture—was actually written in 2016 specially for tonight’s programme.

Wilson is one of those composers who find their best inspiration away from the house. In his case, it is the garden shed—with its views over Tavistock and on into Cornwall—that is his hive of activity, musically speaking. The outlook while he works no doubt provided a surrogate stimulus for his new overture. Hartland Point is a high rocky outcrop of land on the north-western tip of the Devon coast, known for its dramatic cliffs and wild seas, and marking the western limit (on the English side) of the Bristol Channel with the Atlantic Ocean continuing out to the west. It was known to the Romans as “the promontory of Hercules”. Wilson’s Hartland Point very much captured in sound the picture we would all have of the location, and especially the players and their many vociferous supporters, who had travelled down to West Devon by coach or car for the occasion. Unsurprisingly, Wilson’s substantial overture featured all the best bits we have become used to in any piece about the sea, or sea-farers. There was more than an occasional nod in the direction of Arnold Bax’s tone poem Tintagel—a similar location an hour or so’s drive southwest along the coast, and across the border in Cornwall. On the night, the players, under Emma Kent’s clearly well-drilled direction, gave a full-blooded performance of Wilson’s exciting and salty work.

The orchestra was joined by soloist Dominic Carter for Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Traditionally, churches, however small, are usually blessed with something from a basically passable organ to an impressive three-or-four manual instrument, but the same cannot always be said for their pianos. Now, Tavistock Church is fortunate in possessing a reconditioned Steinway Grand of reasonable proportions, which has provided stalwart support to the Festival over the years. Carter gave a first-class rendition of Gershwin’s popular work for piano and orchestra. He added a few bells and whistles along the way, which not only enhanced the effect of an eminently familiar score, but wisely served to facilitate some of the trickier orchestral entries and accompaniments. This has helped in an acoustically-pleasing building, but one where lines of sight between soloist, conductor and players were not always ideal because of the sheer geography of the venue. A special word of praise, though, must go to the opening clarinet solo, with its famous—or infamous—jazz-inspired “glissando”. It was despatched here with great panache, as were the muted brass phrases, both catching the style to perfection. Equally noteworthy was the rich and assured sound from the strings, not only here, but elsewhere in the programme. Slightly in jest, perhaps the fact that the orchestra was led by the conductor’s husband, Dan Kent, might also have played some part here.

Carter then obliged with a generous solo encore—his own highly-effective take on Gershwin’s I Got Rhythm. It cleverly used the composer’s original setting from The Gershwin Songbook as a basis, combined with a quasi-ragtime nod in the direction of the “Match of the Day” theme tune from the BBC TV football round-up programme. In the latter piece, the fact that the piano did not seem to have been tuned was not that detrimental, and the occasional ringing unisons even added to the “honky-tonk” effect. But in the more expressive piano-writing of the Rhapsody, a tuning prior to the performance might have been advisable, despite the outlay.

Holst’s Planets is a challenging work for any top professional orchestra, let alone an amateur one. That is not just because of the varying challenges in each of its seven movements, but also because of the extra-large resources needed, particularly in the woodwind and percussion sections. As might be expected, NDS’s performance was not flawless across the board. For example, the extended horn section was not always secure, though the lower brass was on particularly good form. Whereas one acoustic harp had been sourced for the occasion, it fell to Rhapsody in Blue soloist Carter to supply the celesta and second harp parts on his electronic keyboards back with the percussion. In the end, though, this proved just as effective on the night.

But the crucial thing about the whole performance was the adjective used to describe this friendly and accomplished community orchestra from the north of the county, and one which no doubt coloured the highly enthusiastic response from the packed audience. NDS is not the best amateur orchestra in the UK—but then “inspirational” does not imply this anyway.

If we take “inspirational” as meaning “providing or showing creative or spiritual inspiration”, then North Devon Sinfonia proved a perfect role model for such an epithet. That is true both of the individual players, with the obvious bond between them and with the conductor, and, most importantly, of the sheer drive and enthusiasm from the front. This is surely what real music-making is all about, not whether there is a wrong note here, or a missed entry there. That kind of “perfection” is what professionals are all about—but then they have all spent many years being trained to accomplish this, and occasionally at the detriment of immediacy and freshness in performance. The amateur’s increased element of risk-taking can still often be the defining factor, as indeed it was here.

Philip R Buttall

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