Tormorden Symphony Orchestra Play Tim Benjamin and Prokofiev

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Chabrier, Tim Benjamin, de Falla, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev: Simon Desbruslais (trumpet), Todmorden Orchestra / Nicholas Concannon Hodges (conductor). Todmorden Town Hall, Calderdale, 10.11.2018. (RBa)

Chabrier – España (1883)
Tim Benjamin – Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra (2007, rev. 2017)
Manuel de Falla – Airs and Dances from The Three-Cornered Hat (1919)
Rachmaninov – Vocalise (1916)
Prokofiev – Symphony No.7 (1952)

The concert had three themes: Spain, aspects of Russia and intensely earnest fantasy. Before that – and given that a special Armistice Day (a century since 11 November 1918) was only 24 hours away – there was a minute’s silence, the Last Post (played by Daniel Gordon, a young player waiting for medical clearance to go to Kneller Hall, having passed the audition with flying colours) and the National Anthem; the audience stood through all of that.

As for Spain, it held court in the first part of the evening. We had a favourite, though not that commonly heard in the concert hall, in the shape of Chabrier’s España. This is Spain seen through the eyes of a Frenchman – not that uncommon. This tricky little piece combines taut exuberance and intricacy. The orchestra took it carefully, not wanting to be wrong-footed by the criss-cross of Chabrier’s exultant rhythms. It still emerged as richly enjoyable with its unusual complement, including four bassoons, honoured by Todmorden and conductor Concannon Hodges. A good start.

 Next, a dramatic change of mood and more. Onto the stage, with the conductor, came Simon Desbruslais nursing two trumpets: a standard narrow-bore concert instrument and a wide-bore flugelhorn, darling of the brass-band movement. This was for the premiere of the revised version of composer Tim Benjamin‘s Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra. The slightly more mellow-toned flugelhorn was used in the central of the three movements. Across the movements, this modern work left me with the image of a pilgrimage, with the pilgrim (trumpet) traversing a desolate and despairing wasteland. The pilgrim succumbs and gives voice in sympathy with the despondency. Less frequently, he kicks against it. This is very much a work with orchestra rather than an overt display or heroic conflict piece. Had the composer wanted something like that, he would have scored for a much smaller orchestra or stripped out all but the strings. As it was, the band was big, and it was employed in a big way rather like Gubaidulina’s Offertorium. It is remarkable that Benjamin also built in at least one moment where the principal trumpet (Lawrence Killian) has a very prominent segment in the score – a generous gesture.

The Benjamin concerto opens with whispered chattering figuration almost familiar from Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony and continues in tracks I would liken to a desolate version of Copland’s Quiet City. Rumbling and roiling figures reminded me of similar disconsolate pages from the Swedish composer Allan Pettersson’s Seventh Symphony. Benjamin’s is a powerful, unrelenting (OK, so the central movement is quieter) and dense piece. The soloist has to be, and here was, a true professional; for the most part, he has to forsake overt vainglorious heroics of the sort the orchestra and soloist Brian McGinley revelled in playing Arutiunian’s trumpet concerto in 2011. This is a very different work. The final pages were full-throated indeed in what did not feel like a concession to standard applause-enlisting concerto flamboyance. The composer, one of the orchestra’s second violins, was called forward and shared acclaim with the soloist, conductor and the rest of the orchestra.

The Iberian aspect returned before the intermission with a piece of Spanish euphoria by a Spanish composer, Manuel de Falla. Three dances, the very best bits, from the Massine/Picasso ballet The Three-Cornered Hat were brilliantly if occasionally splashily done. The silky violin sound registered strongly and made a link back to the Chabrier. This uproarious stuff vividly catches deep shade and tender romance. It presents that aspect just as memorably as the strutting, rowdy anarchic marches. The orchestra were up for this. I will single out for special praise the spectacularly roiling horns and the fluid tone of the violins led by Andrew Rostron.

The second part was a wholly Russian affair. Rachmaninov’s Vocalise started life as the last of his 14 Songs Op.34. It is directed to be sung using one vowel of the singer’s choosing. What we heard was for orchestra alone, presumably the composer’s own arrangement. It is typically and bloomingly romantic and is a sort of second cousin to the 18th Variation in the same composer’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. The orchestra gave a touching and passionate performance. They stayed completely in touch, bar by bar, with the dynamic swell and its interweave of Klimt-like glimmering clouds and stars. Andrew Rostron’s violin solo also stood out, complementing and leading an excellent performance which only suffered slightly because, say, ten more violins would have delivered a more telling weight to the string tone.

The concert ended with Prokofiev’s Seventh Symphony. How often does that appear at live concerts? The orchestra, by then fully warmed up, gave a high-octane reading of the symphony’s four movements. Once again, we heard a big orchestra more than filling the hall’s extended staging. Two of the violins and other instruments needed to have their chairs in the wings of the main hall. The only momentary blemish was a rather glutinous stodgy start to the third movement. This is a work of many episodes all intimately locked together. As for the orchestration, it includes five percussionists and the same very full complement as the Rachmaninov, plus piano and harp. Several times, the music gives the impression of the ‘eternal clockwork’ which you hear winding down at the quiet ending. (That clockwork off-beat, rhythmic, percussion-dominated ‘signature’ reminds me of a similar effect adopted by Shostakovich for the extended finale of his Fifteenth and last Symphony.) The expansive, resilient and frankly glorious theme from the first movement has illustrious stamina. The theme returns in true cyclic fashion, and in full finery, in the finale, complete with some buoyant ‘punctuation’ from the trombones to loft the moment even higher than in the first movement. The Seventh Symphony, something of a Cinderella, deserves far more than obscurity. It should be heard just as often as the Classical Symphony from the other end of Prokofiev’s life. Tribute goes to conductor and orchestra for an object lesson in reviving a rarely heard work and doing so with nothing short of magnificence.

Rob Barnett

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