English Chamber Orchestra return to Cadogan Hall

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Vaughan Williams, Mozart: Ofer Falk (violin), English Chamber Orchestra/Stephanie Gonley (director/violin), Cadogan Hall, 8.7.2020. (CS)

English Chamber Orchestra at Cadogan Hall (archive image)

Vaughan WilliamsThe Lark Ascending
Mozart – Symphony No.29 in A Major K.201

There are not many things to be cheerful about at present, but the sight of the lights very slowly being turned on in the nation’s concert halls and theatres is certainly one of them.  The English Chamber Orchestra were obviously delighted to be able to return to Cadogan Hall for this live-streamed concert, performed by 25 of the Orchestra’s members under their direction of their leader, Stephanie Gonley.  As Gonley told us in a Q&A session following the concert, while in some ways it was good to have a “breather” after more than 30 years of performing, this was her first concert since March and it was a huge relief to be back on the platform.

Principal cellist, Caroline Dale, might have had to retrieve her black concert attire from storage – and worry about whether she could fit into her dress – but having a date in the diary was something to focus on: performances are what musicians live for, she added, and it had been lonely without the daily interaction with other players.  Ofer Falk has performed regularly as a soloist with the ECO since 2003, and here played Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending before taking the Principal Second Violin’s chair during Mozart’s Symphony No.29.  After, two days of playing the violin – the ECO had spent the preceding two days in the Hall recording a CD of popular works for string orchestra – his muscles were aching, he noted drolly: “It feels like coming out of semi-retirement.”

It’s not just venue managers who are having to learn new procedures and practices quickly.  Ensembles are having to adapt to unfamiliar performing environments and challenging ways of collaborating and music-making.  As Gonley observed, performing in a ‘socially distanced orchestra’, with the players seated one-to-a-desk and dispersed across the platform, and the woodwind and horns placed at the rear behind protective transparent screens, creates challenges.  “Normally we are a tight ensemble, close together, in constant visual and aural communication.  It’s strange because you can really hear yourself playing, but not your neighbours!”

So, if they were excited to be walking out onto the Cadogan Hall platform, the ECO musicians were probably a little anxious too – and the brief ‘false start’ at the opening of The Lark Ascending was entirely forgivable.  Gonley marshalled her players swiftly and re-started with disciplined precision.  It’s strange being an audience-member ‘home-alone’, too, especially if one is wearing a ‘critic’s hat’.  It’s one thing to ease into an armchair and relish the sound and sight of live music-making, another to make judgements when the music is being transmitted through a lap-top’s speakers and headphones.  I immediately became aware that what I was hearing – in terms of the relative dynamics and the balance between the instrumental voices, for example – was probably not a true reflection of the sound being produced in the Hall itself.  And, the rather limited camera angles (shot from the Hall’s gallery) resulted in some odd juxtapositions, such as a horn or oboe solo sounding, while a violinist occupied the screen.  The ‘distance’ between ‘us and them’ couldn’t be denied.

Perhaps it was this that made The Lark Ascending a little unsatisfying.  Falk has a strong, true tone and his legato bowing was silkily smooth, but I found his interpretation a little deliberate and unnuanced – lacking gradations of tempo, dynamics, colour.  As I say, the streamed transmission may have accounted for some of the absence of variety I perceived, but I would still have liked more flexibility – freely evolving solo rhapsodising; whispered pianissimos which then surge and bloom; tender breaths and rubatos; softness contrasting with confidence; stillness against the warm throb of a full, wide vibrato … the sort of details that conjure the soaring lark’s dips and ascents.  Falk’s trills were crisp and tight, his sound bright, the double-stopped passages pristinely tuned, the high G-string tone robust and rich.  But, I missed a certain wistful soulfulness and quietude.

It was interesting to see the intent concentration with which the players watched and followed Gonley and Falk.  The ECO’s playing was vigorous and energised – again, perhaps too much so at the start, with insufficient room for growth.  At the close, they seemed uncertain of the etiquette that they should observe; some performers applauded, Falk turned and briskly left the platform.

Mozart’s Symphony in A No.29 found the ECO in much more relaxed mode, however.  The first bars of the Allegro moderato epitomised the symphony’s balance of grace and vivacity, the gentle ascending phrase gradually enriching and then repeated with bite and spirit.  Now the music had room to breathe, the slightest of pauses before the second subject easing us into a new mood.  The clarity of Mozart’s counterpoint was dynamic, the violas meandering amid the second violins staccatos.  Repeated violin upbows danced crisply; cello pedals at the cadences pushed ever forward.  Both section repeats were observed so we were able to enjoy it all twice and join the ECO members in their smiles of pleasure.

Gonley demonstrated a sure appreciation of the structure of the Andante, directing firmly but flexibly.  The merest of rallentandos made the sudden unleashing of energy in the Coda even more ebullient and joyful.  The trust between the players were plainly evident and satisfying.  The Menuetto was refreshing, combining crispness and sweetness, and again the counterpoint was fluent.  Perhaps the Trio might have relaxed just a little: the playing was lyrical but felt just a touch too hasty.  But the bright incisiveness of the concluding Allegro con spirito swept away any doubts.  The movement had a lovely nonchalance: trills were tight, but seemed to be thrown away insouciantly, and the ensemble precision was impressive.

Over 1200 people tuned into the concert, many registering their pleasure by making a donation to the ECO.  Before the concert, one member of the Orchestra hoped that the live-stream might make listeners curious.  “If they are keen to come and hear live concerts then the music will have done its job.”

Claire Seymour

Those who wish to make a donation to the English Chamber Orchestra can do so by texting ECOCT 15 to 78005 to donate £15 (texts costs £15 plus a standard rate message), or online at https://peoplesfundraising.com/donation/ECOCT.

‘TURN UP!’  will see Black West End and Broadway stars coming together for a special charity performance in aid of The Bail Project, The Okra Project, The Black Curriculum and UK Black Pride – in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.  The fundraising event will be streamed live from Cadogan Hall on Friday 10th, Saturday 11th and Sunday 12th July at 7.30pm prompt.  The performance streamed on Sunday 12th July will be captioned.

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