Gemma New conducts the Hallé and celebrates the centenary of Blackburn’s King George’s Hall

United KingdomUnited Kingdom King George’s Hall Centenary Celebration Concert – Wagner, Walton, Mozart, Beethoven: Laura van der Heijden (cello), Hallé / Gemma New (conductor). King George’s Hall, Blackburn, 22.10. 2021. (MC)

Gemma New conducts Laura van der Heijden (cello) and the Hallé

Wagner – Tannhäuser Overture
Walton – Cello Concerto
Mozart – The Marriage of Figaro Overture
Beethoven – Symphony No.3, ‘Eroica’

This gala concert marked a special occasion in the history of King George’s Hall, Blackburn. In October 1921 the official opening of the hall was celebrated with a concert by the Hallé Orchestra. Now one hundred years later the Hallé returning to King George’s Hall to mark the centenary celebrations was a delightful gesture.

This is my first concert report that includes New Zealand-born Gemma New who was conducting her first set of Hallé concerts. Opening the concert New conducted the Hallé in the overture from Wagner’s Tannhäuser (1845) the same work given in that inaugural concert. Certainly, Tannhäuser is one of my favourite works to commence a concert. Rooted in mythological legends Tannhäuser proved to be one of Wagner’s most contentious operas considered at the time to contain shockingly sensuous music. The Hallé revelled in the significant challenges of the overture which contains key melodies from the drama, namely the sacred devotion of the pilgrim’s hymn and seductive themes from the Venusberg music. Inspired by Wagner’s rich orchestration the strings began to gleam, and the sturdy brass certainly stood out.

Having the opportunity of hearing William Walton’s Cello Concerto was a personal delight especially as it is a work that I see on concert programmes infrequently. West Sussex born Laura van der Heijden was the soloist who aged fifteen was the winner of the prestigious 2012 BBC Young Musician competition and it was the Walton concert she played in the final. On her website Heijden is described as ‘a very special emerging talent’ and having now witnessed her first-hand demonstrating such adept and expressive playing that is description I can definitely endorse. It was the great cellist Gregor Piatigorsky who premiered the concerto in 1957 to a surprisingly mixed reception. With unfailing support from the Hallé, van der Heijden made one question why the concerto is so neglected. From the first note I was gripped by the soloist’s decidedly assured performance. Striking was her outstanding phrasing and lavish consideration to every note of this intensely romantic work.

Returning to our seats after the interval the conductor quickly lifted her baton and the Hallé burst into the much-admired overture to Mozart’s comic opera The Marriage of Figaro. Although not containing any themes from the actual opera this standalone overture serves as a delicious appetiser to the opera. With such ebullient playing – if not always the most polished – this uplifting short piece just flashed by.

Probably the symphony I have heard most in concert was the feature work of the evening Beethoven’s celebrated Symphony No.3 widely known as the ‘Eroica’. Completed in 1804 the ‘Eroica’ is viewed as a ground-breaking and key transitionary work between the Classical and Romantic periods and a repertoire staple the Hallé will undoubtably have played regularly. Classical music audiences will know the ‘Eroica’ well too and it can be challenging for orchestras to keep this highly familiar music sounding fresh. With much balletic movement on the podium Gemma New conducted the Hallé with considerable zeal and conviction in a pleasing type of standard performance that one usually encounters. Acquitting herself admirably New obtained a meaningful quantity of tension, handled the frequently changing character of the score effectively and worked purposefully to maintain the forward momentum. My notes refer to the orchestra demonstrating pleasing ensemble, a satisfying string sound, especially the resonant basses in the funeral march, and valuable contributions throughout from the woodwind principals. The horns rang out most effectively and coped well with the challenges faced in the Scherzo. This was not a performance of the ‘Eroica’ I would class as special, but it was a most acceptable one that engaged me for the most part. Fingers crossed that Gemma New returns to conduct the Hallé sooner rather than later.

The invited audience at this well attended concert for the ‘King George’s Hall Centenary Celebrations’ were treated to some striking music, engagingly played by the Hallé and benefiting from the receptive acoustic of the Grade II listed building.

Michael Cookson

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