Monday, 10 March 2014

'An English Idyll' - the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Brighton Dome, Saturday 8 March, 2014

The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra was back in town this Saturday 8 March at the Brighton Dome for their second concert this year.  The concert had the title 'An English Idyll', and was devoted to English music by Elgar, Delius and Vaughan Williams. 

Petroc Trelawny
They also brought along a presenter, Petroc Trelawny, to introduce the pieces and briefly interview Tasmin Little and David Hill.  Some may find this populist touch intrusive or patronising, but it's a great way of engaging the audience, and Petroc struck just the right note, keeping his introductions brief and appropriate, and as a result, drawing the audience into the performance.  So often, the audience can be ignored, and concert going can feel a very passive experience, as if one is just observing the performers playing for their own enjoyment.  I've not seen the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra perform that many times since the days of Marin Alsop conducting, but I suspect this approach stems from her habit of turning and talking to the audience in much the same way. 

David Hill (photo: John Wood)
The concert began with Elgar's The Wand of Youth Suite No. 2.  Elgar wrote the tunes for both suites as a boy, to be used in a play that he and his young siblings planned as a protest against some strict decision by their parents.  The plot takes two bad-tempered old people to a fantasy land where they are reminded of the joys and tribulations of youth.  Evidence is mixed as to whether the play was actually ever performed, but Elgar wrote the tunes down in his notebook, and then some fifty years later, he orchestrated them, creating two orchestral suites.  The second has six short movements, characterising images such as Moths and Butterflies, The Tame Bear, and The Wild Bears.  The orchestration is light and effective, particularly in the use of the glockenspiel in The Little Bells, and the alternating string and woodwind arpeggios in the Fountain Dance.  The Wild Bears provides a lively finish, and is often performed on its own as an orchestral encore.  Some of David Hill's tempi were a little on the sluggish side, and as a result the performance took a while to get going, with a few moments of less than precise ensemble.  However, the finer subtleties of the orchestration, particularly in The Little Bells, were treated with great delicacy.

They followed this with Delius' The Walk to the Paradise Garden.  Another piece with origins outside the concert hall, Delius composed this as an interlude in his opera, A Village Romeo and Juliet.  In the opera, the two lovers, renamed as Sali and Vreli, make the journey to the Paradise Garden, before their inevitable death together in the river.  The music is sensual, and surprisingly uplifting, given what fate has in store for the young lovers.  The opening contains beautifully scored music for the woodwind, and after slight initial tentativeness, the Bournemouth players produced an appropriately tender, warm tone.  This was matched by some sensitive, rich string playing too, and overall this was an enjoyable performance.  Hill coaxed real expression from the orchestra, and deftly handled the rhapsodic nature of Delius' writing.

Tasmin Little (photo: Melanie Winner)
The first half ended with a real treat, and by now the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and Hill had definitely warmed to their task.  They were joined by violinist Tasmin Little for Vaughan Williams' popular masterpiece, The Lark Ascending.  In my recent review of her new recording of the work with the BBC Philharmonic and Sir Andrew Davis, I noted how both Little and the orchestra managed to make such a familiar work sound new and inspiring, and again here Little showed that despite the many times she must have performed this live, she can still communicate the freshness and immediacy of the piece.  She also communicated constantly with the orchestra, responding to the different sections as they took up the melodies.  Except for some less than perfect intonation from the horn section once or twice, the orchestra supported and responded to the soloist admirably, making this a most enjoyable performance all round.     

The second half of the concert was given over to Elgar's Symphony No. 1 in A flat major, and here Hill finally appeared totally in command and in his stride, eliciting a magnificent performance from the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.  Like many others before him, Elgar waited a long time before composing his first symphony, perhaps feeling the weight of expectation, and the great symphonists that had gone before.  Yet when it came, Elgar's Symphony No. 1 proved to be a huge success, described by Hans Richter as 'the greatest symphony of modern times', and it was performed nearly one hundred times in the first year alone.  The orchestration is rich and lavish, yet Elgar uses great contrasts in texture too.  The opening noble theme sets us off perhaps expecting Elgar in Pomp and Circumstance mode, but the jump from A flat to D minor for the restless Allegro shocks us out of this very quickly.  The Scherzo is also turbulent, even sinister, and we've now travelled to F sharp minor, with a B flat major Trio, with its Mahlerian violin solo.  The beautiful Adagio, which follows directly after the Scherzo without a break, prompted a standing ovation at the first performance.  The final movement has incredibly full string textures, with the string sections subdivided several times, and the triumphant return of the opening noble theme returns with a blaze of trumpets for a rousing finish.  David Hill judged the changes in tempo, texture and mood brilliantly throughout, and the string players in particular excelled, conquering the somewhat dry acoustic of Brighton Dome with great depth of tone.  Gone was any sense of tentativeness or unsure ensemble from earlier in the evening, and this was a thoroughly engaging and lively performance of this great symphony.    


  1. This is a wonderful review, and I very much appreciate your observation, "So often, the audience can be ignored, and concert going can feel a very passive experience, as if one is just observing the performers playing for their own enjoyment."

    1. Many thanks, Susan! I'm sure not everyone agrees, but I do find performers who find ways of engaging with the audience and making a connection really enhance the concert experience.