Salomon Orchestra, 3 March 2009

salomon

London has dozens of amateur orchestras, each proclaiming itself ‘the finest amateur orchestra in the capital’.  Well, the Salomon Orchestra really is the finest non-professional orchestra in London.  Founded in 1963, it contains some of the best players on the circuit.  I grew up with these guys (and girls) and a surprisingly large number of them seem to have been in the orchestra for as long as I can remember!  (– which makes one worry where the next generation of really good amateur players is coming from…)

Their concerts are always a treat, and Tuesday’s was something special.  It was interesting to see how many distinguished amateur orchestral players were in the St John’s audience:  many were current or ex-members of Salomon who weren’t actually playing in this concert, but others had come to admire – a sign of the esteem in which this orchestra is held.

Unlike most other amateur bands, Salomon doesn’t rehearse on a weekly basis, but has a series of concentrated rehearsals just before each concert.  This really pays off.  Nor does it have a regular conductor;  this pays off too.  Guest conductor Dominic Wheeler electrified the band into disciplined playing of tremendous precision, energy and musicianship.

The concert opened with Benjamin Britten’s Fanfare for St Edmundsbury – three solo trumpets at corners of the gallery, playing three different fanfares in different keys, separately and then together.  As so often with Britten, a simple trick, but very effective (you think ‘I wish I’d thought of that!’).

Then Britten’s unjustly neglected Violin Concerto from 1939, an ambitious and accomplished work from a 26-year-old composer with a firm grasp of contemporary musical developments across Europe (and the world:  the score was completed in Canada and the USA).  In its breadth and easy authority it reminds me of Bartok’s 3rd Piano Concerto, although there are astonishing echoes (or pre-echoes) of Shostakovich and Prokofiev.

Soloist was the assured and hugely talented Sara Trickey, who conveyed the work’s searing intensity with power and brilliance.  If the last movement seemed to outstay its welcome, that might have been my fault rather than Britten’s.

After the interval, Dvořák’s unfamiliar Othello Overture – alas, unfamiliar to the orchestra too, it seemed:  I guess the rehearsal time had been mostly taken up with the other works on the programme.  But despite uncharacteristically ragged ensemble and some wrong entries, the performance was powerful and compelling, and Dvořák’s sonorities were beautifully conveyed (who else would score a chord for brass with just a cor anglais added?).

Finally, the piece I had come for:  Martinů’s Symphony No. 6 (subtitled ‘Fantaisies symphoniques’).  Twenty years ago I had the privilege of playing in this piece with this orchestra, in the same venue, so I can vouch for the fact that it is harder to play than it sounds – and it doesn’t sound easy!  Written in New York and Paris in 1953, the work is a tribute to the personality of its dedicatee, the conductor Charles Munch;  Martinů said he was writing ‘a story for Charles’, and the work’s improvisatory, episodic structure reflects the ‘fantasy’ element in its subtitle.

The Salomon Orchestra’s performance was breathtaking in its unanimity, precision, intonation, energy, excitement and commitment.  I recently heard the LPO under Mark Elder give a very fine performance of Martinů’s  Frescoes of Piero della Francesca, but they lacked the in-your-face thrill and fire of Salomon.  Dominic Wheeler brought out especially the explosive force of percussion, horn and brass entries, the bite and colour of the woodwind (special mention to oboes and bassoons!), the singing, dancing string melodies, and the glowing reflective cadences.

John Ryan led the strings and gave a brave account of Martinů’s wickedly unplayable little violin solo.  The orchestra can boast a large and accomplished string section;  all that was lacking was perhaps a few more double basses for a rock-sold foundation.

Martinů really is an extraordinary composer, with the most precise and fantastical ear for orchestral sounds.  When he is on form (and please don’t trot out those lines about ‘well, he wrote so much music that a lot of it is bound to be second-rate’ because that just isn’t true!), listening to a great performance such as this one is like being inside the composer’s brain, watching the neurons fizz and pop as he throws off amazing ideas like showers of sparks.  I came away from St Johns (into a horrible stormy rainy night) exhilarated, proud and delighted.  What a magnificent performance of a weird and wonderful piece.

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