Martinu in Piccadilly

(‘I hope you’re going to give this a nice write-up on your blog’… Yes, Nick!)

Martinů is a tough nut to crack even for a professional orchestra.  So all credit to Covent Garden Chamber Orchestra, and their fearless conductor Peter Stark, for pulling it off not once but twice.

Last night’s concert at St James, Piccadilly, opened with a rarity, Martinů’s vaguely neoclassical short Overture of 1953.  It was energetic, precise and exciting, though with some slightly scrabbly strings in places.  Fine oboe solo in the middle section (and I’m not just saying that to please Nick Theobald).

Then the Rhapsody Concerto for viola, also from 1953, full of that weird plagal cadence that appears in all his late works (something to do with Martinů’s bump on the head – that’s a story for another time).  (For the harmonically minded, imagine F13 – an F7 chord with a D on top – going to C major.  Lifts the harmony up in a uniquely inspirational way.)  Soloist was none other than Paul Silverthorne, who has made the piece very much his own (and is preparing a definitive new edition of it).  Big generous tone, lovely playing, and Peter Stark had the orchestra swinging behind him in Martinů’s extremely tricky rhythms.  It’s a smashing piece too – if somewhat formless (well, ‘rhapsodic’) as Martinů tends to be:  only two movements, leave ’em wanting more…

(The concert nearly didn’t happen when Paul Silverthorne discovered he’d left his chin-rest at home!  But nobody minded the ten-minute late start.)

After the interval, Dvořák’s 7th Symphony.  What a terrific and unjustly neglected piece (my neighbour commented that its problem was it doesn’t have a nickname – and it used to be called ‘No. 2’ so no one quite knows what it is).  The first movement is stirring, the slow movement is lovely, the Scherzo is very Czech and jolly, the Finale is seriously manic.

Thrilling music, bravely played but with less finesse than CGCO’s usually excellent best.  Part of the problem was the excessive heat in the church (the heating had been left on full blast, and it wasn’t a cold evening), plus an excessively gruelling afternoon rehearsal, apparently.  Ah, the tribulations of amateur orchestras…  Even Duncan Gwyther’s usually rock-solid 1st horn was uncharacteristically accident-prone on occasion.  Still, the horn section’s all-too-brief moment of glory in the slow movement was magnificent.  A word, too, for Katherine Bamber – a capable and inspiring leader (that’s ‘Concert-master’, or principal first violin…).

Returning to what has become a leitmotiv of these pages, St James is a lovely little 18th-century church, in a prime position, with lots of wood, balconies, a nice atmosphere, a Café Nero en suite, and a pleasing Old Labour feel about its peripheral activities – concerts for Good Causes, speeches by Tony Benn –

Breathes there a man with soul so dead
He was not, in the thirties, Red?

But there are the usual sightline problems (two rows of pews, wide central aisle, most of the orchestra on the flat floor so no one has a decent view – even if you’re not stuck behind a lamp), plus echoey acoustic:  the loud tuttis were just blarey and I couldn’t hear anything apart from timps, horns and trombones.  The building just isn’t big enough to take it.  (If you shut your eyes and imagine you’re listening to home loudspeakers overloading, you’ll hear what I mean.)  Woodwind solos (Nick’s oboe once again excepted) tended to get lost in the ether or the carpet (sorry, Tom) – a pity, as there was some nice playing.

So, a gallant concert… All credit to CGCO and Peter Stark for boldly going where too few orchestras – amateur or professional – dare to tread.  More Martinů , please!

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4 Comments on “Martinu in Piccadilly”

  1. Tom Hardy Says:

    Ah, yes, the loss of bassoons on the plush red carpet. A sad fate for the weird and wonderful acoustical properties of a long stick with lots of holes in it. HOWEVER, I am now told on good authority (from the second bassoon in Ulster) that the trick is to insist a sheet of hardboard is put down on the carpet. I will be adding it to my large bag of kit for gigs in such places. Along with several duvets to lay over the heads of the trombones and horns and some cushions to lay over the timps. THAT should sort it out.

  2. jonathanburton Says:

    Someone, I don’t know who, found his/her way to this page by Googling the ‘Thirties’ lines quoted above. (Ah, the joys of Blog Stats!)
    I’ve just done the same, and discovered that the original was by Sir Walter Scott:
    Breathes there a man
    With soul so dead,
    Who to himself hath not said,
    This is my home,
    My native land…
    I had assumed ‘my’ version was a parody by Dorothy Parker or someone, but on reflection I think it could have been an entry in a New Statesman competition in the early 1970s. I used to devour these assiduously every week (and enter them, sometimes – and even win the odd fiver too!), but I can’t remember what the question would have been on this occasion.
    The lines had become so much a part of my own personal mythology that I kind of assumed everyone else would know them…
    I hope that answers your question, mystery person!
    Why not leave a comment here, or send me an e-mail?

  3. jonathanburton Says:

    or ‘Who never to himself hath said…’ I think

  4. […] – the reason I had come:  Martinů’s Fantaisies Symphoniques (Symphony No. 6).  I have written elsewhere about Martinů’s extraordinarily magical late works;  this is one of the finest (I kept telling people it was ‘one of my favourite pieces’ – but […]

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