Saturday’s concert by the Winchester Symphony Orchestra, playing to a full house at New Hall, marked a great start to the new season. Starting with the Overture to Nabucco by Verdi, the orchestra played with discipline and verve under its new conductor Cathal Garvey.
This was followed by another great performance from the young pianist, Thomas Kelly, this time of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto. Thomas gave a wonderful flawless virtuoso interpretation of this great popular romantic piano piece, well known for its intense and brooding tunes and its seemingly endless chromatic descending harmonies. It’s a popular work and the audience loved this performance, and the Thomas is developing a good following in Winchester.
After the interval, the orchestra returned with Dvorak’s 7th Symphony. This piece was written by Dvorak before he travelled to America, where he produced some of his most popular works. It’s a complex and difficult piece with some dense musical argument, showing Brahms’ influence in the orchestration, while also pushing the first violin section’s technique and cohesion. The pastoral second movement is generally regarded as the most popular, but the orchestra seemed happiest in the third movement, a striking and jaunty Bohemian scherzo, before moving on to the complex final movement.
Overall, Cathal Garvey produced a great performance from the orchestra. His background as a professional string player shows through and combined with his strong musical personality and lovely clear beat, his skills are clearly helping the orchestra develop a more rounded and confident string sound as it takes on more ambitious repertoire, such as the next concert on 26th March 2023, including the Britten violin concerto and Sibelius first Symphony.
Thornden Hall provided the setting for a great advert for Hampshire music on the sultry evening of Thursday 7th July. The Winchester Symphony Orchestra provided a skilful accompaniment to concertos performed by four wonderful soloists from the Hampshire County Youth Orchestra, conducted by Nick Wilks in his final concert for WSO after sixteen years, and the HCYO before that. Nick has made a huge contribution to Hampshire music over his career, and is now taking his baton to a new challenge in Scotland.
The Young Soloist Competition supported and hosted by the WSO is a great plan. Providing these performing opportunities to local talented young musicians in a friendly and supportive environment is hugely important to their artistic development and to the future cultural life of Hampshire. The last few years have been very difficult for performing musicians, and it is hugely encouraging to see such support for live music, with the Competition formally judged by the eminent conductors Christopher Seaman and Robin Browning.
As Christopher Seaman pointed out, we had four superb performances from the four soloists, and all four were fortunate to benefit from excellent accompaniment by the WSO. The judges' criteria were control, command of the instrument and communication with the audience. The winner, Shoshana Yugin-Power, clearly a remarkable all-round musician, established an immediate rapport with the audience, and her confident character and musical communication gave her the edge on the night.
All four soloists showed very high levels of technical skill, and command of their instruments. Hannah Crowdy started the evening with the challenging Vaughan Williams oboe concerto, a late work combining his distinctive individual blend of pastoral lyricism and virtuoso passage work. Oboe and string orchestra combined to create a very authentic sound, and Hannah showed an admirable confidence in tackling the work's technical challenges.
Next, Freya Garside played a charming performance of Gordon Jacobs's Concerto for Bassoon, Percussion and Strings. Freya played with a lovely tone across the whole range of the instrument, and showed great rhythmical control and individual character in this slightly quirky but very enjoyable piece.
For the second half, the WSO strings were supplemented by the wind section and we saw the full orchestra as Shoshana followed with the Reinecke flute concerto. In this piece, Reinecke is very careful to protect the flute from the more powerful orchestral sound and either provides the flute with a series of extrovert virtuoso flourishes, followed by interludes of full orchestral passage, thus avoiding balance problems, or as in the slow movement, he cuts down the orchestral accompaniment to a few sections and solos. This certainly suited Shoshana, who took full advantage of the freedom and elegant decorative and expressive passage work in the flute part.
To end the evening, Eleanor Holmes provided an admirable interpretation of the Glazunov violin concerto. This is a piece in the romantic style, a fundamental part of the violin concerto repertoire, highly challenging and requiring a virtuoso technique. However, the Glazunov also presents major performance challenges because the violin part competes throughout for space with the orchestra, and this adds to the work's technical challenges. Eleanor took on a really difficult challenge well and finished strongly with an impressive final movement. Another outstanding performance.
The evening ended with the judges' summary, and a few words from David Blunt thanking Nick Wilks for his years of musical direction. We look forward to the resumption of the orchestra's activities in the autumn under new direction.
Events in Ukraine cast a long shadow over this concert of romantic Russian music, by the Winchester Symphony Orchestra under its conductor, Nick Wilks, on Saturday night in New Hall, with many musical and personal references and connections to Ukraine, but for those attending it was a wonderful evening of music making, and a huge success for those taking part.
The first item, Bernstein's Candide overture, was a bright start. Very lively music, with a slightly unsettling impact as it roves from theme to theme, with lots of interplay between the sections of the orchestra, it proved a highly appropriate taster in mood, energy and spirit for the rest of the programme.
To follow, we had a real treat. Tchaikovsky's 1st Piano concerto is obviously one of the great romantic piano concertos, well known for its emphatic theme in the opening few bars on the horns and piano. The dramatic and wild first movement is followed by the lyrical and calm slow movement, and then a third movement based on a fast folksong theme with a very tricky rhythm. To top it all, much of it is in very flat keys awkward for the strings, although slightly kinder to the wind and brass.
This particular performance was stunning. The soloist, Thomas Kelly, was extraordinary. Aged 24, he is already a very mature artist, with a great virtuoso technique, and hugely confident in interpreting this passionate and complex music. What's more, he was a last minute introduction, having only been contacted a few days previously, after the original soloist, Robert Bridge, fell ill to Covid, and had only a few hours on the day to rehearse with the orchestra.
As a performance it was fascinating. The first movement is a series of often chaotic virtuoso interchanges between the piano and orchestra, and needed the conductor and soloist to work closely. The second movement is quite different, as the orchestra introduces a series of tunes and melodies and the piano adds texture, sometimes just accompanying the wind soloists.
Thomas changed styles easily as a more relaxed mood replaced the bombastic first movement, then changed again as the agitated rhythms move the music forward in the final movement. His command of the score inspired both the audience and significantly, the orchestra. You could feel the orchestra growing in confidence with each movement as their sound and response to NIck Wilks changed. By the end, all sections of the orchestra produced a large professional romantic sound, and the audience reacted with great enthusiasm. I suspect we may see him back in Winchester fairly soon for another outing!
After the break the orchestra returned for Rachmaninov's Symphonic Dances, a complex and difficult work, with constant time signature changes. The work sits somewhere between a symphony and a Concerto for Orchestra, requires great concentration, precise, reliable and highly skilled conducting and considerable effort and practice by all participants to bring it off.
All sections had their moments, and although the wind and brass soloists were all highlighted, Rachmaninov also conjures up a wonderful saxophone solo passage for us to enjoy. As for the strings, the strong violin sound developed in the first half still continued, but this time we also heard welcome contributions from the violas and cellos.
So, in all, another fine concert form the WSO to mark its transition out of Lockdown. Covid has proved a difficult time for many orchestras, amateur and professional. Some need more time to rebuild and work together confidently, but the WSO is on its way back to form. The next WSO concert will be the Young Soloist competition on 7th July in Thornden Hall, a great initiative to offer performance opportunities to young Hampshire musicians.