Shrewsbury School

The 2012 St Cecilia Concerts, reviewed by Martin Knox

Thursday 6 December 2012

Martin Knox's musical reviews, described by our Director of Music as 'fine and pithy - lovely', have developed a bit of a following.  The St Cecilia concerts, played to virtually full houses on both Saturday and Sunday last week, have been universally acknowledged as being some of the best ever.  This review of them has been eagerly anticipated by many.  It will not disappoint.

Normally held in November, the concerts in honour of the patron saint of music came late this year, but in all other respects the format was the same, offering a wide-ranging, if not comprehensive, survey of the department’s activities. What we hear is the product of much hard work, mostly in “overtime”, for very few of the participants have less than a full timetable in school, and one can only marvel at the stamina of those who made multiple appearances on both evenings.

As usual, the programme began with sonorous brass, Nigel Gibbon directing an imposing array of instrumentalists in an arrangement of Ron Goodwin’s score for “Where Eagles Dare”.  It was some feat to conjure such disciplined playing from so many. The incisive entries made a favourable impression and the climax was majestic.

Maria Eglinton’s Big Band has been winning acclaim at national level, but here she directed an even bigger band in two movements from “Hymn of the Highlands” by Philip Sparke. These musical “postcards” are glorious evocations of the Scottish scene, rich in contrasting textures and complex rhythms. It must be rewarding to be part of such a vibrant ensemble.

I must confess to some misgivings when I first heard that the December concert would include the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. Was not this work rejected by its original dedicatee as “unplayable”? The soloist, Leonard Ma (Rt UVI), was facing a huge challenge and even the accompaniment was going to be some undertaking.  Happily, it was apparent from the first bars that fears were unfounded. The orchestra rose to the occasion and provided worthy support for their colleague’s accomplished playing. Particularly affecting was the conclusion of the cadenza, when the solo part melts into the hushed background, from which point all is celebration.  Leonard is not a demonstrative violinist, no swaying, foot-stamping, or exaggerated intake of breath from him, but, inspired by John Moore’s impassioned direction, his interpretation acquired something of a Romantic swagger. Paradoxically, he thrives on difficulty and it was in the most technically demanding passages that he was at his best. Stratospheric harmonics were pitch-perfect and a golden glow emerged in the lower register. Though intonation sometimes faltered in between, this was no mere attempt, but an achievement, duly acclaimed as such by an enthusiastic audience. Among those present was Leonard’s mother, who had come all the way from Hong Kong. She had acted wisely, for this was a moment not to be missed. Even Leonard managed a smile.

Last month I heard the orchestra in what was frankly a scrappy "work-in-progress" performance of Beethoven’s fifth symphony.  Ready for St Cecilia?  Ditch it and give them Finlandia, I thought. JFM was, as usual, more sanguine and what a transformation he wrought in the interim. My only point of disagreement lies in the decision to omit the scherzo. There is a strong argument for saving time in what is always a long evening, but the last two movements of this symphony form an indivisible unit, the one leading to the other in a transition which is the high point of the work. The finale is intended as a triumph, but without an opponent there is no victory. Dispelling the shadowy, threatening mood that has prevailed thus far, the assertion of C Major is a turning point in the history of music. Dive straight in and it sounds like facile optimism. Even the coda suffers, seemingly overdone in the diminished context. That said, the playing, especially on the second night, was inspired, the final chords a miracle of unanimity. Perhaps the conductor was hammering out his own emphatic reply to the doubters.

After the interval, David Joyce directed his orchestra in Elgar’s Serenade for Strings. After a tentative opening on the Saturday, they settled down and particularly in the second movement evoked the delicately perfumed air of autumn that is so characteristic of the composer. String players are in almost constant action, but only seldom do they have the stage to themselves. If it could be managed, a lunchtime concert would be welcome.

Readers of The Times may remember a recent correspondence about the relevance of the conductor during a concert. They might even have noticed a letter from Martin Locke of the Shrewsbury Community Choir, asserting the indispensability of the role. Without naming him, he was of course referring to our own John Moore, who repaid the compliment with a towering performance of Haydn’s Theresienmesse.  John is at home in so many fields that it is difficult to see  him as a specialist in any, but he has a distinguished background in the works of the great Austrian, and singers and players alike responded unerringly to his direction. The orchestra has never sounded better and if the brilliance of the trumpeters and the heroics of the timpanist stood out, that is not to say that there was a weak link anywhere. The choir, too, was in top form, as witness the exemplary blending of voices in an unaccompanied “miserere nobis”.   They always sing whole-heartedly and with evident joy in music-making, but last weekend I felt they reached new heights of excellence in precision of attack and release. That they were at one with every nuance of the conducting was a tribute to their preparation and their musicianship.

Until recently, it has been the practice to bring in professional soloists for such concerts, and in days gone by, a fair sprinkling of hired hands could also be seen in the orchestra. Much to the credit of all concerned, the whole cast on this occasion was “in house”.  Sienna Holmes, Teresa Fawcett Wood, Meredith Lloyd, Laurence Jeffcoate, and Rob Cross are all singers I have heard and admired before.  They proved worthy of their places at the front and how confidently they stood there, how eloquently they delivered the text. Now and then their contribution was almost drowned by the forces around them, but in the lightly accompanied solos, the effect of their youthful voices was moving.

Late in the evening though it was, the ecstatic momentum of the performance was sustained to the end, culminating in an exuberant rallentando. “Authentic”? Perhaps not, but the effect of such flawless execution was stunning. The audience rose in salute.

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