Borodin: Prince Igor Overture
Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 2
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 2
Conductor: Martin Budgett
Soloist: Dominic Degavino
A large audience assembled in the generous spaces of Kendal Parish Church to enjoy a concert of Russian music under the baton of guest conductor Martin Budgett. I felt that the acoustics were warmer than those in the Leisure Centre, the usual venue, and this helped the various sections of the orchestra to blend together perfectly and the violins to hold their own against the rest. The hot weather provided a challenge for the orchestra to keep their instruments tuned, one which they overcame successfully. The pillars made for poor sight-lines for some people, although two large screens were provided in compensation.
The concert opened with Alexander Borodin's overture for his opera Prince Igor. This was left unfinished at his death in 1887, like many of his works, and was completed by his friend Glazunov, partly from his memory of hearing the piano version. Vigorous conducting and well-executed brass calls and horn and woodwind solos complemented excellent tone from the strings.
Rising star of the concert platform Dominic Degavino was the soloist in Rachmaninoff's 2nd Piano Concerto, and I cannot remember hearing it played more beautifully. Despite its familiarity, the work is technically very demanding and a real feat of memory. Rachmaninoff suffered from depression and 'writer's block' on and off throughout his life, often brought on by scathing (and unjustified) critical reviews. His second piano concerto, finished in 1901, was an unqualified success, however, and has remained popular ever since.
From the portentous opening chords we knew we were in for a real treat of virtuosity, coupled with sensitive and emotional melodic lines. The orchestra blended well with the piano, only dominating once or twice, and providing clear woodwind solos on the (rare) occasions when the piano was silent. The sublime second movement was very moving and the brilliant finale was an exhilarating conclusion to a totally mesmerising performance, loudly acclaimed by audience and orchestra alike.
After such a feast of music, the second half, consisting of Tchaikovsky's 2nd Symphony, could have been something of an anti-climax, but Martin Budgett drew excellent and exciting playing from the orchestra, who clearly like working with him. Tchaikovsky was already a popular composer when he wrote his second symphony, in which he aimed to introduce folk tunes into the symphonic structure, but with limited success, which caused him to revise the work significantly. Some of the melodies are from Ukraine (then known as Little Russia), where Tchaikovsky spent his summers, and the symphony at one time was nicknamed the 'Ukrainian' rather than its usual name of 'Little Russian'.
The players carried off the demanding opening horn and bassoon solos perfectly, with powerful string tone subsequently. The complex rhythms and repeats in the third movement were crisp, with fine woodwind playing; the finale begins with a chorale followed by a folk tune which is elaborated and then followed by a lyrical second subject in the violins. One of Tchaikovsky's characteristically exciting endings including timpani, cymbals, bass drum and tam-tam was a fitting conclusion to a very fine concert.
Cumbria Festival Chorus – Chorus Master: Ian Jones
Soprano: Sarah Fox
Mezzo-soprano: Kathryn Rudge
Tenor: Andrew Tortise
Bass-baritone: Samuel Snowden
This opening concert in the Mary Wakefield Westmorland Music Festival 2023 was also the last in Richard Howarth's tenure as Music Director and Conductor of the Westmorland Orchestra. A nearly full house, despite the wintry weather, saw the orchestra joined by the Cumbria Festival Chorus and their Chorus Master Ian Jones. The orchestra began with Leonore III, the third and most popular overture which Beethoven wrote for his only opera Fidelio, and which provides a summary of the opera and its best melodies. From its sombre start with hushed strings through the offstage trumpet calls to the blazing final bars, the orchestra got into its stride under Richard Howarth's crisp direction.
Bruckner, better known for his nine symphonies, also wrote many settings of sacred texts for unaccompanied choir. Os Justi, with words from Psalm 37, gave the chorus a chance to demonstrate their wonderfully balanced and controlled sound, at once motional and devout.
After the interval we were treated to a fiery and powerful performance of Beethoven's Choral Symphony, one of the pinnacles of music and all the more remarkable for being completed when he was totally deaf. The first movement with its fragmentary themes and complex development is hard to carry off convincingly, but the orchestra rose to the occasion with pure woodwind lines, and the cellos and basses particularly striking. The leader, Pamela Redman, carried on valiantly on another violin despite breaking a string early on.
The scherzo-like second movement was taken at a steady pace to let every note sound. The timpani, used extensively throughout this symphony, were always crisp and perfectly accented – a pity that it was hard to see the performer! The woodwind were clear and the brass restrained and sonorous.
The slow third movement, in my opinion one of the most beautiful pieces ever written, had lush sound and perfect tempi, although sometimes it was hard to hear the first violins' ornamentation over the rest of the orchestra – perhaps the fault of the hall's acoustics.
In the fourth and mightiest movement, Beethoven introduced voices into the classical symphony for the first time. His writing makes little concession to the human voice, but the well-drilled chorus and four soloists accepted the challenge magnificently. The opening recitatives on cellos and basses were powerful and the hushed introduction of the ‘Ode to Joy' theme was enhanced by beautiful tone from the viola section. After the orchestral peroration, the baritone soloist introduced the choral setting of Schiller's poem. Richard Howarth paced the variations perfectly and drew crisp and energetic playing from the orchestra. The chorus and soloists put their hearts and souls into the words, although at times it was hard to hear any except the soprano – I feel that the soloists would have been better placed at the front of the stage.
As the symphony moved to its tremendous life-affirming conclusion, audience and performers alike were caught up the joyful excitement, and the enthusiastic, well-merited applause proved that this concert was a fitting climax to Richard Howarth's work with the Westmorland Orchestra.
This concert, part of Richard Howarth’s last season as Musical Director of the orchestra, was entitled ‘Northern Lights’ and contained three pieces by Scandinavian composers evoking the natural world. The temperature of the hall also helped to establish the Nordic atmosphere!
The orchestra rose to the challenge of the works superbly. The first, Carl Nielsen’s overture ‘Helios’, begins quietly with cellos and basses to which are added horn calls. It portrays the rising and noon brilliance of the sun, in a powerful climax, before sinking into a peaceful sunset, all in Nielsen’s characteristically chromatic yet approachable style. The trumpets and trombones were crisp and not over-dominant, the horns confident, the woodwind excellent as usual, and the strings well-drilled, although the violins, as in most amateur ensembles, would benefit from increased numbers in the louder sections.
The second work, ‘Cantus Arcticus’ by the Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara, takes inspiration from the landscapes and birdsong of the north – in fact an essential part of the piece is a recording of wetland birds, a shorelark, and whooper swans, which plays almost the whole time and is embroidered upon by the orchestra in an impressionistic manner. The opening movement makes big demands on the woodwinds, who accepted the challenge magnificently. The conductor steered the players through the shifting rhythms and long crescendos and diminuendos, and carefully blended the various sections of the orchestra into a seamless whole. The strings in particularly showed their rich tone. I for one felt transported to the Arctic landscape.
After the interval, the concert concluded with Jean Sibelius’s 1st Symphony, which helped to establish him as a first-rank composer. Richard Howarth drew the best from all the players, expertly managing the many changes of tempo and mood, and allowing each section to be heard to advantage even in the surging fortissimo passages. The exposed clarinet solo which begins the work, and the complex timpani part in the third movement, were handled faultlessly. The string tone was lush and the brass restrained but powerful when required. I had the impression throughout that the orchestra were enjoying themselves.
The audience was somewhat reduced for this afternoon concert, perhaps by the lure of Christmas shopping, but those that did attend were treated to a feast of excellent music.Phil Johnstone
The concert opened with the Overture and selected movements from Beethoven’s music for the ballet ‘The Creatures of Prometheus’. This got off to a confident start and immediately it was obvious that the orchestra had been well prepared for the performance. The strings deftly negotiated their rapid passage work and the woodwinds demonstrated a lightness of touch in their solo passages. The demanding duet for basset horn and oboe was confidently delivered by sectional principals, Ruth Watton and Nigel Atkinson.The young Singaporean pianist, and multiple prize winner, Serene Koh was the soloist in Mozart’s C minor Piano Concerto K491. Martin Roscoe, the Westmorland Orchestra’s President, described her as ‘an ideal soloist’ for this concerto, and so it turned out. Her playing had the clarity which Mozart’s music demands. She produced a beautiful tone in the many quiet solos passages with immaculate phrasing and beautifully sustained legato lines. Her dazzling technique enabled her to negotiate Mozart’s rapid passage work, including the difficult cadenza, with ease. Sadly, the work’s opening was marred by some uncertain intonation in the strings and wind and throughout one was aware of
After the interval came Mendelssohn’s ‘Italian’ Symphony. This produced some of the best playing of the evening. The performance had energy and conductor, Richard Howarth, drove on the outer movements with great momentum, never allowing the tempo to flag. There was a good balance in the Andante movement between the woodwind hymn-like melodic line and string marching accompaniment. In the third movement the two horn players distinguished themselves in their horn calls with more impressive playing from the woodwind section. The final exhilarating Saltarello proved a fitting end to a concert which must have brought cheer to many.Clive Walkley
The Westmorland Orchestra’s latest concert got off to a fine start as the whole orchestra launched into Schubert’s tuneful sixth symphony: what better way to start a concert than with everyone joining in the two loud chords which open this work – a great confidence booster! The confident opening was a sign of things to come. So much of this symphony is dominated by Schubert’s lovely woodwind writing and here the Westmorland’s woodwind section excelled. The flutes in particular have an important role and their playing sparkled throughout the work; they were ably backed up by their colleagues. Conductor, Richard Howarth, paced the work at a safe speed which resulted in a very satisfying and enjoyable performance. Although not one of Schubert’s most difficult symphonies, the work is not without its challenges but is not beyond the capabilities of a good amateur orchestra like the Westmorland.Following the Schubert, Lily Whitehurst was the violin soloist in Max Bruch’s Romance in A, Op. 42. Lily is in her final year as an advanced student at the Royal Northern College of Music where she has won many awards. She is no stranger on the professional orchestral scene and has recently been appointed to a place in the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. Her playing is beautifully lyrical. Occasionally she was overwhelmed by the orchestra but overall this did not diminish the quality of the performance.
After the Bruch she showed another side to her artistic personality as she romped effortlessly through Manuel de Falla’s rhythmically exciting Spanish Dance. The clicking of the castanets brought the necessary Spanish quality to the performance, bringing the first half of the concert to a very satisfying close.After the interval, we heard Brahms lengthy first Serenade for orchestra, written when he was still a relatively unknown composer. The work is in six movements and contains many hallmarks of his later, mature style. But it is thickly scored in places and there were times when the strings were overwhelmed by the wind department. This is not necessarily a criticism of the string section; the players produced a good firm sound, but Brahms’ orchestral music demands weight in this section. Again the wind players excelled themselves, particularly in the fifth movement when they came into prominence. I’m sure the orchestra would welcome the addition of more string players to swell the ranks!
Sadly, there were many empty seats in the hall and the enthusiasm and skill of the players, many of whom travel long distances to be part of the orchestra, deserve much better support.Clive Walkley