Last night’s gig was one of those rare but appreciated freelance return bookings, strengthening the viola section (this time – I have played violin for them too) of the London Repertoire Orchestra. Playing a concert with them is itself a mild contradiction in terms, since their usual setup is to rehearse a major work for one evening only, moving on the next week to avoid boredom or perhaps facilitate attendance by players who cannot block out a particular evening week in, week out (this model, with corresponding weekly rather than termly / annual subscriptions, seems to be increasingly common for choirs / singing sessions where the ‘rehearsal’, with its recognised health benefits, mental and physical, is the aim in itself rather than a stage of preparation for a public performance). However, they do, with small shifts of personnel, perform concerts from time to time, usually as charity fundraisers, and this was one such, as were the two previous occasions on which I’ve joined them.
The programme, perhaps mildly ironically, was fairly core material: Brahms’ fourth symphony, Grieg’s piano concerto and Beethoven’s third attempt at an overture to his only opera. (The first three overtures are known as Leonora 1–3, after the title Beethoven wanted, against the wishes of the librettist and impresario; the eventually performed overture is known as Fidelio, after the eventually used opera title. All are now generally only performed in concert … ) However, this does not mean the concert was a walk in the park! Brahms’ symphonies are uniformly complexly structured, densely textured and challenging to fit together (besides his love of extreme modulations leading to perhaps excessive use of double sharp accidentals), and keeping ensemble together in a high Romantic concerto such as the Grieg always demands sustained close concentration from conductor and orchestra. Besides considerations of sheer difficulty of parts and speed. I had played the Brahms and Grieg before, but only on violin parts (2nd, with Merseyside Youth Orchestra, in the Grieg and 1st, with Oxford University Philharmonia, in the Brahms), and it is characteristic of Brahms’ orchestration that that was not a great deal of help except in some understanding of the architectonic structure of the work.
However, you could certainly cut the concentration with a knife by concert downbeat at St James’ Piccadilly, and I think the (close to full) audience got everything they came for – after a rapid ascension of playing and ensemble over the few sessions’ rehearsal period. Massive extra credit must go here to piano soloist Mariko Brown. Firstly, it is (regrettably) highly unusual for a concerto soloist with an amateur orchestra to show up to an additional rehearsal before the day of the performance (I suspect the orchestra usually cannot afford the extra fee); but it makes a huge difference to the integrity of the performance when they do so. It is still more unusual to have a soloist committed to the quality of partnership in a concerto to the extent that Mariko is, being entirely willing to explain how passages should fit, make adjustments where absolutely necessary and even point out when the orchestra is in fact being accompanied by her rather than vice versa and can make more of the fact! A refreshing change from the all too common risk of presenting a finished interpretation to which the orchestra (via the conductor) must simply supply an accompaniment as well tailored as possible.
All in all, a substantial and musically satisfying (if occasionally slightly edge-of-the-seat) concert experience, and one that I hope to, if not repeat, extend similarly at some time in the future – though the connection is already ultimately responsible for my July booking to play the Britten Illuminations and Tippett Concerto for String Orchestra in Wantage.
In the meantime, I’m trying to get away from remembering to plug upcoming performances at the end of blog posts and making readers search through posts to find when I might be playing by adding a future diary to the home page of this site. Be that as it may, Kindred Spirit and I are off this afternoon to support Curved Air (!) at the Claygate Festival, and will be getting busy next weekend with an actual St Patrick’s gig as a duo (in Isleworth) and a full band gig riffing off the date the following day (members only I’m afraid; a golf club in Fleet). Stay posted!