Autumn concert

Saturday 8 November 2008
Rob Barnett

“All the playing, but especially that from the strings, conveyed a cogent sense of surge, eddy and flow – a luminous weightlessness that carries the music forward.”

Flamboyance and serenity flanked two new works specially written for the Todmorden Orchestra and related to the work of local son, the poet Ted Hughes who died ten years ago.

This was the second all-British concert to be given by the enterprising Todmorden Orchestra in two years. The Victorian Town Hall speaks of pride and industry applied to the arts. Bas relief panels depicting the Muses decorate the lofty roof with its Egyptian style pendant gas light fittings. The hall is soberly magnificent in greens and creams and provides an imposing ambience even if the common areas are beginning to look a little time-worn.

The 54-strong community orchestra conducted by Nicholas Concannon Hodges features a refreshing mix of ages from those in their twenties upwards. While it cannot sustain the sheeny precision and luxury of a fully professional orchestra it produces a pleasing and exciting sound and shows a commitment that communicates to the audience.

The concert opened with Holst’s orchestral spectacular – the ballet music from the opera The Perfect Fool. These elemental dances are extracted from an opera of the same name which sends up wizards, potions, fools and Wagner and does so in voluptuous style. The music revels in Wagnerian magnificence – ask the brass section, especially the trombone players; after all this was Holst’s chosen instrument. For an ex-student of Stanford and the Royal College of Music the style is more Rimsky-Korsakov and de Falla than Brahms. This is the Holst of Beni Mora and The Planets not the austere Holst of Egdon Heath and the Lyric Movement. Even so there was time for some beguilingly chaste solos from viola, cello, cor anglais, flute and clarinet. The finale was marked out by affectingly hushed and sustained quiet playing from the violins. Allowing for some initial splashiness the trombones and tuba distinguished themselves at the start and also in the ripplingly eruptive bow-wave that cleaves through the brass benches, left to right, just towards the close.

The first of two Ted Hughes-centred works was John Reeman’s Elmet Suite – a sequence of five atmospheric miniatures. The Remains of Elmet is mysterious, speaking of desolation with a hint of the heroic. The raucously pointillistic Football at Slack has the orchestra buffeting and buffeted in a howling and shrieking Waltonian gale. The vulnerable confiding shimmer of In April makes a welcome contrast and unnervingly reminded me of kindred writing of Patrick Hadley’s In Taxal Woods in The Hills. Amid this peaceful benediction there is a lovely bassoon solo. The weasels we smoked out of the bank is a rowdy Arnoldian melee with shrapnel flying every which way. After this convulsive discord Reeman bids us farewell with There come days to the hills with its sense of a slow-motion wave cresting and breaking. Its serenity, redolent of Copland, is contrasted with a sign-off of heroically belling brass. Some of this writing was tough going but I had a feeling that this music which was sometimes redolent of Craig Armstrong’s One Minute was closer to Hughes’s spirit than the other new work in the programme. Hughes’s poems which inspired each movement were strongly read by Glyn Hughes although such are the acoustics that it was not always easy to hear him.

The Ted Hughes Suite by Lawrence Killian, the orchestra’s first trumpet, struck me as much more instantly successful and noticeably gripped the affections of the audience. Killian studied with John McCabe and Hans Keller. His Three Lands suite was played at last year’s Tod Proms concert as was Reeman’s Beside the Seaside. The tripartite Hughes suite began with His Youth in which an idyllic summery haze and the sweet rasp of bird-song give way to a lush Ravel-like consonance and an unruly impressionist outburst recalling Frank Bridge’s Enter Spring. His Loves was almost too public in its celebratory extroversion soon offering intimations of the skull beneath the face. An incongruous but utterly enjoyable flouncy soft-shoe shuffle sweeps us into a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance in the long and honourable lineage of British light music. Finally came the deeply impressive Poet Laureate movement with a strongly memorable tune, splendid Waltonian irruptions, rumba percussion and a flourish that brought a smile to the face. This music deserves wide currency. I hope that it receives its due. BBC Radio 3, Classic FM, ASV Sanctuary, Avie and Naxos really should pay this work some heed. Do not let this superb music slip away.

If Ted Hughes was one theme of the concert then camaraderie was another. Holst and Vaughan Williams were famously close friends from RCM days onwards until separated by Holst’s death in 1934. Vaughan Williams has received considerable attention in this the fiftieth year since his death in 1958. He wrote his Fifth Symphony in the late 1930s and completed it ready for the premiere in the depths of the Second World War. Its seraphic mood is deeply affecting and here it was given masterly pacing and control by Nicholas Concannon Hodges. Allowing for some few wayward moments among the strings and the horns this was a sheerly lovely performance. The horns were predominantly secure even during the most exposed pages. Interestingly the brass seemed to be given a much greater eminence than I had heard in recordings of this work. This Symphony is dedicated to Sibelius and there were some famously Tapiola-like gales from the strings and pages which recalled momentarily Sibelius’s terribly neglected Sixth Symphony. All the playing, but especially that from the strings, conveyed a cogent sense of surge, eddy and flow – a luminous weightlessness that carries the music forward. The third movement was the most serene with Tallis-like textures and some stunning yet poetically understated avian playing from the flute, clarinet and cor anglais. In the finale despite one moment of blurred rhythmic detailing the dancing and buzzing intricacy of the writing was well articulated. This was a superb performance – an apt ending to a strongly rewarding concert and a charm against the chilly rain falling outside.

The Todmorden and Calderdale councils can take pride in this orchestra. This is an orchestra, conductor and management committee that casts a cold eye on complacency and is prepared to embrace adventure and ambition. Long may that continue.