Spring concert

Saturday 21 March 2009
Antony Brannick

“A packed Todmorden Town Hall was brimming with excitement and curiosity last Saturday at the prospect of one of the nation’s celebrities, the MP Ann Widdecombe, appearing in an orchestral concert.”

A packed Todmorden Town Hall was brimming with excitement and curiosity last Saturday at the prospect of one of the nation’s celebrities, the MP Ann Widdecombe, appearing in an orchestral concert.

Ann came to take the part of the narrator in Prokoviev’s timeless children’s classic musical tale, Peter and the Wolf. As with many of the most popular pieces in the classical music repertoire, this requires some skilful playing on the part of the orchestra. Timing on the part of the narrator, so that the words fit with the music of the story as it develops, is crucial. For a politician to take on the role – a person more used to getting across a message and having the last word irrespective of interference from an interviewer – is quite an achievement.

On this occasion, conductor Nicholas Concannon Hodges assumed the role of Radio 4’s John Humphreys in keeping the speaker in check! After a slow start Miss Widdecombe soon won over the audience who paid rapt attention to the story of the precocious Peter (strings) and his adventures with the cat (clarinet), duck (oboe), bird (flute), and his grumpy grandfather (bassoon) as they took on the wolf (horns) and captured it before handing it over to the huntsmen with their guns (timpani and bass drum).

The individual characters were all well portrayed by the excellent soloists although at times the technical difficulties of the parts stretched the players. Special mention should go to Lynda Robertson on flute and Diana Monahan whose bassoon playing captured immediately the comical nature of the gruff grandfather.

The audience gave a great reception to Miss Widdecombe at the close of the piece and it was announced that she had waived her fee on this occasion and was to donate proceeds from the sale of her books available at the concert, to the orchestra,

The concert began with St. Paul’s Suite for strings by Holst. This linked nicely with the youthful theme of the first half. Holst wrote this for the pupils of St. Paul’s Girls School in London. The lively jig in the first movement was well played and confident but could have benefited from the players being somewhat more carefree in their playing. In the second section the running ostinato figure was a little tentative at times but the strings managed to maintain it throughout without losing the thread. The intermezzo was beautifully played with the eastern-sounding “outbursts” particularly pleasing.

A sweet duet between the first violin, leader Andrew Rostron, and viola Jenny Sheldon, was sensitively played as was the concluding quartet. The final movement is a very skilful interweaving of the old country dance theme and Greensleeves.

Given that the former is fast and the lively and the latter slow and lyrical it is hard to imagine how they would fit together. Holst must have realised that the first tune can work in both major and minor keys and as the piece slips into the minor the Greensleeves melody emerges almost unnoticed. The orchestra achieved the feat of letting us hear both tunes at the same time without either overwhelming completely the other. The section with the rising chromatic scale increasing the tension towards the end was performed with energy.

In the second half, Fauré’s Masques et Bergamasques was performed by ten wind instruments. This wind band sound was ideal for the Town Hall whose acoustics has often been questioned and clearly do not suit every type of performance. However, this place worked very well and the only difficulty was getting used to the slightly odd harmonies which Fauré developed. The players performed this piece with great skill and the horns were in their element in this setting, appearing as equal partners with the wind section rather than as brass players.
The warmth of colours was greatly appreciated and there was some wonderful lyrical playing particularly in the last movement.

The concert ended with Debussy’s Children’s Corner, rather more usually performed as a piano piece as originally composed. The double basses came to the fore in the lullaby with a very atmospheric tone. The following serenade featured the harp, played by Maxine Molin Rose. Secure playing was the key to the success of this movement. In the ‘Snowflakes are Dancing’ there was a real sense of winter and a feeling of coldness permeated the hall, which was by now quite warm!

The shimmering effect was carried off well. In ‘The Little Shepherd’ the oboe playing of Diana Doherty was beautifully haunting. The final piece showed Debussy embracing the rag time music which was beginning to sweep across from America around the early part of the 20th century. To achieve real effect requires the orchestra to throw off the impressionism of the earlier movements and “jazz it up”, spurred on by the percussion.

This the orchestra did under the excellent direction of Nicholas Concannon Hodges enabling us all to go home buoyed up by the thought of having spent an enjoyable evening “with the children”!