Something for almost everybody…an SSO concert review

December 12, 2013 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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Haydn, Brahms and Britten covered most musical tastes at the SSO Master Series concert last night, writes Fraser Beath McEwing.

James Gaffigan

James Gaffigan

Under the direction of young American conductor, James Gaffigan, the orchestra opened the program with the Oxford Symphony (number 92) by Haydn. Calling for the modest instrumental forces typical of court orchestras towards the end of the 18th Century, with the strings doing most of the work, this symphony provided an elegant start to proceedings. Conducting batonless, Gaffigan drew a rich wood-and-gut sound from the SSO, especially in the slower sections of the first and third movements.

Haydn, who lived to the (then ripe old) age of 77, led a relatively happy life compared to most composers, many of whom seem to have the music tortured out of them. This shows through in the Oxford Symphony. Joseph penned no less that 106 symphonies, which places number 94 in a period where he had well and truly nailed the form. Nevertheless, this symphony shows plenty of fresh invention for the analyst, with its quiet, almost mysterious opening, right through to a punchy finale with its lively set of variations. The audience reacted somewhat strangely, offering delayed, spindly applause after each movement. Both conductor and players looked bemused as a result.

Many musicologists regard Benjamin Britten, whose 100th anniversary is being celebrated this year, as the 20th century’s greatest English composer. This has led to many recent birthday outings for his compositions both on radio and in live performances.

The SSO paid tribute to him with two works, the fist of which was his Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Henry Purcell, also known as The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. This popular music, more accessible than much of Britten’s work, is often used in music education, as its nickname implies.

Gaffigan appeared with his baton for this, and subsequent pieces, evidently feeling that one defining pointer was better than ten fingers when it came to music more difficult to conduct than Haydn’s. He flung the orchestra into this Britten work with stirring gusto that won my approval immediately. It then moved through a demonstration of how instruments sound in groups as well as solo – via very attractive music. And it threw in some entertainment for the young person by offering the sounds of xylophone, triangle, snare drum, cymbals, bass drum, tambourine, gong, castanets, Chinese block and whip – but no Madam Lash to crack it. While this is, in many ways, a fun piece, it takes great orchestral precision to bring it off. Gaffigan and the SSO did a splendid job in its execution.

Not done with Britten, the second half of the concert brought his violin concerto, with soloist, the young Norwegian violinist, Vilde Frang. Tall and pale, with a face that would suit a young Shakespearean heroine, she came to the stage in a misty green, long dress that exposed shapely shoulders and south-bound bodice. Unfortunately, from where I sat, a lot of this was edited out by the music stand that held her score – an unusual addition for a concert soloist of any instrument. Of course, the question then was, could she play the fiddle?

Could she ever! Her Stradivarius and her technique produced an extraordinary variety of sounds from what is a hellishly difficult piece to play. She seemed always in control through the numerous passages of double stops and finger-splitting plucking. Sometimes the score called for playing on one string while simultaneously plucking another. It was an awesome performance, sometimes violent and sometimes ghostly.

Before the concert I was convinced that I wouldn’t like the Britten violin concerto, only having heard it on record. But live, it was quite something else, especially in the hands of this orchestra, conductor and soloist.  I came away still hearing the haunting harmonies of the first movement, the hair curling cadenza that introduced the final movement and the way Britten took on the normally restricting passacaglia form and made magic out of it.

And so to Brahms’ St Antony Choral Variations to bring us home. Yes, it was familiar, joyful music, well realised by the orchestra but I was still tingling from the Britten. It passed pleasantly, finishing with the stirring return of Haydn’s theme. Incidentally, according to the program, Haydn didn’t write the theme at all – but a fellow called Ignaz Pleyel did. Therein lies another tale for another time.

Fraser Beath McEwing is an accomplished pianist and commentator on classical music performance and is a founding member of The theme & Variations Foundation Advisory Board which provides assistance to talented young Australian pianists. His professional background is in journalism, editing and publishing. He is also the author of three novels.He is a Governor of the Sir Moses Montefiore Home.



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