Last Saturday night the Isle of Wight Symphony Orchestra played its first concert of the new season. And it was a cracker, raising the bar, and setting a fantastic standard for the concerts to come.
The auditorium at the Medina Theatre was crammed with people after the tickets were sold out, and the audience and orchestra were buzzing with expectation. We weren’t to be disappointed.
The first piece was an old favourite of mine the gorgeous Karelia Suite by Jean Sibelius. It’s one of those pieces that’s instantly recognisable, and it never loses its excitement, no mater how often I hear it. But Saturday was really special, because I’d never heard it being played live before.
Back in 1893 Finland and Russia were arguing over the lands at their border, and the young composer was prompted to write some music to raise the consciousness of Karelia, a region east of St. Petersburg, currently and mostly in Russian hands. He brought the passion of youth and his love for the area and its culture to his music.
A glorious feeling of impending noise and exhilaration
I was young when I first heard it, and it was this strength of feeling that I responded to. I’ve never lost that. From the moment it starts, with those low, almost humming notes played by the strings almost silently, and then the horns playing their tentative phrases as if assembling a large theme, there is a glorious feeling of impending noise and exhilaration. I found myself holding my breath, waiting for the moment when the whole orchestra exploded into action with one of the most exciting tunes ever experienced, and I was entranced.
The second part, the Ballade, is quieter and more thoughtful. It flows like a mind surveying everything it sees, with a mixture of serenity and love and longing, and it moves like water in a river, carrying the audience with it. Then the third part is filled with resolve and energy, rushing us along to make sure that this precious place and the feelings it engenders isn’t lost. With this piece Sibelius became a national hero, and this music a call to arms to Finns to fight for their land. The way the IWSO played it on Saturday, I was there with them all the way. What a triumph it was.
The quality of his playing did the talking
The second piece in the concert was not usual. Partly because it was a concerto featuring the viola, which was rare in itself, but also, as the esteemed conductor Jonathan Butcher established beforehand by a non-show of hands, nobody in the audience had ever heard it. Cecil Forsyth, the composer, wrote it in 1903, ten years after Sibelius wrote Karelia. The viola was his instrument, and it was his only concerto. His music was not performed much after he moved to New York in 1914 and started writing books on music instead.
The violist Timothy Ridout walked modestly onto the stage clutching his large viola, over 450 years old, and let the quality of his playing do the talking. He produced a strong and mellow tone that filled the auditorium easily, and his playing was precise and clear, when playing solo or interacting with the orchestra. He captured and kept our attention throughout the performance of this traditional concerto with skill and mastery. It was beautiful and expressive, and deserves to be brought back into the light after all this time.
The mountain that is William Walton’s First Symphony
After the interval, the orchestra returned and made themselves ready for the mountain that is William Walton’s First Symphony. Walton was not a fast composer. He was commissioned in 1930 to write a symphony, and spend four years in Switzerland writing the first three movements, which were performed in London without the final movement, to rapturous applause. He could have left it like that, but he returned to it and completed it in a different mood from the one in which he wrote the first three. During a turbulent and doomed love affair.
The first movement opens quietly, and becomes turbulent, as if a whole host of tempestuous emotions are vying with each other to gain ascendancy. It’s not comfortable music, tossing the audience around and never settling. The IWSO rose to the occasion, coping with the difficult material with a heroic concentration.
The second movement is labelled ‘Presto con malizia’, or ‘quickly and with malice’, and it’s not relaxed either, but with more bite. A fantastically atmospheric piece of music, that makes you stay awake and concentrate. Brilliantly played too.
The third movement lets us rest a little. It’s slow, and thoughtful, and feels like two trains of thought which gradually move towards a climactic clash. The final movement raises the energy, and builds into a huge ending. The room was very quiet at the end, before erupting into applause. Well-deserved applause, for a mature orchestra, taking on a large and important piece and doing it justice in a confident and masterful way.
At the end, everyone left, knowing they had witnessed a musical event of substance. I was most impressed with the way the members of the orchestra rose to the occasion, especially the percussion section, who were positively heroic. Well done.
Hot stuff to come
The next concert, on Saturday 18th January, will feature another of my all-time favourites, the Firebird, by Stravinsky, and several other pieces that I’ve never heard.
A horn concerto by Richard Strauss, a piece by Holst called The Perfect Fool, a Vltava by Smetana, and an overture by Alan Rawsthorne. I shall look forward to all that immensely. And thanks again to Jane Pelham, without whose programme notes I would be lost.
Grab your tickets before they sell out again. See you there.
Images: © With kind permission of Allan Marsh