Back to the Queen Elizabeth Hall last night for the Corinthian Chamber Orchestra concert in a programme of Tchaikovsky and Berlioz, also featuring last minute stand-in soloist, Grammy award-winning violinist Nicola Benedetti.
The QEH is fast becoming my favourite London venue. The acoustic gives each individual sound and texture the room to breath (please forgive the tortured analogy), meaning individual lines have more prominence than they normally would. For those of who love detail, that’s a treat.
I maybe doing conductor Michael Seal a disservice there however. It might be that exposed lines are as much to do with the acoustic as they are to do with his direction. Most notable – the trumpet descant in the second movement of the Symhonie fantastique giving an already lively waltz extra emotional intensity.
Seal doesn’t hang around, nor does he let the players in the Corinthian Chamber Orchestra get entrenched in sluggish speeds when things get a bit difficult under the fingers. There were plenty of opportunities when that could happen – the programme was ambitious and demanding for all. But Seal has an energy about him (along with a clear beat and expressive movements) that sweeps people along.
The opening Tchaikovsky Capriccio Italien was all the more impressive as a concert opener because it was ‘on the nose’ pretty much from the start. Nicola Benedetti’s Tchaikovsky was a rich, folky, and magic affair, underpinned by a responsive orchestra fuelled by adrenaline and enthusiasm.
Given the choice between a professional band playing the same repertoire they’ve played for years or an amateur group playing music on their ‘big night’, I’ll always go for the latter. The energy levels are higher, the excitement is palpable, and the smiles on the platform make the whole experience considerably more gratifying.
Sometimes the most pleasant surprises are to be found in the most unexpected places
If the UK orchestra’s marketing departments have to frequently scratch their heads to dream up new ways to entice audiences through the doors (the LPO’s recent reward scheme is a great one by the way), then spare a thought for the slew of amateur bands up and down the country. Not only are they trying to persuade people to attend an event with music that maybe unfamiliar, they’re also doing battle with the perception that an amateur performance won’t be up to scratch in terms of quality.
I say that because I know that I think that myself. Amateur music-making just isn’t going to cut it. I’m not going to be moved. I’m going to walk away dissatisfied.
But as with a lot of things just recently, those assumptions are slowly being challenged. Some of them are being eroded too. Where does our obsession with perfection or elite performance come from? Who says that if its not perfect its not worth listening to? Where does that come from?
Maybe that’s a whole set of questions for another blog post. Or a podcast or something. At the very least, the Corinthian Chamber Orchestra‘s concert last night at St Martin in the Fields prompted those same questions.
That’s not to say by the way that the CO’s performance was rough around the edges. Quite the opposite. That was the fundamentally surprising thing about the band. Professionals by day, high quality unpaid amateur musicians (my assumption is they’re from conservatoire backgrounds though I’m not entirely sure) by night. Nine hours or so of rehearsal, then a concert. That’s it.
The aspiration was initially most striking. An arresting and captivating arrangement of Janacek’s On an Overgrown Path for, essentially, wind and bass strings by conductor Michael Seal, bringing Janacek’s piano cycle closer in concept to Schoenberg’s first symphony.
Programmatically this seemed like an impressively bold aspiration, met with considerable aplomb by the CO’s two clarinettists for whom key movements saw them play centre stage. It was also a bastard of an arrangement for the bassoons. My money’s on arranger Michael Seal a liking for clarinets more than bassoons.
Come Beethoven’s Eroica in the second half, the stamina of the wind section became apparent and another surprise from this concert: the attention to detail both articulation, ensemble and intonation was obvious. A considerable undertaking, excellently executed that maximised the challenges of St Martins in the Field’s generous acoustic.
Soloist Alan Thomas evoked a celebratory air with Haydn’s joyous trumpet concerto – it’s a rare thing I actually sit in an audience and a wide warm smile stretches across my face – and although the large string section sometimes felt a little clunky in places, there was still a skip and a bounce in proceedings to keep things moving in the first and third movements.
The strings shone in the Beethoven. There was a ferociousness to the opening movement, an enthusiasm articulated through dramatic dynamic contrast, and a rich range of colours. With my head down listening attentively, there seemed little evidence that this was anything other than a collection of professional musicians playing a low-key gig in a church.
Personally, I think the Corinthian Chamber Orchestra should just drop the amateur tag in the biography. I like the idea that there could be a brand of music-making powered by musicians who have entirely different day jobs. What a call-to-action that would be for music education.
The Corinthian Chamber Orchestra conducted by Michael Seal embark on a week-long tour of engagements in Spain next week. Follow their progress on social media with the hashtag #CCOOnTour