The Palatinate Orchestra promised a French odyssey as this year’s symphonic debut, and from the familiarity of Elvet Methodist Church the audience were invited on a journey of discovery into new and unfamiliar regions French orchestral music.
The program boasted some of the greats of French romanticism, but the pieces themselves were generally the lesser known from amongst their output. As such, the well balanced selection offered something new for the orchestral know-it-all and the novices alike.
Once the first quiet, bare passage of the marche was out of the way the players seemed to relax into it and things became more stable. Scénes Pittoresques was an ideal way to introduce the 2017-18 crop of talented musicians. It demonstrated the strength of the sections that have been put together, with particularly clean and lovely viola and horn lines in movement three.
The waltz-like theme rose from the ‘cello section was also particularly pleasing and together. You could see that the choice of the ‘Mahler’ layout, with the two violin groups placed antiphonally on either side of the conductor, was a sensible one and this allowed the orchestration to really come to life. This arrangement is however less forgiving and more exposing to the string players.
Poulenc’s Les Biches transports you to a 1920s house party, where the glasses are full and the guests are feeling flirty. The rondeau seemed like a good deal of fun to play, though it felt a little reserved, perhaps in an effort to conserve energy for the finale. The adagietto featured one notably delicious swell, demonstrating the orchestra’s ability to function as one single organism, which I’m sure will develop in time. The characterful, drunken bassoon solo by Thomas Field was also charming.
The centerpiece of the evening was always going to be Ravel’s Ma Mere L’Oye. It is a piece full of a sense of adventure, balanced with childlike frivolity and innocence. The nuanced orchestration was indeed a bold challenge to take on, but there were moments in which the nuances were accomplished wonderfully. Laura Cooper gave us an excellent viola solo, and sparks were flying between the well-blended, sensitive horn playing and very accomplished flute section. I will say that it was a shame not to be able to see the flutes nor the oboes, particularly when they brought so much to the piece. Jane Harding’s cor anglais solo was an absolute pleasure. It was lovely to hear the harps after they were slightly drowned out in Les Biches. Above the finally stilled and splendidly balanced strings, Mathilde Rouhi delivered a rich harp solo, demonstrating the different kinds of timbres the harp is capable of. The sound panorama which followed was very well done.
The solos from the orchestra leader, Becky Taylor, were well delivered. The leader can, however, command more attention and really perform her solos. She has earned the limelight with her hard work in that role, and should really enjoy those moments of reward.
For me the standout section in this piece, and indeed of the evening, were the flutes led by Giselle Lee. The flutters and interjections so classic of Ravel’s style were expertly executed. Both the solo melodic lines and the blended sections showed the hard work and professionalism of the group and of each flautist.
The ending was simply brilliant. In the Chabrier the orchestra seemed to get into it and enjoy themselves in a way that was maybe missing in Les Biches, which made for a lustrous performance. It may not have been clean all the time, but at their highest energy, this orchestra has an infectious enthusiasm which is most enjoyable. Ben Bucknall should be credited for his addition to the drama and energy of the closing number.
Some sections of the program were clearly enjoyable and had perhaps been worked on more than others in rehearsals. Moments such as these showed that the orchestra will be capable of if they build on the initial progress made this term. A couple of points to note would be that performers must not grimace upon finishing a section they might not be completely pleased with, and in movements when performers are not playing they must remain aware that they are still visible to the audience.
Hugo Jennings should be greatly admired for how he conducted the orchestra on this evening. His clean and un-distracting style shows refined maturity. His performance should be praised independently of the fact that he was not feeling at all well, but his ability to keep going was extremely admirable and deserves to be noted. The cheer he received from the orchestra as he left the podium was actually quite moving.
This society has put something quite special together this year, and I look forward to seeing what they accomplish building on their work this term.