Adams: The Chairman Dances
Grieg: Piano Concerto
Rachmaninov: Symphonic Dances op.45
Great Hall, Lancaster University
Conductor: Justin Doyle Soloist: Richard Uttley
Leader: Julian Cann
In its new musical director, the orchestra has found someone who, himself standing on the shoulders of giants, has already begun to lift the orchestra to even greater heights. As a long-standing patron, I have witnessed the development of these players over many years. But I was astonished at the quantum leap of improvement achieved in such a short period under Justin Doyle. The playing had an added crispness as well as a warmth which could only arise when 70 individuals play as a single organism. One felt that the music was flowing in visceral swells rather than splashing waves and that 100% participation was being asked from each player. The “new feel” contributed greatly to the successes of the two principal works. Both the Grieg and the Rachmaninov were delivered smoothly with precision and with delicious changes in dynamics and tempi. I loved the passion and the accuracy equally.The Symphonic Dances gave the woodwinds and brass a number of opportunities to showcase their brilliance and the piece provided a fitting climax for the evening. But the A minor concerto was my favourite.Having such a superb soloist as Richard Uttley on the programme made the top ticket price of £14 a real bargain. I don’t know which I enjoyed hearing more, the expensive Steinway or the sweet orchestral sounds which accompanied it.
Everyone wanted to applaud at the end of the concerto’s first movement (and some did) but we were all pleased that more was to come. Indeed, the string writing at the beginning of the second movement and its gorgeous execution by these mainly amateur musicians was so beautiful that it was oddly somewhat disappointing when the piano rejoined. One wished for that luscious ensemble sound to go on and on and on.The first piece on the programme must have been a huge rehearsal challenge. From the pen of the composer of the opera ‘Nixon in China’, it portrays a young Mao dancing the foxtrot with the future Madame Mao. It could be described equally well as a persistent clockwork mechanism or a driving steam locomotive with rattling parts. No doubt the score is stuffed full of letters which the conductor can shout out in rehearsal, or indeed discreetly in performance in times of desperation, ensuring that players know where they should be (or should have been). Such was the rhythmic complexity of the music that only the players themselves will truly know just how well it all went between staging posts, but, happily, on the night, the orchestra started and finished each section together.I have only one serious criticism. More attention to intonation needs to be demanded from the low strings. If players can play in tune some of the time, then they are capable of playing in tune all the time.
The usual pre-concert talks are always good value. (No extra charge!) This time, the soloist spoke about himself and his life as a professional pianist. The Grieg concerto had been a favourite of his since he first heard it at a Proms concert when he was 10 years old. It was his first classical music concert and he decided there and then to make his living playing the piano. “How does one learn a concerto?” he was asked from the back of the hall. “Play it slowly and without the pedal,” he replied. I think he could well have added, “Continue to do that six to seven hours a day for the rest of your life.”
Reviewed by Henry Prince