Review: Harrogate Symphony Orchestra

In introducing the Harrogate Symphony Orchestra’s concert, the conductor mentioned the B composers and soloists – Butterworth, Brahms and Bruckner, Bartosz Woroch (violin) and Bartholomew LaFolette (cello), and himself, Bryan Western.

To plan a concert around B names is one thing but to arrange B awful weather is almost god-like.

George Butterworth’s The Banks of Green Willow has become popular through Classic FM, rather like The Lark Ascending by Vaughan Williams.

Its English pastoral nature provides a gentle introduction to any concert and woodwind soloists from the orchestra coloured the phrases delicately.

It’s a short work of contrasts, from a thick-textured full orchestra to a single flute and harp.

The Double Concerto for violin and cello by Brahms was the last orchestral work he wrote and his fourth concerto.

It’s a curious work for although a concerto by name, it is a symphony by nature, and I’m not sure the orchestra thought beyond accompanying two soloists.

They were Bartosz Woroch (violin) and Bartholomew LaFolette (cello) who stated and interchanged musical ideas through the three movements like two intimate friends.

The cello projected better than the violin but unfortunately much of their discussion was masked by the orchestra.

For most of the time an orchestra rehearses without soloists so it’s understandable there are often problems of balance.

But everything was to change after the interval.

The academic content of my student days is a blur but I do remember Donald J Grout’s A History of Western Music, a standard text then. He defined the romantic spirit of music as trying “to seize eternity”.

It’s a phrase that came back to me as I listened to Bruckner’s 7th Symphony.

There is a spaciousness in the music and a feeling that its aspirations are beyond the mortal. It stretches out to grab the unattainable, and dares to imagine the unimaginable.

And this is exactly what the orchestra did.

Many might say the work was too ambitious. But music is more than notes on paper. It involves the spirit, and the eagerness of the HSO to chance their arm(s) resulted in a most uplifting hour of music.

The orchestra took ownership of this work and the violins, uneasy above 3rd position in the Brahms, took flight.

There was a conviction not heard before.

The whole work had a flow and purpose, from the hushed tremolando start with the soaring cello theme to the blazing climaxes with full orchestra augmented by four Wagner horns.

Bruckner’s style suited the orchestra with its repeated phrases and sequences by which he, like Sibelius, builds a climax.

Every new phrase or tempo is a danger for amateur musicians, but by the second or third repetition it’s mastered. Occasional first time trumpet and horn splurges were sorted by the 
second.

The second movement was the longest and a joy to hear unfolded though the skill of Bryan Western.

He knew where the sections needed help and it wasn’t in the big tuttis – they looked after themselves.

The bass sound from eight double basses, sixteen cellos, eight horns and brass can’t be captured by any hi-fi system! It envelopes the listener and is almost palpable.

To seize eternity suggests audacity in daring to grab the unattainable. #

By attempting the impossible, Harrogate Symphony Orchestra gave the audience an experience to remember and expanded their own musical horizons further than some might ever have imagined.