More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2016 (20 to 27 October)
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Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958) ~ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910)
There, in the first chord (and at which one could smile contentedly), was established the spirit of Vaughan Williams – and the King’s chapel-bell, a regular at concerts, chimed eight o’clock without one’s having a care in the world. With a well-defined, slower tempo than is much heard, Joy Lisney enhanced the luminosity of tremolo-infused beauteous calm that is part of RVW at his best.
Our performance of Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, conducted by @Joylisney #SoundCloud #np https://t.co/Hrfaxyjl5S— Seraphin CO (@SeraphinCO) May 24, 2017
At ebb of tide, think not the sea is faithless ;
It will return with love unto the shore.
When we heard a crescendo, it was proportionate to the piece, and, by making us wait for moments that we love well - both by pacing and the use of rallentando - Joy respectfully disrupted¹ our merely expecting to experience what we already knew : in this way, as she had done in Seraphin Chamber Orchestra’s initial concert, she and the orchestra somewhat teased us (almost - if one may - as a sexual partner might ?), to give the familiar back to us, but better.
So, when the four principals² began separating from within the texture of the ensemble and coming to the fore, a tear formed, and there was a full emotional response to appreciating the dimension of two orchestras, which are used so differently from how Michael Tippett does in his lovely Concerto for Double String Orchestra (responding, amongst other things, to English madrigals of the seventeenth century as, in that era, RVW is - inter alia - to Corelli (1653-1713)).
Sneak preview of soloists rehearsing for the @SeraphinCO performance of Vaughan Williams Fantasia tomorrow! King's Chapel 8pm @RVWtweets pic.twitter.com/91Adw5LbuN— Joy Lisney (@JoyLisney) May 20, 2017
We did not stay in this realm, though, since the composer has the effect of vibrancy drop away, and instead presents us with somewhat mysterious and heavy-laden chords and modulations (though the harmonic language may always been implicit when he presents long, sustained notes at the beginning of the work ?). Even so, the glorious main theme is allowed to re-emerge, with the voice of the leader, alongside soft pizzicato, and Joy here brought out a strong feeling of expectancy.
Then, the lightness and luminosity of the opening returned, with its concords, and a forceful quality to the string-sound. Vaughan Williams concludes with the strains of violin obbligato, superbly brought to us by Paula Muldoon (not, as advertised, Rachel Stroud), before another dropping away, and our due applause. (In this performance, one thought, for the first time, of the Epilogue (marked Moderato) of RVW's Symphony No. 6 in E Minor (and of his audio-preserved remark about Sir Adrian Boult's recording : might we, some day soon, be confidently hearing from Joy, with complete symphonic forces, in such a work ?)
Wolfgang Amadee³ Mozart (1756–1791) ~ Divertimento in D Major, K. 136 (1772)
The latter part of the eighteenth century is another sound-world, but equally one that a conductor and orchestra co-create. However, in the opening Allegro of a fairly well-known work, there were notable differences : Joy had made sure that Mozart's ornamentation did not sound 'throwaway' (which was also a feature when we came to the Andante), and that the underlying bass-line was both not unheard, and did not seem unimportant in relation to the upper parts.
A very happy composer tonight after hearing @ThomasGouldVLN lead @CUCO_CUMS in my piece 'Thread of the Infinite'. Thank you to all involved!— Joy Lisney (@JoyLisney) May 13, 2017
With a degree in music, and as a working composer, Joy had found other emphases to choose to make in this performance. For example, with the principal theme (and its iterations), she placed a little more stress on the first part of its outline, and then, in the second movement, she continued what we had heard with the Tallis Fantasia, shaping the phrasing to be maximally expressive. Thus, under her conductorship, Seraphin Chamber Orchestra (@SeraphinCO) took in the full grace of the Andante’s main theme, as well as that of its harmonization – Joy seemed to have let the natural measure of the score determine the exact tempo.
As so often with Mozart’s work, its suspensive or reflective qualities – which are at the core of the music – are to be found in the innermost moods of these slower movements. Again, the significance of trills, turns and slurs did not go unheeded, and so of giving effect to them somewhat differently : by not treating them simply as artefacts or conventions of the time when the work was written, Joy avoided the sort of playing that can seem to honour the spirit of Mozart’s compositions, but actually be more like superficial sheen - rather than very good reasons to listen to what he has to say.
Thus, in the concluding Presto, one can all too easily take the impression that the balanced nature of the material is either flippantly glib on the composer’s part, or play it as if it is just foursquare. Here, it was clear that it was neither, and, although the orchestra gave us nice, quick bowing, Joy – unlike with those who seem to view the marking Presto, as at an end-of-speed-limit sign, allowing them to indulge themselves – never made us feel rushed.
Antonín Dvořák (1841–1904) ~ Serenade in E Major, Opus 22 (1875)
2. Tempo di Valse
3. Scherzo. Vivace
5. Finale. Allegro vivace
As with Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, performed in Seraphin Chamber Orchestra’s first public performance (in mid-February 2017, and in the same venue), the concluding work, by Dvořák, contains movements that would be familiar just in their own right (such as the Tempo di Valse or the Larghetto, which are the second and fourth movements, respectively), whereas – except to someone who really knows the work as a whole – the opening Moderato will not be.
However, we can perceive how Joy, with assurance, is again shaping the musical material, and how, as she conducts, her fellow string-players respond to give her interpretative control (she also gives recitals as a cellist, and had played / directed a Haydn Concerto in the previous concert). In a way that, perhaps, we might associate more with Igor Stravinsky, or Michael Tippett, when Dvořák gives a reprise of the theme, we hear that he has a counter-melody in the second violins (after the premiere of Joy’s own ‘Thread of the Infinite’, Tippett's Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli had been played next, in the preceding weekend’s concert at West Road Concert Hall).
In the Tempo di Valse, in passages marked forte (or louder), Joy is giving us what has otherwise been carefully kept back in curating and punctuating the initial theme – just as, later, Dvořák himself prominently uses a fortissimo cadence as an emphatic way of marking the end of the first part of the movement. What we may have found - if we were not just hearing the music - is that Joy (to make it more effective) was alternating that full richness with employing restraint elsewhere. When Dvořák effected a transition to legato writing, Joy brought out a honeyed tone from the orchestra, with pizzicato on the cellos, and as a further use of clear and precise demarcations within the scope of the movement. After a rallentando, it concluded with a very definite full close.
The third movement (marked Scherzo. Vivace) has a different aspect altogether, which we felt in how Joy caused the ensemble to express intensity, and onward movement. In the slower sections, there was a feeling of suspense, from which we built back to the initial tempo, then, with some lovely pizzicato playing in the lower lines, and the melody held back (with a slight rallentando), the central section of the Serenade moved to an end. The Larghetto is quieter, and we heard tremolo, sensitively utilized by this versatile group of instrumentalists, as well as adeptly long bow-strokes. There was an attractive melody, written for cello, and then running arpeggios (marked to be played as triplets ?), and all of this conducted and played with charm and poise.
Lastly, as if the Finale's initial (and partly repeated) gesture had been ‘a wake-up call’ from Dvořák, his writing for the lower strings - which came across as lively and yet measured - led us to the loudest music that we had been exposed to all evening. More and more, the Allegro vivace resembled a dance-form (was what it had become a Furiant ?), with, at one point, another counter-melody before the fortissimo dynamic returned (fortississimo ?). After a deft piece of pizzicato playing from Christopher Xuereb, on double-bass, and as if Dvořák were still in a playful mood, he set up the expectation that the chords played were a closing cadence : it proved to be a false end, and, a few bars later, the work came to its proper conclusion.
In one undivided performance, another very agreeable, and highly accomplished, evening of music-making from Seraphin Chamber Orchestra (@SeraphinCO) and Joy Lisney (@JoyLisney) ! If those reading this review have not heard Joy or the orchestra before, make it your aim, with another Seraphin concert (to be announced) due in the autumn.
So enjoyed conducting @SeraphinCO last night! Stunning committed performance from @Cambridge_Uni musicians even in exam term. #Multitalented pic.twitter.com/GWpmOWGrWr— Joy Lisney (@JoyLisney) May 22, 2017
¹ The modern vogue for talking about disruptive technologies (or our reaction against this jargon, which would seem better applied to computer viruses and other malware) may make us assume that all disruption is (as one may see it) bad - or good. Yet it may depend on viewpoint whether subverting the commonplace (e.g. in art, to ask us what we assume or why), or minority shareholders or outside protestors stopping an AGM to make an ethical point. (With different prefixes, we also have corrupt, erupt, interrupt - a lexical root that gives rise to other words with strong meanings...)
² Paula Muldoon and Anita Monserrat (first and second violins, respectively), Roc Fargas i-Castells (viola), and Laura van der Heijden (cello).
³ So (on Radio 3’s The Listening Service) Tom Service (@tomservice) wishes to assert Mozart actually styled himself.
Leopold Mozart, his father, had certainly ensured Wolfgang's exposure to as much as possible of music and culture in Italy, as this map shows (from the Wikipedia® web-page Mozart in Italy) :
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Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)