Shrewsbury School

The St Cecilia Concerts 2011: A memorable weekend of celebration

Thursday 17 November 2011

The weekend of the St. Cecilia concerts sees 250+ musicians performing together - more than any other annual event in our Fasti, filling up half the floor space of the Alington Hall. By using Alington gallery, and repeating the concert on two consecutive nights, well over 700 people are able to enjoy the performances of our own musicians and the Shrewsbury Community Choir.

Playing to full houses on both evenings, the Music Department paid homage to St Cecilia in style and in numbers (as well as at great length!).  This review, not altogether in order of performance, is  based on the Sunday concert,  generally agreed to be the more successful.

The opening bars of Dvorak’s 8th symphony (first movement only) gave assurance of improved orchestral playing, and although there were still some rough passages, the lilting spirit of the work was effectively conveyed and the driving finish was exhilarating.

Some of our musicians in the St Cecilia concertsThe excellent String Orchestra gave three movements from Janacek’s “Idyll”, an early composition, which, as the programme note indicated, was strongly influenced by Dvorak. David Joyce had his team well prepared and the quality of the playing matched the high standard we have come to expect. I would like to hear more of them and there is something to be said for a separate concert, perhaps in Chapel, for such smaller ensembles, which tend to be overshadowed by the surrounding works.  

Another polished contribution came from Dympna Nightingale’s Chamber Choir, a disciplined group of young singers, so finely blended that even sitting close, it was well nigh impossible to pick out individual voices. Their response to direction was faultless, precise entries and clear diction making for very relaxing listening.

Nothing relaxing about the Wind Orchestra’s “West Side Story”, however, nor was there meant to be. Maria Eglinton conjured a barnstorming performance of Bernstein’s complex score, brimful of vitality and not a little snarling menace. The jazz idiom is predominant in the suite of Symphonic  Dances, but there are echoes of Stravinsky and of Copland, as well as the personal stamp of the most versatile of American musicians. What a challenge!  Percussionists scurried hectically about and it is hard to believe that they made every station on their obstacle course, but their expertise was crucial in a huge ensemble that was without a weak link. Whatever their taste in music, listeners were bowled over by a spectacular display.

The soloist in the Grieg Piano Concerto, Galin Ganchev, took the stage strikingly attired, but that was the only way in which he drew attention to himself. For the rest, his unforgettable performance was dedicated to bringing out the genius in the work. I have been acquainted with this piece for over fifty years now, but in the last six months have heard it afresh, heard it as never before, in the hands of an uncannily sensitive musician. He lingers expansively without ever losing the thread; as he hurtles up and down the keyboard, his playing remains articulate. Every note has its purpose, every phrase its poetry. Take the cadenza in the first movement. A long pause, then a reflective meditation leading to a thunderous climax before subsiding back into partnership with the orchestra, all characteristic of the Romantic concerto, you may think, but the combination of apparent spontaneity with total control of the structure meant that there was no sense of cliché. It was a pity that on Saturday this moment coincided with the launch of a fireworks party nearby!  Mercifully, the Sunday audience could listen undistracted, spellbound.

If you have ever wondered what a conductor is for, think of John Moore’s contribution to this marvellous event. Having played in a two-piano arrangement with Galin, he was already familiar with his soloist’s interpretation, but to convey his own empathy to a largely inexperienced orchestra, to hold them together through dramatic changes in tempo, and ultimately to imbue them with the grandeur of Grieg’s vision is a singular feat. Understandably, the playing was not flawless, but by the second performance JFM had created that bond between piano and accompaniment which is essential to the success of a concerto.  A triumph for all concerned.

It was late when we got to Mozart’s “Coronation” Mass and I apologised to my neighbour for having earlier underestimated the running time. “I don’t mind if it goes on past midnight” was the reply, a handsome compliment indeed. The massed ranks did not let him down. The singing was inspired, the orchestra was inspired, and believers and unbelievers alike must have been uplifted by the devotional urgency of the experience. In a departure from the usual practice of importing professional soloists, the parts were taken by pupils at the school, further evidence of the flourishing state of the department.  Notable among them were Robert Cross (bass) and Sienna Holmes (soprano), the latter quite radiant in the Agnus Dei. They were rightly applauded, as were the orchestra and the conductor, but what about the choir? They had sung superbly on both evenings and deserved their own ovation. I take this opportunity of saluting them now, and of acknowledging their important role in the musical life of the school.

This was a memorable weekend of celebration.

Martin Knox

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