Thursday, 31 March 2011

Brent Symphony Orchestra centenary

A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of taking part in Brent Symphony Orchestra's centenary concert. I'm not a regular member of the orchestra but I have a family connection with it which goes back to before I was born!

The concert was a pleasure on a whole number of different levels. The orchestra is to some extent responsible for my existence, my parents first met as a result of both playing in the orchestra over 50 years ago. (My dad played clarinet and my mum played viola, and were both members for about 18 years, until we moved to Norfolk in 1975.) It was really nice to be able to make a contribution to their centenary.

I was also a regular member of the orchestra myself in my student days about 30 years ago. Harry Legge was the conductor both when my parents were members and when I was. He had been a member of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (also playing viola) under Sir Thomas Beecham and Rudolf Kempe, and had learned a lot from both of them as to how to run an effective rehearsal. There are still a few members of the orchestra who have been members continuously since I was there in my student days, so it was a pleasure to meet up again with some old friends. Among those present was the complete horn quartet of the orchestra from my student days.

I well remember a particular occasion from those days. I was at university at the time, and Harry Legge phoned me towards the end of the Easter term. He said "How would you like to get the horns together to do the Konzertstuck next term?"

I gulped, and said "You're joking!". He assured me that he wasn't, and told me to phone round the other horns and see if they were interested in having a go, and get back to him once I'd spoken to them all.
So I phoned each of the others, and in each case got precisely the same reaction from them: "You're joking!" Once I got past that, we decided to have a go together, just the four of us, and see if we could get anywhere near it.

The piece is of course almost impossible to play. But we decided that this was quite likely to be the only opportunity in our whole lives to have a go at it. So we decided to have a bash. I suspect our performance contained more enthusiasm than accuracy!

The centenary concert was also a pleasure in terms of the music we were playing. The mainstay of the concert was Mahler's 1st Symphony. I was playing "bumper", or assistant 1st horn. David Perchard, the first horn of the orchestra then and now, said that I shouldn't regard it as bumping, but more of a jobshare, since there is so much to play. Mahler 1 requires 7 horns, so with the bumper we were 8 in all. We were organised in two rows, and I was in the front row. Usually the horns are at the very back of the hall, over to the left as the audience sees them, and from that position almost all of the orchestra's sound is coming from one direction. But with a second row of horns behind, I really felt surrounded with sound. It's wonderful!

Lev Parikian took over the orchestra whan Harry Legge died, and remains the conductor to this day. He conducted the centenary concert and did a very fine job of it. In the rehearsals, he made a very important point about the Mahler symphony. It is scored for a huge orchestra (4 flutes, 4 oboes, 4 clarinets, 3 bassoons, 7 horns, 4 trumpets, 4 trombones, tuba, 4 percussion players across a variety of instruments, a harp, and as many strings as can be mustered. All those players can make a very big sound. But there are occasions when Mahler writes ppp dynamic markings, and he expects it all to be extremely quiet. It is the contrast beween these extremes which adds to the excitement of the piece.

It's hard work getting an amateur orchestra to play quietly. The players all want to be heard so that they can assure themselves that they are playing the right notes! But there are moments in this piece where if you can hear yourself, you are playing too loud. I don't know if Lev felt that he completely succeeded in getting us all to play as quiet as he wanted, but his exhortations in that direction certainly made a difference.

I think my parents would both have approved.