The Oxford University Orchestra’s termly concerts are always fun and usually challenging. The challenge on Saturday was manifest: the unusual programming of Debussy’s La Mer, probably the most important musical work of French Impressionism and which introduced non-functional harmony to orchestral music, with Bruckner’s 7th Symphony, one of his massive cathedrals of sound.
Work on La Mer was started in 1903 in France and completed in 1905 at the Grand Hotel, Eastbourne, then in its Edwardian heyday. The composer corrected the proofs there between 24th July and 30th August 1905 in Suite 200, now known as the Debussy Suite. The hotel lies on the seafront and from his suite Debussy would at night have looked directly out to the winking light of the Royal Sovereign lightship, moored 11 miles off the coast.
The 1st movement, ‘De l’aube à midi sur la mer’, has a lilting ebb and flow as of the tide, played with a fine sensitivity that brings out many of Debussy’s little orchestral details – shimmering cymbals and tinking xylophone, for example (behind her instrument, the xylophonist Miranda Davies kept up a restrained little jig to the music throughout the piece – nice!). Is it fanciful to wonder whether this tinking represents the pinpoints of light out in the English Channel? Conductor Robin Browning, the sole professional musician present, held the tension so that, when the final climax bursts out, it is magnificent, a great surge of the waves. The concluding ‘Dialogue du vent et de la mer’ contained some exquisitely still moments, particularly when the flute and oboe played over hushed strings.
Mr Browning’s conducting was a visual delight throughout the programme. Such smooth co-ordination of baton and free hand, such sea-breeze swaying of his whole body, the kind of elegant movement that Debussy himself must have witnessed at waltz-time in the ballroom of the Grand Hotel. No chopping gestures, no fussy micro-management of his players. Then, at the crescendos, he was suddenly galvanised, giving out waves of energy to his young orchestra – an inspiring sight. One could imagine the atmosphere of disciplined good humour in which those rehearsals must have been held.
After the interval came the Bruckner, a daunting prospect for amateur players, and not least by virtue of its great length (over an hour). Mr Browning told me after the concert that he’d had the orchestra for four rehearsals over a two-week period – the bare necessary minimum, I’d have thought – and what a joy it was to collaborate with young people so quick to learn and to remember. The opening bars immediately bring Wagner’s Siegfried’s Lament to mind and Mr Browning produced the characteristic Bruckner feeling of spaciousness, as though one were atop a high peak, surveying a limitless horizon.
The brass section now numbered 15 to the wind section’s eight, rather an imbalance. Four of the former were a novelty, Wagner tubas, a sort of hybrid between a horn and a trombone. These weighed in where the score was punctuated by hammer-blow climaxes. That said, their presence led, I thought, to the one infelicity all evening where towards the end of the adagio at the second grand climax, a famous one, from which the orchestra descends to a peaceful threnody, the strings were swamped by the force of the brass. Elsewhere, I appreciated the flute solos from Elias Tomarkin and the trumpet of Fifi Korda.
My post-concert thought was when next are we to hear Robin Browning conduct in Oxford?
Portsmouth News, Mike Allen
“Current music director Robin Browning began the programme with the Serenade for Small Orchestra by little-known Hungarian composer Leo Weiner, and the players caught its perky character delightfully.
The conductor maintained good control of transitions throughout, and revelled in the second movement’s rustic dance and the third’s authentic Hungarian feel, expressed particularly by clarinet and bassoon.”
The programme ended with Mendelssohn’s Symphony No 4, the Italian.
“Here the conductor resisted the temptation to drive the quick movements too hard and achieved well-defined playing throughout.
Textures in the middle movements were carefully and beautifully balanced to deliver clarity without losing anything in expressiveness, and even at a taxing tempo the finale bubbled with infectious high spirits.”
Quotes from a review of the Havant Chamber Orchestra’s concert at Ferneham Hall, Fareham on Sat 14 May 2016
Portsmouth News, Peter Rhodes
THE Havant Chamber Orchestra were on fine form on Saturday as they treated us first to Mozart’s lively Overture, The Impresario, followed by a selection from the incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, showcasing the prodigious talents of the 16-year-old Mendelssohn. There was, in particular, much excellent wind playing on display, especially in the delightful Nocturne, and the strings came into their own in the lively Scherzo. Robin Browning is an excellent director and maintained superb ensemble throughout the evening, nowhere more so than in the increasingly elaborate developments which form the core material of the final movement of Haydn’s Symphony No 99 which ended the evening.
But it was the central work in the concert, Beethoven’s ground breaking Piano Concerto No. 4, which was undoubtedly the highlight. The Ferneham Hall has a unforgiving acoustic and the Yamaha piano has lost some of its original depth of sound, yet the orchestra played with great precision and the wonderful soloist, Cordelia Williams, managed to wring every drop of warmth out of the piano. She was, by turns, virtuosic in the outer movements, especially their cadenzas, and lyrical in the haunting slow movement. A most enjoyable evening throughout.
Beethoven Egmont, Hummel Trumpet Concerto, Mendelssohn Symphony No 3 Scottish
Havant Chamber Orchestra, Ferneham Hall, Fareham, Hampshire
Dare I say it? Well, why not? The Havant Chamber Orchestra’s performance of Mendelssohn’s Scottish symphony was more heart-warming and uplifting than the London Symphony Orchestra’s at Portsmouth Guildhall in March.
The LSO is technically in a different league, of course, but its diamond-hard attack bordered on the soulless. The HCO, conducted by Robin Browning, played with humanity – occasionally fallible but with evident feeling for melody and harmony. Beginning … with a Beethoven overture, the playing was much tighter from the start, with the conductor achieving a fine balance between discipline and expressiveness.
This concert brought the HCO’s season to a compelling, stirring end.
Beethoven Pastoral Symphony
Havant Chamber Orchestra, Ferneham Hall, Fareham, Hampshire
Beethoven’s sixth symphony, the Pastoral, was also conducted in masterly style by Robin Browning. This work can seem to go on forever, but in his hands it pulsed with life. Never seeming to rush, Browning allowed time for affectionate phrasing while keeping the music moving purposefully. His masterful conducting ensured character and clarity were maintained through precise balancing.
Brahms Serenade No 1, Mozart Clarinet Concerto (soloist Nicholas Cox), Pärt Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten
Milton Keynes City Orchestra, The Venue, Walton High
Milton Keynes City Orchestra introduced new talent to Milton Keynes on Friday night with their Bold and New performance at The Venue, Walton High […] The finale of the evening was a rarely played Brahms Serenade in six movements that held the audience on the edge of their seats […]MKCO Chairman Marian Livingstone said, “Robin took charge on Friday night and really owned the stage with the Orchestra. He worked effortlessly with Nicholas [Cox] who gave a world class performance and he also gave the audience tremendous value for money with his carefully crafted programme in this new auditorium.”
Dvorak Symphonic Variations, Vaughan Williams Symphony No 5 in D
Petersfield Orchestra, Petersfield Festival Hall
Robin Browning conducted a performance of great freshness and warmth which displayed Dvorak’s mastery of the orchestra to the full. […] [He] built the great climaxes with care and purpose. Phrases and tempi were moulded affectionately, always sounding spontaneous. The climax of the slow movement was sublime and built with shattering power, and the gentle urgency of the Passacaglia and the stillness of the epilogue were breathtaking. […] This was a spacious, concentrated reading from Robin Browning, which combined evocative atmosphere with emotional involvement. The warmth and poetry of the work was splendidly caught. Thank you Petersfield Orchestra and Robin Browning: this performance will long remain in the memory of this reviewer.