Antonin Dvořák’s violin concerto in A minor must be a tricky number. Johannes Brahms’s favourite fiddler, the legendary Joseph Joachim, took one look at the music and gave it a body swerve, even though it was written for him.
So bravissimo to Benjamin Baker, the twenty-eight-year-old violinist from New Zealand who stepped in to perform the work when Alexander Sitkovetsky was too ill to play. With less than three days’ notice, Benjamin, the wonder from Down Under, agreed to give it his best shot. Benjamin squeezed the engagement in between playing a Saint-Saëns work with Plymouth Symphony Orchestra and jetting off to Colombia to appear in the Popayan Festival (which is linked to Holy Week). Havant Symphony Orchestra must have breathed a collective sigh of relief.
Benjamin only had three days to brush up the Dvorak. He’d performed it once before with Orchestra Sinfonia Abruzzese L’Aquilla in Italy. But that was some time ago. There was only time for one run through on Saturday afternoon before the evening’s performance. Many fiddlers would have been a bundle of nerves. But Benjamin was cool as you like in rehearsal. In the evening, before a spellbound audience, with hardly a glance at the music, he played the whole thing again with amazing dynamism.
Benjamin loves to play a Tononi violin worth more than £100,000. It’s on loan to him from two benefactors. It doesn’t look much different from any other fiddle but Benjamin filled the auditorium with its beautiful sound.
The rest of the programme was equally exciting. Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No 2 has been plagiarised for everything from cartoon music to music hall turns. But the HSO’s rendition was dramatic and vibrant. Former RAF musician Spence Bundy’s clarinet cadenzas were outstanding. The Rhapsody made an explosive opener for the show.
Richard Miller is the current holder of the Bob Harding Bursary which is designed for budding conductors. Richard’s delicate, fluid hand gestures were just perfect for Frederick Delius’ Walk to the Paradise Garden.
Under the latest edict, the HSO’s dress code is still casual: black shirt and trousers but without DJs or ties. Jonathan Butcher, the musical director, brightened things up by sporting a multi-coloured waistcoat which would have been perfect if he’d been a trumpet player with Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass.
After the interval, came the main event, Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky. The Russian composer wrote it while grieving for his artist friend Viktor Hartmann.
An ingenious work, it conjures up images of people meandering through an art exhibition. Thirteen pictures come into view one by one as the leisurely promenade progresses. Jarring, jerky dissonances depict an ugly gnome. Once again, this time on saxophone, Spence Bundy shone with his contribution to the gloomy air of the Old Castle. A heavy lumbering melody in the lower strings conjures up an image of the slowly grinding wheels of a Polish oxcart. There’s a mournful section depicting the Roman catacombs. A quirky passage represents chickens dancing in their shells. The Hut on Hen’s Legs is a gilded ornate clock. And so it goes on until the art lovers reach the canvas of Great Gate of Kiev. The HSO gave this finale a thundering impression of impenetrability.
Among the audience was Elena Whitefield, a former folk dancer from Saratov on the Volga. She summed the HSO’s treatment of the Mussorgsky perfectly. “It was lovely music, so Russian”, she said. You can’t get better than that.