Review of Havant Chamber Orchestra Concert of 3 February

Achtung !!  It was nearly a German night at Fernham Hall, Fareham.  There were no Oompah bands and no brim-full steins of frothing beer being carried by busty waitresses in Bavarian costumes.  Not a knackwurst in sight either.

Two German composers, Schumann and Beethoven, were on Havant Chamber Orchestra’s programme.  But the first work to be performed was the Overture in the Italian Style in D major composed by that Austrian genius Franz Schubert.  So it was almost a totally Teutonic evening, but not quite.

Even so, the HCO’s performance was well worth the entrance fee.  Chamber music is said to be for the pleasure of the players. This may be true of quartets and trios but this chamber orchestra had no problem delighting the whole audience with its high standard of musicianship.  Their first offering was Schubert’s Overture in the Italian Style.  This was partly influenced by that opera music composer and amateur chef Gioacchino Rossini.  The HCO’s joyful treatment created a sunny, vibrant atmosphere bringing with it images of Tuscan landscapes, jolly fiestas, good food and wine.

Next on stage was Richard Uttley playing Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor.  His rendition was flawless.  The piano has its moments of being really up front and the soloist carried that off with boldness.  But it also blended harmoniously with the whole orchestra when required.  It takes real concentration for thirty-eight musicians to play quietly enough not drown out the solo instrument in the quieter passages.  But here, the experience and self-discipline of the soloist, players and conductor paid off handsomely.

Schumann was fond of hemiolas: syncopated beats between the bar lines. Some HCO players privately admit that Schumann’s work is devilishly tricky to count.  Guesswork won’t do.  Players must keep track of the rhythm in their heads.  As you’d expect from a polished ensemble like the HCO, not a single musician on stage was seen tapping his or her foot.

After the interval came the Beethoven.  His Third Symphony is a massive work.  Several large passages are repeated, making the whole thing nearly an hour long.  But there was so much great stuff to hear and see on stage that the time just flew by.  Robin Browning, the conductor, was centre stage in every sense of the word.  His flowing movements were a joy to watch.  Slashing his baton like a sabre one minute and jabbing it like an epee the next, his body language exuded authority and sensitivity.  He glanced directly at every section or soloist to bring them in at precisely the right moment.  Gestures from his left hand summoned up more sound or indicated tender softness.  It was stylish conduction indeed.  No wonder Classic FM’s John Suchet speaks so highly of him.

With so many good players in the ensemble, it would take too long to spotlight them all.  True to form, violinist Brian Howells’ leadership was strong yet delicate where it counted.  Stella Scott shone as principal ‘cellist.  It was good to see violinist Rodney Preston and Alan Ham on double bass (both ex-Royal Marines musicians) back on duty after periods of sick leave.  Top marks all round.

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