Review: Petersfield Orchestra at the Petersfield Musical Festival

21 March, Petersfield Festival Hall

At the top of Wenceslas Square in Prague, the recently refurbished National Museum holds many treasured musical items. There are manuscripts by Beethoven and Mozart as well as relics of Bohemia’s most renowned and nationalistic musical sons: Bedrich Smetana (his oboe) and Antonin Dvorak (a draft of his Symphony from the New World). The only Russian contributions to the building are the pockmarks of heavy machine gun fire that were left behind from the Soviet crackdown of 1968.

Be that as it may, it was an inspired choice to couple works by Smetana and Dvorak on the same bill as Rachmaninov’s much vaunted Piano Concerto No. 2: three supremely popular pieces in one night.

As usual, the concert itself was preceded by an informal discussion chaired by Piers Burton-Page. Several facts emerged. The conductor, Robin Browning, and the soloist, Jamie Cochrane, had links with Essex where Jamie was born. Both had worked together on a work by Leonard Bernstein called the Age of Anxiety.  They emphasised the need for strong empathy between soloist, conductor and the orchestra itself for a good performance. Also, Jamie started playing as a child on a toy piano bought at Woolworths.

The Festival Hall at Petersfield was packed for this concert, which is part of the wider Petersfield Musical Festival. This ancient market town has a strong contingent of people who enjoy classical music. Worthy of note is that the Petersfield Orchestra has over seventy donors and friends who support it.

The programme opened with one of Smetana’s symphonic poems from his ambitious opus Ma Vlast.  The whole cyclical work is a tribute to his homeland, Bohemia.  This movement, Blanik, is about a legendary mountain under which sleeps St Wenceslaus and about his army ready to repel invaders to the fatherland.

The orchestra gave a powerful, majestic start to the evening. They brought out the beauty of the Central European countryside and the immense pride in what is now the Czech Republic. Sources close to the upper string sections secretly confided that it was devilishly difficult to play. Even so, the ensemble carried it off with terrific aplomb and was encouraged by thunderous applause.

Jamie Cochrane is a handsome fellow with a host of instrumental and academic qualifications gained at Oxford. He’s played at top venues too – the Albert Hall and the Sheldonian Theatre, to name but a couple.

Jamie performed Rachmaninov’s Concerto No. 2 with great clarity and also with surprising strength for one so young. His playing was flawless: a virtuoso was at work on the keyboard, ably supported by a highly responsive orchestra.

Under the management of Robin Browning, the orchestra’s dynamics were perfect. As Rachmaninov intended, the players were hushed to allow the piano to execute lovely melodic solos and lightning fast cascades of notes. There were also surging groundswells from the lower strings as the wonderful big tunes filled the auditorium.

Robin Browning has a graceful conducting style, and he waved his baton with unerring accuracy. His left hand carefully controlled the softer volumes while, at other times, his great sweeping gestures lifted the whole orchestra as one.

Dvorak’s Symphony no 8 was a delight to listen to. The eight-strong viola section, ably led by Lilias Lamont, really shone. Dvorak, himself a viola player, would have congratulated them. All the memorable melodies were brought out and punctuated by some deft, birdsong flute solos by Sheila Price. A stratospherically high violin solo was carried off with great confidence by the leader, Helen Purchase. The whole orchestra did justice to the Czech composer’s magnificent work. And the audience showed their appreciation with prolonged and joyful applause.

My last review of Petersfield Orchestra was in 2018. It was good to see that strong lead violinist and keen athlete, Helen Purchase, was as highly proficient as ever. Then as now, like most regional orchestras, the regular players are often supported by a sprinkling of professionals and talented amateurs from other ensembles. For example, Mel Espin (second oboe and cor anglais) has played in many local bands as well as the Orchestra Allegro Moderato in Milan.

There were several silver haired stalwarts and some not-so-hirsute musicians on the platform too; all still going strong. First division players such as violinists Rodney Preston and Cathy Matthews, Mark Frampton (bass), Nick Knight (timpani), Sarah Woods (percussion), Colin Wilson (bassoon) and ace clarinettist, pony-tailed Robert Blanken, were all there in force.

There were also some relative newcomers such as Matthew Clark, now in his second season with the orchestra. He is a highly capable violinist who also leads the Meon Valley Orchestra. Skilful principal cellist Nigel McNestrie showed his customary prowess, leading the lower strings. 

After the show, one player was heard to remark that conductors are rarely satisfied. However, Robin Browning sometimes says that he is an artist and musical manager steering the orchestra to perfection. He certainly got close to his ultimate goal with this performance.

The orchestra’s next concert is on the 20th of June, again at the Festival Hall, and features local soloist Alexandra Peel playing the lovely Mendelssohn violin concerto. 

As this highly respected orchestra inches towards its centenary in 2027 yet more knockout performances are sure to be in the offing.

Stuart Reed

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