Review: Petersfield Orchestra’s “Russian Night” Concert

It’s difficult to hold back on the superlatives when reviewing Petersfield Orchestra. Their concerts are never a disappointment. And their performance and contribution to the Petersfield Musical Festival 2019 was certainly no exception.

With Glinka, Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky on the programme, it was also a truly Russian night. In front of a packed audience at the Festival Hall, on 21 March, Mark Biggins waved his wand and took the orchestra to new heights of musical pleasure.

Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka’s Overture from the opera Ruslan and Ludmilla opened the evening like a lightning bolt. Despite its obvious Russian origins, Mark Biggins is said to detect a touch of Mendelssohn’s Italian period flavour in it. Without doubt Mark brought out all the excitement and feel of sunnier climes within the piece. The strings excelled themselves playing the rapid torrents of notes which characterises the work. The ‘cello section, led by Amanda Berry, revelled in the lovely big tune which is Russlan’s love theme. The whole thing was spot on.

Cristian Sandrin, who looks a bit like Johnny Depp, was the soloist for Sergei Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto number 3 in C. Cristian comes from a Romanian musical family. He played his first solo at the age of 13. He graduated from the Dinu Lipatti National College of Arts in Bucharest. Later, he graduated with first-class honours from the Royal Academy of Music in London. Now he plays and conducts with several orchestras but still considers himself a student.

In the pre-concert interview with Mark Biggins and Piers Burton-Page, Cristian said that the concerto made him think of those posters which were prevalent in the Communist era. They usually depicted muscular artisans or well-built female farm hands looking resolute and forging the new USSR. Whatever Prokofiev had in mind, in parts his piano concerto created an atmosphere of noisy heavy industry like sheet metal works, machine shops or furnaces going at full blast. At the keyboard Cristian hit the nail on the head and made the sparks fly with immense energy. The strings thrashed away and the percussionists gave it crash bang wallop. Another section conjured up images of weary agricultural labourers trudging home from the collective. Prokofiev seemed to be giving it the whole hammer and sickle bit with the red flag flying. Cristian and the heroic orchestra took the place by storm.

Mark Biggins conducted Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no 6 in B minor with grace and pin-point accuracy. He’s a tall chap with a wide arm span which he uses to embrace the whole orchestra. One orchestral insider privately confided that he treats the orchestra like the professional outfits he regularly conducts. Whatever the case, Mark brings out the best in the Petersfield Orchestra.

As everybody knows Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was a deeply troubled man. He was wounded by the bad press he got from that vitriolic newspaper critic Cesar Cui. He worried about his sexuality. He was a hypochondriac. He fretted that his wonderful ballet music was regarded by some as just sentimental dance tunes. His hopeless marriage in mid-life only lasted a matter of weeks. He was ground down by the rigours of musical tours. He once attempted suicide. Yet he composed some of the finest music ever written.

The Sixth Symphony is a bold and masterful work. It’s got it all. It has great melodies and a graceful allegro. It has a stirring, climactic march which feels like a finale. There’s a tricky section written in five-four time. It ends with a slow movement filled with an aching, heartfelt sorrow which could only have come from Tchaikovsky’s inner torment. Mark and the Petersfield Orchestra did the composer proud.

Petersfield Orchestra is filled from top to bottom with top quality players. Several seasoned musicians, who play in a number of orchestras, were there. Former member of the Royal Yacht’s Royal Marine Band, ubiquitous Steve Tanner, was on piccolo. Some, like violinist Cathy Matthews, lead their own ensembles. Leader of the ‘cellos Amanda Berry is a member of the Kalore Trio. Eighty-five-year-old Richard Evans who plays viola is also a stalwart of the Meon Valley Orchestra. There are younger, highly competent players too who are gaining experience. Right at the back of the second violins was Jen Ansari who has just gained an MA degree in music with distinction at the Open University. Keep an eye on her: she’s on the way up.

It has to be said that there is more to a good orchestra than just the music. An awful lot goes on behind the scenes. When a musician fell ill during the afternoon rehearsal there was no one for the fourth horn slot and there was no contrabassoonist. So Orchestra Chairman Steve Bartholomew had to scurry around like a House of Commons Whip to find replacements. At the last minute he recruited a fourth horn player and a tuba to fill the gaps.

The orchestra’s write up in the Petersfield Musical Festival brochure was lucid and hugely informative. It looked like it was put together by that erudite wordsmith and ‘cello player Piers Burton-Page. People like him and Steve are the foundations on which good orchestras are built. As always, Petersfield Orchestra’s Russian night was another successful team effort.

Stuart Reed

Image: Cristian Sandrin

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