Review: Royal Marines and the Countess of Wessex’s String Orchestra Concert

Here’s a recipe for a great evening with a spectacular orchestra.

Take musicians from the Her Majesty’s Royal Marines Portsmouth and Collingwood and mix them with players from the Countess of Wessex’s String Orchestra.  Pop in a brilliant soloist and a professional harpist for piquancy. Include a pinch of trainees from the Army and RM music schools. Stir in a variety of music by top notch composers like Strauss, Weber, Ravel, Smetana, Mendelssohn, Sibelius and Grieg.  Add a sprinkling of seasoned and up-and-coming conductors.  Place before a receptive audience for two hours.  Sit back and enjoy.

The result, at St Mary’s Church, Fratton, on Thursday 22 March, was more exciting than any British Bake Off.

While World War Two was raging in 1942 Richard Strauss put together Festmusik de Stadt Wien, a miniature symphony for brass instruments. Royal Marines Warrant Officer Mike Robinson arranged the piece specially for orchestra. Under the baton of Captain Tom Crane this was a first class opening number.

Next was Carl von Webber’s overture, Der Freischutz.  Appropriately for a military orchestra it translates as The Marksman.  It’s the music for a fanciful operatic story involving a devilish character and a hunter who sells his soul for six magic bullets. Under the direction of Durham lad, Sgt Andy Hall, the piece was the essence of romantic excitement.

Violinist Katie Davis led the orchestra for the evening. A relative newcomer to the Army music scene, she exchanged playing with orchestras like the Royal Philharmonic for the greater security of service life. Recently, Katie had been judged the Household Division’s Musician of the Year. As the mother of three young boys who are choristers at St Paul’s she’s unlikely to squander her prize money on a designer handbag.

This evening, the official leader of Countess of Wessex String Orchestra Corporal James Sandalls took to the platform as a soloist. A self-effacing man, he showed his true virtuosity by playing Tzigane. This is the French composer Maurice Ravel’s take on gypsy music. It involves practically every showy fiddle technique in the book. Left-hand pizzicato, bouncing bow spiccato, stopped harmonics, mournful sliding chords high up the fingerboard, bow strokes rocking over all four strings: James did these alone on the violin until freelance professional Kate Ham embellished the music with her skilful harp accompaniment. Gradually the rest of the orchestra joined in as the music gained pace, volume and attack leading to a typical climactic finale. It may not have been every music lover’s cup of tea but with the help of the ensemble under conductor Sergeant Matt Bowditch, Sandalls nailed this difficult piece once and for all.

Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture, Smetana’s Ma Vlast (My Country) and Sibelius’ Valse Triste were all familiar works which pleased the audience greatly and gave Sgt Jamie Gunn, Sgt Dan Page and Major David Hammond (the CO of the CWSO) a chance to demonstrate their skills with the conductor’s baton. These lovely pieces led nicely into the finale, Peer Gynt Suite No 1 by Edvard Grieg. Almost everybody knows the first movement. Curiously, coming from a Norwegian, it depicts a Moroccan sunrise. The alternating phrases by flute and oboe which herald in the dawn were beautifully clear, just as Grieg would have wanted. The orchestra performed the middle section, Anitra’s seductive dance, with lightsome charm. The slow crescendo, depicting a bacchanal of goblins, trolls and gnomes in the Hall of The Mountain King, leading to a crashing finish, was a fitting end to a great evening.

With a few wisecracks by genial Lt Col Jon Ridley, Principal Director of Music Royal Marines and one or two flourishes of his baton, the CWSO and RM marches were played. The audience went home happy.

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