String Soundworld – preview of Havant Chamber Orchestra’s October concert

Havant Chamber Orchestra begin their 2019-20 season away from the Ferneham Hall for the first time in many years. Just down the road from Ferneham at the United Reformed Church in Fareham, they present a delicious mix of beautiful music for string orchestra with the added bonus of an oboe concerto by Albinoni, performed by HCO’s principal oboe Lucinda Willits, on Saturday 19 October.

Ahead of the concert, Stella Scott asked Music Director Robin Browning for his thoughts on the programme.

SS: For our upcoming HCO concert we’re going for a strings concert. This was decided mainly for practical reasons, but does it have any artistic merit do you think? Do you enjoy the string sound or do you find it a bit limited?

RB: It’s not limited in the slightest! Quite apart from consisting of some of the greatest repertoire written for any combination of instruments, ever, the soundworld combines two inter-related properties. On the one hand, it’s the most homogenised group of instruments in the standard orchestra. In other words, all of them produce similar sounds in a similar way, more so than any other group. Yet alongside this pleasing quality, there exists a vast variety of colour and expressive possibility. Souvenir de Florence explores both of these qualities in real depth – the concurrently blended yet extremely varied sound – to a potently dramatic level.

SS: The programme contains quite a wide range of styles with Albinoni standing out amongst more romantic composers. As a violinist yourself, do you think the baroque style is more difficult than the romantic for string players? How tricky is it to do both in one concert?

RB: It can be pretty tricky for players of all standards to switch from one playing style and another. For a string player, if one plays baroque music with an attention to historical practice, it is a totally different way of approaching the instrument and the sound compared to, say, the string sound in Tchaikovsky. And that’s before one makes choices about ‘authentic’ bows, strings, and tuning. In HCO we don’t go as far as the latter, but we do aim to perform any baroque music with an awareness of good style, meaning we must all remember to press the “reset” button when working on more romantic repertoire. Playing baroque music isn’t any more or less challenging than romantic or contemporary repertoire, but to play it well does require an open mind and awareness that takes time during rehearsal.

SS: Have you worked a lot with Lucinda, our oboe soloist?

RB: Yes, I’ve worked with Lucinda many times over the years, primarily as an orchestral principal (and also very fine Cor Anglais player). She’s a superb, musical and refined player, and collaborates very well with those around her. I’m really looking forward to working with her as a soloist on such a subtle and beautiful concerto. Accompanying an oboe soloist is always a tricky thing for any conductor, too, because one has to be hyper-aware of how they’re breathing and how much space they may sometimes need to produce that incredible sound. Lucinda will be brilliant, and I can’t wait to hear it.

SS: The major work in the programme is the Souvenir de Florence by Tchaikovsky which is really chamber music for string sextet. Do you think it will work well in this arrangement?

RB: It’s a true masterpiece. Going back to my opening point, about string repertoire in general, it sits in amongst a multitude of other great string works. There is something about how a composer approaches the sound of a string group that lends works to being re-scored for larger forces, without distorting the original in any way – in fact sometimes adding to it. Souvenir de Florence could be a case in point. Personally, I prefer the sextet version of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, and I don’t think Mahler’s famous scaling-up of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden quartet works as well as the original. But this Tchaikovsky works, to my mind, equally well in both versions. It’s such a superb piece of virtuoso string-writing, how could it NOT work?! Tchaikovsky’s palette is often crying out for a large canvas, and here he paints with such vivid texture that there should be no doubt for the listener!

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