Something many students do not know is that in the week before Freshers’ every year, the University welcomes a crowd of musically gifted students onto campus for a week of music making. Freshers and returners alike get to take part in a range of workshops, from African drumming to jazz improvisation, not forgetting the annual pilgrimage to Unit 1 dressed in our ‘garish garms’.
The reason I mention this is that for two years now I have taken part in Music Week, and both times this has provided me with the privilege of playing alongside professional musicians from the BSO. The piece that we worked on in this year’s workshop was none other than Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet Suite No. 2; a masterpiece that was the finale to BSO’s concert ‘Love and Loss’. It was with a month’s worth of anticipation, excitement and fond memories that I took my seat in the busy Great Hall to see the professionals show me how it should be done.
The first half of the concert was a bit of a mystery to me. Strauss is a composer I adore for his iconic Horn Concertos written for his father. However, the opening piece to this concert was composed for 23 solo strings. Metamorphosen was written in the final few months of the Second World War, commissioned by Paul Sacher. Its premiere provided justification for Strauss to travel to Zurich to receive treatment for his ill health; a trip that Strauss was previously forbidden from taking by the Nazi government. In this week’s pre-concert talk, ethnomusicologist Trevor Wiggins posed some ideas about the significance intended by Strauss, but ultimately left us to ponder this for ourselves.
The overall tone of the piece was a sombre one. It reminded me of the theme from Schindler’s List, the 1993 Second World War film with orchestration by legendary John Williams. Strauss’ annotation of ‘In Memoriam’ and his use of the Funeral March from Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony strengthens my belief that this is a tribute to the destruction of Strauss’ beloved Munich and Vienna.
The BSO gave a technically stunning performance, with each player on stage providing crucial, independent parts. It was a welcome reminder of each of the musicians’ individual brilliance, and a marvellous example of Strauss’ frequent use of counterpoint.
Next on the programme was Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, also unfamiliar to me. The Great Hall’s Steinway concert piano now dominated the stage and at the keys was a man certainly not unfamiliar with the works of Beethoven. John Lill is described as someone who “simply devours Beethoven”. For this 1970 International Tchaikovsky Competition winner, with more than half a century of experience in the industry, performing a Beethoven concerto from memory in a packed concert hall is just another day at the office.
The symphonic orchestral opening established a dark mood. The soloist then took over and restated the themes introduced by the orchestra, decorating them with ornamentation and expressive interpretation. As the piano and orchestra exchanged passages in this way, Lill was composed and focused. The strict manner in which he performed sometimes resulted in the soloist and orchestra falling out of time with one another. Nonetheless, synchronicity was always swiftly restored, making for an overall masterful and inspiring performance. One final display of Lill’s brilliance was displayed in a cadenza that brought us to the end of the concerto. The cheers from the audience indicated the delight that Lill had brought to the room.
After a month of anticipation, the BSO’s spellbinding rendition of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet Suite No. 2 did not disappoint. From the playful and light second movement which introduced us to Juliet, to the intense and devastating finale which depicts the lovers’ untimely end, each movement perfectly captured the essence of a character or scene to effectively retell the Shakespearian story of forbidden love and tragic loss. As a piece I know well, this was a vastly different listening experience from the pieces of the first half. I enjoyed the personal interpretations of the solos, with particularly exceptional performances from Anna Pyne (flute) and Barry Deacon (clarinet). The percussion section added a sense of magic, while the tenor saxophone (Melanie Henry) provided a unique tone not commonly heard in the orchestra. I felt anxious for the horn section as we approached a particularly challenging section in the finale, but was thrilled when they nailed it. I welcomed the opportunity to appreciate sections where I am normally distracted by my own part, notably the speed and precision of the violins, and the theatrics of the double basses when playing pizzicato. The final note dominated by the piccolo (Owain Bailey) brought an eerie silence over the Great Hall and an end to another triumph of a concert by the BSO.
The BSO will next grace the Great Hall’s stage on 24 October for an evening entitled ‘Great American Songbook’, bringing together music by Copland, Barber and Muggorsky. Get your tickets now for what will undoubtably be another unforgettable night and one that I am hugely excited for.