Review: Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra 40th anniversary concert
Staring into the abyss of time can be a chastening experience. Sometimes it gazes back at you. Was it really 40 years ago that this fine amateur orchestra performed what was to have been a one-off concert at Cardiff’s St David’s Cathedral? It seems like only yesterday.
In another 40 years, many of those in the audience for this celebratory concert will be listening to celestial orchestras with the angels somewhere above the clouds.
There were some heavenly moments in this well-structured concert, not least in the second half which was taken up by Rachmaninov’s towering Symphony No 2.
Michael Bell, founder and conductor of the orchestra was his usual matter-of-fact, amusing and informative self as he introduced each of the three pieces that made up the concert.
The first two works–Cardiff Bay Overture, by Welsh composer Gareth Wood, and Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F–were pieces of their times. The Rachmaninov symphony was timeless.
Mr Bell has a fondness for film music, and the orchestra’s regular film music concerts have proved to be among its most popular over the 40 years.
Cardiff Bay Overture, composed to mark the setting up of the Cardiff Bay Development Corporation, had about it the feel of a film score, with broad brushstrokes of stirring music painting pictures of the industrial and cultural history of the waterfront area.
Elegance and panache
There were suggestions of Jerome Morris’ score for The Big Country, or Elmer Berstein’s music for The Magnificent Seven, as the orchestra swept us along on a tide of optimism and success.
What was perhaps missing were a few glimpses of the less happy times in the history of Tiger Bay and what it was transformed into.
Italian pianist Gabriele Strata stepped in at almost the eleventh hour to replace the indisposed Martin James Bartlett to play Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F. Everything turned out to be alright on the night.
Dressed in what I would bet was a brightly coloured made-to-measure Italian suit, Mr Strata played with a corresponding elegance and panache, approaching the piece with serious intent, but also with an engaging sense of playfulness.
Given the strictly limited rehearsal time, soloist and orchestra worked together with impressive elan with Mr Bell gently encouraging his orchestra to join the soloist in capturing the 1920s jazz era ambience of the music.
The playing of the Adagio second movement was deftly handled by both soloist and orchestra, allowing each the freedom to express themselves in an almost improvisatory way.
They showed great respect for the music which is much closer to a classical concerto than Gershwin’s better-known Rhapsody in Blue.
Mr Bell promised us some dazzling playing by Mr Strata, and this was certainly the case in the final movement, marked Allegretto agitato.
It didn’t agitate the audience, but rather had many of them on their feet in noisy appreciation. They needed to calm down, and Mr Strata helped them to do so with his encore, a delicate account of one of Schumann’s Night Pieces.
Blaze of glory
The concert ended with one of the orchestra’s favourite symphonies over the past four decades, Rachmaninov’s Symphony No 2 in E minor.
If, as TS Eliot suggests, time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future, this is the piece that will forever define this orchestra.
There were echoes of the orchestra’s interpretation of the piece at past concerts, and hints of how they might play it in the future. For the present, this was a splendidly paced and marvellously controlled and executed performance. All time is irredeemable, but the memory of this performance will be something to cherish.
The orchestra’s love of the piece shone through, especially in the dark and brooding first movement and the in sublime Adagio third movement.
It was in that third movement that Mr Bell briefly put down his baton to better shape and mould the orchestra’s sumptuous, burnished playing.
Time has its pressures and constraints. Annoyingly, I had to miss the final minutes of the concert because I had to catch my bus back home to Barry.
As the bus arrived at Cardiff Bay, I recalled the Gareth Wood concerto which had opened the concert and imagined how the concert ended in a blaze of glory and anticipation of what the future might hold for this orchestra which is a gem in Cardiff’s cultural crown.
Only time will tell.
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