Bow – New string ensemble’s first concert

BOW – The Inaugural Concert

GRIEG – Holberg Suite / VAUGHAN WILLIAMS – Five Variants of “Dives and Lazarus” / DVORAK – Serenade for Strings

Rachel Hyde (conductor)

Kathryn Maloney (concertmaster)

Bow String Ensemble

St.Andrew’s on-the-Terrace

Sunday 17th October 2010

An enterprising venture – a new string ensemble, no less! – this came about thanks to the enthusiasm and efforts of conductor Rachel Hyde, which brought together a goodly number of the capital’s amateur string players to make music, an ensemble, according to an introductory note in the program, “dedicated to the joy of string playing”. As newly-formed orchestras the world over have found, it takes a while for any ensemble to properly “jell”, there being no substitute for actual concert experience as part of that process of putting things together and making them work. The encouraging thing about the concert given by this new group, aptly calling itself “Bow”, was that so much of the playing gave a good deal of pleasure, even if one of the works on the program was, I thought, beyond the group’s grasp at this stage of its existence, brave though the attempt to tackle the music’s difficulties was.

Adding to the concert’s enterprise was the unconventional placement of the orchestra – in the middle of St.Andrew’s Church’s congregation, rather than, as normally is the case, at the chancel end of the interior, with seating for the audience entirely enclosing the players. The intention was to “involve” the orchestra with the audience to a greater degree, and I thought the experiment worked really well for half of the concert – I think the players’ positioning brought out more markedly the sounds of what they were doing, which was, naturally, something of a double-edged sword, highlighting both the felicities and difficulties in the playing throughout.

This degree of immediacy gave the concert’s first half a particular pleasure, with two of the best-loved works for string ensemble chosen. First up was Grieg’s Suite Op.40 From Holberg’s Time, and I thought, upon re-reading my notes, scribbled as the ensemble played the opening Praeludium, that the words described the best of what Bow achieved that afternoon, for the most part throughout the concert’s first half: – “Full, rich sound! – plenty of dynamic range, with strong accents in the right places. Inner parts brought out nicely…..very powerful mid- and lower strings – ensemble good, but just one or two shaky dovetailings in those scherzando-like passages…”. The playing of the subsequent Holberg movements confirmed most of these impressions, a beautiful massed violin sound in the Sarabande movement, a charming “country dance” ambience in the Gavotte and Musette, setting delicacy next to girth, and (best of all) a beautifully-phrased Air whose performance gave the music all the time in the world to express its melancholic character. Only in the concluding Rigaudon did I feel some caution on the part of the players inhibiting their expression, though the first viola’s support of the solo violin’s “dance-tune” episodes was admirable. I would have liked concertmaster Kathryn Maloney to have taken risks here, put aside her “admirable leader’s” example for a few moments, and played her solos a bit more roughly and gutsily, which would have allowed the folkdance element in the music a fuller, rustic flavor.

If Grieg’s music gave the ensemble the chance to revel in festive, out-of-doors goings-on, the following work in the program brought a deeper, more introspective vein of feeling to the proceedings – Vaughan Williams, who spent a lifetime acquainting himself with the beauties of English folk-song, wrote this work in 1939 for strings and harp, taking a tune he first encountered in 1893, the folk-song Dives and Lazarus, as a starting-point, and composing a set of variations of astonishing beauty. Rachel Hyde asked the players (apart from the ‘cellos) to stand while performing this work, which may have been a factor in the degree of intensity and warmth of tone produced by the ensemble. I very much liked the performance, particularly the waltz-like variation, with its limpid harp-tones nicely integrated with the ensemble, and the strong, chordal variant with answering triplet phrases – full and forthright tones, with only some of the more circumspect phrases occasionally making a less confident impression. Both the penultimate folk-dance variation, with its lively step and spring, and the full-throated final variation’s opening, dying away on cello and upper strings, inspired playing that caught the character of the composer’s different views of the lovely tune.

Buoyed by the pleasures of the concert’s first half, I perhaps expected too much from the ensemble in tackling the Dvorak Serenade after the interval. It’s a work whose difficulties lie in the degree of exposure of melodic lines (unlike the far more “supported” harmonic lyricism of both the Grieg and the Vaughan Williams works), and the often treacherous rhythmic syncopations in the accompanying figures. Those long-breathed first-movement lyrical phrases gave the musicians frequent tuning problems, the melodic lines mercilessly “out on their own” in this music, though the players managed the second movement Tempo di Valse rather more securely, especially at the outset. Best of all was probably the third movement Scherzo, attacked confidently, and with plenty of energy, especially in the lower strings’ accompaniments in the trio section. The opening phrases of the Larghetto sounded well, though the rapid tempo of the contrasting episodes seemed to un-nerve the players and undermine their poise; while the finale, again beginning well, came to grief over the running figurations and frequent syncopations and angularities of the music.

I would expect that, once Bow “gets used” to itself as an ensemble by playing a few more concerts and tackling slightly less ambitious and extended repertoire in the interim, it will produce far more confident and polished playing, and be well able to tackle more of those wonderful, if perennially demanding, pieces from the string ensemble repertoire that concertgoers know and love. I wish the group well.

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