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Watford Symphony Orchestra's May concert at Clarendon Muse***
3:56pm Tuesday 15th May 2012 in Freetime
With commendable ambition, for this concert the Watford Symphony Orchestra undertook a programme of 19th- and 20th Century works that was demanding for amateurs. It was held at Clarendon Muse - home to the Watford School of Music, whose director of string development, John Brennan, was the guest conductor. For those interested in musical education, he has an additional reputation as conductor of Hertfordshire Schools' Symphony Orchestra and for a number of other commitments. He has developed a conducting style that is both clear and enthusiastic.
A confident beginning was provided by Walton's well-known coronation march, Crown Imperial. Wisely, in the restricted space provided in this hall for an orchestra of more than 60 players, the sound level was restrained at the start; plenty of volume was available when required later. The orchestra was well controlled and good tone and ensemble were maintained, but loud passages are inevitably overpowering here.
The evening's novelty (for most of us) was the Symphonic Dance by the young British composer Daniel Bush, who was present to receive well justified applause. It is a one-movement work in three readily recognisable sections, and begins with a jolly theme, which is played by successive sections of the orchestra; the relationship between this and other themes and variations make an entertaining experience, well exploited by the orchestra.
The Violoncello Concerto No. 1 in A minor is not among the best known compositions of Saint-Saens. Dating from 1872, it has the virtuoso character of its period, both for the orchestra and for the soloist. This was Ori Epstein, a former student at The Purcell School of Music in Bushey, now aged 19. The concerto has the conventional three movements but they are played continuously. Commendably, Epstein played from memory. He already has fully reliable technique; more confident interpretation will come. In the small hall, the large orchestra tended to drown him.
It may seem hardly possible, but after the interval Beethoven's Symphony No.3 in E flat, the Eroica, began with anti-climax. The first subject did not emerge clearly, and sometimes the string tone was coarsened and the ensemble shaky. Perhaps, in concentrating on the earlier items, the orchestra could not find enough rehearsal time for this work that has as much significance as almost anything in the repertoire. It dates from 1804, and there is a well-known story that when Napoleon died in 1821, Beethoven said of the second movement - the Funeral March - that he had already composed this music for the occasion. It is a long movement, and was a strain for the orchestra. Whether there is any such biographical meaning in other movements is arguable, but the triumphant conviction of the last movement was genuinely expressed.
It is remarkable that Watford sustains two amateur orchestras. Between them, they offer the music-loving public a good variety of works, but with the best will in the world, they cannot consistently maintain the standard that a professional orchestra at the Colosseum would provide.