Nottingham Philharmonic Orchestra
October 13 2019
Albert Hall, Nottingham
Review: William Ruff
The Nottingham Philharmonic serve up an invigorating, challenging work-out for the senses
I’ve been to plenty of concerts over the years where I’ve felt the need for sunglasses to cope with all the dazzling colour flung from the orchestra in front of me. But on Sunday at the NPO concert sunglasses weren’t enough. By rights they should have been handing out heavy-duty welding masks at the door.
This wasn’t a concert for the fainthearted, for those who don’t like a challenge or for those who expect their music to gently caress their ears. The music filled three categories: old yet unfamiliar; cutting-edge and ground-breaking; classic yet notoriously sensational. It was just about the most exhilarating way you could spend a wet Sunday afternoon in Nottingham.
The opening piece (For the Flower of the Blue Lily) was written by Joaquin Rodrigo (of guitar concerto fame) in 1934 but would have been new to everyone in the audience. It tells a story of a dying king’s three sons who go on a quest for a magical blue lily whose magic powers will save him. It all ends in jealousy and murder – but not before lots of stirring pageant-like music with exciting parts for drums, trumpets, solo viola, harps – and just about every other instrument. The piccolo-led march section was pulse-quickening too, as well as so much more. Suffice it to say that the NPO made a strong case for this piece to be dusted off much more frequently.
The composer Adam Gorb was in the audience to hear his Clarinet Concerto. It is a startling work to experience for the first time and its ambition knows no bounds. Influenced by all those early 20th century composers who foresaw catastrophe, and containing quotations from every Mahler symphony, it pitted the solo clarinet against all sorts of orchestral styles and colours. There was even a section in which the clarinet went to join a Klezmer band at the back of the stage. The soloist, the concerto’s dedicatee Nicholas Cox, had to do all sorts of impossible things with his instrument: swooping, sliding, playing at extremes of register etc. It was all quite taxing to listen to (and presumably fiendish to play) but it added up to an invigorating work-out for the senses and to a triumph for the soloist.
The second half placed the audience in much more familiar territory: Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, a piece written nearly 200 years ago yet which still has the capacity to surprise and even shock with its story of drug-taking, obsessive love, beheading by guillotine and a witches’ sabbath. Berlioz pushes his orchestra to extremes and uses all sorts of effects never heard in an orchestra before. Conductor Mark Heron was firmly in command of all the composer’s extravagant demands and drew much impressive playing from the NPO – the cor anglais, oboe, clarinet, timpani and brass being singled out for special applause. But this was a concert which pushed everyone to their limits and found them all rising impressively to the challenge.
Nottingham Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Mark Heron with Nicholas Cox, clarinet