Events in Ukraine cast a long shadow over this concert of romantic Russian music, by the Winchester Symphony Orchestra under its conductor, Nick Wilks, on Saturday night in New Hall, with many musical and personal references and connections to Ukraine, but for those attending it was a wonderful evening of music making, and a huge success for those taking part.
The first item, Bernstein's Candide overture, was a bright start. Very lively music, with a slightly unsettling impact as it roves from theme to theme, with lots of interplay between the sections of the orchestra, it proved a highly appropriate taster in mood, energy and spirit for the rest of the programme.
To follow, we had a real treat. Tchaikovsky's 1st Piano concerto is obviously one of the great romantic piano concertos, well known for its emphatic theme in the opening few bars on the horns and piano. The dramatic and wild first movement is followed by the lyrical and calm slow movement, and then a third movement based on a fast folksong theme with a very tricky rhythm. To top it all, much of it is in very flat keys awkward for the strings, although slightly kinder to the wind and brass.
This particular performance was stunning. The soloist, Thomas Kelly, was extraordinary. Aged 24, he is already a very mature artist, with a great virtuoso technique, and hugely confident in interpreting this passionate and complex music. What's more, he was a last minute introduction, having only been contacted a few days previously, after the original soloist, Robert Bridge, fell ill to Covid, and had only a few hours on the day to rehearse with the orchestra.
As a performance it was fascinating. The first movement is a series of often chaotic virtuoso interchanges between the piano and orchestra, and needed the conductor and soloist to work closely. The second movement is quite different, as the orchestra introduces a series of tunes and melodies and the piano adds texture, sometimes just accompanying the wind soloists.
Thomas changed styles easily as a more relaxed mood replaced the bombastic first movement, then changed again as the agitated rhythms move the music forward in the final movement. His command of the score inspired both the audience and significantly, the orchestra. You could feel the orchestra growing in confidence with each movement as their sound and response to NIck Wilks changed. By the end, all sections of the orchestra produced a large professional romantic sound, and the audience reacted with great enthusiasm. I suspect we may see him back in Winchester fairly soon for another outing!
After the break the orchestra returned for Rachmaninov's Symphonic Dances, a complex and difficult work, with constant time signature changes. The work sits somewhere between a symphony and a Concerto for Orchestra, requires great concentration, precise, reliable and highly skilled conducting and considerable effort and practice by all participants to bring it off.
All sections had their moments, and although the wind and brass soloists were all highlighted, Rachmaninov also conjures up a wonderful saxophone solo passage for us to enjoy. As for the strings, the strong violin sound developed in the first half still continued, but this time we also heard welcome contributions from the violas and cellos.
So, in all, another fine concert form the WSO to mark its transition out of Lockdown. Covid has proved a difficult time for many orchestras, amateur and professional. Some need more time to rebuild and work together confidently, but the WSO is on its way back to form. The next WSO concert will be the Young Soloist competition on 7th July in Thornden Hall, a great initiative to offer performance opportunities to young Hampshire musicians.