April 2014 Concert: Vaughan Williams

There is a pejorative, negative, air that hangs around the word “amateur”. And to be “professional” implies, these days, high quality and coldly efficient. Doing something for the love of it, and doing it really well, can’t be all that bad can it? The 200 musicians of EMG Symphony Orchestra and Singers did just this on Saturday 5th April. I have been to professional concerts that were not as good as this amateur performance.

I turned up for this concert about 10 minutes early. The queue outside the cathedral that snaked across The Close demonstrated that the audience for slightly niche compositions is strong and healthy in Devon and that EMG has a loyal and large following. Packed audience rows filled the nave and the side aisles were very full too.

This was an ambitious choice of purely Vaughan Williams’ music in the programme. The Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis is understandably popular. I was interested to see how conductor Marion Wood would handle the acoustic, which is so difficult for orchestras. Within a minute I realised that the tempo and balance had been carefully thought out. The overall effect sounded gorgeous. The second, smaller, string orchestra, positioned behind the main string section, created a sort of linear stereo effect, slightly distant, which was very atmospheric. The four section leaders have wonderful solo end ensemble moments, and these were expertly performed, a delight to hear in this setting. Rich pizzicati and the gentle rhythmic interplay between the polyphonic lines was clear and resonant, the players clearly relishing the sound.

The Sea Symphony, less often heard, has a spectacular start, a brass fanfare, which succumbed to the cathedral acoustic; sounding warm and mellow, but not as pointed and accented as I anticipated. The orchestra sounded magnificent as it then built to the big climax before baritone soloist Julian Rippon’s second entry, and the next appearance of the fanfare, before soprano Catherine Hamilton’s first entry, was played with the attack I had hoped for.

The chorus were well balanced and well drilled. Their position, so far away from the conductor, made it particularly difficult for clarity of diction and ensemble, yet they seemed to glide over these obstacles effortlessly. There were many instrumental highlights in Sea Symphony; Leader Clare Smith’s sweetest violin solo in the quartet with the vocal soloists and Richard Wood, principal viola; the woodwind shining in passages such as before “wandering, yearning” in the final movement; the brass and percussion making a full, warm and technically impressive sound in many sections, such as after “Hoist instantly the anchor! … Steer for the deep waters”.

The opening of the second movement is difficult, when ensembles lapses can be quite glaring, and yet EMG sounded like a well drilled, experienced orchestra, handling the tempo changes in “On the Beach at Night” effortlessly. The movement dipped, rhythmically, when, with “all nations and all identities”, the exposed chorus lacked the vigour of the first movement. Some indiscipline with the placing of consonants revealed themselves during the unaccompanied passages in the last movement, too, but overall this choir made a terrific sound, most obvious in short exposed passages such as “greater than stars or suns”. Combined with the orchestra, it was a fantastic sound; the musicians and audience particularly enjoyed a blazing end to the scherzo, with over 200 performers going full tilt. This was a most impressive concert. High quality, efficient, performed with sophistication and a clear affection and enthusiasm for the music. Very amateur.