Saint-Saëns’ organ symphony sandwiched between a couple of works by youthful composers of today and yesteryear.
The talents of Black and ethnically diverse musicians were on full display at the Royal Festival Hall on Friday evening with yet another of Chineke!’s boundary pushing concerts. Saint-Saëns’ third symphony (‘the organ symphony’) is always a crowd-pleaser, and it was clearly the audience draw for the evening. As always, though, Chineke! used the occasion to showcase works by composers of Black heritage – in this case, both young and British. The orchestra is a regular champion of the works of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875–1912), and a performance of his sole symphony, completed when the composer was 21, has been a long-anticipated delight. Tristen J. Watts (‘TJTheComposer’) is only 19, but his prodigious output is there on YouTube for all to hear, and Friday saw the live première of his Overture in B flat major (‘Majestiqué’).
There is no doubt, when you listen to Watts’ music, that the grand compositional techniques of the Romantic period are all in place, and his ‘Majestiqué’ Overture is no exception – sonata form and a deft use of development are much in evidence in the work, which the composer indicates draws heavily on the influences of Beethoven and Mendelssohn (and you can certainly hear the styles of both composers popping up in the piece). Opening with a horn chorus, it allows its short melodic statements room to play across the orchestral palette in an enjoyable evocation of the early 19th century. Notwithstanding this enjoyment, though, the piece feels a little like a beautifully constructed fuselage without an engine – it is a trifle piecemeal, and the pizzicato decoration of fairly simple rising and falling note progressions eventually becomes wearing in the absence of a strong melodic intention with drive and direction. While one applauds the astonishing technical skill on display here, what the piece needs more of is original content.
The orchestra, under the neatly precise direction of Leslie Suganandarajah, gave it an excellent workout, though, thoroughly absorbing the work’s period character, and returning it with concise attention to dynamic, tempo and texture.
Suganandarajah opted for a pleasingly brisk opening to the Saint-Saëns, and the ‘chattering’ across the woodwind and strings was well controlled, leading to a lovely quiet staccato statement of the movement’s main theme and some subsequent energy and intensity in the violins. It wasn’t all ‘no-nonsense’, though, as the poco adagio section was pulled out to allow the orchestra’s rich tones and accurately co-ordinated shifts in dynamic to deliver, along with organist William Campbell’s sensitive application of the RFH instrument’s registration possibilities, the required schmaltz. The pickup into the butterfly-light violin arpeggios towards the end of the first of the two overarching movements was splendid, although there was a slight falter in the pizzicato work before the return of the main theme.
“Here, the orchestra was absolutely at the top of its game, clearly revelling in an expansive work by their favourite composer …”
The second movement opened with drive and application in the strings and a deal of bright sprightliness from the woodwinds, Suganandarajah holding the dynamic in check to ensure that the crashing finale wasn’t preempted. Everyone’s favourite maestoso section (with those massive blasts from the organ) did not disappoint, and, notwithstanding a slight violin hiatus, the subsequent busy counterpoint here was adroitly handled to give a thoroughly satisfying finale.
Coleridge-Taylor’s symphony was written while he was studying at the Royal College of Music under C V Stanford, and, while one can hear the latter’s influence on the piece (it’s very much an English work of the period), it nonetheless displays not only the composer’s great technical skill, but a prodigious creative genius. It is crammed full of charming tunes that are developed and played with to their full extent, and despite its main key (A minor), those melodies, along with the piece’s skipping rhythms, and sensitively orchestrated textures, make it the sunniest of symphonies, putting one in mind, say, of Dvořák’s 8th.
Here, the orchestra was absolutely at the top of its game, clearly revelling in an expansive work by their favourite composer, and under Suganandarajah’s sensitive attention to style, gave it a brilliant first movement full of warm cello passages, lacy violin melodies, well-defined woodwind interjections, and a gloriously blossoming trumpet passage over full orchestra. The second movement wafted in full of airy grace from the strings and bosomy warmth from the winds, and wafted out again shortly after Samson Diamond’s exquisite violin solo. The scherzo has an almost nautical jauntiness to its opening, and this was given a suitable throb from the low strings, but it’s in the slower ‘trio’ section of this movement that the sweetest nut of the symphony is to be found – an utterly alluring lilting melody whose character the orchestra revelled in. The final movement is oddly two-faced: a sonorous, almost Eastern European (back to Dvořák again) tonality alternates with material that’s jolly and English and pastoral. Chineke! took all of this in its stride to deliver a thrilling finale, full of expertly realised swooping harmonies and grand melodies that suddenly evaporated into a satisfyingly quiet close.