Craig Ogden (Guitar), the English String Orchestra, conducted by Kenneth Woods.
Great Malvern Priory, Great Malvern Wednesday 12th February.
Edward Elgar never said truer words than “…the living centre of music in England is not London, but somewhere further north…” True to this day I think, too!
It was a cold and blustery evening in the hill town of Great Malvern, the stormy weather slightly imposing, changing from bright sunshine, to rain, then snow, and back again, all within an hour, as I made my way to the Priory in Church Street. My anticipation was heightened by the programme on offer, and the opportunity of hearing some of the finest musicians in the country. The really great selection of pieces for string orchestra was terrific, some known widely, others new, and starting off with a well known work to audiences worldwide, but in a different guise. So no bad weather was going to put me off as I joined the other members of the audience as we sat down in this marvellous, and ancient, building in the centre of Elgar’s favourite town, and where he wrote some of his most famous works. The town still, to this day, is inspiring to many a music lover.
The orchestra entered, tuned, then was joined by conductor and artistic director, Kenneth Woods. Baton raised, the music begins, and we’re off with the ‘Prelude’ to Tristan and Isolde by Richard Wagner, arranged by composer Adrian Williams. What a fabulous job he’s done, too. At various points in the piece I had completely forgotten the original full score, with its use of brass, woodwind, etc. Although a string work, this arrangement certainly more than fulfils all of Wagner’s original ideas, with both ebbing and flowing, dynamic contrasts, and colouring, a sign of a master craftsman at work here, as Williams spins his musical web around our ears – it’s a true delight, and we look forward to what the whole concert holds for us!
Enter Craig Ogden to join the other musicians on stage in two pieces for guitar and strings. First up, ‘Guitar Concerto in D Major’ by Antonio Vivaldi. This is a very well known piece among audiences and radio listeners alike, as over the years many guitarists have taken up the challenge of this exquisite Baroque work. Originally for lute, the piece works beautifully for guitar, which certainly has a lot more tonal and dynamic contrasts, thus giving soloist and orchestra more chance to extract expressive musical moments from the score. In three movements, Craig certainly warms us all up, his guitar literally singing, and the first movement the conversation between ensemble and soloist was a pleasure to hear. The slow movement took us to another place entirely, as I found myself smiling from one ear to the other, if you know what I mean, as the solo guitar led us into a world of truly superb musicianship. Craig managed to bring a totally warming beauty of expression into this movement, as he played the phrases, delicately, then more powerfully, with control, abandonment, and baroque ornamental flourishes, the balance between orchestra and soloist being perfect, as space was given for ensemble, soloist, conductor to draw the audience into an intimate world of musical beauty. I have heard this piece performed many times, even played it myself, but this was something slightly magical. As I said, beauty of tone from everyone, with Kenneth Woods steering the ship from the rostrum, it was wonderful to see the faces of all the musicians, as well as the audience expressing total delight and pleasure in both player, and listener – a rare event indeed. To finish the concerto, the final movement was taken at a truly cracking pace, never sounding too fast: just the right balance of speed and control from everyone involved showing excellent musicianship from all involved.
Craig went offstage for a moment so that he, no doubt, and we ourselves could draw a breath in anticipation of the next piece in the program: ‘Serenade for Guitar and Strings’ by the wonderful composer Malcolm Arnold. Arnold is well known to many for his film scores and concert hall works in equal measure. But this is a work which definitely needs to be heard in concert more. It is a beautiful score, which is very reflective of both the man, as a human spirit, as well as a composer – it is very personal, and intimate in tone, indeed. Here again, Craig plays with such astonishing quality of expression, as Kenneth leads the strings with stunning direction, it produces a truly amazing auditory experience – not just for me, but I’m sure for the rest of the people there. In one fairly short movement, it left us really wanting to hear more of Arnold’s work, which is always a good thing for a composer.
Craig went off, then returned to sit down, introduce, and play a solo encore by Augustine Barrios Valse No:4 (Op.8). There cannot be many words that I can say about this, really, but ‘wow’ probably seems the most appropriate one. It was a truly astonishing performance, and I remember smiling throughout as he dazzled us completely.
There followed a short interval, in which it was nice to see the audience mingling in obvious enjoyment of the concert, so far, as they smiled, chatted, etc. Then much to everyone’s surprise, Craig returned on stage, joined by an old friend of his, the principal double bass of the ESO, Stephen Warner, who is also a terrific guitarist, who then introduced us to two short guitar duets by: Enrique Granados, and Montes/Kirchner – a real bonus!
Next, and to complete tonight’s programme, we had an absolutely fabulous work by Josef Suk, his ‘Serenade for Strings’. A very fine Czech composer, and violinist, although at times quite sad, and reflective, he was also the son-in-law of Antonin Dvorak, and one of the great composer’s favourite pupils. A work in four movements, this piece takes both musicians and listeners on a terrific rollercoaster of a musical ride, even within each of the movements. I for one don’t envy the conductor who has to direct this stunning work, but as always Kenneth Woods showed his true mettle in producing the very best from his players, and the music at the same time – excellent. In this piece, at times we have reflective melancholy, and others fabulous, rhythmic pulsing. All the while our attention is totally held as the music surely speaks for itself, twisting, and turning. The sheer enjoyment, as well as total musical focus, from conductor and players was great to see and hear. What a fantastic piece of music to finish what was really one of the best designed programmes of music I have heard for quite a while. So, hats off to everyone involved here: Kenneth Woods, the English String Orchestra, and especially the soloist Craig Ogden for a wonderful auditory experience! The players, soloist, conductor all beamed with musical satisfaction, and enjoyment at the end – as did the audience.
The ESO always produce a fantastic programme, and, performed with such an expert insight into each piece, deliver the ideal concert to attend. If you missed this concert, never fear: there are many more coming up, in and around Hereford, and Worcester, and even further beyond this wonderful landscape. So, next time you wish to see and hear a professional orchestra with the ability of enchanting, also persuading you of the beauty of a very wide range of musical works, check their website out for details of upcoming concerts – I certainly am!