Review: Hateful is the dark blue sky


ANYA McRAE: Violin Soloist
CAITLIN DIVER: Trumpet Soloist

Friday 2nd November, 2018 

Review by Alan Cooper:

The King’s Philharmonic Wind Orchestra is an auditioned ensemble based in Aberdeen open to all professionally-aspiring musicians. It presents a challenging repertoire of opera and orchestral classics, wind orchestra originals, as well as premières of commissioned compositions. The orchestra is dedicated to provide young composers with the opportunity to write for a large wind ensemble and to work with emerging solo artists. All of these ideals were very well represented in their 2018 Autumn Concert on Friday.

The patrons of the orchestra are Margaret Carlaw and Professor Derek Ogston. Their President is Professor Paul Mealor and Dr Robert Lovie is their Vice President.

Although it bears the title of Wind Orchestra, at Friday’s performance there were three cellists and a double bass player in the line up. They added a special rich smoothness to the orchestra’s sound blend.

Looking across the members of the orchestra, I recognised many first class musicians from previous university ensembles. There were star percussionists Brodie McCash and Peter Ney, the marvellous Ben Light on saxophone as well as Joe Stollery, composer as well as performer. On flute and piccolo there was Kirsty Campbell, with Sam Paul on French Horn and George Stokes on trombone. Nearly forty players in all directed and conducted by Tobias Wolf whose prowess as a conductor comes from studies in Germany and all across Europe. We were in good hands and indeed the sound of the band in full cry, as it were, was absolutely fabulous – rich, resonant and rare. The various sections of the orchestra were individually superb too. We were in for a truly sublime evening of great music – and so it turned out. I left the Butchart after the concert with a real spring in my step and at my age, that means a lot.

The overall title of the concert “Hateful is the Dark Blue Sky” comes from a line in a poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson used by Michael Merrill, one of today’s composers, from his Mariner Songs for Chamber Wind Ensemble. We were to hear this as the third performance in the concert. It was just one of today’s commissioned works by emerging composers played along with a selection of German Music ranging from J. S. Bach to music by the Film Composer Hans Zimmer and the popular songsmith Bert Kaempfert.  When I was a student you would not have got away with a programme like that but I am delighted that nowadays you can. There is only good music and bad music. It does not matter what part of the repertoire it comes from and today’s works were all most definitely the very best of their kind. Also, when I was a student writing music with tunes and consonant harmonies was a capital crime. I am so glad this is no longer true and all of today’s works were shining examples of tonal consonant music, something that made the concert a spine tingling pleasure to listen to.

The programme began with two marches very much in the German style. Fliegermarsch by Hermann Dostal (1912) was light and melodically positive with a bouncy rhythm that in this arrangement by Siegrfied Rundel, Tobias Wolf managed to pass over at full value to his players.

The Dramatic March Fantasy in a minor op. 69 (2016) by Rolf-Michael Steitz was a commission from Tobias Wolf. Darker than the first piece with strong playing by horns and trombones then scurrying playing by flutes and clarinets, it led to a passage introduced by tubular bells that quoted the Dies Irae before moving on to a ‘marche grotesque’ that was actually rather jolly. I was reminded of the Danse Macabre by Saint-Saens or even the finale of the Symphonie Fantastique by Berlioz only for the imaginative spirit of these pieces. This was no copy or pastiche it was all Steitz’s own work.

Hateful is the Dark Blue Sky followed by Beyond the Sea by Michael Merrill began with a startling cymbal clash leading to rich full orchestra. Merrill’s composition, commissioned by Professor Derek Ogston showed a real mastery of orchestral colour. Beyond the Sea had a lighter texture with flutes and clarinets and tuned percussion featuring fine playing by Brodie McCash and Peter Ney.

To Morning for Wind Ensemble was another Tobias Wolf commission this time from Thomas F. Stearn. A resetting of a choral work, it still had the imprint of its background. It was conducted by Cade Terence Strathern.

There were two pieces in the concert by Thiemo Krass both of which were based on popular German folk tunes. They were both very attractive. In the first, entitled Lignum, there were particularly fine clarinet solos played by Struan Simpson oh, and I loved the whooping French horns.

The first half of the concert ended with another jolly German March, Berliner Luft by Paul Linke. All I needed was a stein of beer to swing along with this great music.

The second half of the concert opened with Tobias Wolf’s own transcription of the fanfare that opens Also Sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss. Brodie McCash was fantastic on the timpani.

Rebecca Taylor’s The Final Stand of Time (2018) another Tobias Wolf commission, was receiving its World Première. Rippling opening on woodwinds, attractive melody and jaunty rhythms were delivered with marvellous orchestral colour. Tobias called Rebecca forward to receive her applause after the piece. I have never before seen a composer so happy. Cheers Rebecca!

Another piece by Rolf-Michael Steitz was his Desire for Solo Violin and Gala Ensemble (2016). The soloist was Anya McRae. What we heard of her was beautiful but for much of the piece she was swamped by the orchestra. Next time perhaps a bit of amplification for the soloist would work better. These days this can be done unobtrusively.

Cade Terence Strathern once again took over the baton for Themes from The Last Samurai (2004) by Hans Zimmer. This went down particularly well and afterwards, Cade looked every bit as happy as Rebecca had done.

Hungarian Dance No. 5 by Brahms in another Siegfried Rundel arrangement sounded fantastic with this orchestra. Caitlin Diver on trumpet held her own with the orchestra in a fine Bert Kaempfert arrangement of a medley of four of his ‘greatest hits arranged by Steve McMillan.

I have left until last the two special solo performances – one in each half of the programme. In the first half, virtuoso cellist Ignasi SoléPiñas who also plays in the orchestra and is a Lower Strings Musician at Sistema Scotland performed twoSarabandes from J. S. Bach’s solo cello Suites, first from Suite No. 1 in G major, BWV 1007 and then from Suite No. 5 in c minor, BWV 1011. My goodness, he certainly made his cello sing out beautifully in both. The minor Sarabande was emotionally powerful and passionate.

In the second half, concert pianist and University piano tutor Joseph Fleetwood standing in at very short notice for William Gray who had hurt his hands gave a strong romantic performance of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 8 in c minor Op.13. The first movement was powerfully dramatic. He made the melodies in the second movement sing out from the piano but best of all I enjoyed the clean clear and incisive playing of the final Rondo allegro.

This was a first rate concert. It was being recorded to be streamed live to an audience in Germany. I hope they enjoy it as much as I did.
(Alan Cooper)

EnglishTobias Wolf