Henley Symphony Orchestra’s spring concert at The Hexagon in Reading last Sunday offered the prospect of a rare encounter with the world’s pre-eminent percussionist, Dame Evelyn Glennie, under HSO’s latest guest conductor, Jacques Cohen. Neither disappointed in an enticing amalgam of the unknown and the familiar, including Konzertstück for Snare Drum and Orchestra by Áskell Másson, Concerto for Marimba and String Orchestra by Eric Ewazen, Rossini’s Barber of Seville Overture and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5.
Rossini can lay bare any technical orchestral shortcomings. This performance was therefore all the more creditable with its crisp introduction, controlled crescendos and choreographed closing accelerando. The playing was disciplined and its tricky figures well mastered. The horn principal acquitted himself admirably in the main theme.
This set a quality benchmark which Dame Evelyn Glennie more than equalled. What she achieved in the Másson with two sticks and a snare drum was remarkable ̶ complex permutations of strikes on different parts of the instrument and huge variations in volume. The ability to sustain long crescendos and diminuendos was impressive, especially in the acrobatic cadenza. Her pyrotechnics were complemented by the quality of HSO’s percussion department.
The three-movement Concerto for Marimba was a pot-pourri of accompanying string themes and figures, slightly reminiscent of Copeland. These contrasted felicitously with the gently percussive steel-drum timbre of the xylophone-like Marimba, much of its virtuosic material characterised by arpeggios and wide-spaced chords. The opening cadenza and the slow movement were executed with great subtlety and parts of the last movement were sublime.
In the Tchaikovsky, under Cohen’s rigorous direction, the orchestra again demonstrated its tight discipline, particularly in the brisk Valse movement. The dynamics throughout the work were faithfully observed and Cohen successfully suppressed the sound at critical moments to enable crescendos to develop into full-blooded climaxes. The slow Andante cantabile movement was intense, its central theme played with great commitment by the upper strings, while the horn soloist, woodwind and cello excelled in their various lead roles. The brass and horn sections had much to say in the final Andante maestoso, giving everything they had in the brass fanfare.
The HSO’s annual summer concert under canvas at Shiplake College is on Sunday 28 June. It is a celebration of English music (Coates, Elgar, Bax etc) and aptly billed as ‘In an English Country Garden’.