Symphony Orchestra Concert – A light in the Dark: a Musical Treat

Henley Symphony Orchestra’s concert on Sunday afternoon at Reading Concert Hall was historically interesting and a musical treat. The programme comprised music ranging over nearly a hundred years but all composed during either personal or politically turbulent times. Schumann’s Manfred Overture, first performed in 1852 and greatly admired by Tchaikovsky, was a great opening piece. This was inspired by Byron’s Gothic poem Manfred with plenty of drama throughout from the bold initial chords, orchestral dark turbulent patches, to the beautiful lyrical stretches highlighted in the wind section, especially the oboe, creating great clarity and beauty.  Byron, was a cult figure among several nineteenth century composers and Schumann’s music reflects the romantic genre of those times. He was suffering from ill health and possibly auditory hallucinations at the time of writing and in part the music reflects his inner turmoil. The orchestra met this challenge of creating light and darkness and presented a bold start to the programme.

The HSO’s wonderful conductor, Ian Brown introduced us to yet another young star, horn player Ben Goldscheider, for Strauss’s Horn Concerto 2. This fiendish piece show-cased the young musician’s virtuosity, managing speedy passages, leaps and great sensitivity complemented by the orchestra’s playing. This is firmly twentieth century music which moved away from romanticism. It was first performed in 1943 during the horrors of the Nazi regime when relatives of Strauss were in a concentration camp. It is extraordinary that, in the midst of turmoil and horror, such a beautiful piece could be composed: a light in the dark.

Goldscheider returned after the interval to play Vinter’s Hunter’s Moon, composed around the same time of the Horn Concerto, a much lighter piece but still presenting exciting playing. Again, Goldscheider displayed his superb musicality as well as great technique. A harp joined the orchestra and together they helped to set the sylvian scene: a light fanciful piece despite the horrors of the war.

A solo clarinet (Julia Goodman) set against a quiet roll of timpani was the beautiful opening for the final number, Sibelius’s Symphony 1.  The music progresses through the four movements with passages of busy strings, great woodwind sections and plenty of melodies, a truly beautiful piece, competently played.  The symphony was composed when the Russian Tsar was attempting to reduce the powers of the Grand Duchy of Finland and first performed 1899. Sibelius, a nationalist, was energised by the political turmoil and we are the beneficiaries. This was an exciting and engaging programme, well chosen and executed:  a fitting programme for our own troubled times.

Susan Edwards