Henley Symphony Orchestra (HSO) provided a very special evening on Sunday evening. This was advertised as a gala concert to celebrate HSO’s 50th anniversary and they gave us of their best. Before the concert started, Stefan Gawrysiak (a Henley Town Councillor) paid tribute to HSO, to some of the founder members, a member of the orchestra who was celebrating her 90th birthday that day and also to their remarkable and popular musical director, Ian Brown who has led the orchestra for 25 years. Lots to celebrate! Added to the orchestra’s accolades, we must add their ability to find a superb substitute guest pianist at short notice. But neither the change of pianist or the somewhat diminished audience reduced the quality of the evening or the enthusiasm of the audience. Indeed, the replacement pianist, Kristian Bezuidenhout, a highly esteemed performer, wooed the audience and orchestra alike. He was outstanding.
The evening started with the cheerful and at times, skittish Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture. The piece was written in 1880 as a thank you to the University of Breslau for awarding him an honorary doctorate and was played at the degree ceremony. It incorporated various student drinking songs apparently to the delight of the students. Among the melodies is what later became Catch a falling star which the older members of the audience would have recognised. After a rather uncertain start, the horns and then strings began to warm up and as wind, brass and timpani joined to enrich the performance, the orchestra began to create a suitable lyrical and joyful performance. The overture comprises attractive melodic lines, so there is a danger of being rather episodic but in the highly experienced hands of Ian Brown it was melded into a true party piece.
The second piece, Mozart’s Piano Concerto no 20 K466, a well-loved piece of truly beautiful music, was the treat of the evening. Kristian Bezuidenhout played with a measured manner and lightness of touch that Mozart deserves, but he also conveyed a real depth of feeling with light and shade creating an air of foreboding, cascades of notes up and down the key board and bars of exquisite tranquillity. Following the dramatic and foreboding of the first movement, the second movement, Romanze, brings the dialogic nature of the concerto to the fore with the excellent wind and strings taking turns to create lyrical conversations with the piano. The players showed great control and empathy, never fighting for the lime-light when it belonged to the pianist. It was a real joy. The final movement, Rondo, started with a wonderful piano solo and continued with the music being passed between orchestra and piano, once again performing a measured musical dialogue and climaxing in a triumphant ending. The audience loved it and gave Bezuidenhout a well deserved rapturous applause.
The second half was filled with the musically diverse and much admired Dvořák Symphony no 9 in E minor ‘From the New world’. This maybe the most well known symphony and the orchestra clearly loved playing it. It was as though they were now on home territory. The supposed influences of Longfellow’s Hiawatha, African-American music such as the melody of Swing Low Sweet Chariot and native American influences, often mentioned as in Suzanna Knox programme notes, help to give resonance to the popular title. In the second and to an extent in the third movement the wind again gave consummate performances and the timpani had some pieces of terrific playing. The fourth and final movement was boldly opened by the now confident brass and with the entry of the strings, we were carried forward in haste. The brass were all now in fine form and helped to bring the concert to a majestic finale. Well done Henley Symphony Orchestra.