Symphony Orchestra Returns to Perform Beethoven’s Symphony No 9

It was a huge privilege to be at the Henley Symphony Orchestra Sunday night concert on the 13 March, and what a memorable occasion. There was a rousing and solemn opening to the concert with the playing and singing of the Ukraine national anthem. The geographical miles between Reading and Kyiv seemed to melt away, and the power of the music united and uplifted all who heard it. Judy Whittaker, Chair of the HSO, introduced the programme, highlighting the presentation of an enduring celebration of brotherhood and joy in stark contrast to the current plight of a nation in Europe. There was a retiring collection for the DEC fund.

The Henley Symphony Orchestra has now celebrated 52 years together, under the baton of conductor Ian Brown, and staged this magnificent concert almost 2 years to the date of the last HSO Hexagon concert held on the brink of lockdown 2020. I always admire the sheer energy and musicianship of this group of players in concert.

The programme opened with the song cycle by Mahler ‘The Songs of the Wayfarer,  four songs with a range of tone and emotional intensity which Dominic Sedgwick, baritone, sang with great effect.  Singer and orchestra had great connection together.  A song about grief is followed by a lighter mood as the singer muses on the beauty of nature, the third was suitably stormy and wild, and the fourth was a resolution with the resounding heartbeat of the drum, a lovely harp accompaniment and a control which left the audience in a calm and optimistic mood.

The second half was Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 op 125, a work which many musical experts call the greatest symphony ever written. I had not heard the whole symphony in performance.  The effort and the pace, and the colourful and changing moods of the music kept me on the edge of my seat. This work written in 1824 begins with a moody first movement with quivering violins, note sequences and arpeggios which weave and wind, followed by the second, Molto Vivace, a fantastic and dancing scherzo. The whole orchestra was amazing, and there were special highlights in the brass and the woodwind section, and lovely cello and double bass section performances too. Movement 3 the Adagio was very moving, with elegant variations and a striking solo by the 4th horn, which I really enjoyed.  The anticipation built to the 4th movement, as the soloists and choir sang the powerful Schiller poem The Ode To Joy.  Excitement rose as the sopranos reached those incredible high notes, the basses were powerful and determined, and the orchestral melodies of the previous movements returned to call and respond to one another in a wonderful musical pattern. The choir of singers from the Reading Bach Choir, Henley Choral Society and the Glass Ensemble, sang with confidence, and modest numbers of voices sang with great impact.  The four soloists, Eline Vandenheede, Leila Zanette, Glen Cunningham (who are associated with the charity Opera Prelude, supporting young operatic talent) and Dominic Sedgwick ) gave very fine and bright performances. It was a great evening celebrating music and musicianship and, at its heart, there was joy and brotherhood.