The Orchestra of St Mary’s with Eli Chapman, Soprano -St John’s Hall, Penzance, Saturday September 1st 2018

Nigel Wicken, the Conductor, is well-known locally for his love of bringing to light unfamiliar music. For the first half of the concert this was certainly the case but the second half was Beethoven’s Eroica, certainly not a rarity but attractive perhaps because it was such a seminal work for its time. It is also an enormous challenge for any orchestra.

The programme began with Mozart’s Overture to La Clemenza di Tito, an opera commissioned for the coronation of King Leopold of Bohemia. The opera was condemned by the Empress as ‘German rubbish’ and sank out of sight. This overture, however, was a stirring piece shot through with lovely Mozartian melodies. It began loudly and dramatically before giving way to a quieter theme given to oboe, flute and bassoon. There followed a series of descending scales from the strings, pierced by percussion and brass. A wonderful start that had the audience fully attentive.

Following this was a complete change of pace and mood with Mozart’s Funeral Music, written in response to the death of two lodge brothers at the Masonic Lodge he attended. The C minor key set the tone of the piece, written in the same period as The Magic Flute. After a slow and sombre opening, the woodwind section took over, responded to, in turn, by strings and brass. This call and response motif was used again by solo bassoon, responded to once again by the strings. The little known piece was sensitively conducted by Wicken bringing out its contrasts between light and shade.

A promising opening was followed by three little known Mozartian arias, two of which were written for other composers. Enter Eli Chapman, a young attractive soprano, whose expressive face helped us understand the Italian words of each piece: Alma Grande e nobil core, K578 was written for a comic opera by Cimarosa. Louise Villeneuve, a favourite of Mozart’s who cast her as Dorabella in his Cosi fan Tutte, was the original singer. Chapman moved easily from scorn to a desire for vengeance against a former lover. This was followed by a sadder song, Vado ma Dove? K583, where Chapman expertly showed us her confusion between doubt and hope for the torment heaped on her by her lover. Finally Un Moto di Gioia K579, written as an extra aria for Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro, captured the saucy Susanna’s charm and hope for the future of her love. In all three Eli Chapman showed an impressive range and intelligent communication with the audience.

Without an interval the second half followed: Beethoven’s Symphony No 3, op.55, known as the Eroica. Written initially as an homage to Napoleon – it was originally called Buonaparte – when Napoleon had himself crowned Emperor, the Republican Beethoven crossed out that name, so furiously that his pen broke. He renamed it Eroica which simply means Heroic, and with a viperish swipe at his fallen hero Napoleon, the byword says ‘in memory of a great man.’

This Symphony is an extraordinary work, breaking away totally from the musical traditions of the past with their melodies of music for its own sake and painting a new canvas which conjures up powerful images. With this work the Romantic Age is heralded with works that tell stories or suggest pictures in the listener’s mind. It is in every way a ground-breaking work, even to its length, a mighty forty-five minutes.

The first movement opened with crashing chords and hurrying strings rushing to a crescendo. There was a sense of urgency, interspersed by lovely tunes. The Orchestra of St Mary’s, around sixty musicians, made a vast noise in the decent-sized auditorium of St John’s Hall. Wicken controlled the fever with wonderful contrasts in volume. It is hard work for the strings but, except for one slight moment towards the end of the movement as they belted towards the climax, there was no raggedness in their ensemble playing. Wicken kept the whole thing together extremely well, with clarity and precision in his conducting. This movement succeeded in suggesting the hero off to war in all his pomp, glory and rash pride.

The tragic second movement, where one imagines the death and loss in battle of the hero’s companions, started with sighing strings – again a slightly ragged first two bars – and the sweet plaintive voice of the oboe. This instrument, with its ability to cut through most sound, was very busy indeed in this movement and was played with competence. The middle part of the movement rose to an optimistic climax before returning to the mournful opening theme with the oboe again, adding texture to the strings as they wound to a close.

The third movement arrived as an up-tempo explosion of joy and optimism with its lovely distinctive falling notes, dropping to quiet before the double basses made a firm statement, picked up by strings and finally the whole orchestra. Later it was the French horns that led with a triumphant tune, answered by the soprano woodwind section and building, always building, to a fantastic crescendo. Then once again those magical downward drops brought the whole movement to a conclusion.The final movement began with tiptoing strings and an answering explosion from the rest of the orchestra. It felt like a heroic parade. Staccato notes and swift arpeggios followed against a background of quieter strings. Here the stuttering rhythm sounded as if our hero was on prancing horseback, marshalling the troops. The pretty tune that surfaced now and again was borrowed from Beethoven’s ballet, The Creatures of Prometheus. [Prometheus, the bringer of light to his own creations – Mankind – is of course another Hero who was horribly punished by Zeus for creating beings in the image of the Gods by being hung from a cliff-top where, every day, an eagle came and ate his liver. All this, of course, Prometheus, an immortal, suffered without complaint, as a true Hero does.] Back to the final movement where the lighter rhythms and themes continued until the tempo reduced dramatically and built to a solemn and heroic finale. The final climax was beautifully controlled, ratchetting up the sound gradually, until flutes and bassoons working in octaves heralded the return to a faster final series of blasting chords. Breath-taking!

Of course, however familiar this Symphony is through listening to it on CD or radio, there is just nothing to beat the excitement of a live orchestra. Watching the frenzy of the strings, the total concentration on all the faces of the musicians, the body language of the conductor all adds to the atmosphere. All concerned should give themselves a pat on the back and let’s hope for more from this fine orchestra.

This article was previously published on Lark Reviews.