Imperial College's Medics Music Society once again take the to stage a week after their choir concert, although this time showing off their orchestra in the wonderful setting of St. Augustine's Church on Queens Gate, South Kensington. With an exciting and famous programme of music, this concert promised to be a wonderful evening out, and indeed, one was not disappointed.
To open their concert, we were treated to the lively and vibrant overture from Glinka's opera, “Ruslan and Lyudmila”. This opera was first performed in 1842 and was Glinka's second opera. Encouraged by the success of the first (“A Life for the Czar”) he based this on Pushkin's dramatic poem of the same name. However, this was not to have the success of his first and was a failure due to the death of Pushkin, which resulted in the libretto being written by another person and hence lacking the dramatic flair that was needed. The overture is renowned as a technical challenge for the upper strings, and the orchestra sailed through the energetic opening theme with no problems at all - a great achievement! The contrast between the initial opening theme and the more subdued string melody was handled well and special mention should go to all the woodwind soloists who played with feeling and great tone. At each natural crescendo and build in the music the orchestra held their pace and did not run away, which in a piece as complex as this is a credit to them – and to their conductor, Matt Whitaker. The recap of the initial theme towards the end was just as vibrant and expressive as it was in the opening which lead to a superb finale of a wonderful performance of this tricky work. My only criticism here is that perhaps the venue was not entirely suitable, as the long reverberation time of the church meant that some definition was lost in the brass, and in the loudest of sections as the sound clashed slightly with its own echo.
The highlight and headline piece this evening was Grieg's famous Piano Concerto in A Minor (Opus 16). A popular and successful piece since it's premiere in 1869, this is a favourite of radio stations and concerts alike. However, it also makes a refreshing change from the Rachmaninov Piano Concertos. The music takes much from German Romanticism but Grieg also combines some Norwegian folk music. The opening of the piano in fact contains the “Grieg motif” - a descending minor second followed by the major third – and this is used extensively in this piece and many of his other works. This is taken from the folk music.
From the opening motif on the piano, one could tell this was going to be a spirited and charismatic performance by the soloist, third year medic Sarah Woo. Playing since she was 5, she has played in many concerts and won a number of prizes for her performing skills. Tonight's was no exception – the orchestra took 'a break' after the opening of the concert and allowed the solo piano to come through beautifully. The firm but delicate playing of the orchestra only served to enhance the overall performance. Passing through the opening of the concerto (the most well-known section) Miss Woo took on a sensitive yet determined style in order to fully bring out all the expression written into the piece and the church took on a wonderful atmosphere as the music played. The second movement followed very much in the style of the first, where her skill was very much in evidence with the expression in the quieter sections not faltering at all. In the third movement the range of dynamics and control over the piano helped create an excellent finish to the concerto. One must make special note to the playing towards the end of the movement – the beautiful chord progressions sounded absolutely superb. A exceptional performance and one not to be forgotten anytime soon! Hopefully we will see more this partnership between ICSM Orchestra and Miss Woo in future concerts.
After a short interval, we were treated to Brahms' 1st Symphony – a less well known piece but still frequently performed. Dated 1876, it builds upon some of the ideas from Beethoven's Fifth Symphony - it too displays a struggle from C minor to C major and ends triumphantly. The piece is very different to the others from tonight's concert – it is much more dense and contrapuntal and gives a sense of greatness which the orchestra brought across very effectively. Right from the start, the concentration of the orchestra meant that each melody and expression marking came across to the audience – a necessary task for this thick, textured music. This did however suffer a little from the acoustics of the church, sometimes the music turned a little 'mushy' – although not at the orchestra's fault. Nevertheless, the orchestra built towards the finale, and the piece finished off well rounded and was a great performance.
Tonight's concert was as expected, to a high standard, and whilst the orchestra is smaller than Imperial College Symphony Orchestra, this didn't prove to be a problem, and the level of technical ability is surely comparable. Special credit should go to Sarah Woo for a superb performance, and also to the individual soloists on the other pieces. Credit should also go to Matt Whitaker as this was his first local concert as conductor after sucessfully auditioning for full directorship this summer. ICSM Orchestra will return for their next concert in Spring, which I expect will be of the same high standard shown tonight. Well done to all involved!