Review – Spotlight on Strings, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 16th June 2021

Spotlight on StringsIt’s heart-warming to welcome the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra – or at least the string section – back to the Royal and Derngate for their first concert here in over 16 months; yes, who would have known that Dvorak’s New World Symphony on 9th February last year would have marked the last of the RPO’s classical treats for us all this time until it’s just about safe enough to put our (fully-masked) heads above the parapet?

In these uncertain times, it’s impractical (and potentially dangerous) for too many musicians to rehearse and perform together, let alone have a full audience in to enjoy their show. So this programme of three pieces of string music, performed by a group of 25 musicians, is the perfect way to try to reintroduce classical performance to our wounded live entertainment industry.

RPO StringsFor this socially-distanced performance we couldn’t take our usual seats in row H of the stalls but decided to plonk ourselves right down at the front – in any event, an interesting experiment to gauge the difference of sound (if any). Verdict: it’s not quite as rich a sound that you get further back but you do feel like one of the orchestra! Duncan Riddell, the RPO’s regular Leader, was in charge of letting the strings swing in a 75 minute, no interval, programme of music from all over Europe.

In the absence of a proper programme – presumably a Covid Cutback – it fell to Duncan to introduce the first piece. He started to welcome us, but not using the microphone stand on the middle of the stage. “Can’t hear you – use the mic” said someone from behind. So he did, but reluctantly as he said that now that he has used the mic no one else can – one of those Covid rules – and he had intended someone else to use it later. The performing arts are just full of Covid problems!

Duncan RiddellOur first piece was Edvard Grieg’s Holberg Suite, written in 1884 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the famous Danish-Norwegian playwright Ludvig Holberg (err…who??) Originally composed for piano, Grieg adapted it for strings the following year. I confess it was new to me, but it’s a delightful composition in five movements. For the Rigaudon final section, I was expecting something akin to the Norwegian Dance No 2 – or as I know it, Freddy and his Fiddle from the Song of Norway. But no, it was much more like the hornpipe in Pomp and Circumstance. Beautifully done though, with Duncan turning forwards into full performance mode for his virtuoso bits.

Next up was Mendelssohn’s String Symphony No 10, introduced by Principal Second Violin Andrew Storey;  a short, lively piece written in B minor, and all in one movement. Felix Mendelssohn was a bright kid and wrote this String Symphony in the 1820s when he was aged just 14. I thought the guys on the double bass added significantly to this performance, great stuff sirs!

RPO1-300x200Our last piece – the Headline Act if you like – was Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, introduced by (I think) Jonathan Ayling, Co-Principal Cello. It’s a wonderful 1880 composition, in four movements. It starts with a Sonatina style piece in homage to Mozart; then a well-known waltz is the second movement, an Elegie follows, and finally an ending that borrows from some Russian folk tunes. Allegedly Tchaikovsky liked this to be played by as large a group of string musicians as possible, but I’m sure he would have been thrilled to have these 25 players giving it their all as they did. It was absorbing, luscious and exquisite.

As a thank you for coming, they generously gave us an encore – the slow movement from Elgar’s Serenade for Strings. Hugely entertaining and a great return, the audience were thrilled to have the orchestra back, and the orchestra seemed to be thrilled to have the audience back. Win, win! It felt safe, comfortable, friendly and intimate – the personal chats from the individual musicians were a really nice touch that more than made up for the lack of programme! Above all, it was a great privilege to witness the return of the Royal Philharmonic to the Royal and Derngate. They are back again next Wednesday with The Music of Bond. We can’t be there, sadly, but that shouldn’t stop you!

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