de Havilland Philharmonic at Weston Auditorium – Elfyn Jones’s The Journey & Dvořák’s New World Symphony

Elfyn Jones
Symphony No.1: The Journey [First performance of complete score]
Symphony No.9 in E minor, Op.95 (From the New World)

de Havilland Philharmonic
Robin Browning

Reviewed by: John-Pierre Joyce

Reviewed: 8 May, 2011
Venue: Weston Auditorium, University of Hertfordshire, Hatfield

Elfyn Jones. Photograph: Shirley BebbingtonIt is a refreshing experience to encounter a contemporary full-length symphonic work that embraces rather than rejects traditional compositional techniques of Western music. Tonal, melodic and formally structured, Elfyn Jones’s The Journey – which was given its full premiere in the University of Hertfordshire’s impressive Weston Auditorium – is immediately accessible and brimming with ideas. On the downside, there are sometimes too many of them played out at once, and some are not always fully developed. The main difficulty is the very personal nature of the work’s inspiration. In the programme note, the composer was vague about the precise impulses of ‘the journey’, referring to various places, experiences and moods. Some of these were clearly represented in the music. Others were more obscure. For example, the first movement (which had already received an outing by the de Havilland Philharmonic in 2007) boasted some dramatic highs through the wind-swept and rain-soaked Devon landscape. But it never felt totally sure-footed, and the final destination lacks a sense of arrival. The third movement (of four) is the most satisfying. Its musical ideas are better glued together, and the orchestral sound is altogether richer, with some fine contrapuntal writing. Here, the de Havilland Philharmonic also excelled. The sagging strings which had marred the first two movements felt much tighter here, and full justice was done to Jones’s lovely woodwind touches.

Dvořák’s final symphony was an appropriate companion piece to Jones’s first. It too refers to a geographical, musical and emotional journey: the Czech composer’s trip to the United States in 1892. Whether through familiarity with the work or extended rehearsal time, the orchestra (a mix of professionals, students and amateurs) seemed much more at home with this classic. Although a little too fast, the initial Allegro romped along well enough, as did the third-movement scherzo. The second-movement Largo was disappointing. The hushed string opening was a touch awkward, while the famous melody on cor anglais was similarly unsteady. The de Havilland Philharmonic and Robin Browning pulled out all the stops for the monumental finale, with some very fine brass playing – a particular strength of this orchestra.

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