Hampstead and Highgate Festival 2007 – Opening Concert

Hugh Wood
Divertimento for String Orchestra, Op.51 [Co-commissioned by Hampstead and Highgate and Presteigne festivals: world premiere]
Ave verum corpus, K618
Piano Concerto No.12 in A, K414
Ave maris stella
Symphony No.31 in D (Hornsignal)

John Lill (piano)

Rebecca Rudge (soprano)

Hampstead Voices

Hampstead and Highgate Festival Orchestra
George Vass

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 9 May, 2007
Venue: St John-at-Hampstead, Church Row, London, NW3

This, the opening concert of this year’s Hampstead and Highgate Festival, was, too, a celebration of George Vass’s 50th-birthday. Vass is the Artistic Director of H & H.

Divertimento is dedicated to Vass, who invited Hugh Wood to compose an inaugural piece for the Festival. It has three movements. The opening ‘Maestoso: Andante, calmo con moto’ busily covered familiar territory. The ‘Adagietto’ held more arresting matter – the straightforward melody was leisurely enough to carry shifting harmonies, almost dark and disturbing – yet ‘accessible’ (the pertinent description for the contemporary pieces of music chosen for this concert). The ‘Allegro molto, feroce’ was vigorous, but the playing lacked ferocity.

Mozart’s “Ave verum corpus” was warm and softly sung – sounding rounded and domestic in this beautiful church, classical in design, marked “1745” over the doorway.

Mozart’s A major Piano Concerto received a stylish performance, aided by John Lill’s great experience and artistry. The tone was elegant and brisk, the rhythms springy and forward thrusting.

A bonus before the interval was a birthday offering. Seven composers had written a piano Variation each on a theme Vass wrote some 30 years ago. Helen Reid amiably performed this variety of works, evincing different personalities and different styles ranging from the pastoral to the angular and self-consciously ‘modern’. We finished with a resounding fugue, after which five of the composers trouped up to greet Vass.

“Ave Maris Stella” was pleasing and, in an approving sense, reverential. Cecilia McDowall is clearly practised in writing music for choirs to sing – music that performers will enjoy singing and congregations enjoy hearing. This is music very conscious of the English tradition of religious choral writing – up to date in that its tone is brisker and lighter than those good, solid works written in the Victorian style. Hampstead Voices sang with round-toned conviction and fervour. Singing from the pulpit, Rebecca Rudge brought resounding and pure tone, agreeable to hear. Altogether this eminently accessible music was both pleasing and uplifting. The composer was in attendance.

The highlight of the evening was Haydn’s ‘Hornsignal’ Symphony. The playing was lithe and assured. Every bar sprang with Haydn’s keen mind and wit and his supple musicality. I delighted, too, in the solo passages – Pauline Lowbury (violin), Kathryn Thomas (flute) and Rebecca Layton (cello). The horns sounded good, too. The Hampstead and Highgate Festival Orchestra sounded completely at home with Haydn.

The concert ended with George Vass offering himself a birthday present. For an encore the strings played Gareth Williams’s version of a Welsh folksong. It was distinctive and sinewy, aware of Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis but holding the acquaintance at a distance. This writing was springy and spare, yet with richness, too. The orchestra gave the piece an agreeable showing, offered with conviction – and most satisfactorily rounding off a pleasing evening and joyous occasion.

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