Westminster Philharmonic Orchestra – Bernstein, Schumann, Elgar

On the Town – Three Dance Episodes
Cello concerto in A minor, Op.129
Symphony No.2 in E flat, Op.63

Joseph Spooner (cello)

Westminster Philharmonic Orchestra
Jonathan Butcher

Reviewed by: Andrew Maisel

Reviewed: 24 January, 2009
Venue: St John's, Waterloo, London

Amateur orchestras have a tendency to surprise you when you least expect it. The commitment and passion of the musicians often compensates for the relative technical shortcomings. The Westminster Philharmonic, one of the leading amateur bands in London since the seventies, proved that point with a performance of Elgar’s Second Symphony that just showed what these musicians could do under the right circumstances.

Jonathan ButcherUnfortunately, the Leonard Bernstein selection exposed the weaknesses of the players in repertoire it seemed uncomfortable with, and in a performance that sounded under-rehearsed. This is music that it supposed to reflect the wide-eyed excitement of three sailors on shore-leave in New York City. Bernstein’s high-tempo jazz syncopation captures that mood perfectly, but the WPO was distinctly hesitant and unexcited, the ‘Times Square’ episode particularly lacking the sleazy, burlesque strut of a city in full flow.

The next work was better, much better. Schumann’s Cello Concerto is a curious work, ripely romantic yet quite dark and often introspective. Joseph Spooner took the reflective route, allowed the freedom to roam and explore the work by the relatively spacious tempos set by Jonathan Butcher. There was richness and eloquence to Spooner‘s playing which was never anything less than engaging and helped by the subdued but sympathetic accompaniment of the WPO. There’s certainly a sense of melancholy here (and a hint of the Elgar to follow). Only in the finale did things begin to unravel when Butcher failed to keep up momentum and tension subsequently dropped.

If the Bernstein had been scrappy, the Schumann very acceptable, then the Elgar was pretty fine. It was instantly apparent from the sense of rightness in the opening, and the beautifully caught ebb and flow of the kaleidoscopic first movement, that this was the work that the WPO had put all its heart and soul into. Sure, the strings sounded a little thin at times and the brass a little fruity, but this did little to detract from enjoyment. Butcher must take a lot of credit for steering the orchestra through the choppy waters of tempo changes and rapidly altering themes while retaining the work’s emotional core. The build-up to the anguished climax in the second movement was spot-on; it was just a shame that the final outburst lacked the gut-wrenching poignancy it really needed. The scherzo had the orchestra in a bit of trouble, for although Butcher paced it to perfection, the WPO was seemingly unable to keep up and a rather disjointed mess ensued.

Luckily the wheels went back on for the moderately-pace finale. Once again, Butcher had the measure of the music, never pushing too hard, with tempos well judged, and was able to capture to perfection the wistful and sorrowful feelings. Here the orchestra played its heart out, the strings sounding finer that they had all evening, balances spot on, to complete a performance that was deeply felt and played with real heart.

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