Westminster Philharmonic Orchestra – Ravel, Michael Berkeley & Vaughan Williams

La valse – poème choregraphique
Michael Berkeley
Concerto for Oboe and Strings
Vaughan Williams
A London Symphony (Symphony No.2)

David Cowley (oboe)

Westminster Philharmonic Orchestra
Jonathan Butcher

Reviewed by: Robert Matthew-Walker

Reviewed: 5 July, 2008
Venue: St John's, Waterloo, London

It is 57 years since your correspondent last entered St John’s, Waterloo, when it re-opened after wartime bombing as the church of the 1951 Festival of Britain. The rich acoustic the building possesses proved to be a fitting backdrop to this well-planned programme, marking the 50th-anniversary of the death of Ralph Vaughan Williams and the 60th-birthday of Michael Berkeley. The concert began with Ravel’s La valse – an unusual opener, perhaps, but eminently suitable in that the work was gestating in the composer’s mind around the time, one hundred years ago, when Vaughan Williams went to Paris to study with the French master.

In this acoustic the Westminster Philharmonic sounded superb, and the overall level of orchestral playing was very high, even if at times – in the opening pages of La valse, for example (always so difficult to bring off satisfactorily) – the lower woodwinds, in terms of internal balance, came across as too loud. But this performance soon got into its stride, building to an impressive account overall.

David CowleyMichael Berkeley’s Concerto for Oboe and Strings is one of the best of his relatively early works. It has worn well in the thirty years since it appeared and received a really excellent performance from David Cowley – a fine player, indeed – although one felt, in the first two movements, that a greater degree of forward momentum would have produced a more inherently suitable expression, and the concluding pages of the work, movingly quoting from Britten’s “War Requiem” at the time of that composer’s death, could have been given with a more extended allargando – in this performance the final bars seemed to arrive almost too soon.

Vaughan Williams’s A London Symphony – thankfully, in the composer’s preferred final version – was superbly interpreted by Jonathan Butcher, and showed this very good orchestra at its best. After all this time the profound influence of Delius’s Paris: The Song of a Great City is still to be heard in what remains, at heart, one of Vaughan Williams’s most deeply-felt early masterpieces. I was impressed at the results Butcher, one of the least demonstrative but most effective of conductors, obtained in this challenging score.

However, sitting at the rear of the church, where the acoustics are best experienced, a succession of 22 latecomers, wandering in throughout the Ravel – and even as late as the second movement of Berkeley’s concerto (35 minutes after the concert began!) – seemed to think it was their right to interrupt the attention of those members of the audience who managed to get to the place on time – not by standing at the back until the piece had finished, or occupying empty seats in the last rows, but by seeking out friends … walking around … and even at one point discussing with their neighbours where programmes could be obtained … getting up … going to the ticket desk … picking up a programme … going back to their seat … finding out from their companion that they did not have their own copy … getting up again … returning to the desk and obtaining a second programme, which they then, upon finally sitting down, handed to their neighbour … thereafter beginning a discussion of Dominic Nudd’s excellent programme notes: and all this whilst the music was being played.

Such thoughtless selfishness, blissfully ignoring the well-being of other people, bordered on the intolerable; if this is normal behaviour on the part of members of this Orchestra’s audiences, then I for one will need a great degree of persuasion before attending another WPO concert.

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