Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Review: The flawless Woolmer Philharmonic Orchestra

Secret Treasures

Woolmer Philharmonic Orchestra – Civic Hall Feb 20th 2014

By Steve Grimshaw

IN 1784, English natural philosopher, John Mitchell, wrote to Henry Cavendish outlining his ideas on the effect of gravity on light. Among his theories and observations was the suggestion that a heavenly object could be sufficiently massive so as to prevent light from escaping it. He referred to such an object as a ‘Dark Star’, an object we now know better as a black hole.

John Mitchell deserves to be more famous than he is. His paper wasn’t rediscovered until 1970 and by that time other, 20th century, theorists had reinvented his ideas and stolen the fame that was rightly his. Are there any books on the life of John Mitchell? I couldn’t find any, and that’s sad. Over two hundred years ago, when the horse was still the fastest means of transport, there was a man who could imagine black holes. And history for the most part has forgotten this great mind, so that now only a few know the name. He is, for us few, a secret treasure.

At the same time as John Mitchell’s prescient paper, a 28 year old Mozart was hard at work in Vienna, creating music that has caused his name to be, rightly, known to almost everyone on the planet.

The choice of Mozart’s 40th Symphony for the first piece of the evening by The Woolmer Philharmonic Orchestra was a smart decision. Probably the world’s most famous composer and possible one of his most well-known pieces. It set the tone for much of what was to follow, a sort of ‘hooked on Classics’ programme aimed to attract and entertain even the most stubborn denouncer of ‘high culture’.

And a vibrant start it was, acting not just as a bench mark for the popularity of the compositions that followed but also for the skill of the orchestra for the rest of the evening.

The unmistakable folk roots and populist rhythms of Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances quickly replaced Mozart’s graceful passion, and this was followed, in turn, by Smetana’s ‘Vltava’. Probably Smetana is not so well known, but ‘Vltava’ is instantly recognisable and when played well, as it was this night, is akin to having your heart gently infused with beauty.

It’s a hard piece to follow, but Rimsky-Korsakov’s ‘Scheherazade’ featuring Abigail Dance’s masterful violin solo, did it’s best to remove any lingering memories of the Moldau river.

Apparently one of the aims of the evening was to show that classical music could serve as an accompaniment to an evening meal just as much as any jazz or easy-going piano playing. Thus the evening was divided into three ‘acts’ just as the meal was, and Act 2 was, for the most part, given over to British composers, whilst simultaneously acknowledging the fact that this year marks the 100th anniversary of the start of World War One.

George Butterworth sadly died in the war, but left us, among other pieces, the gentle, relaxing ‘The Banks of the Green Willow’ which began the accompaniment to the main course. We were left to ponder the loss of this composer in 1916 and wonder what he might have gone on to achieve, and then of the greater loss of that whole generation.

Vaughan Williams fortunately survived the war, and thus was able to add, in 1920, an orchestra to a violin and piano piece he’d written in 1914. ‘The Lark Ascending’ provided a wonderful showcase for Hannah Woolmer’s considerable talent.

In the year of their referendum on independence I suppose that it should have come as no surprise that a Scottish composer found a slot between the two afore mentioned Englishmen. And so we had, full of national character, MacCunn’s ‘The Land of the Mountain and the Flood’ and with it, possibly, a glimpse into the Scottish soul.

Mendlessohn ended the main course, and took us away from our domestic troubles to Italy, and with his Symphony No. 4 we were almost able to feel the warm Italian sunshine and forget the politics and floods we bear at home.

The end of the evening was a distinctly up-tempo affair and Johann Strauss II featured heavily. Beginning with Vivaldi’s ‘Summer’, the orchestra then went on to get our feet tapping with a Strauss Polka, before we were led on a graceful promenade through the Vienna Woods, again with Strauss. The Sailor’s Hornpipe provided some lighter entertainment before we returned to Vienna for the ever popular ‘Radetzky March’, and the end to a wonderful evening.

The Woolmer Philharmonic Orchestra played flawlessly throughout a long evening and deserve immense praise. More so, when you consider that they had only the day of the performance on which to rehearse. I understand that much was done in preparation via the internet, but it is still an amazing accomplishment and speaks for the professionalism of all involved.

The Civic Hall itself is probably not the best venue for music events, at times leaving the percussion section sounding detached and empty and at others rendering the brass to feel a little strident. This is not the fault of the orchestra and considering the nature of the event, Thurrock leaves you little option… oh for a concert hall with excellent acoustics!

There was the occasional sound of doors closing, or footsteps on the hardwood floor, but not so much as to interfere. Most annoying was the clink of cutlery on china, clearly audible during the quieter solos, but little can be done about that, given aims and the ambition of the Woolmer Philharmonic.

Hannah Woolmer embodies that ambition and the evening should have been a resounding success but for one thing: poor attendance. I would guess that the seats were not even half full, and that is sad.

And this brings us back to John Mitchell, the unsung 18th Century scientist, because Ms Woolmer could well be Thurrock’s own ‘Dark Star’: unseen in the firmament. It was a missed opportunity for the people of Thurrock to witness just what this town could be, and to experience the beauty that one of its own daughters is able to create. Let us hope that one day more people will see the light, but for now Hannah Woolmer and the Woolmer Philharmonic will remain, much like John Mitchell, one of our secret treasures.

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