Grace Notes: An orchestra augmented with Fog Horns and Bass Drums

Last Thursday I took part in a concert with Orchestra Vitae at St John’s Smith Square. It consisted of Shostakovich Festive Overture, Brahms Symphony No. 3 and in the second half, Requiem by Stephen Montague. We had rehearsals leading up to the performance, however getting all the performers together was a problem (especially as the requiem required about 15 extra percussionists, an organist and a whole choir). Therefore, it wasn’t until the day of the concert that everyone played together. Saying that, the result was amazing.

The concert opened with Shostakovich Festive Overture.  This piece was composed in three days (we rehearsed for longer than that!) for the 37th anniversary of the October Revolution. This piece opens with a brass fanfare and transforms  into a fast melody (first in the wind and then the strings). This is followed by a more lyrical passage in the horns and cellos and then reintroduces the first tune over the top before returning to the fanfare and then speeding to the end in a joyous coda. I love this piece. Not only is it by Shostakovich (who is my favourite composer at the moment) but it’s fun to play and is always loved by audiences because it’s exciting and has some fantastic tunes.

We followed that with Brahms’ Third Symphony and I hadn’t heard this piece before.  I had played Brahms’ First Symphony a few years ago and I remember that being very large and grand. This felt a lot more subtle (being the shortest of his symphonies), but still ‘Brahmsian’ especially in the 1st and 4th Movements. It opens with two powerful wind chords and then a string melody heading down in an F major triad. The symphony also ends with this motif, but with pianissimo oscillating strings. I like the cyclical nature of this piece and it feels very complete.

The second half was the highlight of the concert for me. We played Requiem (The Trumpets Calling Them to the Other Side) by Stephen Montague. This had been very hard to rehearse as we were unable to get all of the sections (about 170 performers in total) together until the day of the concert.  This piece was a complete contrast to the first half, as it was very atmospheric and used lots of extended techniques (especially in the strings – such as glissandi, playing behind the bridge and undetermined high notes). The performance begins with bass drums at the back of the hall quietly rolling in (this left the audience puzzling as to where the sound was coming from) and a call and response between an offstage and on-stage trumpet. This then transforms into a folk song sung by a solo mezzo-soprano. There are orchestral interjections around this and the choir begin to creep in. From then on the music grows through the next 25 minutes or so, starting with the chorus whispering ‘Dies Ire’ and growing to shouts from the voices, foghorn blasts, high semiquaver passages from the strings and shrieks from the brass. This then dissolves  quickly down to the ending which represents ‘hovering spirits’ and the last sound you hear is the first violin section thinning down to one player whispering high up on the E string. This received a tremendous response from the audience . I thoroughly enjoyed playing it too as you feel like you’re part of something huge and it’s very exciting. It was such a pleasure to perform this epic piece in such a lovely venue.

Featured image

*Image owned by Orchestra Vitae

Next week I’ll be talking about a Halloween concert I’m taking part in with the National Youth Orchestra of Wales and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales (26th of October in St David’s Hall). Hope to see you then!

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