The ‘Planets for pleasure’ orchestra performance

Ted Heaton

The ‘Planets for Pleasure’ performance - Ted Heaton

I heard of this amateur performance of Brian’s Gothic symphony (part one) in 1984 when a colleague asked if I could supply a copy tape of The Gothic for a violinist known to both of us through our association with a small ad hoc orchestra: ‘She might be taking part in a performance later in the year’. This I did, and asked to be kept informed. I was told about the event at the beginning of September. So, on the afternoon of the 15th, I drove up to St Olave’s School, Orpington, in the company of another Society member, George Winton. We were soon in the company of what appeared to be a motley band of instrumentalists, busy unpacking, tuning up and warming up, who turned out to be a full symphony orchestra who meet once a year to rehearse a large-scale work in the afternoon and perform it in the evening.

To date they have performed Holst’s Planets (hence their name Planets for Pleasure), Mahler’s sixth symphony, Richard Strauss’s Alpine Symphony, and here they were, getting prepared for the three orchestral movements of Brian’s Gothic. When all were assembled, the line-up was as follows:

4 flutes, 3 oboes, oboe d’amore, 2 cor anglais, 4 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 7 horns, 5 trumpets, 3 trombones, 2 tubas, 2 sets timpani, side drum, 2 bass drums, xylophone, piano (celesta & glockenspiel), 2 harps, organ, 10 violins I, 10 violins II, 6 violas, 7 celli, 5 double basses.

The conductor, Marc Fitzgerald, works for the music department of the US Forces Broadcasting services in Berlin. His connection with Brian is that he was a member of the Kensington Symphony Orchestra at the première of Brian’s second symphony in 1973.

The orchestra had a wide age-range from a few young teenagers to some members who were of much more mature years (!) — but the average age, I would guess, was in the 20s to 30s. At the start of the rehearsal, Marc Fitzgerald asked how many members of the orchestra had heard the work and about 15 or so hands were raised. So, some knew a little of what to expect, but for the rest this was to be a sight-reading exercise.

Soon the baton was raised and we tensed ourselves for the dramatic opening bars. Having heard a few amateur orchestras in my time (and some pro and semi-pro!), I had a certain foreboding, which rapidly changed to utter relief and relaxation as I was enveloped in the familiar sounds, played in tune and together. Here, I thought, is that rare band of amateurs, a body that can play new (to them!) music as it is supposed to sound. Even the tricky quintuplet semiquaver passages were tackled with a skill and aplomb which would have been a credit to any orchestra anywhere. At the initial run-through, we went through to the end of the first subject, bar 29, and the chord dissolved into dissonance and silence.

There followed a period of tidying-up one or two scrappy areas and the second run-through continued into the violin solo second subject. Here, one felt slightly less at ease because the violin solo (that rarity, Brian with his heart on his sleeve) was insufficiently prominent. This may well have been the acoustic of the hall (it has a very high ceiling) or that this was the first time I had heard the passage played by an amateur, however talented. The conductor failed here to observe adequately Brian’s clear marking ‘Slow — sad and well sustained’ which gave the following 20 bars a quite uncalled-for jauntiness. (This error was corrected for the evening programme and at the ‘recapitulation’ at the violin solo (fig 19 on) then, the tempo was much better.)

The rest of the first movement was rehearsed in accordance with the tempo markings and the final complete run-through was very satisfactory. Particularly impressive was the horns/trumpets/full brass declamatory passage at 2 before fig 9 leading into the allegro assai. The brass players excelled themselves and the final four chords were electrifying. Although it would be invidious to single out players for special comment, mention must be made of the two timpanists who, from their first entries at bar 3, displayed a confidence and surety throughout the work that boded well for their futures. All the percussionists, indeed, were uninhibited and excellent.

The opening bars of the second movement presented few problems to these players and the first few pages were unfolded in an exemplary fashion. Particularly impressive was the ff string tone at the first appearance of the ‘solemn march’ (1 after fig 34) and it was not until we reached the triplet semiquaver passages a few pages later that problems of intonation and cohesion were encountered and resolved after slow speed practice. In the ensuing section we had some problems with the various sections of the orchestra and these were rehearsed in detail. Then one was able to hear the Brian thought processes at work. Woodwind, brass and string passages normally heard in combination, when played separately at rehearsal present the composer’s palette to the ear as no other situation can: a unique experience, denied to those of us who attended the final rehearsal of part one of The Gothic at the Royal Albert Hall in October 1976, informative as that occasion was.

The conductor’s strong, clear beat ensured that the final few pages of the movement, where the march theme is played on full orchestra (with organ, but not one built to match a symphony orchestra of this size!) ‘with utmost breadth’ was just that: Malcolm MacDonald’s expression ‘granitic splendour’ cannot be equalled as a description of both the music as written and as played by this orchestra at the rehearsal and performance.

On the final run-through, we went straight into the Vivace, the confident timpanist maintaining the steady quaver beat - and the foundation on which the movement is built. By this time, the orchestra was really into the spirit of Brian’s music and was able to play through to the adagio (2 before fig 54) with few problems. Some polishing was required, but we were soon to hear the two harpists setting the scene for the adagio, which was taken steadily and with great insight. At the ‘faster, free and bright’ mark, one could sense that mood on the smiling faces of the violin and viola players in their five-bar rest! The writing then becomes more involved and more searching sectional rehearsals were required. And so to the horn call at 6 before fig 64 leading to harp and piano (substituting for glockenspiel) and to the marcato passage 6 before fig 65, leading to the allegro assai. This was superb. Harold Truscott sums it up perfectly: ‘the effect is magical and haunts one for many a day’ (Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony: Two Studies, p.25). It was, and it did!

And so we proceeded to the Più allegro at fig 72 where one essential requirement is a virtuoso xylophonist. And we had one! I later heard that he had been practising the part for weeks and his efforts were well repaid. This was the fifth time I had heard this passage ‘live’ and the young man concerned can hold his head high: he was as good as any of them. There were, of course, some difficulties experienced by the strings in their rapid descending scale passages, soon overcome, and the pace slackened as we reached the conclusion of the movement.

Finally: the performance in the evening, to which ‘parents and friends’ were invited. An audience of about 35 resulted, and the performance proceeded. Suffice it to say that it reflected the work and effort of the rehearsal and there were only one or two minor blemishes which might have been avoided by a more intimate acquaintance with the work than a three-hour rehearsal had afforded.

That the performance could not have been enjoyed by a larger audience is, naturally, a matter for some regret. But one important objective was achieved. A band of highly talented musicians, some at the threshold of a career in music, had been given a detailed insight into what many of us believe to he one of the great symphonic utterances of the twentieth century. That it should even have been attempted is a cause for astonishment. That it should have been carried through with such panache and distinction and to have been so thoroughly enjoyed by all concerned is a cause for congratulations to all. That this was an afternoon and evening of causing the music of Havergal Brian to impact into the musical consciousness of these musicians there can be no doubt. One can but hope that some future meeting of this highly talented orchestra will be devoted to another large-scale Brian work which members of the Society will be able to attend.

NL57 © 1985 Ted Heaton

Newsletter, NL 57, 1985