The Alton Concert Orchestra celebrated its 25th anniversary in style in the Martin Read Hall at Alton College on Saturday 8th April. The choice of venue was appropriate because it had been in 1992 that Martin, the Director of Music at Alton College, became the orchestra’s first conductor. Martin conducted the orchestra from 1992 to 1995, handing over to Graham Cross, who in turn handed over to David Budd in 2006. David is handing over to Chris Gardner in the Autumn. In those 25 years the orchestra has grown in size and capability, and in addition to its own Spring Concerts, takes part in the highly successful annual events, The Last Night of the Proms in the Town Gardens and The Wonder of Christmas at Alton’s Matlings Centre.
The concert began with Smetana’s Vltava, a symphonic poem which depicts the passage of the Vltava river through Czechoslovakia. Starting as a trickle it flows through many scenes including a hunting party in the woods, a wedding feast, the rapids of St John, the noble city of Prague, before flowing away into the distance towards the Elbe. Under the baton of David Budd the orchestra played with expression and colour which brought the music to life, depicting the scenes and the inexorable ever-growing flow of the mighty river. This was followed by two very different pieces by local composer Philip Andrews. His expressive Late Autumn, preceded by Judith Hepper’s reading of William Allingham’s poem which had inspired the piece, was sensitively scored for a small orchestra, has a prominent cor anglais part, played by the orchestra’s long-serving chairman, Chris Leggett. Philip’s second piece sent the audience into the interval smiling quietly to themselves and humming its memorable tunes. It is a piece of pure light music, and its title, Shooting the Breeze well describes its mood.
Chris Gardner took over the baton for the second half, a performance of Tchaikovsky’s mighty Fourth Symphony. Described by the composer as a titanic struggle between the human spirit and fate, the orchestra rose to the enormous challenge of this piece in the most spectacular way. From the opening statement of the “Fate” theme to the exhilarating finale there was scarcely a moment of respite. In the quietest. most expressive moments one could have heard a pin drop and in the loudest, most exciting ones, the audience were most probably pinned to the backs of their seats. There was excellent playing all round and the performance had a cohesion borne of many weeks of rehearsal and private practice. This was amateur music-making at its best, and if the next 25 years live up to the achievement of the first 25 there are some exciting times ahead.
Comments from Chris Gardner:-
In choosing Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony I was aware that it was probably the most demanding piece the orchestra has ever tackled. There is, however, much more to music-making than playing the right notes in the right order at the right time. As an amateur ensemble we do not strive towards a “perfect” performance, but we do strive to achieve more as a group than we can as individuals, to achieve something greater than we thought was possible, and to entertain our audience in the process. I believe we did all those things, in buckets, at our anniversary concert. Music is unbeatable as a communal activity and the health benefits of playing in an orchestra or singing in a choir are now well researched and documented.