Sunday, 31 May 2020

Saxophone star made it look easy

Henley Symphony Orchestra | Henley Festival | Saturday, July 13

THE Henley Symphony Orchestra performed on the Floating Stage for the first time last year, and this midday concert under the baton of their music director Ian Brown was their most welcome return to the venue.

The weather co-operated for this largely outdoor event — warm and dry with only a faint breeze trying to upset the sheet music anchored to music stands with clothes pegs.

The programme on offer consisted of three popular romantic heavyweights — Sibelius (Karelia Suite), Wagner (the overture from Tannhäuser), and Tchaikovsky (Romeo and Juliet), contrasted with two lighter works — the G Minor Violin Concerto by JS Bach transcribed for soprano saxophone, and Darius Milhaud’s witty Scaramouche, in a version for tenor saxophone.

The concert got off to a poor start when the orchestra’s normally ultra-reliable horn section floundered through the wonderfully mystic opening bars of the Karelia Suite with problems involving dynamics, balance and pitch. The audience visibly stiffened. Things could only get better — and did.

But all three of the romantic heavyweights suffered the same ultimate fate — they are all very dramatic works that can easily peak too early, thereby running out of steam.

For example, the “Alla Marcia” from the Sibelius suite could have benefitted from a lighter touch initially that rose to a single point of climax towards the end.

At their recent concerts in Reading the HSO has demonstrated excellent discipline in this regard. Possibly the acoustic demands of playing in an amplified tent make it difficult to achieve the right effect.

The highlight of the event was undoubtedly the Bach violin concerto in a transcription by its performer on this occasion, the renowned prize-winning saxophonist Huw Wiggin.

The transcription itself was no mean achievement, accurately preserving all that is best about the Bach original while also providing a truly demanding challenge for the virtuoso performer.

Ian Brown conducted the sensitive orchestral accompaniment from a keyboard, adding crispness to the texture and ensuring that the orchestra kept in step with the soloist’s high flying act, which was as fascinating to watch as it was to listen to.

Huw Wiggin returned to the stage later to perform Milhaud’s exhilarating romp, Scaramouche — a work originally written for two pianos but best known in the version for tenor saxophone and orchestra.

The technical demands of this spirited work are impressive, with no regard for the soloist’s need to breathe occasionally.

Huw tossed it off without any apparent effort and came out smiling at the end of it to prolonged applause. The concert ended well with a sprightly performance of one of Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances.

Some more of them, or perhaps some of Brahms’s Hungarian Dances, played as substitutes for one or more of the “heavyweights” might have given the audience a more relaxing and varied programme to whistle to on the way home.

John Burleigh

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