Hull Philharmonic Orchestra – Review – Hull City Hall 2019
By Karl Hornsey, December 2019
The Hull Philharmonic has long held a reputation as one of the leading amateur symphony orchestras in the country, and the latest of their concert seasons got under way this week at Hull City Hall, under the baton of Andrew Penny. The conductor has just three more of these seasons to go before he retires from his position as musical director of the Hull Phil in May 2022, and this opening programme focused on pieces by two of the leading composers of the 20th century – Edward Elgar and Igor Stravinsky.
In fact it was something of a Stravinsky sandwich, with the Russian’s ‘Firebird Suite’ played in between Elgar’s ‘Cockaigne and Violin Concerto’, the latter of which featured the sublime talents of soloist Callum Smart. Cockaigne was effectively Elgar’s ode to London life and something that the composer needed to lift his spirits following the initial failure of ‘The Dream of Gerontius’, which brought him right back down to earth after the remarkable success of ‘The Enigma Variations’. So it was that Elgar composed his jaunty, playful and humorous Cockaigne, complete with the sounds of church bells, a military band and a triumphant organ to finish. It certainly brought Elgar back to life and was beautifully played by the Hull Phil as a delicious little intro to what was to come.
While Elgar was at the height of his powers and used to international recognition, Stravinsky was just starting out in a career that was to prove wonderfully productive, and the ‘Firebird Suite’ went a long way to launching Stravinsky into the view of the public at large. The ballet score is based on Russian fairytales and folklore, lending it a light air (after a fairly dark introduction), as the Firebird battles evil in order to free a number of mythical beings from their captivity. This adaptation was essentially a ‘best bits’ package of the full 50-minute score, and special mention has to be made to the woodwind section, and the flutes in particular, for their part in depicting the Firebird’s rise and ultimate success.
The final piece of the evening saw a return to Elgar and his Violin Concerto, which is regarded as one of the most challenging for the soloist to perform. Fortunately, the orchestra was joined by one of the country’s finest talents in Callum Smart, no stranger to the Hull City Hall, who has garnered a blossoming reputation over the last decade, since first coming to prominence at the age of just 13. Quite marvellously, Smart has studied the concerto specifically to perform it for the first time in Hull, and his work paid off over the course of three movements and around 50 minutes on stage.
The opening movement is fast, but also rather notable for the fact that the soloist doesn’t get involved for quite some time, letting the orchestra paint the initial picture, before finally unleashing himself on the piece, and remaining heavily involved for the rest of its duration. There’s the contrast of a slow second movement, before the pace is stepped up again for the finale, which was special enough for any number of requests for Smart to return to the stage and take his very well deserved applause from the audience.