Time to up the ante in the concert hall

By Stephen Prins

Change is usually welcome. The regular audience for Symphony Orchestra of Sri Lanka concerts was visibly pleased on February 18 to have a new venue to go to, the impressive Musaeus College Auditorium, in Barnes Place. It made a welcome break from the Ladies’ College Hall, in Flower Road, where the orchestra has held most of its concerts over the past 45 years.

The hall is large and air-conditioned, and the tiered seats roomy and comfy. The stage is at least three times as large as that of the Ladies’ College Hall, allowing the orchestra plenty of space to spread itself out, with room to spare on all sides.

The size of the hall, however, may have had something to do with the sound of the orchestra at its recent “German Masterworks” concert. To those in the back row, the orchestra sounded leaner than usual. We heard that this was the first time the hall was being put to public use, and that there may be further fine-tuning on the acoustics. Also, the orchestra may not have adapted to the larger space. If the orchestra has long-term plans with the new hall, it may need to take a fresh approach to sound production and sound projection.

The German masterworks were Mozart’s Overture to The Magic Flute, the Richard Strauss Horn Concerto No. 1, and the Beethoven Symphony No. 5. The conductor was the German music academic, Dr Hans-Jurgen Nagel, who has worked previously with the orchestra, and the soloist was the Hungarian Aron Konczei. Dr. Nagel is active in music, and was a director of the Bonn International Beethoven Festival, and Aron Konczei is a prize-winning musician.

The Mozart was disciplined and tidy, and the easy-on-the-ear Strauss concerto sustained the pleasant mood. Audience expectations are always high with the Beethoven Fifth, which has the most arresting of symphonic openings – four emphatic chords made to thrill and to grab your attention for the duration of the work. On this occasion, however, the orchestra did not quite thrill or grab. We have heard this same orchestra do the Fifth in the past, with rousing effect. Here again, it might have been the hall muffling the sound.

The orchestra was in good form in the encore, Stravinsky’s witty “Circus Polka for a Young Elephant.” The players seemed to enjoy themselves, and communicated their enthusiasm. If they had sounded diffident in the main works of the evening, they let themselves go in the polka, and they played with high spirits. The work did what encores are meant to do – put the audience in good humour before it leaves the hall.

This raises the question whether this orchestra should not be reviewing its programming. Could it be grappling with works best left to an ensemble of wholly dedicated music professionals, an orchestra whose every member makes music for a living and meets daily for rehearsals of up to five, seven hours a day? The Symphony Orchestra of Sri Lanka comprises largely amateur musicians.

The music community here has not reached a level where it can sustain professional musicians. That being the case, would it not make sense to focus on what the orchestra can comfortably deliver, and to everyone’s general satisfaction? The big and great works of the classical symphony orchestra repertoire look good on a poster, but can be a challenge. They demand a solemnity, a fullness and grandeur of sound, and a very high degree of technical accomplishment in every player.

There is no shame in playing minor or lesser known music that is within easy technical grasp. Imaginative programming can put together a concert that has colour, movement, and diversity. The Symphony Orchestra of Sri Lanka is capable of offering a wholly enjoyable evening with a Vivaldi concerto and a Haydn Symphony in the first half, and a choice of not overly challenging Romantic or modern works in the second half.

At the February 18 concert we had guests from Hong Kong. They are regular concert-goers who have played in school orchestras and they know from the inside how an orchestra works. We told them ahead of the concert that the Symphony Orchestra of Sri Lanka was not the Hong Kong Philharmonic, an orchestra made up of full-time musicians. During dinner at the Chinese restaurant ’88, we asked Dr. Chin San Leung, who plays trombone, and his partner Cherie, who plays flute, what they thought of the concert.

“My impression was that the sound was too thin for the size of the orchestra,” said Dr. Leung. “There were 18 violins, but they were not producing the sound of 18 violins. The brass was adequate, but the woodwinds could have been stronger. When you have exposed solo parts, the players need to know their parts backward. Some of them sounded hesitant. They held back.”

Years ago, in the early Seventies, at a post-concert party, the then leader (concertmistress) of the Symphony Orchestra of Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) asked a visiting British music academic what he thought of the orchestra. The visitor said, “Well, if you want my frank opinion, I would say the Colombo orchestra is a notch below a good English school orchestra.”

That was 40 years ago. If to audience members the “school orchestra” element still prevails, then it is up to the orchestra, conductors and players, to do something about it. They can opt for works that are within easy technical grasp of the players, and the players can remind themselves that they each have a responsibility – to put in the necessary hours of practice and come to rehearsals and concerts ready to play confidently, to play in tune, and to play out.

The audience that comes to Colombo symphony concerts is sophisticated and savvy. They listen to classical music CDs, they travel and hear orchestras in foreign lands, and they come to concerts with expectations. There are signs of a coming wave of superior classical music activity in this country, with international partnerships, following on similar waves in the local literary and art scenes. When this happens, foreign orchestras and chamber music groups will be performing here. Our own musicians should be ready to raise the ante – knowing that in time they will be competing with professionals and inviting comparison.

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