There can be few finer shining examples of the quality of Cranleigh’s current music-making than the performance of Sibelius’s Andante Festivo by the String Orchestra under Kevin Weaver. The large Speech Hall audience on May 8th heard a reading of Finlandia-like fervency with violin tone as pure as cold water. The conductor shaped the phrasing with his hands, as well as in rehearsal, and leader Ben Rudolf really demonstrated why that word is used for the head of the first violins. The ensemble showed their flexibility in a piece by the 59-year-old Utah-born composer Jeff Manookian, catching the insinuatingly insistent atmosphere, coping with tricky dance rhythms and impressing in the pizzicato sections.
Manookian is of Armenian descent and the first half of the concert ended with the best-known movement by Armenia’s best-known composer, Aram Khachaturian. Marcus Pashley conducted the Symphony Orchestra (led by Izzie Simpkin) in the famous ‘Adagio’ from ‘Spartacus’. The big tune was first heard on the eloquent oboe of Harry McCagherty and unfolded on the strings with noble tone. This conductor knows how to build and pace a climax, so the reprise was powerfully sumptuous and not drowned out by the brass, as often. The ending was very beautiful, evoking images of the ‘Charlotte Rhodes’ sailing off into the Dartmouth sunset. The orchestra also accompanied Rachel Hurst in the middle movement of Mozart’s bassoon concerto. Here the playing was stylish and Rachel’s tone almost consolatory in effect: a really musical rendering.
The second half began with an ambitious choice of Brahms’s ‘Academic Festival Overture’ and Cranleigh’s other young bassoonists took over from Rachel Hurst, who played contrabassoon. Again it was the quality of the string sound that especially impressed and the whole performance had a confidence that aptly reflected the student drinking song in its finale: “Gaudeamus igitur / Iuvenes dum sumus”. Earlier, the first half of the evening began more solemnly with Zdechlik’s 1971 composition ‘Chorale and Shaker Dance’, played by the Symphonic Wind Band under Ruth Miller. The famous ‘Gift to be Simple’ tune kept threatening to emerge from the complex texture and finally did, on trumpet. The three dozen players were put to the test and emerged with great credit, as they did in a very extended arrangement of Jimmy Webb’s 1967 song ‘MacArthur Park’.
The Concert Band featured some of the youngest of the School’s talented musicians and produced a nicely blended sound under Bob Wilson in the 2003 Secret Garden song ‘You Raise Me Up’; its debt to ‘The Londonderry Air’ was even more obvious without the lyrics. The band were upstaged (literally) in Leroy Anderson’s ‘Sandpaper Ballet’ by the witty sandblock playing of Richard Saxel and guest percussionist (and OC) Tom Hollister. Neither would be successful as a comedy straight man, but the comic and musical timing was impeccable.
As usual, the concert ended with the feelgood factor of the Bob Wilson Big Band and its East House rhythm section, including Harrison White on electric bass and George Wilkinson as the now-established band keyboard player. The ever-popular (and rightly so) standards ‘Come Fly With Me’, ‘Georgia on My Mind’ and ‘The Lady is a Tramp’ sent the audience out into the cool wind (thankfully, not foggy and damp) with spirits lifted and toes warmed by tapping. Notable solos included Noah Frett on trumpet and Ian Lee on trombone.
Cranleigh Voices had segued us into this style with a finger-clicking do-be-do version of ‘Blue Moon’, the 21 singers making a fine sound under Philip Scriven. Another highlight of the evening was the Tippett versions of ‘Steal Away’ and ‘Deep River’. Having a week before heard ‘A Child of Our Time’ in London with full chorus and the LPO, I was rather expecting these a capella re-arrangements to sound, as I usually find them, watered down. But the power of these young voices and the shaping of the climaxes by Philip Scriven gave these pieces an impact and emotional force that was very moving. There was magnificent solo singing from Terri Yoon and Mikey Linford, just two of the many fine musicians in the current UVIth. As always, however, this concert reminds us of the crop of young musicians ready to step into their shoes and this year the smiling face of Tom Hollister also reminded us that music can be for life, not just for school.