An English Afternoon

To Birmingham on Wednesday (‘Obama Day’) for another concert by the City’s excellent Symphony Orchestra, in their resplendent Symphony Hall. I had booked the concert some time ago because of my great respect for its conductor, Vernon Handley whose unostentatious manner on the podium revealed his dedication to music rather than to style. I have only seen him conduct once, many years ago, but have several of his recordings, notable amongst them a magnificent performance of Elgar’s second symphony which I have been listening to.

Sadly Handley died last September. Following a car crash he had been severely injured, but it didn’t stop him performing, also true of his frequent ill health, and continued to conduct, remaining a favourite of both audiences and orchestral players. He recorded more British music than any other conductor: out of 160 discs, more than 90 are of British repertoire, including many premieres.

Wednesday’s programme, characteristically, was of British music – a tone poem by Granville Bantock (whom Handley virtually re-discovered), Elgar’s cello concerto, and Vaughan Williams 5th.

Symphony, all brilliantly played by the orchestra under its excellent substitute conductor, Martyn Brabbins with a sensational French cellist, Anne Gastinel. It was preceded by a talk from one of the C.B.S.O staff, enthusiastically introducing the symphony.

I have confessed on these blogs before that I find V.W.’s music hard going. I appreciate how the composer was influenced by English folk and church music and value his craftsmanship and the different voice he brings to each of the nine symphonies. But amongst English composers I find an easier connection with William Walton, Benjamin Britten, Edmund Rubbra – even Malcolm Arnold – than with Vaughan Williams. (And Elgar, of course.) But the Symphony was beautifully presented on Wednesday and the great slow movement inspired by John Bunyan’s ‘Pilgrims Progress’ was deeply moving, challenging my reservations.

I shall listen to my recording of the work with a new ear. Meanwhile – another concert next week, in Bristol, with another favourite orchestra, Manchester’s Halle.


….. Because of the significance of the U.S. presidential election, I suggested to one or two people in the Hall that it might have been a good thing to start the concert with ‘The Stars and Stripes’. The only response was weak smiles and a fearful glance that they might be dealing with a dangerously deranged man. Ah well.