St Cecilia Orchestra

Ripon’s renowned St Cecilia Orchestra is much more than just an orchestra.
At its most spectacular it is an exceptionally fine and very large symphony orchestra, often working with top class international soloists and capable of giving high-quality performances

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Concert Reviews

An enthusiastic audience greeted the St Cecilia Orchestra for their Summer Concert on Saturday 22nd June at Holy Trinity Church, Ripon. 

First on the menu was Bach’s 6th Brandenburg Concerto in which the crisply articulated playing of the small ensemble of lower strings and harpsichord let Bach’s music (at  various times joyous, tender and roistering) flow with ease.  Despite the relatively dark timbre of this instrumental combination the balance between forces was well maintained and the contrapuntal weavings of the concertino players - Katie Jarvis and Josephine Wells (violas), Hilary Dexter (cello) - danced lightly above the steadily throbbing ripieno, welded together by the hugely important yet oft neglected continuo section.  The first movement may have benefitted slightly in clarity in that acoustic if taken a notch slower, but otherwise the tempi were well chosen and the whole was a thoroughly enjoyable performance. 

In his Serenade No. 2 Johannes Brahms demonstrated that despite being only 26 years old he was already the master of his musical language.  In this light work in five movements Brahms - ever the Classicist - follows the form of Haydn’s early serenades  (a slow movement framed by two minuets, the whole within two fast movements); however,  here  Brahms - ever the Romantic - replaces the first minuet with a Scherzo and the second with a movement entitled “Quasi Menuetto” (ie like a minuet); it is however dance-like in character.

The ensemble of wind and low strings gave an engaging performance of this elegant music. With dynamics ranging from the quietest pianissimo to an overwhelming fortissimo and a tonal palette that matched magnificently the breadth of Brahms’s colourful vision, from rich and dark to the most delicate sonorities. The ensemble led us on a thrilling journey from the more serious first movement, through the thigh slapping country dance of the Scherzo, to the rumbustious final “ländler” Rondo  with its rousing hunting horn calls and sparkling piccolo.

Richard Strauss’s 1911 comic opera Der Rosenkavalier harks back to the heady days of late 19th Century Vienna. Overflowing with effervescent waltzes and charming melodies, Strauss’s distinctive voice is nonetheless clearly audible in his complex chromaticism and harmonic language.

Nigel Shore’s 2020 suite for wind ensemble draws on the music of Strauss’s opera to create arri of melodies in three ”Acts”. This work calls for considerable virtuosity and massive endurance from all players (lasting some 50 minutes in performance the score itself is over 350 densely packed pages; I put it on our kitchen scales and it kicked in at a hefty 2Kg!); it is testament to skill of all the musicians that they made light work of its twists and turns giving a spellbinding performance that delighted the audience: we were thrilled by blistering “helden” horn calls, tender melodies exquisitely rendered on the oboe, filagree clarinet and flute textures,  and deliciously fruity sonorities from bass clarinet and contrabassoon. The complex threads of this epic work were masterfully tied together by conductor Xenophon Kelsey bringing to a close a most enjoyable evening of great music. 

Tim Harrison

A healthy audience gathered at Holy Trinity Church for a summery programme of Essential Classics, performed by St Cecilia Orchestra under the baton of Xenophon Kelsey.  Rossini's 'Silken Ladder' Overture opened proceedings, with its mischievous, ubiquitous scales well played by the strings but particularly by oboist Alexia Owens.  The opening allegros were a little nervous in starting, which took a sliver of humorous sparkle off the end product, but the performance set the tone for the evening through careful balance between strings and winds, in ensemble but most impressively in dialogue.  The trademark 'Rossini crescendos' were exciting and the final note delightfully to the point, not outstaying its welcome by so much as a gnat's crotchet.

Violinist Danny McCann-Williams (a former leader of the orchestra) and violist Katie Jarvis then teamed up for a graceful account of Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante, in a telling reminder of what the ensemble can produce from within its own ranks.  They were unanimous from their first octave leap together, relishing the musical conversation with well-matched singing tones and masterfully duetted cadenzas.  The orchestra impressed as accompanist, particularly in its own conversational dialogues; occasionally the solo viola was overshadowed by the winds, but the latter also gave delicious colouring to Mozart's harmonies and warmed the crescendos effectively.  The strings' pizzicatos were crisp in the Allegro maestoso, while the lower strings gave a noble underpinning at the start of the Andante; if it took a page or so for this movement's pulse to feel truly in three, the strings as a whole were gently sonorous and the general sforzandos finely judged.  The Presto was crisp from the very start, full of energy and humour, with pleasing interjections from the winds.  The intricate dynamics were very well executed and the joyful energy maintained until the very end.

Beethoven's Symphony No. 2 followed the interval, with trumpets and timpanist Ian Matthews giving tasteful reinforcement to the composer's many accents.  The first movement's introduction, once settled, showed nobility, building tension steadily until the Allegro first subject breezed in; the second subject was coloured by a wonderfully earthy combination of clarinets, bassoons and horns.  As throughout the evening, the qualities of dialogue and balance were particularly accomplished, while the many accents and sudden dynamic drops made excellent virtue of this venue's drier acoustic.  In the Larghetto, one of Beethoven's longer slow movements, the orchestra held the thread of the music with a steady grace, Kelsey placing the corners exquisitely and his players finding a sublime degree of ensemble.  The Scherzo had energy and wit, crucially maintaining the pace through the subito fortissimo eighth bar, although the exposed passage work preceding it only truly settled in the Da Capo.  That said, the strings' and flutes' quavers were thrilling, as were the driving crescendos later on.  The woodwind's ensemble was excellent in the trio, maintaining the sense of dance, while the dynamic drop at the end of the Trio was delightfully cheeky.  Once the 'hiccuping' main theme of the Finale found its stride, the natural humour flowed effortlessly.  Highlights of this movement included the organ-like chords of the woodwind and staccato arpeggios from Charles Miller on bassoon, while the momentum was kept gloriously to the end - matching the Rossini with a wonderfully unpaused final chord.

T. H.

Horn players raise the roof of Ripon Cathedral!

On Saturday 22nd April, St Cecilia Orchestra joined forces with the Horns of Opera North for a spring concert of Horns and Heroes, dedicated to the memory of Baroness Masham of Ilton, late President of the orchestra.  Xenophon Kelsey's characteristically deft programming combined Tchaikovsky's well-loved Romeo & Juliet Fantasy Overture, Schumann's rarely heard Konzertstück for four horns and Strauss' monumental Ein Heldenleben.

The low lighting in the cathedral made for a rather dramatic setting for the Tchaikovsky: the ensemble was tight from the very first chords, leading into resonant pizzicato strings beneath dreamy woodwind chords, both leaving enough room in the texture for the harps.  The crescendo was exciting; the Allegro's rhythms were strikingly unanimous all the way to the razor-sharp percussion at the back, although a little of the attack was lost in the acoustic.  The famous 'love' theme, introduced by the cor anglais with a full, rich tone, was played throughout with relish by an orchestra which needed no second invitation to latch onto its Rachmaninoff-like qualities - following its Piano Concerto marathon last October.  Given the programme's title, it feels a little churlish to suggest that the horns were occasionally a little too prominent, though - to be fair - only when the composer decided to give them accents in an accompanying passage.  However, the bassoons' blending with the lower strings was superb, while the final pages were soaked in a powerfully Russian depth.

There can't have been too many concerts in the cathedral featuring thirteen French horns.  The four soloists - Alex Hamilton, John Pratt, Sam Yates & David Tollington - played as one 'super' instrument, trading phrases effortlessly and displaying impeccable ensemble in the chordal passages.  Given the full building, the lower notes didn't always carry quite as far as the rest, but the (notated) top E was stunning, as were the bravura passages towards the end; moreover, Schumann's copious dynamics and articulations were scrupulously observed in a committed and sublime delivery of the composer's message, from the semiquavers to the dolce writing in the Romanze.  Meanwhile, the orchestra was the perfect accompanist, finding the precise balance to support the soloists yet let them through. From the blinding light of the opening chords, Kelsey's players immediately found a new set of colours to contrast the Tchaikovsky; a highlight was the crystalline flutes and piccolo, whether atop the orchestra or crowning the horns - both in perfect time.  The Sarabande Romanze quickly settled into its graceful step; the transition to the finale was masterful, the fortissimo interjections displaying punch while maintaining the thread of the music and preparing for the joyful rhythms - whose attack this time did travel fully down the Nave.

After the interval, the audience settled down to Strauss' 50-minute tone poem Ein Heldenleben.  From the off, this performance was marked by clarity of texture and rhythm, yet with all of the sumptuous warmth required.  It isn't possible to do justice to all the delights offered, but The Hero was full of nobility and grandeur, the clarinets making a fine job of the early fireworks, while the Adversaries, in their woodwind cacophony (and pedantic tubas), made it virtually impossible not to feel sympathy for the dejected theme.  For the Companion, Richard Fletcher gave a breathtaking account of the fearsome violin solo (balanced well by first the accompaniment, later by the oboes in duet), while the harps' intricate writing came through beautifully.  The trumpets' fanfares were chilling when launching the Battle, the percussion's advance thrilling, yet all the contrasts of texture were kept wondrously clear throughout the forest of extended virtuosity, with all of the brass able to pierce through, laser-like, whenever required.  When the full orchestra took up the relentless battle rhythms, the effect was terrifying.  Kelsey's superb command of pacing allowed the recapitulation to be the welcome homecoming of the hero's theme, while the triangle made a very pleasing appearance in Strauss' self-quoting Works of Peace, whose untroubled flow felt like a vast, serene river.  Though the music may fade gradually away from this point, the Hero's Retirement still finds taxing demands to inflict upon its performers, yet the orchestra was heroically up to them all, maintaining perfect clarity as the strings, then percussion, then wind and brass melted into the night.  All performers deserve the highest praise: this was a stunning performance and a privilege to attend.

TH

 

On Saturday 28th January, St Cecilia Orchestra treated a large, appreciative audience to a delightful programme of Dance, Drama and Romance at Holy Trinity Church, Ripon.

Richard Strauss' youthful and Mozartian Serenade for Thirteen Winds made for an elegant, gentle opening.  The ensemble settled quickly, with the texture admirably framed by the flutes at the top and 'honorary wind' Andy Devine on double bass, with Catherine Hewitt bringing nobility to the melodic moments written for Strauss' hornist father.

Jean Sibelius' incidental music for Pelléas et Mélisande would have benefitted from more strings to balance the winds and percussion, but those present (already working in a very tight space) still provided this orchestra's customary rich tone, particularly in the muted passages.  Sibelius' imaginative colourings were showcased by Alexia Owens' cor anglais solo, the clarinets' duet and the violas' spinning wheel - the latter expertly treading the fine line between latent menace and swarm of bees.  Woodwind upbeats sometimes lagged a little behind the strings, but the extraordinary seashore music made a deep impression, as did the searing melody of the final movement shortly before the mournful end.  The various moods and tempi were kept under neat control by conductor Xenophon Kelsey, particularly the sudden time changes in the second movement.

After the interval came the short, sweet and spicy Romanian Folk Dances, a collection of dance melodies collected and efficiently dressed for concert use by Béla Bartók.  It started - and startled - with a ravishing blend of violin and clarinet, impressively synchronised in an evocative rubato swagger, which continued more gently in the second dance.  Clare Graves' piccolo and Richard Fletcher's violin solos then provided mysterious and romantic turns respectively, before the rollicking good fun of the final sequence was relished by all.

The concert ended, as it began, with a 17-year-old composer writing after his peers - in this case Mozart who, in his Symphony No. 25, learned from Haydn the art of G-minor, Sturm und Drang and relentless tightrope horn writing which put St Cecilia's heroic quartet through its paces.  A personal thought - admittedly from someone who didn't have to play all the semiquavers - was that the lighter touch of the last two movements would have served the first two as well: the Allegro con brio and Andante felt a little weighty, but the Menuetto had a definite spring in the step, while the Allegro truly came alive to provide an admirable conclusion to the evening.

TH

St Cecilia Orchestra's Rachmaninov Festival brought Peter Donohoe CBE to Ripon to perform all four piano concerti and Rhapsody on a theme by Paganini across two evenings.  Donohoe previously completed the feat in Moscow in 1984; here he also gave two pre-concert talks. In the first, he spoke of the music's melodic essence and deep sadness, the latter a product of the composer's life-threatening medical condition and forced exile from his homeland; he also defended Concerto No. 4 against criticism and neglect, considering this a symptom of 20th-century musical tastes and an excuse by conductors and orchestras keen to avoid its technical difficulties.  The second talk included Donohoe's first performance of the Variations on a theme of Chopin, an early work founded on the latter's C-minor Prelude.

Donohoe was at one with the Model E Steingraeber & Söhne piano, shipped in specially from Bayreuth by the head of the company - who himself attended the concerts.  Its noble, mellow tone supported the soloist's conviction that the virtuosity of the writing is secondary to the musical thread; in addition to facilitating the singing tone and clarity crucial to Rachmaninov, it was notable for its ultra-smooth sustain in the bass, while the soloist was able to extract all of the bass growl and treble sparkle he required.

St Cecilia Orchestra did a remarkable job of accompanying this complex music, even without considering the limited rehearsal time.  Rachmaninov is littered with intricate placings and sudden tempo changes; preparing one concerto is no shortcut to the rest.  Live performance is never perfect, especially under this pressure, but the few glitches which arose were swiftly repaired with minimal harm to the sweep of the music. Understandably, the orchestra was at its freshest before each interval, but this complemented the programming of a less familiar concerto before the blockbuster.  On the first night, ensemble between orchestra and piano was particularly tight under Xenophon Kelsey MBE, but his sharing the conducting duties with Gary Matthewman (himself very familiar with St Cecilia Orchestra and indeed high-profile pianism) paid off handsomely in musical expression on both nights and synchronisation on the second; when the music took flight, it was breathtaking. 

The strings underpinned the music with a richness of warmth, yet with crispness readily on tap.  Occasionally the woodwind struggled to tune precisely to the piano, but impressed with the spectacular double-tonguing passages in Concerto No. 1; the flute and horn solos on both nights likewise deserve special mention.  In the cathedral's acoustics, the brass had to work hard not to overpower the louder moments on the first night, but they were perfectly integrated on the second; similarly the percussion, who did sterling work to be in time, crisp and in balance from the very back.

It is a super-human feat not only to master five avalanches of notes but also to communicate the music within them. Donohoe's deep love of this repertoire made apparently light work of the task; who else's complete concerti could make for a satisfying programme across two evenings?  As Donohoe did by joining in the applause himself, I must also pay tribute to the orchestra and conductors for their crucial role in a memorable festival.  The standing ovations at the end of each night say all that really needs to be said.

T.H.

Ripon’s acclaimed St Cecilia Orchestra gave an uplifting concert in the attractive performance space of Holy Trinity Church, Ripon, on Saturday 11 June, masterfully led by their long-standing conductor Xen Kelsey. We were treated to an Italian-themed evening of joyful works by Mendelssohn and Albinoni. Felix Mendelssohn had been a child prodigy and wrote his Overture to ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ in 1826 when he was only 17, adding more incidental music for the play a little later. The Overture opened with bustling momentum, setting a perfect magical mood for the evening. This was a performance full of rhythmic energy, with bold tuttis and plenty of contrast. The horns soared through the texture with great clarity (also featuring in the ‘Nocturne’) with warm, lyrical tone. A final energetic ‘Rüpeltanz’ (Ruffian’s Dance) ended this selection from ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and featured some particularly agile clarinet playing.

The first half of the concert ended with the Oboe Concerto in D minor by the Italian Baroque composer Albinoni, played with great poise, neat finger work and rhythmic precision by soloist Josh Hall. The long melodic lines of the lyrical second movement were beautifully shaped, with occasional ensemble problems overcome by strong rhythmic drive from the cellos and basses. Ben Jarvis was equally alert and communicative in Albinoni’s trumpet concerto in B flat, providing a punchy start to the second half. Also originally for the oboe, this concerto is often played by trumpeters, surely due to the appeal of the martial rhythms of the first movement, along with the fanfare-like motifs of the final movement, all cleanly executed by Ben. Both soloists engaged well with the audience and brought a fresh feel to these eighteenth-century works.

The concert ended in uplifting style with Mendelssohn’s fourth symphony, written in 1833 and named the ‘Italian’ for its portrayal of the emotions roused in him during an Italian tour in his early twenties. He declared to his sister Fanny that he wanted to write ‘the jolliest piece I have ever done’, and the St Cecilia Orchestra captured this sentiment wholeheartedly throughout. The first movement, with its upwards-reaching opening theme, was played with dynamic contrast and energy, with precise playing even when the music was at its most complex. The ‘con moto’ style of the next two movements was managed well, with the ensemble never faltering as the rhythmic momentum carried the audience along. In the third movement, a traditional Minuet and Trio, the wind and horns were able to show off delicious tonal colours, particularly in the Trio. The fourth movement provided a fitting finale to this most enjoyable concert, with all sections displaying nimble precision and rhythmic accuracy as two fast Italian dances (Saltarello and Tarantella) combined their scurrying spider-like themes. This celebration of Italy was warmly appreciated by the capacity audience, who, fittingly, walked out into an evening with the summer sun still shining.

St. Cecilia Orchestra Platinum Jubilee Concert on the 5th of March paid homage to our inspiring monarch. It was so particularly marvellous to see the huge orchestra after the pandemic. They played a concert of carefully chosen English music, reflecting her long reign in both longevity and wisdom. Nevin Ward’s clear and informative commentary added to the occasion, shedding light on some interesting and historical facts, referring to the music to help appreciation.

 

The decision to play the Ukrainian national anthem at the start added poignancy to the concert, where we had time to reflect on the present situation, as well as the Queen’s long reign while listening to some very emotive music.

Once again Xenophon Kelsey conducted the orchestra with his special flair for coaxing the very best out of every player, and creating something moving and memorable. The Orb and Sceptre March by William Walton started dramatically, which led into the rich lyrical melody of the main theme, growing in intensity. It maintained the solid, pompous character, but with mood changes also. Various instrument groups had a chance to shine, although balance was sometimes a problem, the somewhat brash trombone tone overpowering the string section.


Benjamin Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra was enhanced by Nevin Ward’s reading of Eric Crozier’s original text to accompany the work; explaining to the young (and old!) people the basics of the instrument groups and their characteristics. Each instrument of the orchestra rose to their moment in the spotlight, and the piece continued with many surprises within the writing, mounting in volume throughout the fugue becoming a massive cacophony of sound until the brass section entered with the noble original theme. The texture became so thick, in part because of the cathedral acoustic, but it came to a grand close.


The Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis was a reflective and peaceful piece, the Phrygian mode giving it anguished suffering, as well as moments of peace and joy. The hymn from the English hymnal which inspired Vaughan Willliams to write this piece was ‘When rising from the bed of death’. The double string orchestra was well balanced with excellent ensemble and a wide variety of dynamic contrast. The string quartet was fine and delicate and gave an added dimension to the music, which ebbed and flowed, up hills and down valleys, so typical of Vaughan William’s pastoral, english countryside-loving music and spiritual belief.

The final work was The Enigma Variations by Edward Elgar. The love that the orchestra had for this piece was obvious. It was superb. Xenophon Kelsey was at his very best here, and the solo players were exceptional. The tempi, so often rushed and perfunctory in modern performances, were perfect, except for some lagging in the final variation from some of the players.


The opening theme had space and nuance. It was of its time, and evoked nostalgia and romanticism, but without being exaggerated. He let the music and the musicians speak for themselves.
As each variation unfurled, the character of the individual about whom the variation was written came alive, and the players excelled themselves. The highlights for me were the cello section in B.G.N., an amateur cellist. The ensemble sounded like one instrument, with rich tone in both loud and quiet playing and shaped, musical phrasing. In *** Variation, the hair raising tingle of the pianissimo clarinet playing and whispered string accompaniment would have stood out among the best orchestras in the world. . It needs expert control, technique and musicianship to achieve this effect, and it was completely magical. Nimrod is the most famous of all the variations, and stands alone in its grandeur. Again, Xenophon let the music speak for itself, giving the players freedom without over sentimentalising but still achieving the magnificence of the music.


As we stood to sing The National Anthem, we were proud of our queen and our cultural heritage, but we were also proud to feel that Ripon is the home to such an excellent orchestra and conductor. I wish the Queen could have been with us.

CMTJ

Xenophon Kelsey is a mischievous programmer.  He knows that when he programmes something by Anton Webern his sophisticated audience will expect one of those Second Viennese “plink plonk” pieces lasting barely a minute or so for which Webern is famous. What a disappointment then when this delightful evening began with his lushly contrapuntal slow movement for strings, easily mistaken for Mahler or early Schoenberg (think of Verklaerte Nacht). What a gorgeous piece this is. And how well did the focussed strings of the St Cecilia Orchestra dig into its subtleties. Not always together? Each piece in the programme quickly settled down and small infelicities were easily forgiven. 

The evening’s concerto was Finzi’s for Clarinet and Strings, written after the last war for the great Frederick Thurston and played last night by the excellent Tom Verity, principal clarinet with Welsh National Opera. Since it is very much an operatic piece, important melodic trills and all, Verity’s style, crisp and precise, very much suited it. Whereas the Webern could have been written by almost anyone, the Finzi is instantly recognisable melodically and structurally as Finzi. At least half the audience recognised (wrongly) that part of the slow movement had been used to introduce a TV programme: but it hasn’t been, yet. The soloist was ably supported by the strings in this most contrapuntal work, when the orchestra and soloist often have quite different music to play.

After the interval (no drinks I’m afraid) we heard Sibelius’s Romance in C and finally Tchaikovsky’s Serenade For Strings, a work which used to feature in concert programmes more often than it nowadays seems to (and whose Waltz movement was on what must have been one of the first 78s I ever bought: it was a Home Service favourite). Good to hear the complete work and it got the players tingling.

Covid hasn’t been much of a friend to live music and it was good to see that a substantial audience had been seduced away from Rigoletto at the Curzon to enjoy live music together in the same room. But another plus came from the need for distance seating within the orchestra. No one so far as I could see shared a desk and the extra space round the players was all to the benefit of the music. String orchestras need their components to be clearly audible, something which doesn’t always happen at Holy Trinity but did last night.

It was a rather gloomy and wet drive to Ripon Cathedral, but what a treat once I got there. To hear live music after such a long time was a wonderful experience. The St Cecilia Orchestra more than met my expectations.

The choice of programme for this first concert since the Covid outbreak was, indeed, inspired. The concert opener, Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, was played with just the right sort of romantic fervour. It was a wonderful mixture of delicacy and more exuberant outbursts.

The next piece, Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending, is quintessentially English music. Both soloist and orchestra really captured that rather wistful longing for the best of the English countryside. Violinist Charlotte Scott held the audience’s attention throughout. She played sensitively - understated and never flashy - yet with great technical mastery and a beautiful, haunting tone. The final cadenza was ethereal: the lark disappearing into the great world beyond.

The concert ended with Beethoven’s 8th symphony – full of good humour and joie de vivre. Here the meticulous detail of the orchestral playing was particularly obvious with well-controlled contrasts from the various sections of the orchestra.

Congratulations to the conductor, Xenophon Kelsey, and his players for such an incredibly accomplished and professional performance.

St Cecilia Yorkshire Dales Christmas Spectacular
 

In a break with tradition St Cecilia Orchestra’s Christmas Spectacular took place this year on 17 December not in Ripon Cathedral but in the exciting new venue of Tennant’s, Leyburn. In the heart of the Yorkshire Dales, this proved to be a brilliant move.  A large and enthusiastic audience almost filled the beautiful Garden Room to hear North Yorkshire’s renowned Symphony Orchestra with their guests Wensleydale School Choir, Leyburn Ladies’ Choir and the Janet Seymour School of Dance.

The evening was compered by someone of whom you may not have heard, retired Dales Vet Jim Wight. You will, however, certainly know of his father, the much loved Vet and author, James Herriot. Jim was a mine of information with anecdotes and witty little stories about his father and the real people who came to life in his books.

Under the distinguished baton of Xenophon Kelsey, the Orchestra Founder and Conductor, St Cecilia embarked on a delightful concert of carols and seasonal music.  Starting the evening in the most traditional way, chorister Tom Hughes sang the first verse of Once in Royal David’s City, his lovely treble voice promising the delights to come. Audience participation in all the carols was encouraged by way of the printed words in the programme, including Jingle Bells, which for some unexplained reason most people know only the chorus, not the three verses.

Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld Overture kicked off to a flying start, kicked off being the operative words as a troupe of  the best Can Can dancers outside the Folies Bergere burst on to the scene. Difficult to say who enjoyed the performance most, musicians, dancers or audience.

The Ladies’ Choir was in fine form, particularly in their  performance of John Rutter’s Angels’ Carol. Such a pleasure to hear a new work so beautifully sung. Wensleydale School Choir, under their Conductor Joshua Hadfield, also showed the choral tradition is alive and well.  Lovely singing with beautiful clear diction, especially in the hitherto unfamiliar but gem of a Dutch folk song, Carol of the Elves.

More carols, dancing, two movements from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite and the Johann Strauss’ delightful Polka Im Krapfenwald’l including cuckoo, nightingale and duck. A wonderful fun packed evening complete with exciting live charity auction conducted by Rodney Tennant himself.

The audience loved it from start to finish.

REVIEW: Spectacular Christmas cracker of a show lives up to its billing

A Christmas spectacular was promised and delivered as Ripon’s St Cecilia Orchestra took their audience on a journey of surprises and musical delights – which at this time of year can be a tricky enterprise.

Packed as it is with carols and concerts in schools and churches and village halls, December can all too easily become a byword for musical as well as dietary overload.

And as the “real” meaning of Christmas, a celebration of God coming to earth in human form, is reinterpreted nationwide as a commercial spendfest, it’s hard for any enterprise to keep the balance between the sacred and the secular.

But with a clever mix of inspiring orchestral pieces, dances and choral singing, this lovely concert successfully blurred the edges between the two: traditional carols with not even a nod to political correctness (“goodwill henceforth from heaven to man,” a shining example) and jolly dances from the talented students of the Janet Seymour School of Theatre Dance.

If you can also pack a can-can, a moody tango and a series of James Herriot jokes into a two-hour festive entertainment, you know you’ve hit the spot.

At least two members of the Wensleydale School choir had to be shepherded off the stage to join their fellow dancers for three totally contrasting routines performed with grace and vigour: the classic can-can from Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld Overture, the delicate Dance of the Mirlitons from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, and the world premiere of John B Sullivan’s Lazy Tango for Christmas – and all, as one audience member noted with admiration, on a carpeted floor.

All credit, too, to ten-year-old Thomas Hughes of Ripon for his crystal clear treble solos in three carols – Once in Royal David’s City, In the Bleak Midwinter and Silent Night – steadfastly holding his own against the powerful strains of the orchestra.

Conductor Xenophon Kelsey is to be congratulated for presenting a lively, fast-paced programme that managed both to embody the true spirit of the season and dispense the gloom of a winter’s afternoon.

One of the great strengths of the St Cecilia Orchestra lies in its mix of amateur and professional musicians, teachers and students from all over the north, usually meeting, as the programme notes point out, for just two days of intensive rehearsals before each concert, and exuding a real pride and delight in the music they make.

The orchestra’s commitment to, and encouragement of, young musicians and singers, was in evidence throughout. As one proud mother of a school choir member remarked: “What an amazing opportunity for them to be able to perform with an orchestra of this quality.” A sentiment echoed, no doubt, by the members of Leyburn Ladies Choir whose Angels’ Carol by John Rutter (“the composer who owns Christmas,” says the New York Times), was a highlight among many.

The concert was compered with a nice lightness of touch by Jim Wight, son of Alf Wight, aka James Herriot. His father, said Jim, would have been “very proud” to have his name associated with an evening of such splendid musical entertainment.  Alf’s own father worked in the shipyards of Glasgow by day and was a concert pianist by night, and his mother was a professional singer.

If there is any criticism it is only that the venue, the Garden Rooms at Tennants in Leyburn, grand though the setting may be for other events, somehow lacked atmosphere. In a relatively harsh and featureless environment, the lighting needs to be warmer, and more mellow. How to achieve that while allowing the audience full participation in the carols is a matter for a greater mind than mine, but that shouldn’t be hard to find.

One more thing: we should have been allowed to stand for the carols – you cannot sing Hark the Herald Angels from a chair – and we should not have had to plough through muddy puddles in the unsurfaced car park at the end of such a superb evening. That, too, needs sorting.

Betsy Everett

Richmondshire Today


Superb Gala Concert by St Cecilia Orchestra

21 October 2017

Ripon's own symphony orchestra does not shy from climbing mountains and Xen Kelsy MBE, conductor and musical director, tackled two of the greats of music compositions for the gala concert, Wagner's Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan and Isolde and Beethoven's symphony No. 9 the Choral Symphony.
                In front of a full house at Ripon Cathedral, the orchestra was in top form putting on a superb performance.  All the strengths of this fine orchestra were evident in the opening peice - Wagner's Prelude and Liebestod (Love and Death) from Tristan and Isolde.  I doubt there was metaphorically a dry eye in the audience.
                The second half was devoted to one of the finest compositions ever written - Beethoven's symphony No. 9 - and for this 'choral symphony' the audience were treated to the impressive Cleveland Philharmonic Choir and chorus master John Forsyth MBE.
                The soloists were superb - soprano Ilona Domnich (pictured), who was born in Russia and has a fabulous soprano, English Mezzo soprano Kezia Blenik, Welsh tenor Elgan Thomas, and English Samuel Pantcheff, baritone.  When the chorus and soloists enter the fray in the final movement, well...
                Judging by the prolonged applause at the end, the audience felt exactly the same.

 

Ripon's concert of the year was an outstanding success. A virtual sell out,  the almost capacity audience enjoyed an evening of brilliant music making. under the baton of Xenophon Kelsey, St Cecilia founder and conductor.

The brief first half of the evening was the somewhat brief Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner's Tristan and Isolde, but what a delight that proved to be. A sensitive and virtuoso performance of this most evocative of pieces. A somewhat lengthier interval than usual was much appreciated by performers and audience alike. Plenty of time to chat and socialise which served to add to the mounting tension in anticipation of the second half, Beethoven's sublime Choral Symphony. Although well known, perhaps not so frequently performed due to the large forces needed; full orchestra, choir and four soloists. 

St Cecilia was in fine form, performing one of Beethoven's greatest works to a standard worthy of any professional orchestra. Well complemented in the final movement by the Cleveland Philharmonic Choir and four outstanding young soloists, the rendition of Schiller's Ode to Joy was indeed a privilege to hear. If it seemed familiar, it is of the course the anthem of the European Union, to which music making in Ripon and beyond is indebted. In his immortal final symphony, Beethoven expressed the wish that Alle Menschen werden Brueder, All men will be brothers. From the wildly enthusiastic applause, one can hope the audience thought the same way.

Conductor:  Xenophon Kelsey

Spectacle, dance, lyricism and colour filled Ripon Cathedral in Saturday’s thrilling concert by the St Cecilia Orchestra. The orchestra began life accompanying the cathedral choir in the annual St Cecilia’s Day concerts in the 1990’s and the players enjoyed it so much they came back for more. Today the StCO has grown to be one of the UK’s finest community orchestras under the baton of the inspirational Yorkshireman, Xenophon Kelsey.

In an excellent programme, Stokowski’s 1927 orchestral take on Bach’s Toccata and Fugue began the evening. It’s a fantasy, by turns dramatic, lugubrious and dazzling; it’s how organists used to play it years ago before they got too well-behaved. It was an excellent curtain-raiser for Resphigi’s Church Windows. This is film music before films regularly had music, flamboyant, energetic, stylish and romantic, Liszt and Mussorgsky with Italian panache. In the opening and middle movements Xen Kelsey coaxed a wonderfully lush pianissimo from the string section and a hushed piano from the basses. Exotic arabesques from the winds and rich smooth chords from the horns punctuated by glittering harps revealed the masterful orchestration. The sheer power of the 90-strong ensemble was released in the finale with a battery of brass and percussion in increasing cascades of sound, building to the thunderous entry of the cathedral organ with its majestic Spanish Trumpet; a gargantuan end to the first half.

After the interval came a persuasive account of Max Bruch’s rarely heard Double Concerto for Clarinet & Viola: this was a real treat. Beautiful and agile playing from clarinettist Linda Merrick and lyrical expressiveness from violist Katie Stables made this a superb choice for the evening.  Katie was making a welcome return to her birthplace and is one of many musicians supported by the St Cecilia Orchestra over the years. Both soloists and orchestra seemed utterly at ease with the generous warm-hearted nature of this lovely work which deserves to be performed more often.

After the luxurious Bruch came a joyous conclusion in Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. Here was a real orchestral work out; the sheer energy and rhythmic complexity were brilliantly handled before subsiding into a ravishing ending.

Adrian Hawkins

 

Cellist Toby in magnificent form

Review

St Cecilia Orchestra
Holy Trinity Church
Ripon

By George Pyman

The St Cecilia Orchestra’s Spring concert was held at the Holy Trinity Church in Ripon. This is an excellent venue where thought has been given to combining acts of worship and the ability to provide a venue for the people of Ripon and district to enjoy musical performances.

Excellent facilities, comfortable seating, café meeting area in the crypt and a lift for those who have poor mobility.

The concert was an eclectic mix of composers from Haydn, Sibelius through to Prokofiev and Schostakovich. As always the St Cecilia Orchestra is made up of a mix of amateur and professional musicians which is their core strength because there is always such a strong pool to draw from; not forgetting their Director of music and conductor, Xen Kelsey without whom there would be no St Cecilia Orchestra.

First off we had Prokofiev’s Symphony No 1, The Classical Symphony — this is one of his most popular and favorite works, said to be loosely based on Haydn’s style.

The first movement lived up to its title of Allegro full blast. The orchestra took a moment to gather itself but was quickly up to their normal top class skills. The second movement was full of pizzicato, the third movement is the one we most often hear on Classic FM, delightful. The woodwind were top notch in the Finale.

Next was Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No 1, and tonight’s soloist was Toby White. Toby is a Riponian, his mother Liz White is a regular player in the St Cecilia Orchestra.

What a performance of this viciously difficult and complicated composition. It runs for 28 minutes and every moment is full of fierce and sudden strokes with the timpani erupting like explosions.


Toby started to play the cello aged five and he’s obviously moved since then. I loved it and so did the audience. Must not forget the St Cecilia Orchestra which had equally complex music to tackle!

After the interval we enjoyed Sibelius’s Romance for Strings — a complete contrast to Shostakovich’s assault on our senses.

Written in 1915 it was the second of four short pieces and pleasant to the ear. The finale for the evening was Haydn’s Symphony No 99 in E flat.

I thought I knew most of Haydn’s London Symphonies, but this slipped by me. Haydn’s music is always tuneful and No 99 was no except ion; the first movement the theme is repeated with many variations, the Adagio is a delight with its musicality, the Menuetto is as its name describes and is mostly in waltz time. Finale Vivace is boisterous and energetic.

A wonderful evening of music making. Toby White is a name to watch out for, a magnificent performance.