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An experienced hand, guiding one of Harrow’s best amateur orchestras

One of Harrow’s foremost orchestras, Trinity Orchestra, was conducted by internationally-renowned Maestro Owain Arwel Hughes, in its first concert of the 2022-2023 season, on Saturday 1 October 2022, at Trinity Church, Hindes Road, Harrow, HA1 1RX.

We were graciously given a pre-concert talk by the Maestro, at 7 p.m., prior to the concert (which started at 7:30 p.m.). He shared many anecdotes about his own life, many of which he also shared with me, when I interviewed him for Harrow Online, back in September – but also a few facts that I would imagine not many know about him, such as the fact that – as a Harrow resident of many years, himself – he once used to drive taxis around Harrow, just before his daughter was born – due to, as he phrased it, “rough times”. We were all delighted to see him in his usual role, tonight, as he charmed us with his wit and storytelling ability.

The performance started with Ludwig van Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3. From the first note, the Maestro showed his experience and expertise through a clear, clean and understated conducting technique; unlike many current young conductors (and a few elderly ones!) who like to showboat for the audience and “play to the gallery”, the Maestro’s conducting was purely for the benefit of the orchestra only. The players were clearly inspired by his conducting (the Maestro told us, in his pre-concert talk, that he treated and would treat them just like any other orchestra, irrespective of whether they were professionals or – as was the case here – amateur players), and raised their standard accordingly.

The Maestro, for his part, seemed to continue the tradition laid down by the conductors he was mentored by, in the past (namely Sir Adrian Boult, Bernard Haitink KBE and Rudolf Kempe), in taking responsibility for the overall sound, coaxing the best possible sound that the players would give, with – I felt – great success. The tempi were a little on the slow side – which is exactly how I’d rather hear this piece being played (as opposed to a rushing stampede, which, in many Beethoven pieces, can too often – sadly – be the case). As the piece unfolded and eventually reached its closing stages, Maestro Arwel Hughes was more and more acting as the fulcrum towards which all the musicians gravitated, or alike the light from a lighthouse, guiding a ship to safety through the storm – an irreplaceable reference point.

The second piece of the concert was Felix Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor. Having conducted it with so many esteemed soloists in the past (such as Nigel Kennedy, to give but one example), the Maestro was, on this night, joined on stage by one of BBC Concert Orchestra’s Principal Violinists, Peter Bussereau, who played the solo violin part.

From where I was sitting, in the middle of the church (neither too far in front, nor too far back), Mr Bussereau sounded, at first, as if he had not warmed up properly. Intonation was erratic and the sound was screechy. He also took some of the more technically challenging passages at a slower tempo than the rest of the piece – a “trick” that not even violin college students can get away with, let alone professional soloists. With Maestro Arwel Hughes and the orchestra musicians providing some magnificently played accompaniment to Mr Bussereau, I was dearly and genuinely hoping that he would improve upon his jarring start. Unfortunately, it took until the Cadenza for him to hit any acceptable form. Until then, it felt as if Mr Bussereau was reading from the music (which he had in front of him, on a music stand), and playing notes instead of a proper concert performance. Intonation continued to be erratic, also.

The Cadenza in the first movement sounded much better, with the spiccato passages particularly excellent. It seemed to me that Mr Bussereau had perhaps finally rallied, but it also felt that he practised this solo, more difficult part of the concerto more than the other parts, and consequently felt more secure of it than of the rest of his performance so far. This was confirmed to me as the ending of the first movement of the concerto (post Cadenza) felt to me as a struggle, without enough bravura from our soloist for the evening. I ended up hoping that the slow second movement, the famous Andante of the concerto, would provide us with a different, much-improved performance from Mr Bussereau. Unfortunately, his tone quality was, frankly, quite awful as the solo violin part of the Andante started – very screechy once more, and the tempo he chose was quite on the fast side. The double stops passages were excellent, but felt like note reading once more, and a slower tempo (which, in my view, should have been adopted from the start) was finally reached in the recapitulation of the movement.

The final movement of the piece was initially better from Mr Bussereau, who seemed much more secure on its fast passages. The orchestra provided some genuinely stunning playing, especially in the cello melody section – however, Mr Bussereau then suffered some serious synchronisation problems (of his own making) with the orchestra. I genuinely feel that there is a certain minimum standard that one has to meet if one goes to play such a concerto in public, especially with an orchestra conducted by such an excellent and illustrious conductor, and I feel that – unfortunately – Mr Bussereau did not reach this standard on this occasion. The audience was nevertheless extremely generous with its applause.

After the interval, Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 in C minor closed the concert. This performance was graced by some utterly superb sound coaxed from the orchestra by Maestro Owain Arwel Hughes, alone at the helm of the orchestra once more. The choice of tempi was as close to perfection as it gets, I felt. In the second movement, the woodwind soli (in particular the oboe solo at the beginning of the movement – the oboe section principal being listed in the concert programme as Mr Tony Freer were stunning, throughout – and the violin solo, here performed by the orchestra’s leader, Mr Clive Hobday, was tastefully and professionally played, always in perfect balance with the horn melody playing at the same time.

Mr Hobday, I felt, led the orchestra impeccably on the night, in constant communication with the conductor, not missing a note and shouldering the responsibility of leading the orchestra in a most professional and accurate manner. The third movement brought a wonderfully balanced sound from the orchestra. Finally, the fourth and last movement, with its echoes of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, brought out a full, rich sound from the orchestra, with a superb, well-balanced horn solo (the horn section principal being listed in the programme as Ms Pamela Wise) and warm string sound in the recapitulation.

I would go so far as saying that this was one of the best performances of this Symphony that I have ever heard from an amateur orchestra, and much of this – it feels – is due to the absolutely superb conducting by Maestro Owain Arwel Hughes, who truly got the best out of his players. I felt that he and all of the orchestra members fully deserved the rapturous applause and standing ovation, at the end, which recalled the Maestro to the stage no fewer than three times.