Sunday 25th November

There is no denying it, community orchestras are tricky. Tricky because they are at once one of the most important ways of nurturing classical music in the community, and one of the most varied groups of musical individuals one will ever meet. And while Lynette Bridglands is doing a lot of great things with the South Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, as shown by their final concert for 2012, choosing an appropriate program for such an ensemble is challenging.

Rossini’s Overture to The Italian Girl in Algiers got the concert off to a good start, with oboist Sophie Johnson playing the opening solos expressively and with a stunning tone. She just needed to do it louder! Woodwinds lines were well-played, with good intonation and sense of ensemble, but the strings – in particular the first violins – were somewhat lacking in both dynamics and conviction. This, I feel, is one of the first golden rules of community orchestra playing: the concertmaster really must be a¬†charismatic¬†and musical leader capable of injecting some umph into their fellow musicians. Concertmaster David Chan, while clearly very capable technically, didn’t give this, and as a result many of the string players erred on the side of playing a little quietly and with a little less enthusiasm so that they wouldn’t be caught making a dreaded mistake. As a result, upper strings melodies were rather lost, and the sections that were played somewhat under tempo really felt like it.

Elgar’s Sea Pictures was without a doubt the highlight of the concert. Mezzo-contralto (though with an impressive high register too) Helen Hill was splendid both in her interpretation of the music and her presence on stage. The orchestra handled Elgar’s writing well despite any technical difficulties, as they were able to take the lead from both conductor and soloist in terms of colour and musical intention. An encore of Land of Hope and Glory was fitting and fun, leading all buoyantly into the interval with a tune to hum.

The second half presented two very challenging works, though each for its own reasons. Here, I wonder whether it would have been prudent to reduce the program length a little (or maybe even adding a slightly easier second Pomp and Circumstance March to the first half) than attempt to tackle the weight of both Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier Concert Suite and a Mozart Symphony.

It was clear here that most members of the orchestra are at a high technical standard on their instrument. However, I think that one of the most important considerations of community orchestra programming (and also for youth orchestras, but for slightly different reasons) is recognising the difference between what the ensemble can play in terms of notes, and what they are capable of playing well in concert. Der Rosenkavalier, in particular, was challenging in this respect, and the resulting impression was that most players were still getting to grips with their own parts and not listening terribly much to the ensemble as a whole. Lines were muddy, and at times a central melody was difficult to pick, although the piece picked up momentum as it moved into the waltz.

Mozart’s Symphony No. 35, the Haffner, is challenging for another reason – it needs incredible finesse. Here, the orchestra were clearly enjoying themselves, and the result was a light, buoyant reading, though a little under-tempo. It felt that this would have been just that bit more polished – especially in terms of the strings’ commitment to some of their more challenging lines – had the group spent just a little more time on each of the movements.

Conductor Lynette Bridgland is an enthusiastic and skilled musician, and has clearly put a lot of work into the South Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. However, if community orchestras are to continue to attract audiences and players, I feel that they need to balance their programs a little better. Pick a handful of pieces that are that bit easier, and play them with real conviction and umph, adding a single challenging work that really has a lot of time spent on it. Maybe this will upset a few of the more highly skilled players in the ensemble, but orchestras are a team, and the greatest skill of being an orchestral musician is that of being a team player.