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Vernon Handley's 70th Birthday Concerts
with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra


Last Modified August 1, 2002

November 8, 2000
Bliss:  Music for Strings
Vaughan Williams:  Five Tudor Portraits
Bax:  Symphony No. 6

Liane Keegan, mezzo soprano
Damian Thantrey, baritone
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir,  chorus master Ian Tracey

November 15 and 16, 2000
Moeran: Overture for a Masque
Vaughan Williams: The Lark Ascending
Delius: Brigg Fair
Vaughan Williams:  The Wasps, Overture
Bax: November Woods
Elgar: Introduction and Allegro
Arnold:  English Dances Set No. 1

Sara Wolstenholme, violin

Report by Richard R. Adams

Fans of British music and Baxians in particular had good cause to celebrate in November.  Vernon Handley turned 70 and to celebrate that occasion, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra invited the great conductor to program several of his favorite works in two concert series featuring the orchestra and chorus in Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall. What was sad was that so few people attended the first concert in the series – the program that featured Handley’s favorite symphony, Bax’s glorious Sixth.

Certainly the weather didn’t help.  I drove up from Suffolk and there were  several times, especially around Birmingham where the rain was torrential,  when I questioned what I was doing.  Fortunately I didn’t turn back. The concert was also broadcast live on Radio 3 and that undoubtedly encouraged  some listeners to stay home and enjoy the concert in the warmth of their livingrooms.  Regardless of the reason for the poor turnout, it was depressing to see a half-empty hall (and it’s a small hall) because it sends the message to managements that adventurous programming does not sell tickets.  Handley has gone on record saying he’d conduct Bax’s symphonies more often if only orchestras would allow him to.  Bax’s poor standing among concert  promoters is unlikely to change if his music doesn’t sell tickets. Perhaps it’s true that Bax appeals more to the CD buying public than concertgoers. If so, that’s a shame because even the best recording can’t begin to duplicate the sounds a Bax symphony can make in concert.

While still on my soapbox, I should bring up another point.  British conductors frequently complain about how little rehearsal time they get when preparing their orchestras for concerts.  British orchestras are world-renowned sight readers, probably out of necessity because they have so little time to rehearse. Handley’s first concert gave some indication of this.  Perhaps he’s to blame for programming such an ambitious concert although you can hardly fault him for taking advantage of an opportunity to program three cherished works. The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic coped bravely with the huge program and truly excelled in Vaughan Williams’ Five Tudor Portraits.  I suspect the VW work received the lion share of the rehearsal time for orchestra, chorus and soloists were meticulous in their handling of Vaughan Williams’ densely textured and rhythmically complex scoring.  It was an electrifying performance and the highpoint of the evening.  

Bliss’s Music for Strings began the program and was very competently but also cautiously played. It had none of the fire that so characterized Handley’s intense performance of Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro from the    following week’s concert.  I’m sure the RLPO play the Elgar 20 times to every one time they play the Bliss and you results indicated this.  The Bliss needs the same sort of passionate playing to sound convincing but it didn’t get it.  What we got sounded more like a run through.  I have no doubt a  little more rehearsal time could have transformed the performance into something unforgettable.

By the second half of the program, both conductor and orchestra seemed exhausted.  Handley sat on a stool although he frequently stood to conduct the more dramatic moments of the symphony.  The orchestra played sensitively but there were more than a few wobbles from the brass and balances seemed off – the winds in particular didn’t blend very well.  Again, it sounded like a run through and that was disappointing because as an interpretation, the performance was superb.  Handley is the greatest of all Bax conductors.  He has lived with the music for a longer period of time.  I suspect there are few conductors who would name Bax’s Sixth as their  favorite symphony or be willing to argue so eloquently on its behalf.  Handley's interpretation of this masterwork has broadened  over the years, except in the middle movement which if anything is quicker, but the logic and drama are still sustained in equal measure.  If only the  RLPO had more opportunities to play this music and get it into their blood, than they could advocate for Bax as effectively as they have done for Vaughan Williams and Elgar.

Vaughan Williams and Elgar featured prominently in Handley’s second set of concerts. This was more a popular program with a few rare items thrown in.  The concert began with Moeran’s Overture for a Masque and what a glorious opener it was. The infectious exuberance and outdoor charm of Moeran’s music reminds me a little of Copland in his more popular vein yet how rarely we get hear this wonderful music.  We were treated to a supremely sensitive interpretation of VW’s Lark Ascending with the young Sara Wolstenholmeas soloist.  If this is the level of her playing now, I suspect she’ll become a major performer in a few years time.  Handley opened the second half of the concert with VW’s Wasps’ Overture and closed the program with Arnold’s English Dances Set No. 1.   I’ve already mentioned the Elgar which was truly astounding. 

The highlights of the evening, for me at any rate, were Delius’ Brigg Fair and Bax’s November Woods. Both were played with a sensitivity and fluency that was beguiling to hear.  Perhaps it helped that I was attending the second night of the second series of concerts. True, the all-important celesta barely registered in November Woods but that was a minor blemish on an otherwise tumultuous performance.  Both the Delius and Bax are ravishingly beautiful works with very dark undercurrents and it was those aspects of the music that Handley emphasized so effectively. The emotion generated from the playing was tangible and I suspect many audience members besides myself were left stunned when the music ended.

So a very successful concert and one that confirmed Handley’s standing as one of the handful of greatest living  conductors (I purposefully left off  the modifier British).

©  Richard R. Adams  2000