Southbank Sinfonia / Rebecca Miller
St John’s, Waterloo, London
Thursday 19 September 2019
The Rock Overture (1928)
Koong Shee Ballet (1921)
reviewed by Ben Hogwood
photo credit (Rebecca Miller) Richard Haughton
It remains an acute embarrassment to classical music that even today it is still so male-orientated when it comes to composers and conductors in particular. Happily measures are in place to address the imbalance, which means that not before time Dorothy Howell (1898-1982) gets some of the attention her music should have been getting 100 years ago. Great credit for this should go to the Southbank Sinfonia and their associate conductor Rebecca Miller, a devotee of the composer who had led the orchestra in a week-long exploration of her music, working with members of Howell’s family.
The result was an hour of music making that everyone enjoyed. It has been a while since I have watched an orchestra with so many smiles, yet still on their game. There were many smiles as Miller teased the syncopated dance rhythms out of the music, revelling in the composer’s nickname of ‘the English Strauss’.
Such a nickname is a little dangerous, as it immediately brings parallels to the waltz, and a tendency toward lighter entertainment rather than anything substantial. With that in mind it should be pointed out that Howell’s output of 150+ works includes a Piano Concerto (recorded by Miller and her husband, pianist Danny Driver, for Hyperion) and some substantial chamber music.
Dorothy Howell (above)
This ‘rush hour’ concert began with an overture / tone poem. The Rock, contrasting with Rachmaninov’s moody symphonic work of the same name, still felt like a place for nature to let itself go. Bright woodwind and an expansive orchestral picture transported us out onto the windswept coast, where attractive flute melodies and tonal harmonies combined to give a breezy outlook. There were a few pitfalls below the surface, Howell occasionally hinting at something darker in the lower strings, but this was a persuasive and energetic account.
Next we heard the Three Divertissements, a short but appealing work with its roots in the dance. Published as Howell’s last orchestral work, its three movements are each in triple time, furthering the Strauss connections – but in the first one working a nice line in syncopation to make the beat elusive for even the keenest of dancers. Rebecca Miller (below) enjoyed these, dancing on the podium herself, and the players clearly did too, with the heat haze created by the strings in the slow second dance particularly memorable. Clarinet, flute, oboe and cor anglais once again excelled, with a special mention for triangle and tambourine, putting the finishing touches to a performance with a smile on its face and a spring in its step.
The short Humoresque was cut from the same cloth, but the Koong Chee ballet felt much more substantial. Based on a Chinese crockery pattern, the work derived from a plot in a lush garden, with a lake populated by pelicans and flamingos, and with the daughter of the owner promised in marriage falling instead for the gardener. Lovestruck, she was swept away – or not, as the case may be, for Howell left an elusive ending.
The colours of this work would have resonated with those who enjoy the Eastern-leaning orchestral works of Holst or John Foulds, but again Howell’s edge could be felt with the light rhythmic touch she was capable of adding. In Miller she had the most passionate advocate, the conductor admitting in her introduction that it is an ambition to stage the work with dancers one day.
That would be an enjoyable experience, for her introduction was ideal and gave us helpful pointers for the point in the story where the woman is imprisoned (Rebecca Watt’s cor anglais solo was heartfelt here) or when the woman’s father shoots at the gardener, his two arrows hitting their target where the percussion were concerned.
My interpretation of the ending would be that it was bittersweet, the father regretting his decision to shoot the arrows but exonerated as the gardener did not die. At least, that’s what the music told me – for once again it was a colourful and committed account that fired the imagination.
The Southbank Sinfonia should be applauded for their dedication to Howell’s cause, their dedication and enthusiasm creating a wholly enjoyable concert. The welcome to audience members should also be praised, creating an environment where concert-goers new and old are equally welcome. More power to their elbows!
Danny Driver and Rebecca Miller recently released their recording of Dorothy Howell’s Piano Concerto on Hyperion, with more details below: