One Night with the Bristol Concert Orchestra

On Saturday the 14th of March, the audience settled in for an evening of music at Bristol’s St George’s hall. The Bristol Concert Orchestra were set to lead into a programme of classics.

Conductor Stephen Hofkes welcomed the audience with an animated introduction, and noted that the road to the performance had been paved with illness, injuries and almost-literal pitfalls, before marshalling the instrumentalists for the night’s first performance: Debussy’s Iberia.

Probably the most well-known section of Debussy’s Images pour Orchestre, Iberia paints a three-movement impressionist picture of early 20th-century Spain. The piece is speckled with percussive elements, an exercise in horizon broadening for the ensemble, who carried off the piece quite commendably, although the St George’s concert hall, with its intimate scale, perhaps limited the orchestra’s ability to ‘open up’ their sound as much as they may have liked – audience and ensemble seemed as though they could have been within touching distance if it wasn’t for the raised stage.

To continue the first half of the programme, a Steinway grand piano was conspicuously shoehorned onto the stage, and Hofkes welcomed accomplished pianist Ashley Wass, ready to play the leading role in Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1. This influential piece of music dates to the formative period in the development of the modern piano, and Liszt’s exploration of the instrument left a mark on its deployment that remains visible to this day – Wass’s interpretation invoked echoes of the piano’s past and present.

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After the intermission, the concertgoers returned to the hall ready for the highlight of the night, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. The atmosphere was almost palpable, and just as the audience were starting to think that Hofkes had made a run for it, he returned to begin the second half of the evening by throwing down the gauntlet to the orchestra, setting off the piece at a notably brisk pace.

The thing about The Fifth is that it can often be far more sensible to completely ignore ‘that’ ubiquitous first movement. If one can transcend the glamourised ‘intro’, then the beauty of the remaining symphony is left exposed. The remaining three sections sing to the soul about the meaning of empathy – the solace and reflection of the second movement, the jarring panic of the third, and the euphoric triumphalism of the fourth.

The sheer proximity within St George’s creates an environment in which all sound is laid bare. Whereas the wash of reverberant sound in a large concert hall can tend to mask imperfection and over-awe an audience with a sense of grandeur, a smaller venue can leave performers exposed and vulnerable. As the night progressed, the ensemble may have been overcome by certain errant incidents, but they can rest assured that these occurred under adverse circumstances.

It wouldn’t be a concert without an ill-timed attempt at applause, or a dropped manuscript, but Hofkes and the Bristol Concert Orchestra provided a warm and welcoming atmosphere to an audience composed of all ages.

James Russell