St Albans Abbey Magna Carta concert made of the rights stuff

THERE can be little doubt that Saturday’s Magna Carta Celebration Concert at St Albans Abbey was one of the most important the city’s symphony orchestra had ever given.

Not only was it playing in front of most of Hertfordshire’s civic leaders, but it was also giving the last major concert under current conductor Dr James Ross.

And the result was a triumph for the orchestra which has made tremendous progress in the nine years Dr Ross has been in charge.

The orchestra was joined for the event by the Royal Academy of Music Brass Ensemble, St Albans Chamber Choir and Watford Philharmonic Society as well as mezzo soprano Jeanette Ager and soprano Sara Jonsson.

Specially designed to fit with the city’s Magna Carta Celebrations the first half, conducted by Chamber Choir musical director John Gibbons, opened with a tremendous performance of Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man.

This striking work filled the Abbey with sound of an outstanding quality which immediately set a mark for the rest of the evening.

To say that the second work, American composer Howard Hanson’s Song of Human Rights, is rarely heard is something of an understatement. It was originally written in 1963 to celebrate the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and John Gibbons believes it may not have been performed since then.

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However Saturday’s performance by the orchestra and the chamber choir fitted exactly into the theme of the evening and the work proved to be pleasant and tuneful and well worth the extraordinary efforts Mr Gibbons had made to acquire a copy of the score.

But the major work of the evening was the performance of Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony, a piece considered by many to be the composer’s most important and most compelling.

Any doubts I had over the orchestra’s ability to perform this huge and dramatic work were dispelled from the opening dark, almost doom-laden bars. Although not perfect, for no live performance ever is, this was an outstanding event in the life of the orchestra and a fitting tribute to the hard work Dr Ross and the members have put in over the past nine years.

Yes, there were some minor flaws in the orchestra’s performance, but in the overall effect they were insignificant. The interpretation by Dr Ross was fine and well balanced and throughout the epic work the musicians totally gripped the attention of the audience.

Jeanette Ager’s rich and commanding voice added hugely to the effect of the moving fourth movement and together with Sara Jonsson and the combined Watford and St Albans choirs, the powerful fifth movement brought the soloists and the orchestra’s extraordinary performance to a triumphant end.

The one disappointment during the evening was the small size of the audience, presumably reduced by the fact that England was playing its first game in the World Cup. But those regulars who opted not to attend missed one of the finest evenings of music ever staged by the St Albans Symphony Orchestra and one which surely demonstrated tremendous skills of amateur music makers in the district.