The warmest day of the year to date greeted the Robert Farnon Society members and friends who made a special trip to Edinburgh to attend the premiere of Robert Farnon’s Symphony No. 3 – The Edinburgh on Saturday 14 May. Some had even flown up from the south of England especially for this memorable occasion, and everyone agreed that it was a magical experience.
The following reports (by three RFS members who attended the premiere) give an idea of the ‘flavour’ of that very special event. First of all we hear from James Beyer…..
World Première of Robert Farnon’s
Symphony No 3 in F "Edinburgh"
National Symphony Orchestra of Scotland (Leader John Reid)
Conductor: Iain Sutherland
Saturday 14th May 2005 in The Usher Hall, Edinburgh
An appreciation with some personal thoughts
Saturday 14th May 2005 was a special day for my native city of Edinburgh – for at the Usher Hall that evening, the National Symphony Orchestra of Scotland (Leader John Reid) under their Conductor, Iain Sutherland would present the World Première of Robert Farnon’s 3rd Symphony – his "Edinburgh" Symphony.
For myself and fellow RFS member Brian Henderson, things began happening the previous day, when we spent a most enjoyable evening in the company of Philip Farlow and his wife, Edwina (who had travelled earlier by train from London). A bright and sunny Saturday dawned – heralding what was to turn out to be one of the warmest and sunniest days so far this year! Edinburgh city centre was thronged with people, determined to take advantage of the good weather; and as the day progressed, it proved to be memorable on a number of counts. That afternoon, I met David Ades for a chat over coffee before heading off to the Usher Hall for the evening Concert.
Early doors brought a number of RFS members together – Robert and Patricia Walton, Malcolm and Iris Frazer, Philip and Edwina Farlow and Brian Henderson. Also attending the Concert were three RFS members from Fife - Terry Viner, Stephen Gray and David Kinnison.
For those of us in the audience whose association with Robert Farnon was more than a passing acquaintance with his music, the evening was not without some feelings of emotion, poignancy and personal reflection.
Initial efforts by Bob to get his Symphony performed in Scotland, let alone Edinburgh were fraught with all sorts of difficulties and problems; and at times the prospect of a world première north of the border seemed hopeless. Latterly, telephone calls between us were frequent in an attempt to get his "Edinburgh" Symphony performed in the Capital. As an amateur musician my contacts within the professional sector are limited; and thus, no matter how keen I was to "promote" and support Bob’s project, my "input" was therefore restricted. However, thanks to Iain Sutherland and the National Symphony Orchestra of Scotland, Bob’s wish became a reality. The Concert was presented in partnership with the Royal Bank of Canada, Europe.
So – to the Concert itself.
The programme began with Sir Malcolm Arnold’s "Tam O’Shanter" Overture Op 51. An Englishman’s idea of Scottish-ness? – well, perhaps; but it was a rousing and exciting start to the evening, with a spirited performance from the NSOS.
In complete contrast, there followed a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major Op 35 with soloist, Alexander Sitkovetsky. At 22 years of age, this amazing young man’s talent is phenomenal. Having made his début as a soloist at the tender age of 8, he has become one of the most promising young musicians of the 21st century. Sitkovetsky has performed throughout Europe and the UK; and other engagements have taken him to the USA, Israel and Hawaii, as well as his native city of Moscow.
The interval brought excited anticipation, as we eagerly awaited the first performance of Robert Farnon’s Symphony No 3 in F – dedicated to André Previn, who once referred to Farnon as, "the greatest string writer in the world". And in this respect, the Symphony serves as vindication of Previn’s statement – not that any proof is needed.
From the opening bars of the 1st Movement (Calmato assai) with its expressively romantic theme, we knew instinctively that we were about to experience something very special. For in this 25 minute Symphony, Bob "encapsulated" his life-story in music, so to speak. It would not be an exaggeration to say that it is, in many ways, retrospective and at the same time "biographical" in character – for here, Bob, in effect, is narrating his life-story. Neatly dovetailed, is an amalgam of varying styles and moods, which reflect his astounding musical career. And to really appreciate the work, one has to know the man and his music – for here is his humour, his sensitivity, his humility and above all his supreme musicianship. And as the music unfolded, I found myself identifying with Bob and his music. He had the great gift of being able to write in a number of different styles; and we were reminded of these in this multi-faceted Symphony.
There was the tonal richness of Bob’s film music – complete with the big romantic themes; the sound of a concert orchestra from the 30s or 40s; a hint of Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett; and rhapsodic passages reminding one of such works as, "A la claire fontaine". Especially notable was the NSOS brass section, comprising four trumpets, four trombones with the addition of four horns, which provided the "Big Band" element.
At one point, the orchestra launched into a rhythmic figure in a style not unreminiscent of "Jumping Bean", and which was quickly followed by a typically Farnonesque treatment of the nursery rhyme, "Baa, Baa, Blacksheep". And there were touches of comedy. By using a "slapstick" at one point, was Bob I wonder, reminding us of the unscripted comedy of his "Happy Gang" days?
Particularly poignant was the main theme from the 2nd Movement written for the solo trumpet – highlighting Bob’s love for the instrument and recalling his time as lead trumpeter in Percy Faith’s Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Orchestra. Here also were some Gershwinesque touches and a reminder of Bob’s association with the Big Bands.
The 3rd movement included the Scottish references – heard initially by distant pipe-band drumming (I now know why Bob asked me to send him a CD of authentic pipe-drumming!) – and developed by the introduction of two folk tunes ("My love she’s but a lassie, yet" and "The Bluebells of Scotland"). First heard separately, Bob quickly combines them in skilful counterpoint. The Symphony ends with a direct quote from his arrangement of Scottish airs – the suite, "From The Highlands". After all; as Bob once said, "If you’re going to borrow (music), borrow from the best!"
The final chord brought hesitant applause at first – not out of disrespect or an unappreciative regard for the music; but due, I suspect, to a typically reticent Edinburgh audience. This was something noted especially by the foreign visitors, who are accustomed to showing their appreciation in a somewhat more enthusiastic and passionate manner.
Following a short "tribute" to Robert Farnon by Iain Sutherland, we were treated to two encores – "Westminster Waltz" and "Portrait of a Flirt".
Iain Sutherland has to be commended for his masterful interpretation of Robert Farnon’s fine score and giving us the opportunity to hear Bob’s last major work. In addition, he must be complimented on the excellent programme note for Robert Farnon’s 3rd Symphony. In writing the analysis, Mr Sutherland "guided" the reader-listener through the opus, thus serving to enhance one’s enjoyment and appreciation of what hitherto was an unknown work. (The text of Iain Sutherland’s programme note is reproduced below).
Sadly, with Bob’s recent death, it is the end of an era; but let us reflect on the rich musical legacy he has given us, which is something that we will continue to treasure and enjoy for many years to come.
After the Concert, a fellow member of The Robert Farnon Society remarked, "It has been a magical weekend". It certainly was!
James Beyer (Conductor: The Edinburgh Light Orchestra)
The following Programme Note is reproduced by kind permission of Iain Sutherland.
Symphony No. 3 in F ‘Edinburgh’
Robert Farnon CM
Dedicated to André Previn
i. Calmato assai ii. Larghetto iii. Allegro
Robert Farnon’s final opus is dedicated to the world-renowned conductor and composer, André Previn, and was inspired by a summer visit to Scotland’s capital city. Like so many Canadians, Farnon had a strong Scottish connection, his Grandmother having been an émigré. Although not a symphony in the strict classical sense of the form, as indeed, neither were Tchaikovsky’s, nor Sibelius’s, it is an extended work, in three movements, rather like three loosely linked symphonic rhapsodies. It is scored for a large orchestra with four Trumpets, and, unusually for a symphony orchestra, four Trombones. The sonority of eight brass, is, however, redolent of the ‘Big Band’ sound, and allied here to the usual four French Horns, gives the work an immediately identifiable ‘feel’. The composer does not shy away from the kind of writing and orchestrating for which he was so justifiably world famous in an effort to be more ‘symphonic’ per se, and many of his unique orchestration techniques echo throughout the score.
The first movement, Calmato assai, opens with the first of many romantic melodic themes, played by unison violins; a short series of brass and timpani interjections leads to a new theme played against a brass backdrop of subtly changing chords, with a jazz-style ‘walking’ bass. These themes continue to be explored until a bright, jig-like section bursts out, leading to a short, full brass fragment of a warmly remembered nursery rhyme, eventually leading to a new, more intense theme, introduced by the strings, then the solo cor anglais and the solo cello. The opening theme returns in the full orchestra, and a short coda beginning with a chromatic, rising and intense figure by the brass, subsiding into a calm and very soft ending, with an ambivalent F major/ F minor descending figure on the harp.
The second movement, Larghetto, begins with a short cadenza on the solo flute, recalling the jig-like central section of the first movement. The solo violin and flute then present a meditative, romantic theme; a secondary theme from the strings soon becomes the accompaniment to the return of the first melody on the oboe. A lush chorale by the full brass section is followed by the main theme played by the solo trumpet. The middle section of the movement is, to me, a nostalgic reminder of Robert Farnon’s war years as Conductor of the Canadian Band of the AEF, alongside Glenn Miller with the American Band and George Melachrino, the British. The secondary theme mentioned earlier is played by the Trombone quartet over pizzicato rhythms from solo bass and cellos. A new theme now emerges, and is presented three times in contrasting orchestrations, the middle one being of great intensity, and the third extended into ever quieter, rising triplets until abating in a short vibraphone solo, before the pizzicato bass whispers the final phrase.
The Finale, Allegro, opens with a series of irregular rhythms played by the harp and strings col legno, with the wooden back of the bow, and an accompaniment of exotic percussion instruments including finger cymbals, templeblocks, woodblocks and sandpaper blocks. A solo clarinet sings out a blues tinged fragment, later taken up by the trumpets after a jazz-style burst from the full orchestra. As the irregular rhythms fade away, a roll on the timpani and suspended cymbal opens up into a gloriously full-throated, big, broad theme for the whole orchestra, reminiscent of the great themes Robert Farnon provided for many a romantic film score. The theme then quietens, with the brass choir accompanied by triplet figures on the vibraphone, celeste and harp, until Scottish pipe-band drums are heard pianissimo; having visited most of the influences on his music on his symphonic journey, he beholds Edinburgh. Two folk melodies, ‘My love she’s but a lassie, yet’ and ‘The Bluebells of Scotland’, are ingeniously combined in a rising crescendo until the jig-style theme returns for a short, joyous coda.
Robert Walton gives his impressions on this major new work …..
To hear any work for the first time, is a thrilling experience, especially a world premiere, but when it's a symphony by your favourite composer, that has to be special. Even though you're familiar with the idiom, you never know quite what to expect. Whether you're in a concert hall or at home, it's no different. Your auditory senses are in a state of high expectation and anticipation. You become a human sponge ready to absorb a brand new creation. Such was the case with Robert Farnon's last major work, his Third Symphony, performed in the imposing Usher Hall in the historic capital and cultural centre of Scotland. The thought that the composer would never actually hear the symphony made it a very poignant occasion.
Dedicated to André Previn, the man who called Robert Farnon "the greatest living writer for strings", the symphony starts simply with unison violins playing a gorgeous tune which only Farnon could have written. (Violins playing the same note, especially in their lower register, can often produce much more emotion than in harmony). That comes later. But for now this melody is given the seal of approval by the brass and timpani. I knew it wouldn't be too long before Farnon introduced a jazz element to the proceedings. And sure enough he incorporates the device invented by Basie bassist Walter Page in the late 1920s, a walking bass. And how effective it is, especially with a new melody over beautiful chords. Then a jig (Scottish of course!) suddenly emerges from the orchestra dancing its way towards a familiar nursery rhyme played by the brass. But the strings never far away, return with a more passionate theme followed by the cor anglais and cello. If the nursery rhyme was familiar, then the opening tune repeated by the whole orchestra has already endeared itself to the listener. Now it's the turn of the brass to get worked up but not for long. They quickly calm down to the softest of endings, while the harp keeps you guessing whether the movement is going to finish in a major or minor key.
Symphonies are all about recycling and mood swings, so it's not surprising that the second movement opens with a reminder of the earlier jig featuring some solo flute fireworks slowing right down to join a violin in a new tender tune. Yet another string theme is skilfully transformed into the accompaniment of the tender tune but this time the oboe takes the solo. Now we're treated to a huge Ted Heath like brass section of 8 players (4 trumpets and, unusual for a symphony orchestra, 4 trombones) who produce the most glorious sound. This is Farnon in full flight showing it's not only strings he's master of. Then the trombones come into their own with a reworking of the earlier theme which doubled as an accompaniment, but this time the lower strings in pizzicato mode provide the accompaniment. And as if all that isn't enough, a completely new melody (Farnon's full of them) is stated three times no less in different guises, the second one erupting with immense force. The movement ends peacefully with a vibraphone solo and a pizzicato bass. Taking a leaf out of the finale of Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, Farnon instructs the violins to tap the strings with the sticks of their bows (col legno) instead of using the hair. This unusual effect when mixed with the harp and percussion creates an exciting exotic sound. The clarinet plays a brief blues which is picked up later by the trumpets, but not before the whole orchestra lets itself go in an uninhibited jazzy outburst. But the orchestra has one more important function to fulfil. To play one of those thrilling climaxes Farnon is famous for, and it doesn't disappoint. It's my favourite part of the symphony. In fact I was so overwhelmed I hardly noticed the two Scottish tunes at the end but did detect the orchestration was strangely familiar. Clearly a little bit of recycling From the Highlands!A major part of the success of the work was due to the brilliant conducting of lain Sutherland who with the National Symphony Orchestra of Scotland gave such a polished performance it sounded like it had been in the repertoire for years. If André Previn had been present I'm sure his original assessment of Farnon would have remained unchanged. Robert Walton
Phil Farlow completes our trio of reminiscences….
On the weekend of Saturday the 14th May the sun shone brightly and warmly on the City of Edinburgh for what must have been one of the most memorable and poignant events in the Robert Farnon calendar.
The main event for us was the National Symphony Orchestra of Scotland conducted by Iain Sutherland with the World Premiere Performance of Bob’s Symphony No. 3 in F, the ‘Edinburgh’ which was to be performed at the Usher Hall.
My wife Edwina and I had travelled up from London by train on the Friday and that evening the weekend started in great style when we met up for a very memorable Italian meal with James Beyer and Brian Robinson who later on also kindly hosted a mini tour of Edinburgh by night.
During the Saturday we walked through the Gardens, up to Edinburgh Castle and down the Royal Mile taking in quite a few metres of tartan on the way, and also viewed the apparently controversial architectural lines of the new Parliament Building.
On the Saturday evening we arrived at Usher Hall in good time to greet several Robert Farnon Society members including Robert and Patricia Walton, Malcolm and Iris Frazer as well as David Ades and his brother- and sister-in-laws Andrew and Joan Stevenson. There was definitely that buzz in the air that goes with events like this one, and as we all chatted away the time soon drew near to take our seats.
The World Premiere of Bob’s ‘Edinburgh’ Symphony was to be performed after the interval – and whatever had been chosen before, I don’t think I was the only person there to want to ‘wind on’ in my excitement to hear this new work.
Then the interval came – another chat with our friends and another look around to see who was there – and we were back in our seats for – well ‘the great moment’ we’d waited for.
Baited breath time as traditionally on came the orchestra’s leader John Reid closely followed by conductor Iain Sutherland – and then that wonderful hush that occurs just before the first notes are ushered.
There are three movements in the ‘Edinburgh’ Symphony, and as they slowly unwound to our ears for the first time ever in public, the very strong first impression that I got was that Bob has given us here glimpses of his lifetime’s music. Here encapsulated in this Symphony are all the Farnon trademarks that we have all come to know and love: the humour of ‘Happy Gang’, the eight brass big band sound, all the beautiful tone colours of the strings – it was all there. And the many and different ways Bob applies it for each requirement as well – the sounds of the AEF band, the ‘Portrait of a Flirt’ sound, the film sound, the jazz style, the blues style, the romantic style, the way he scored for singers – and more. The Scottish connections came as a delight with interpolations of jig rhythms, pipe band drums and folk melodies and in the third movement Bob brings us his own touch of ‘exotica’ where added to harp and strings are finger cymbals, templeblocks, woodblocks and sandpaper blocks. Wow !!
I personally think that the ‘Edinburgh’ Symphony is a really joyous illustration and not least celebration of Robert Farnon’s life in music, and that it couldn’t have been marked better than in this Premiere performance by the National Symphony Orchestra of Scotland conducted by Iain Sutherland.
In the light of Bob’s recent passing, and to complete the evening’s entertainment, we had the further joy of hearing the orchestra playing ‘Westminster Waltz’ and ‘Portrait of a Flirt’ which certainly finished icing the cake to perfection.
This article appeared in ‘Journal Into Melody’ September 2005
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