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Chamber Orchestra Visit to Ischia

Chamber Orchestra Visit to Ischia 
‘The Green Island’ 
(30 June – 3 July, 2009)

Imagine the scene. A volcanic island 15 miles off the coast of south west Italy – approached by ferry from Naples.  Imagine a lush, tropical, hanging gardens full of exotic trees and colourful shrubs and plants. An orchid house with a humming bird whirring around flashing translucent blue feathers that can barely be glimpsed. The atmosphere is moist, seventy per cent humidity. On the summit of the gardens, which have literally been carved into the rock face, are lily ponds surrounded by rich planting of the deep blue umbrels of agapanthus – the ‘blue lily of the Nile’ – hostas, hemerocallis, hellebores, agaves, and many other plants I did not recognize. The atmosphere is lush, trembling with life. This is the setting for what must be one of the most spectacular outdoor concert halls in the world. Shaped in the form of a mock Grecian amphitheatre, holding perhaps 500 seats, the stage is raised so that the backdrop for the audience is a view across the waters of the Bay of Naples and as evening darkens the lights of nearby coastal villages shimmer in the distance.

This heavenly place, La Mortella – ‘the place of myrtles’ - was the home of the British composer William Walton when he moved there, in the late 1940s, and with his second wife, Susana, built their home on the island, battling to carve out their gardens, connect to water and electricity supply from the mainland, and eventually on a rocky plinth on the side of the cliff to build their house. In this tranquil haven Walton composed much of his best music – all his concertos, finished his opera, wrote his awesome First symphony and the scores for the famous films of Shakespeare plays in association with Laurence Olivier, and much more besides. In memory of the composer, who died in 1983, the Walton Foundation has continued and expanded the opportunity especially for young musicians to come for masterclasses and to perform concerts in a number of different series spread across the year.

Hence Eton College Chamber Orchestra, thanks to a huge amount of hard work by Head of Strings, Jack Rozman, were performing in the sultry conditions on the stage at La Mortella. The Chamber Orchestra – made up from the core of the string sections of the full orchestra – consisting of about 20 players – had worked hard, rehearsing for several days at school at the end of the Summer Half, before flying to Naples and on by very fumy ferry crossed the Bay of Naples to Ischia. Mr Rozman lead the party and conducted the performance, ably assisted by Simon Dean – true Englishmen abroad (assuming Mr Rozman counts as English as he didn’t come through  EU passport control!) – and myself, feeling rather like mother to a large family but there to assist the rehearsals and to support my son Tim Lowe, OE who had been invited to play the Haydn D Major cello concerto. My husband Stuart came along and fitted into a role being not ‘of the staff’ but a useful pair of hands to have along. Mr Dean was most capable in his job ensuring all the boys were where they should be and that all returned home, which they did, even a few stragglers at check-in on the way back! Despite some overcrowded rooms in the hotel the spirit of the group was high and a few cool beers (for boys of the correct age) did no harm indeed were useful in helping to cool us down. 

The day after our arrival was spent rehearsing in the blessedly air-conditioned room that doubles as the small indoor recital hall and William Walton museum – full of interesting memorabilia of his life. The concert on the following day was a triumph. Everyone can be proud of the achievement as once again Eton musicians raised their game to pull off memorable performances. The highlight of the first half was Tim’s performance of the Haydn concerto. This was a challenge in the humid atmosphere. In Tim’s words, “When they turned on the spotlight I was quite shocked to see that not only the fingerboard of the cello but the whole of the belly were running with water. This is not good news when faced with one of the most virtuosic and technically complex pieces, written by Haydn to show off what the ‘cello can do. It was like driving on ice! Thanks to the excellent preparation of the Chamber Orchestra I was well supported and managed to play 80 per cent of my plan! On stage musicians know that there is no turning back and sometimes you just have to dig deep in concentration and energy to make the performance. Fortunately my cello came to no harm and as Mr Dean said this must have been the first under-water performance of Haydn’s music! I was  pleased that before we left I was invited to return to play in their recital series, thankfully indoors!”

Apart form the Haydn the rest of the programme was made up of English music. The mood was set by the opening piece Chacony by Purcell, perhaps the greatest of all our national composers. Then came the Haydn concerto. After the interval the orchestra excelled themselves in the two string pieces from Walton’s score for the Henry V film. The Passacaglia on the Death of Falstaff and Touch Her Soft Lips and Part  (the love scene between Henry and the French Queen Katherine) was played with a beautifully tender quality. Britten’s Simple Symphony (nothing simple about it at all!) was played with a lovely joie de vivre and energy, with a commendably accurate pizzicato movement. Finally, a folk tune and dance medley by P. E. Fletcher ended the evening with a sparkle that suited the lighting effects that were also a feature of this dramatic setting. The high standard of the school’s Chamber Orchestra is remarkable and one has to remind oneself that this is merely a ‘school’ orchestra. As Tim said, “…sometimes it was like having the English Chamber Orchestra behind me.” Tribute indeed to Mr Rozman and the sheer hard work and dedication of the boys.  It was a pleasure to be part of this visit to the exotic surroundings of Ischia but more than this was the sense of pride in the performance. I think the spirit of William Walton was also there in the lush gardens at La Mortella, sharing this pride in English musicianship.

Sue Lowe
(Cello Tutor)  



DATE POSTED: 01 September 2009

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