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The Queen Symphony

by on 20 November 2018

Spirit, Spiritually and Splash

The Queen Symphony and Symphony of Psalms

By Tolga Kashif and Igor Stravinsky

UK Premiere

Kew Wind Orchestra and Choirs at St John’s Smith Square, Westminster, 18th November

Review by Eugene Broad

“Let’s do it, darling” is supposedly what Freddie Mercury said, before downing a shot of vodka and singing the vocals to The Show Must Go On in a single recording, shortly before his death. That vim and vigour was harnessed wonderfully by the immensely talented performers of Kew Wind Orchestra, the Hampton Choral Society, and The Hythe Singers in Tolga Kashif’s The Queen Symphony.


Just as eclectic and individual as Freddie Mercury was the musical choice presented to us, with the other selected works being Percy Grainger’s A Marching Song of Democracy and Igor Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms.

Grainger, as a composer and person, very much went his own way in life. This spirit was present throughout A Marching Song of Democracy, a lyrical series of waves building and washing over the listener, to the point of almost becoming blurry, before reorganising and rebuilding, with a central current of a theme pushing through the flotsam and jetsam around it. Intended to be performed to the rhythmic marching of feet as a chorus whistled and sung-along, the hypnotic drive of the piece came through without the need of this accompaniment.

Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms was almost painfully intense, given the power of the choir, the dexterity of the orchestra, and the atmosphere of St John Smith’s Square. A symphony split into three movements, each tackles a different Biblical psalm – 38, 39 and 150 respectively. Stravinsky was commissioned to compose the piece for $6,000 by Koussevitzky – his publisher, and the conductor of the Boston Symphony. This was supposedly somewhat a symbiotic relationship, with Koussevitzky loving Stravinsky’s music, and Stravinsky loving Koussevitzky’s money.


The first movement starts with a sudden jolt, a burst of E minor chords, which cascaded into a tempestuous piano (adroitly played throughout by Leo Nicholson), bass and cellos rumble, before bassoons circle in octatonic flight like hungry sea vultures waiting to swoop down and peck at the choir lamenting their fate. The effect is immediate – this has the desperation of drowning, deep in the ocean, in the midst of a storm. This is spiritual music designed to make the listener uncomfortably reflect on their mortality, as the choral voices plead with uncontrollable forces to “be no more”.

Compared to this movement (and likewise the third movement), the second movement is almost pedestrian by comparison. Evoking an uneasy Bach, the second movement begins with orchestral exposition, wonderfully morose oboes picking out a fugue, later joined by fluttery soft flutes and stronger-winged piccolos – reminiscent, perhaps, of the hungry sea vultures now being content, stomachs full of drowned choir, calling to each other on a becalmed sea. Kew Wind Orchestra handled this part especially marvellously, with the orchestra answering and calling to each-other, until the choir re-emerges from the morning stillness – slowly building and structuring their own answers and calls to their counterparts. This dialogue was excellently controlled and maintained by orchestra and choirs alike. This gentleness lulls into a false sense of security; all at once, the choir bursts into life again.

The third, final movement, is almost a mix of the two which come before it. It has a heavy tension within it, echoing the contrapuntal nature of the second movement. Mixed in is the same visceral force of nature which is so dominant in the first movement. Increasingly gentle cries of “hallelujah”, accompanied by the soft heaving breathing of the woodwind orchestra; no longer a fierce organ-beast, but its own voice distinct again. Adeptly handled by both orchestra and choir, this was evocative spiritual contemplation of a type that only someone from the fold of Russian Orthodoxy could produce, much like Rachmaninov’s far more traditionalist Vespers. The surprising difference between the two, however, is that Stravinsky infamously refused to endorse that music creates feeling. This particular work – not to mention a dozen others – begs to differ.


But the absolute highlight of the evening had to be Kashif’s The Queen Symphony, at which point the conductor, Matthew Willis, Kew Wind Orchestra, Hampton Choral Society, and the Hythe Singers clearly shared “one vision”. The symphony, split into six movements arranged by mood, drew from the feel and inspiration of Queen’s songs. Even so, clear motifs, patterns, and themes were recognisable as Queen’s – solely adding to the appeal and fun of the piece in listening and finding their famous riffs and rhythms echoed or masked in orchestral form.

Perhaps best considered (very) literally as a popular classical piece, it was never fully pop nor fully classical. Rather, it was an absolute “Bohemian rhapsody” (or well, rather, symphony) – with the motif of Who Wants to Live Forever re-emerging through it to add consistency and flavour. Despite being composed with Queen in mind, it could hold its own as a stand-alone symphony which even someone without a soft spot for Queen would comfortably enjoy.

Whilst all three of the soloists were superlative in their performances (with Rachel Barnes on violin, Gillian O’Dempsey on ‘cello, and Leo Nicholson on piano), the orchestra and choirs, marvellously marshalled by Matthew Willis were “the champions” of the night. I truly hope that this particular piece is one kept close for frequent future recitals, and it is equally one to keep a keen eye out for – it’ll rock you, make you gaga and want the show to keep going on.

Eugene Broad
November 2018

Photographs courtesy of Kew Wind Orchestra

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