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Concert Review

Otto Smith, concertina

Port Townsend Orchestra
(Port Townsend, Washington, USA)

Dewey Ehrling, conductor


Giuseppe Verdi: Overture to La Forza del Destino
Ralph Vaughan Williams: Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1 in E Minor
Edvard Grieg: Sigurd Jorsalfar

Wilhelm Bernhard Molique (1802-1869):Concerto for Concertina and Orchestra No. 1 in G

Saturday, November 8, 1997

Review by Randy Hudson:

On Saturday, November 8th, I attended a performance of the Molique Concertina Concerto #1 in G by the Port Townsend Orchestra, with Otto Smith the soloist on English Concertina. I met Otto through this newsgroup last Summer and have had a few lessons with him. He lives in Port Townsend, a small town on Washington's Northern coastal peninsula. I live on an adjacent island in the Puget Sound and took a ferry over on Saturday afternoon. Since the last boat home was in the early evening I arranged for floor space at the Smith's - and I'm glad it worked out because the evening was memorable.

The concert was in a nice hall at the local high school. The crowd of about 300 or so had a distinctly relaxed, small town air about it, with a real diverse mixture of people. The 47 piece community orchestra is supported by local benefactors and fund raisers, and offers a regular schedule of free performances. The director likes to offer a wide variety of music, and was open to trying this concertina concerto, which apparently had never before been performed in the U.S.

The orchestra filed in and I was delighted by the scope of the ages of the players. They ranged from a few who appeared to be teenagers up to a number who were surely 70+ years. Things started out with Kristin Smith, concertmaster and Otto's wife, briefly speaking about a local character who had just passed away, and then playing a short piece on a violin the man had made. It was clear from the audience that the effort had been appreciated. I knew then that I was involved in the finest kind of community event.

The orchestra played three lovely pieces, which to my unclassical ear sounded very good. There was of course an abundance of delicious goodies for sale at intermission. When the musicians were seated for the second half, Otto strolled out carrying his Colin Dipper English Treble under his arm and resplendent in full tux. Now you should know that Otto is a rather big man, with a full bushy beard and flowing hair, and a booming voice that fills a room. He is apparently well known about town, and his dashing appearance, along with the sight of the unique and beautiful instrument he was carrying, set off a great round of anticipatory applause.

In opening remarks, Otto explained a bit about the concerto and how he came to be performing it this night. Written by Bernard Molique in 1853, it was apparently first performed by Giulio Regondi in 1856. There seems to have been only one other performance in the 20th century, by Douglas Rodgers and the Lecosaldi Ensemble in 1990 in London. Since the written music exists only in a reduction with piano accompaniment, the score had to be reconstructed. For this he greatly thanked Dewey Ehling, the conductor. He also expressed thanks to Alan Atlas for his help in obtaining the music and for general encouragement and support.

And then they were off. After a short intro from the orchestra, the concertina began weaving beautiful chordal progressions, rapid fire chromatic runs, and sweet melodic lines which entranced the audience. A new experience for all of us, I was immediately taken by how well the sound of the concertina fit with the orchestra. It carried well throughout the hall and blended with the more familiar traditional sounds in a very pleasing way. The audience seemed to especially enjoy the fast chromatic runs which would encompass the whole range of the instrument. It was clear that the composer was quite aware of the strengths of the instrument and worked to show them off. I actually heard people around me making small expressions of awe through some of the passages. As a novice player myself, I was definitely in awe of the level of expertise being demonstrated.

To be perfectly fair I have to tell you that Otto ran into a bit of trouble through a couple of difficult passages in the middle movement. However, the conductor deftly swelled the orchestra and Otto backed off slightly to regain his composure and I had the feeling that many folks may not even have noticed. By the third movement I could see that he had hit stride. I sensed a surge of confidence and relaxation which propelled him into a swelling, triumphant finish. There was an immediate and spontaneous standing ovation that wouldn't stop until he had been called back on stage twice and received an armful of flowers, which he began passing out to his fellow musicians. At that moment I was very moved, caught up both in the experience of a fine musical performance and a heartfelt demonstration of support for an individual who had worked so hard to be able to share this music.

So that was the end of the concert, but now I must tell you a bit about the party afterwards. Many of the musicians and their family and friends gathered at a beautiful old home near the waterfront. Included in this group was another local resident, the renowned anglo concertina player Bertrum Levy, who brought his own Colin Dipper box along. When he and Otto sat down to play, I planted myself next to them and soaked in all I could. The other musicians, basically unfamiliar with concertinas, asked many questions, and it was fascinating to see these two players explain and demonstrate the different capabilities of their respective instruments. I was struck by how each of them utilized so well the inherent advantages of their instrument, but could also effectively emulate the style of the other's system as well. Bertrum has developed a taste for Brazilian/Tango music and treated us to some amazing tunes. Later, he showed me his bandoneon and demonstrated that new passion.

Finally, back at the Smith residence the excitement of the evening carried us into the early morning hours with the kind of aimless conversation and reliving of the evening which is needed to unwind from such an event. Sunday morning I awoke to a beautiful sunny sky and the strains of Otto preparing a piano piece for the Unitarian Fellowship where he plays each week. On the ferry ride home I got out my concertina and played just a little better than I thought I could.

Otto is an enthusiastic friend of the English Concertina and very open about sharing his knowledge. He intends to make the Molique Concerto and its reconstructed score available. He may even be badgered into providing a recording of it, which before last Saturday night may not have existed anywhere. He can be reached at:

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