In a theatre in Chatswood, people gathered for a Sunday matinee of music. The program promised Gershwin, a trumpet concerto by Tomasi, and Elgar’s Enigma Variations.

The musicians began to enter the hall, positioning their instruments and tuning up. The entrance of the first violin was greeted with applause. Dr Nicholas Milton appeared with a flourish. He is the Chief Conductor and Artistic Director of the Willoughby Symphony Orchestra and Choir. After welcoming everyone he provided a brief overview of the Gershwin piece. He introduced the orchestra and pointed out some special horn instruments. These were to depict car horns along bustling Parisian streets. There is a photo of the original French taxi horns bought by Gershwin here.

An American in Paris was a delight. It was a wonderful introduction with its sense of play and strong jazz overtones. It is a joyous and bright piece of music.

The trumpet concerto was wonderful. A short unaccompanied solo trumpet piece played after this was breathtaking. I can’t recall who the composer was, but the musician, Rainer Saville, said that he thought of it as a call from a minaret. It was exquisite.

Then it was intermission and a chance to have a breath of fresh air. It was hard not to burble about the music, the wonder of seeing it all come together. The integral role of the conductor was clear, for the orchestra as a whole and individuals. It seemed as though every movement and gesture originated from him.

Dr Milton provided a brief introduction to Elgar’s Enigma Variations. He said that Elgar had been noodling about with a tune on his piano one evening and his wife had commented on it. Elgar developed variations with different friends in mind. There is an extensive overview of them here. Things to listen out for included an impersonation of a friend who was an actor. Coins were used at one point on the timpani to imitate the sound of a steamship. This was in remembrance of a fiancé who departed for New Zealand.

There are echoes of the original theme throughout the work. The most famous piece is Variation 9 (Adagio) Nimrod. It is recognisable from movies and the like and is a beautiful piece often played at ceremonies. It is also acknowledged as having an emotional impact. The music moves from soft to loud, tension builds and resolves with the final timpani roll. There is a link here to a performance by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Whilst I was familiar with this piece, nothing prepared me for hearing it live. It was astounding.

The completion of the Enigma Variations was met with resounding applause. The conductor returned and we had a final treat – Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance. It was rousing and a fantastic piece to end the concert on.

Dr Milton had talked of how nothing is quite like a live performance, and how no two performances are the same. There is a magic and mystery in a live performance. Seeing how the orchestra came together was a wonderful experience. There was the exchange of glances between the musicians and the conductor. And little niceties such as page turning: one cellist whipped the page over, the second stabbed it into place with their bow. There was also a sense of joy at the successful completion of a piece, with everyone acknowledging the outstanding performances.

It was an amazing experience and I look forward to future performances. There is a brief clip on the Willoughby Symphony Orchestra here.

When was the last time you had a musical afternoon?

[Photo: a glimpse of some of the instruments of the Willoughby Symphony Orchestra]