REVIEW: Worthing Symphony Orchestra

Craig Ogden
Craig Ogden

‘Latin Fire’ Concert – at Assembly Hall on Sunday; guitar soloist, Craig Ogden; conductor, John Gibbons.

Manuel De Falla, Ritual Fire Dance; Doreen Carwithen, Travel Royal Suite; Joaquin Rodrigo, Guitar Concert; Nicolay Rimsky-Korsakov, Flight of the Bumble Bee’; Peter Tchaikovsky, Symphony No2 ‘Little Russian’.

Guitar heroes have played Worthing Assembly Hall since the Sixties. Clapton, Green, Beck, Taylor, Townshend, Latimer, Whitehorn spring straight to mind. So when the length of Craig Ogden’s autographing queue delayed the start of Sunday’s concert second half, it was a sign of old times and good news.

Classic FM’s guitar star’s fans coming for CDs and signatures included a party of 20 from Davison Girls High School, who are no strangers to WSO concerts. The audience of nearly 700 included many wanting further experiences of the infectious quality of Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez, of which Classic FM frequently broadcast Ogden’s recording - often just the famous middle movement of its three.

It reigns supreme in its recording retail and box office appeal and longevity, and King Carlos bestowed on Rodrigo the hereditary title of Marquis of the Aranjuez Gardens which the composer so directly depicted in the music. We learned of this honour in the always excellent WSO concert programme, a mine of extra information for the music lover and seeker. Classical Guitar Magazine regards the composition as miraculous. Rodrigo’s blindness, piano virtuosity but non-guitar expertise are among the factors.

But what if you are an Australian guitarist in the footsteps of the great John Williams and about to play it yet again, and to a British audience in a marvellous concert acoustic in which there is no hiding place for the performer? And it’s packed with people who know your recording but many are perhaps hearing the whole concerto for the first time and, further, it’s their maiden live performance?

Such a responsibility, the perception of and respect for the perpetual technical and artistic challenge of playing it would sound a note of caution. You have six strings to get exactly right and in classical that’s a knife-edge. Some reasons, maybe, why Ogden sounded nervous and rhythmically imprecise in his solo opening bars.

Or wait. Was it his deliberate interpretative plan? A busking guitarist sits on a Spanish street, perhaps by the Alhambra Palace, digesting a snack, sipping a drink, and doodling around. A musical idea arrives, he tries it out. Dancers listening in (the orchestra), pick up the rhythm, connect with its castanets idiom, crisp it up, and an impromptu show begins.

I felt this spirited first movement tempo got a fraction fast for Ogden’s complete stability and clarity of diction but John Gibbon and the WSO were in the spirit and up for the dash, swagger, suavity, flair and flavour of the Latin moment. The slow movement captured the mystery, romance and caprice of Rodrigo’s garden scents and birdlife vision. It lasts seductively as long as the other two movements put together and finally the nocturnal, languid enchantment they gave to the ending drew spontaneous applause, which Ogden welcomed. His delivery of the movement was all you could have asked for.

The finale is the litmus test for the conductor and orchestra, who need to be those festing Spaniards in their myriad ways following the guitarist. This WSO performance had plenty of that evocation, with Ogden’s glittering notes cascading like water in the moonlight all the way to the final cheeky close.

There were curtain calls for Deborah Goodyer (cor anglais) and Miriam Lowbury (principal cello), gift wine for Ogden (from Iberian vineyards?), and an encore for the crowd almost as famous as the Concierto – it was ‘Memories of the Alhambra’, the ravishingly evocative Tarrego tremolando study. The busker was thanking his donors.

November: A nostalgic time to recall a holiday Espana. This concert’s first three composers were all November-born, Rodrigo on the 22nd (St Cecilia’s Day) and on the 23rd de Falla the Argentinian, whose dark flickering Ritual Fire Dance set Sunday’s scene – with Gibbons skilfully conducting while standing awkwardly to play the necessary piano part. Doreen Carwithen’s Travel Royal Suite is contrived with standard British popular tunes to attract foreign tourists to Britain by air (BOAC) in an advertising film. Probably post-war music publishing sexism kept fame from Carwithen, so Rodrigo’s Concierto has done a more conspicuous job for the Spanish tourist industry.

The autograph queue no doubt enabled extra last-minute practice for WSO principal flautist Monica McCarron before starring for 2 minutes with what seems like her 2,000 notes in The Flight of The Bumble Bee, the modern showpiece from Rimsky’s opera The Tale of The Tsar Sultan. Then Tchaikovsky let loose the WSO collectively on their own with his brightly untroubled Second Symphony.

“It’s one of my favourites,” declared Gibbons in his rostrum chat. He’s played it maybe three times in his 20-year tenure at WSO, and why not? The level to which he has taken this orchestra ensured it was fascination and a boon all the way to the highly original scherzo and the super-fun finale where instrumental sections aim droll jokes at each other, blow raspberries, exchange banter and tumble and crash around in boisterous games.

It started with first horn Dave Lee in top form and, throughout, timpanist Rob Millett revelled in the completion of, for him, a joyfully busy afternoon.

Richard Amey

Craig Oden, in a dark blue suit and open-necked shirt, played a slightly larger classical guitar by Greg Smallman, lightly amplified with a Sennheiser microphone (not a pick-up) attached (not embedded) and positioned behind the strings (to avoid feedback), and fed to a very small cuboid combo amp with a six-inch speaker and placed beside him on a piano stool.

What got him hooked on guitar? “John Denver’s songs, when I was five. His chords sounded so lovely.”

The last performance of this work with the WSO was by soloist Richard Durrant – also a November birthday.

Next WSO concert, Sunday, January 7 (2.45): New Year Tonic: traditional Viennese waltzes, marches and polkas but with Varvara Tarasova, the Russian winner of the most recent Sussex International Piano Competition, playing something magnificently fitting: Mozart’s most luxuriantly-scored Piano Concerto of all, the No 22 in Eb K482. None other sounds like it.

www.worthingsymphony.co.uk

Richard Amey