REVIEW: Wurlitzer concerto and Keith Emerson Tribute concert

John Gibbons beginning the concert   Pic Stephen Goodger
John Gibbons beginning the concert Pic Stephen Goodger

Worthing Symphony Orchestra, Assembly Hall, Richard Hills (organ), John Gibbons (conductor).

Film music – Alwyn, suites from ‘The History of Mr Polly’ and ‘Geordie’; Walton, from Henry V, ‘Passacaglia Death of Falstaff’ and ‘Touch her Soft Lips and Part’; Prokofiev, from Lieutenant Kije, ‘Troika’. Stage music: Whitlock, ‘Spade and Bucket, Polka’ (theatre); Copland, from Rodeo, ‘Hoe Down’ (ballet). Clog Dance – Grainger, ‘Handel on the Strand’. Ragtime hit - Joplin, ‘Maple Leaf Rag’. World Premiere – Paul Lewis, ‘Seaside Concerto for Wurlitzer and Orchestra’.

Somebody once surprised me by giving me their business card at a WSO concert. Composers are not known for handing out business cards. It featured a picture of him at work. What do you imagine?

Probably two classic alternatives. Either he was sitting at a piano, pencil at the ready, gazing soulfully into the distance, invoking connection with some sublime inspiration. Or he was sitting at the piano, meticulously, or even feverishly, pencilling in precious pearls of notes onto his latest score. Have a guess which!

Well yes, he was sitting at a piano, writing something onto a page, but there were other published books of his music lying on the top of the piano – suggesting he had, sometime in the past, staved off starvation by doing some business. But wait, he was actually looking up and grinning his head off at the camera.

Peculiar? Wacky, even? OK. So this man had started coming the miles from Pevensey to WSO concerts - usually in a variety of strikingly-patterned but conventionally-cut jackets, a smile always ready and a laugh only an upbeat away. Modest, mischievous, loyal, he is now a fitting part of the regular WSO audience scene of a happy audience who enjoy imaginative, rewardingly entertaining programmes – even novel ones like this one – from director John Gibbons.

Few people knew who he was – until Sunday. During applause for a Gibbons-commissioned world premiere called Seaside Concerto for Wurlitzer and Orchestra, beckoned forth, this man emerged from the audience and bounded up onto the stage. Immediately, from his specially purchased black and white dogtooth jacket, he produced a long stick of rock.

He gave it, prizelike, to Wurlitzer organ soloist, BBC Proms star Richard Hills. Then he produced another and gave it to guest WSO leader Alison Kelly. Another for conductor Gibbons. Then after several bows to the audience with Hills and Gibbons, he produced a fourth: a baton to beat time as he encouraged the audience, unaccompanied, to sing the chorus of ‘Oh, I Do Love to be Beside the Seaside’. The tune had featured in the finale of the piece, with echoes also of ‘Let’s All Go Down The Strand’. (So he could also have handed out bananas).

His name is Paul Lewis and thank heavens for internationally successful film and TV composers like him who make you smile instead of frown, laugh instead of cry. Seaside Concerto did that, in recalling vintage August holidays at resorts, of sandy beaches, ice cream stalls, promenade cafe’s, amusement arcades, ghost trains, music-hall singsongs . . . and theatres, cinemas or ballrooms with massive versatile organs with footpedal notes than make your stomach muscles vibrate. (So he could have appeared afterwards in a period bathing costume)

There was already warning on the cellophane to sobersided listeners – some of whom had already stayed away from this concert altogether, probably because it looked far too entertaining. The movements were entitled ‘Horrificoso’, ‘Sentimental Ballad and Waltz’ and ‘Scherzo-on-Sea’. Lewis is in his 74th year, an accomplished veteran of the music-in-film-and-TV business after an apprenticeship on quitting Brighton public school at 15.

Naturally, his years qualify him for these witty, funny, strawberry-iced reminiscences, and likewise his experience and orchestral mastery for the piece’s colourful and accurate nostalgia - with examples and techniques too numerous to mention here.

Tremendous fun it all was, the stomach trembles included. The intention is to record it. But for those absent on Sunday the CD cannot depict the stunning stage entrance which the snow-white, raspberry and chocolate-coloured Wurlitzer (Hills already seated in situ) made after the music had already begun.

Heralded by a massive gong and battering kettle drums, up through the stage trap-door it rose in dazzling rotund majesty worthy in this context of a Carry On film with still room enough on its long organist’s bench for both Hattie Jacques and Harry Secombe to join in playing. All to the sound of galumphing, blustering, tongue-in-cheek ‘Horrificoso’ music.

Could this have been staged only at Worthing? The afternoon challenged even further what people have habitually expected from an orchestral concert. But this audience is used to that. Film music without the film invites the imagination, although this time to be without the re-vamped WSO concert magazine listing the pieces and their scenic movement titles was a disadvantage.

There was novelty everywhere, visual and aural. For example, Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag was arranged for woodwinds only, and coincidentally being played on the 100th centenary of the desperate Texan’s death. The programme magazine forgot Alistair Sim is not ‘Sims’ like Sylvia. Clarinettist Alan Andrews doubled tenor sax and featured in the trio of the Prokofiev. And the day’s biggest hero was Chris Blundell. His role was three percussionists on one - in a crack orchestra who relish that they can never acquiesce in just bread and butter concert music at Worthing, nor its audience sleep in it.

The sequence of Hoe Down, Handel in the Strand, Maple Leaf Rag and Lieutenant Kije’s Troika sleigh ride were assembled in tribute to Worthing’s musical late-great, Keith Emerson (1944-2016) of Maybridge Estate. All four he had interpreted and adapted in and around his fearless trailblazing classico-progrock band of worldwide fame and influence, Emerson Lake and Palmer - who Gibbons readily revealed were part of his listening youth. Latterly, Emerson came to him, to learn to conduct.

What a happy circumstance for an event in a town which has not woken up, yet, to the need to commemorate, and record properly and proudly, its own Emerson heritage. Much more than this needs doing - in flesh as well as stone.

Richard Amey

One concert to go this season – except watch out for something seismic on July 10 (to be announced). Meantime, Sunday May 7 (2.45pm) proves overtures don’t just open the show:

John Williams, Suite from Star Wars Suite, and Escapades (from ‘Catch Me If You Can’; soloist Jess Gillam, saxophone); Bax, Morning Song – Maytime in Sussex; Malcolm Arnold, A Sussex Overture; Addinsell, Warsaw Concerto (soloist Anna Szalucka, piano); Carwithen, Bishop’s Rock Overture; Tchaikovsky, 1812 Overture.

Next Interview Concert features Dinara Klinton (WSO soloist in October) at St Paul’s on Sunday, June 4 at 4pm. Bach-Busoni, Prelude & Fugue in D BWV 532; Beethoven, Moonlight Sonata; Medtner, Sonata Romantica; Liszt, Transcendental Etudes, ‘Vision’ and ‘Eroica’. Book online at seetickets.com or purchase in person at St Paul’s cafe.

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