REVIEW: Worthing Symphony Orchestra

Nicola Benedetti (violin) with Worthing Symphony Orchestra (conductor John Gibbons), Assembly Hall, Worthing

Saturday, 8th September 2018, 8:45 am
WSO - Nicola Benedetti with John Gibbons during rehearsal by Stephen Goodger
WSO - Nicola Benedetti with John Gibbons during rehearsal by Stephen Goodger

Elgar, Concert-Overture ‘Froissart’; Prokofiev, Violin Concerto No 2 (Gm), Borodin, ‘In The Steppes of Central Asia’; Alwyn, Symphony No 4 (premiere at the Proms 1959).

“Amazing music. Hearing it takes you out of yourself – we in our silly lives!” The lady stranger from Worthing sitting next to me remarked in palpable gratitude during the applause for a piece never heard live in her home town before.

Not the Prokofiev, which was also a first here. Not the Borodin. And not the Elgar. I asked a leading champion of British music, the WSO artistic director John Gibbons, where William Alwyn’s Fourth Symphony last saw the light of day. “There are three CD recordings, now. But if you were to ask me when the last live performance took place, you’d need to be talking in decades: 50 years ago.”

It cannot have the collective passion of a BBC Proms audience but the fullness of the capacity Worthing crowd’s response to music which was, to them, the equivalent of a world premiere in their own Royal Albert Hall, spoke of their continual confidence in Gibbons to present them with music they will appreciate and enjoy. The audience gave it, and the orchestra, a sustained reception, during which the section leaders Julian Leaper (1st violins) and Miriam Lowbury (cellos), having had solos, took bows.

Alwyn material is no stranger to the WSO music stands. The Worthing audience has collectively more Alwyn listening experience than does the current BBC Proms live audience. And while one of those recordings is by the late Richard Hickox, and though John Barbirolli advocated all four Alwyn symphonies those 50 years ago, this situation lists Gibbons among the three principal living world exponents of Alwyn.

Gibbons has familiarised Worthing’s young and old with Alwyn film score music (say it Al Win), and we came prepared us for this first hearing of the Fourth Symphony. It’s not rated as necessarily his best but that one may well be waiting in Gibbons’ reserves. Unsurprisingly, it is music plentiful on incident. Although, this being pure music – we have no film storyboard or scene descriptions – we know something is always happening, if not on a cinematic scale, then on a significant one.

The first movement is based around a big idea and ends in mysterious light and atmosphere. The second movement, an exciting scherzo, has a contrasting central section of a progressing sequence of thoughts and colours. The Finale strives through a varied landscape to a well-won triumph. In its form the symphony’s three movements form an arch and each does likewise within itself. This work concludes Alwyn’s four-symphony cycle right through which certain musical themes run.

It’s all in straightforward harmonic language with just a couple of moments when in separate movements Alwyn has a high clarinet or a trumpet hitting, to my ears, an incongruous, grating dissonant note of debateable expressive relevance. An almost gratuitous anomaly. Perhaps the composer was grinning sarcastically at the post-war music broadcasting radicals demanding new art of anarchic anti-harmony. This dictate of change downgraded the non-compliant Alwyn – the only composer, the WSO concert brochure informs us, to become a Fellow of the British Film Academy, and who as composition professor at the Royal Academy of music, was a colleague among the BBC readers of new scores.

But in the Fourth Symphony, we perceive large space, issues at stake, incidents and arguments, a sense of import and assignment with balancing counter-views and reflections. The stuff of symphonies and in Alwyn‘s case, one written in the wake, if anything, of Elgar’s two rather than Vaughan Williams’ nine which were completed in the same 1959 as this one. More accurate comparisons will be made with his less well-known contemporary British symphonists who like him have been less famous, though this is not the place for that exercise.

If at times the music seemed episodic, that was probably because of a film musician’s variety of scoring and our own need for more hearings and the deeper understanding those bring.

If Gibbons qualifies as an automatically authentic Alwyn voice, his Elgar falls worthily among a much higher-blown British expertise of conducting. Elgar is territory he loves. And he’s now acutely obliged to uphold his Elgar rostrum reputation having adopted the same football team, Wolves.

Gibbons gave us the Elgar feel in ‘Froissart’. And the WSO gave him the Elgar sound, this time particularly through timpanist Robert Millett, Richard Steggall’s horn section, and especially Ian Scott who, as a Scottish clarinettist, so generously pours moreish Devonshire Cream over a Sassenach orchestra. We have not luxuriated in Elgar for some time at WSO concerts. But today, this short piece had to make way for Nicola Benedetti’s latest annual visit since her 2004 BBC Young Musician victory.

Worthing welcomes her onstage like delighted parents at a long-prepared homecoming, though this time it seemed less effusive and maybe because some were hearing for the first time that she was not playing the concerto they bought their tickets for.

She is now on the unforgiving global marathon of one exciting international concert engagement after another. She was advertised as playing the Sibelius Concerto with WSO but switched to Prokofiev because, she said, her forthcoming tour plans had changed. Playing this piece with Michael Tilson Thomas and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is on her horizon.

Her Worthing concerts have mixed Szymanovski among the popular violin concertos. Sibelius would almost have completed her set but that may come later. Newcomers to Prokofiev found the violin left alone much less often in the music, more like a concerto for all the forces, less chance outside the slow movement to lap up the memorable Benedetti/Stradivarian solo tone in busy music written three decades after the Sibelius.

The leap was from the Finn’s romantically landscaped 1904 to the Ukrainian’s rangy and vigorous 1935 Stalin-free European exile style, with his native folk song and dance mixing with western jazz from the world outside while alongside in simultaneous composition was one of Prokofiev’s most popular scores, the Romeo & Juliet ballet. That represented a test for Benedetti. Dressed in long black, her concentrated demeanour told of her preparations.

But the audience, hooked by her compelling stage presence, went wholeheartedly with her throughout that journey. They were not keen to let her go afterwards and she will have lifted additional ears into more enthusiastic interest in Prokofiev.

On September 30 (2.45pm), WSO give their audience something unprecedented. A concert that will become a live recording. Idil Biret, the most recorded pianist in history, will extend her number of Naxos releases with Mozart’s 25th Concerto (K503) and final 27th (K595). She has chosen Gibbons to continue his role in her Mozart cycle, but now turns her back not only on London’s St John’s Smith Square but also the London Mozart Players (Concertos Nos 15 & 24 recorded there with Gibbons) to use the hallowed Assembly Hall acoustic for the first time and the venue’s home orchestra, the WSO.

She and they will be in two frames of mind. In majestic and balletic, up-front C major with trumpets and drums for the lately resurgent No 25, then, those four instruments entirely silent, in deeply reflective but finally playful Bb for the perennially beloved No 27.

Also on the programme are Englishman William Boyce’s Symphony No 2 in A, and Handel’s Arrival of the Queen of Sheba from his opera Solomon.

Richard Amey

*** Full new WSO season brochure on the website.

***Next International Interview Concert – from the 2018 Sussex International Piano Competition: Rhythmie Wong at St Paul’s Worthing, Sunday November 18 (4pm) – La Valse (Ravel), scenes from The Firebird (Stravinsky), The Maiden and the Nightingale (Granados), Iberia Book 1 (Albeniz), Sonata in Eb (Haydn, his last), plus integral audience interactive items, and Chinese surprises. A feast for the senses and imagination.