Worthing Symphony Orchestra welcome the New Year in style

REVIEW BY Richard Amey

Thursday, 6th January 2022, 4:47 pm
Updated Thursday, 6th January 2022, 4:48 pm
Johann Srauss II memorial statue

Worthing Symphony Orchestra’s ‘Viennese New Year Celebration’ concert at Assembly Hall, Sunday 2 January, 2022 (2.45pm); leader Julian leaper, conductor John Gibbons.

The popular traditional New Year concert came just in time for Worthing Symphony Orchestra’s need to challenge the pandemic with only their concert of the season. Self-funding provincial orchestras such as they have been running the financial suicide gauntlet through an autumn of audiences tiptoeing out to concerts through Covid’s Delta variant, barely half-filling the available seats.

WSO risked concerts only in October and November. Now the new rampant Omicron variant would have cut still further the audience response – were it not for the consistent annual British craving to taste vicariously (no travel, German tongue or intoxication required) the societal glitter and glitz of the new calendar’s first day in Austria’s capital. The response to this WSO equivalent wasn’t buoyant enough to breach the 50% attendance mark. Some ticket holders will have stayed at home. But it could have been worse.

With no support from arts bodies, and dependent on creating their own patronage, WSO bravely declined to cancel. They trusted enough of their fans to come and contribute ticket cash towards paying the musicians, who are not salaried but freelance. There were just 31 players, with at least eight late changes of personnel owing to the rapidly deepening health situation. This, on top of their 20 previous months of almost totally erased concert work.

Director John Gibbons from the conductor’s rostrum called for a salute to them, the artistes, when introducing the waltz An Artists’s Life. He restated bandleader/composer’s Johan Strauss II’s own comment that these are the people you’ve actually got to pay to get the music.

Gibbons’ fortunate WSO followers learned of further boldness to come – again easier with music requiring smaller orchestras. On 20 February, included will be some Mozart, Beethoven’s 2nd Piano Concerto played by Ian Fountain, and Schubert’s 5th Symphony. On 13 March, Mozart’s Flute & Harp Concert will feature, and there probably will be a third concert on 24 April.

It was tuxedoes for the men (20 of the 31) and Gibbons’ elbow-touch instead of handshake with leader Julian Leaper immediately re-emphasised the cautionary chord of these ongoing times. Gibbons laid out his pruned WSO with ‘stereo’ brass and percussion left and right.

The normal A4 programme brochures reportedly missed their pre-Christmas print deadline, so instead there was a free (optional donation) half-folded A4 list of the performers, the music to be played, a seasonal message of goodwill and a cork-popping front cover. In this absence of programme notes Gibbons introduced each item, engagingly and entertainingly as usual.

Alongside his stories and anecdotes, we learned that for ‘Vienna Blood’ read ‘Vienna Spirit’, and that the Tristch Tratch Polka is about chit chat.

. . . The programme (Johann Strauss II unless stated): New Year’s Galop (Joseph Lanner); Wine, Women and Song waltz, Tritsch Trasch Polka; Gold and Silver waltz (Franz Lehar); Perpetuum Mobile, An Artist’s Life waltz . . . INTERVAL . . . Overture Isabella (Franz Von Suppé), Vienna Blood waltz; Pilsner Tanz (Anton Bruckner, arr Gibbons); Polka from Schwanda The Bagpiper (Jaromir Weinberger); Thunder and Lightning Polka, The Blue Danube waltz; Radetsky March (Johann Strauss I).

There is inherent danger for orchestras on such an easy, relaxed, cosy occasion with a post-Sunday lunch audience readily won-over, that the performance can slither into an afternoon semi-doze. Giving the waltzes their lilt comes easy but giving them swing to bring them alive in true New Year celebration requires a frisson that was rather lacking here in some of the well-trodden pieces.

And do I sense continuing reluctance to allow the eager audience more than a single ration of hand-clapping involvement – in The Radetsky March, which seems always to come only at the very end, ever with a gratuitous repeat? The moment the faithful feel fully part of it, the concert’s over! Find at least one other clappable March for the menu, I suggest. Let the audience participate and react. Shed the straitjacket in these straitened times. Or is a classical concert incapable or shy of a little partying?

But with Gibbons there are usually some different dishes or a chef’s special in recognition that there is more to Viennese New Year dance than the usual-suspect composers. The Lanner launched the event, although more at an excited canter than a gallop. The Weinberger lent a recognisable drinking song from Bohemian comic opera, although it could have benefited from a touch more bristle. The Von Suppé Isabella brought audience cheers with its multi-national flavoured jollity.

The Bruckner beer dance made a welcome second appearance on the WSO music stands. It’s Gibbons’ own invention. Bruckner liked a pint in a hostelry. Gibbons told us the composer’s doctor urged him to give it up in his latter days in Vienna, implying Bruckner’s favourite tipple may have cut his life short of being able to finish his consummate final 9th Symphony.

Gibbons has, of course recorded the Symphony, with one of its special completions, with the Aarhus Symphony Orchestra of Denmark, but its length and cost of personnel probably mean the 9th is beyond practical presentation in a WSO concert series unless a moneyed local Brucknerite opens his purse. So to hear now this sound, texture and originality was a thrill for Bruckner aficionados and of intrigue to everyone else present.

The 9th is Gibbons’ actual source. He takes its dancing scherzo, recasts its spectral F# key into a merrier F major. And for a contrasting scherzo trio, he inserts the singing second main tune from the 9th’s opening movement. All works admirably and spreads cheerful fantasy.

Don’t rule out a Bruckner Symphony in future from WSO. But not until Covid is beaten out of the equation.

Richard Amey