REVIEW BY Richard Amey
‘New Year Celebration’ concert, Worthing Symphony Orchestra (WSO), conductor John Gibbons at Assembly Hall, Sunday 5 January 2020 (2.45pm).
Music (not in performing order): Offenbach, Orpheus in the Underworld Overture and Barcarolle from Tales of Hoffman; Delibes, Mazurka from ballet Coppelia; Ravel, Pavane pour une Infanta Defunte; Schubert, Rosamunde Entre’acte 2; Chabrier, Habanera.
J.Strauss Snr: Jockey Polka, Bahn Frei Polka Schnell, Radetsky March. J.Strauss Jnr: Nordseebilder, Morning Papers and By the Beautiful Blue Danube waltzes; Explosive, Tik-Tak, Emperor, Thunder & Lightning and Pizzicato polkas; Die Fledermaus Overture.
Suddenly, Worthing is brimming over again with people wanting their Viennese-flavoured New Year follow-up concert.
John Gibbons and the WSO all but sold out their live concert on Sunday, in the town’s biggest venue. This same weekend the Connaught Theatre a stone’s throw away was filled both days with viewers to Andre Rieu’s nationwide screening, not of one of his own Johann Strauss Orchestra extravaganzas but an event in his own Dutch castle home.
The estimates are that on Sunday afternoon, WSO and Rieu attracted 1,265 between them and around 350 had watched Rieu on Saturday – some of who may have gone to WSO on Sunday.
This time last year at The Connaught, Rieu’s normal show stole some of WSO’s audience. This year, more than those lost by WSO then, came to WSO for the real live thing.
As usual Gibbons was the witty, welcoming, friendly, funny, laid-back and overall entertaining concert host. He is a hand-on-your-shoulder confidante to the tentative classical music newcomer and a hint and insight-offering expert to those already familiar. Gibbons was already these things when Rieu started selling his own glittering fun and laughter to glamour TV-schooled, classical-curious audiences.
Rieu owes his spectacular success to his own freedom of relaxed presentation, a world away from the strict dryness of concert-giving in his 1950s-60s youth, which his father attempted to drill into him. He tells this week’s Radio Times: “For me there is no high or low, no elite. I play for everybody.” Gibbons says the very same thing.
The WSO crowd came to find their orchestral heroes on stage in white tuxedos and their heroines in their colours. And they discovered other music that slips you ‘the New Year feel-good factor’ without being Austrian.
Play just polkas, waltzes and marches and with the best will in the world your audience – sitting on the sidelines instead of dancing, will sense a monotony. Bon-bons after chocolates, truffles after jellied fruits, marzipan then gingerbread, now liquers . . . “Oh . . . sorry, waiter – I drifted off!”
Instead, Gibbons highlighted his deliberately chosen variety Strausses’ music, by slashing back the marches to just one, by playing fewer waltzes (they last the longest) but isolating them among the polkas, of which he selects only the most colourful, intriguing or descriptive, but building up a momentum towards the end with a succession of them.
The master plan, though, was that between all these Gibbons wand-waved listeners into short musical reveries. He found one supreme Viennese dreamer to call on for this: Franz Schubert.
But for the rest he turned successfully to Paris. He inserted Offenbach’s idyllic Barcarolle from Tales of Hoffman (scored himself with romantic muted horns and trumpets taking the swaying melody), Chabrier’s hazy, drifting and floating Habanera, and Ravel’s supremely incomparable Pavane – his slow dance for a dead Spanish princess.
The scheme worked a treat, opened up in each half by a colourful overture. One of them broke the mould: Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld soon had the Can-Can brazenly gate-crashing a Viennese world where you can’t-can’t. The result? Big smiles everywhere.
One other non-Vienna item wasn’t dreamy, but Delibes’ opening Mazurka from Coppelia. That neck-scruffed the concert exuberantly out of Strauss’ North Sea Pictures Waltz midway in the first half.
Amusement kept popping out. In the Explosive Polka, Gibbons accurately pricked a balloon with his baton. The orchestra called out ‘Tick Tock’ during the Tik-Tak Polka. The brass and percussion looked lazily on during Schubert’s beloved Rosamunde, and the Pizzicato Polka spotlit the strings alone with Chris Blundell’s dainty glockenspiel. The audience finally got to play in the closing Radetsky March – with their handclaps to grinning Gibbons’ jolly directing.
From the starting gun, in the Orpheus Overture, Ian Scott’s clarinet, Chris O’Neal’s oboe, Miriam Lowbury’s cello and leader Julian Leaper’s violin were straight in the solo limelight and we were reminded this wasn’t a Strauss afternoon tea dance band but musicians from the crack international musicians stable of London.
And how they sounded in the Ravel Pavane was somethingthey have never sounded before on this stage. Its inspired inclusion was a precious WSO gift to the town. And fans of ex-Royal Opera House first horn were to hear their Dave Lee flawless and vintage.
The horn is called French, and France sparked the magic ingredient this year in Gibbons’ skilfully adjusted template for an exceptionally rewarding New Year concert. Expect to be charmed next year, likewise.
Next WSO concert: Assembly Hall on 31 January (7.30pm (note evening): ‘Walking In The Air’ concert – Conductor, John Gibbons; piano soloist, Julian Trevelyan.
Howard Blake’s Piano Concerto and concert version of The Snowman (the composer will attend); Waldteufel, Skater’s Waltz; Delius, Sleigh Ride; Tchaikovsky, Swan Lake Waltz; Rimsky-Korsakov, Dance of the Tumblers from Snow Maiden. Have the WSO been for dancing lessons?