REVIEW: West Sussex Youth Orchestra (conductor John Gibbons, soloist Robin Bier - contralto), Worthing Assembly Hall, Sunday 12th February 2012

AN American beauty singing British music was the highlight of the West Sussex Youth Orchestra’s annual Worthing showcase the Youth Prom. Alaskan, Robin Bier’s purity and evenness of tone underlined the strength of Karl Jenkins’ vocal composition when she capped an entire first half of the Welshman’s music.

Worthing Symphony Orchestra conductor John Gibbons works closely with Jenkins on bringing to live audiences around the country music already recorded with great commercial success. A rescheduled tour to China prevented Jenkins being present on this occasion, on which Gibbons and the WSYO gave us the three movements of his Palladio, his single-movement Passacaglia, and then premiered Gibbons’ own compilation of six shining vocal items from Jenkins’ bigger works.

Here Bier sang Now As a Spirit and Pie Jesus from the Requiem, Lament and Virgo Virginum from the Stabat Mater and Only Heavenly Music and the Protector from Stella Natalis. They came in the order of first and fourth, second and fifth, third and sixth.

After the familiar, insistent drive of Palladio’s opening Allegretto, bearing the music for his worldwide advertising presence in De Beer ‘a diamond is forever’ shadow commercial, came the darker Largo, whose strains also appear vocally in Jenkins’s Cantus Insolitus; then finally the Vivace, whose appeal mirrors that of minimalists Steve Reich and John Adams. Leaders of the two violin sections, Jessica Wadey and Heather Jeffery, had interweaving solos in the Largo and both reappeared in the Vivace.

The Passacaglia is a piece written in memorium and the WSYO strings summoned qualities of sustained intensity and restraint for a piece that, as indicated to the audience beforehand by Gibbons, found it easy during its 1970s conception to salute the immense influence then of Shostakovich.

Bier, who wore a full-length velvet dress in midnight blue, is in Britain to sing early music in a context and regularity unavailable in the USA. She is based, significantly in York, the home of Britain’s topmost early music festival (Brighton’s probably comes an increasingly close second) and her sound has made Gibbons handpick her for singing Jenkins.

Fans of the composer were added to the parents and grandparents among the audience to hear the WSYO under Gibbons, and sample the congenial insight and advice he gives his audiences before pieces are played.

Each year, he takes over the orchestra for this concert from David Bennet, the teaching conductor who prepares them, and who is testing them this year by learning Brahms’ 4th Symphony. It is testament to the constantly increasing standard of the players that this difficult work was selected, with its frequent cross-rhythms and challenges of ensemble playing, small and large.

The cellos emerged the strongest of the various sections, six boys, four girls, aided by the basses in bringing the strength necessary to tackle especially the Brahms – the delivery of which represents a tough achievement by this year’s WSYO.

Before the second half began, the Worthing Symphony Orchestra’s supporting society awarded £125 cheques to the outstandingly progressing boy and girl of the WSYO. Sue Holland, one of the Worthing Symphony Society’s patrons, made the awards possible, and they were presented by WSS chairman Eddie Hurcombe, who plays bass in the WSO.

The awards went to violinist Heather Jeffery and to flautist Andrew Martin, whose solo incidentally in Jenkins’ Now As Spirit required sliding portamento to evoke a Chinese instrument.

Next on the keenly anticipated classical music bill at The Assembly Hall is a programme entitled ‘Homage To The Great Masters’ on March 4 (2.45pm). Two favourite symphonies, Schubert’s Unfinished and Prokofiev’s Classical, frame two highly entertaining and vigorous works for two pianos and four hands — Poulenc’s Mozartian-coloured Concerto in D minor and Saint-Saens’ Carnival Of The Animals. Pianists Louise-Andrée Baril and Yuki Negishi join Gibbbons and the WSO.

Other WSO forward concert dates: April 22 (2.45pm, featuring Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto) and May 26 (7.30pm, including Tchaikovsky’s 1st Piano Concerto and Elgar’s Enigma Variations).

WSYO info available from music@westsussex.gov.uk

Richard Amey