Nicola Benedetti in Worthing

WSO - Nicola Benedetti in ensemble during rehearsal. Pic by Stephen Goodger

WSO - Nicola Benedetti in ensemble during rehearsal. Pic by Stephen Goodger

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Nicola Benedetti Concert – Worthing Symphony Orchestra, Nicola Benedetti (Gariel Stradivarius violin), John Gibbons (conductor), Worthing Assembly Hall, Thursday, January 12 2017 (7.30pm).

MacCunn, Land of the Mountain and the Flood; Beethoven, Violin Concerto; Dvorak, Symphony No 9 ‘From the New World’.

It’s a significant enough period in Worthing Symphony Orchestra’s history for them to be performing annually with Nicola Benedetti but this day struck out on a new path in the WSO’s integral development. In the morning, conductor John Gibbons’ ambition reached fruition of presenting in its 90-year existence the orchestra’s maiden concert exclusively to schoolchildren. The sold-out Benedetti concert merely rounded off what Gibbons said afterwards was “The greatest day in the orchestra’s history.”

More than 800 children, the vast majority aged 7-10, heard their first live orchestral music thanks to the WSO teaming with West Sussex Music, the trust that is the hub for locally providing instruments,plus instrumental and vocal tuition to children and youth. This achievement received unhesitating wholehearted applause as Gibbons, from the rostrum, began the Benedetti concert by telling the evening’s full house his triumphant morning news.

Children from all home backgrounds sat riveted / enthralled / transfixed / transported / entranced/ amazed (etc, etc) to Gibbons talking them through an hour of his selected sequence of novel, fun, descriptive and serious music from the worlds of film, cartoon, TV, nursery and classical. From the rough and tumble ‘Ruslan and Ludmilla’ Overture, then Haydn’s peep-BO ‘Surprise’ Symphony extract, and The Teddy Bears’ Picnic, there was a Police Chase, adventure music from Swiss Family Robinson and three interesting Scottish Dances, all by William Alwyn.

After Hamish MacCunn’s Land of the Mountain and the Flood, there came Abject Terror from SpongeBob SquarePants (with composer Paul Lewes present and getting a cheer), The Hall of the Mountain King, The Pink Panther, the Thunder and Lightning Polka and the Theme from E.T.

Another Children’s Concert is intended at the same time next year and the WSO will welcome fund partnering from appropriately inspired commercial sources.

In the afternoon, some of West Sussex Music’s older youth orchestra string players watched Nicola Benedetti rehearse and she spoke with them afterwards. In the evening, setting out through wet snow, the audience tasted the Sussex meterological version of MacCunn’s Land of the Mountain and the Flood, which lifted the WSO’s concert curtain.

Cellists David Burrowes, Miriam Lowbury, Anita Strevens and Yvonne Parsons set Gibbons’ whiskey-tinted standard of Scottish rhythmical snap in its archetypal opening theme, then the whole orchestra got dancing and the horns lusty. The brass and cymbals later lashed clear, cold rain suddenly down onto those mountainside-marooned, and the whole orchestra sent the flood surging down the glen towards the loch. It was the evening audience’s turn to be enamoured by some of the vividness of what the children heard that morning.

Then Scotland’s hottest classical export arrived in full-length black, and the next 45 minutes was Nicola Benedetti’s response to the “tender and sensitive, and intimate” nature of Beethoven’s great Concerto. No bombast, no over-screwed tension, no showing-off, no probing rubato, no contrived drama. Just the concentration and focus that meant no lapses into areas of sheer leisure, luxuriating, beautification, or indulgent introspection.

This was the first work she had played at Worthing before. This time she brought some of the senses of the quiet mystery Tovey speaks of as being the special currency and power of this concerto. It’s one of spiritually unending music, which in its different movements seems to give us sustained looks at three facets of supreme contentment, may of eternity.

Most nerve-rousing, and the chief point of any attacking in her interpretation, was her Kreisler first-movement cadenza culminating in its interweaving glorification of Beethoven’s two themes.

When commonly uncorked the Finale is one of music’s great instrumental drinking songs, like its brother in the Emperor Concerto. Had Benedetti taken this path, she would have generated an impression of casting aside, even decrying, the elevated atmospheres she had created. Instead, she gave us a spirited, recurring country dance that succeeded by giving us the feeling that we’d not been brought back entirely down to earth.

Instantly it was over, Benedetti turned to applaud the orchestra - and well she might have. Bassoonist Gavin McNaughton and clarinettist Ian Scott took marvellously their several potent key moments and the WSO strings and horns gave Benedetti the often rapt cloudbase she needed to rise and float above in her solo statements and passage work.

After leader Julian Leaper drew the winner of the previous WSO concert programme magazine’s Quiz (a new, fun feature), came the uplift to crown the WSO’s finest day: a performance of Dvorak’s ‘New World’. At a moment when Europe would rather not think about where the USA may be heading in domestic and world affairs, Gibbons assured us this famous symphony was not about America then, but Dvorak’s best European music wearing stateside disguise.

Gibbons took the WSO into immensely vigorous performance territory and they combined to sweep away the concert on a tide of crackling sound and new dance. The brass chorus then set a truly sublime peace for the Largo in which the orchestra radiated a supreme stillness; like a hot, still July night with sudden thunder, until the woodwinds finally rose up with the wingbeats and colours of Dvorak’s awakening birdsong. And they appeared with similar impact during a Scherzo injected with real dash and surge, and authentic Bohemian rhythmical detail.

Another Scott solo was a sudden delight in the Finale, which the WSO assaulted with a commitment and dynamism belying the fact they had first begun playing in this hall around 11 hours earlier. Their electrification of the final pages was an almost astonishing act of quality and readiness. Yet this is what they do. As those who recall how they delivered Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony to clinch a concert in a recent season.

Yes, the WSO can stun you. Don’t be surprised. They know exactly what they are doing.

Richard Amey

Next WSO (Assembly Hall, Sundays, 2.45pm): February 12 – Mozart ‘Haffner’ Symphony; Mendelssohn Piano Concert No 1; Saint-Saens, ‘Wedding Cake Valse-Caprice’ (soloist in both: Olga Paliy, Ukraine; Third Place and Audience Prize in the second Sussex International Piano Competition), Beethoven Symphony No 2.

Under-16s & Students £6. Box office 01903 206206

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