Byronic inspiration for Worthing Symphony Orchestra - review

REVIEW BY Richard Amey

Sarah-Jane Bradley (viola)
Sarah-Jane Bradley (viola)

Byronic Inspirations Concert – Worthing Symphony Orchestra, conductor John Gibbons, Sara-Jane Bradley (viola) at Worthing Assembly Hall.

Emmanuel Chabrier, Joyeuse March; Claude Debussy, Clair de Lune (arr. Peter Lawson); William, Alwyn, Pastoral Fantasia; Georges Bizet, L’Arlesienne Suite No 1; Hector Berlioz, Harold in Italy.

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While the border remains soft, WSO took a quick trip to France. Alwyn and Lawson were brought along for the ride, the former making a contribution to the fare, Lawson to fly the flag of British arrangers of familiar, famous French music.

Rarely given such a thorough opportunity by their orchestra of hearing French music, as many of the WSO audience still with valid passports travelled in tow, eager to taste the wine and food, and curious to meet the people (the music, which may not readily be everybody’s cup of tea).

Everybody stepped straight into a French square bathed in afternoon light and boisterous festivity. The welcoming band, up from the rugby ground, marched up and around them, pouring the last of their bier and wine into the WSO fans’ gratefully out-held glasses.

A kind of Elgar Cockaigne dressed in tricoleur but without the curiosity, or so many scenes to depict, Chabrier’s Joyeuse March invigorated British senses until, suddenly, sitting down to waiting French cuisine took priority and the music quickly ended in a blast of brass, cockerels released and berets thrown into the air.

Evening fell. Not even a weather beaten upright piano available in the square. Cue Clair de Lune in British orchestral clothes instead. Long-in-the tooth Mancunian music professor Peter Lawson gave the piano texture to an almost continuously occupied harp and ensured he got in plenty of woodwind colour, including the anticipated pair of flutes, more in English register than French. Job accomplished.

Alwyn then provided everyone a nightcap with his Pastoral Fantasia. Plenty of countryside sounds and smells of John Clareish/Alwynesque Northamptonshire for those already wined-out and homesick, including solo viola, as Vaughan Williams also showed In The Fen Country, lending its evocative twilight feel to the rural ambience. And so ‘a lit’ (to bed?) . . .

Pealing Provencal bells rang out the new morning in the L’Arlesienne music to signal breakfast’s end in the hotel lounge. During which WSO’s inseparable clarinet pairing popped up their heads from behind the settee: L ’hom Ecossaise (scotsman?) Ian Scott (yep, real name) with his No 2 Alan Andrews on alto saxophone. Bizetian duetting to help the croissants and final swigs of coffee go down.

Everyone headed for the local cinema for a film of selected impressions of Italy by a 25-year-old Frenchman called Hector Something(is it Burl-ee-owes or Bare-lee-owz?) . Mountains . . . pilgrims marching . . . mountaineer serenading his girl . . . a Brigands orgy . . .

All with an onlooker fellow called Harold (a solo viola) stepping out to comment or remark (in French), sometimes standing back, dumbfounded, or out of discretion, or in admiration as the scenes progressed.

Harold being finally swept aside in Brigands’ excess, the film raced to an almost delirious finish, leaving the WSO fans to stand up, straighten their ties, tighten their belts, button their jackets, re-perch their hats, stiffen their lips, and blink their way back into the March late afternoon sunlight.

Forgive me my fantasy, but I was reminded on Sunday of how relatively few of we British average classical listeners know, trust, understand and love French music – and, in stark reverse, how easily someone like Berlioz responded to British literature while making a bigger persistent impact on the nature of European mainstream music than any Briton.

On the 1970s and 80s we’d be nonplussed at Colin Davis’ championship of Berlioz. Gradually we began to think he was onto something. Virtually everything in Berlioz music is different and original and on a bolder scale. Explosion and drama abound but the gamut is full. John Eliot Gardiner took over the cause and helped us further down la rue. Mark Elder and others are now seriously assisting us.

Is Berlioz a Haydn with a few screws loose? But glorious screws? You can hear how just much mirth the brigands and their lasses are enjoying. Had Berlioz written Haydn’s crowning Creation, he’d have had Adam and Eve at it.

Never can a WSO concert have ended in so much high-octane, full-blaze fun. The WSO were completely magnificent in Harold In Italy and chalking up yet another orchestral mountaineering assignment. Its first performance here since Jan Cervenka’s conducting tenure, pre-Gibbons 1998. Section by section the WSO took their immense plaudits. Another milestone.

And I haven’t even mentioned the ‘Ms Viola of British music’. Slender Sarah-Jane Bradley chose an electric blue floor-length outfit for the Alwyn and sequined black for the Berlioz. “I thought my part in Harold was more an orchestral one, so I didn’t want to stand out,” she explained.

The WSO were as usual in conventional black but Berlioz wanted his Harold soloist closer to the audience than normal, because his music and his instrument sounds more subdued and grainier than a violin. Next time, Sara-Jane may step further forward, and wear the electric blue.

How relatively few of we British average classical listeners know, trust, understand and love French viola music. Remedies include getting into string quartets, or seeking out Sara-Jane’s recordings of half a dozen Viola Concertos.

“Dvorak and Mozart played the viola, and it’s a shame Dvorak never wrote one” she reminds us.”I was 12 or 13 and interested in the piano but my school orchestra needed one. I became its only viola player. The tone is mellower, its nature more thoughtful, and I found myself drawn to its mid-register tone.

“Harold in Italy is almost a tone poem to a story and my role is to try to make the most gorgeous sound possible because I am reflecting like a narrator on what is going on in the orchestra. Harold’s music is very vocal but quite virtuosic. I think for his time, Berlioz in this wrote the most perfect piece. It’s so forward-thinking, yet it was still the heyday of Schumann.”

Sarah-Jane Bradley is doing a Davis or Eliot Gardiner for her instrument. She may be back to play Walton’s Concerto. Another kind of viola showcase would be she and Benedetti (the ‘Ms Violin of British music’) here to play the Delius Double as partner to Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante on the same programme. But dream on!

Richard Amey

Next music in Worthing – WSO offer: book tickets simultaneously for both these final two concerts with the code ‘PIANO’ for a total reduction of £10 at Worthing Theatres box office. Both Sundays at 2.45pm:

‘Best of British’, April 7: Jerusalem (Parry), Salut D’Amour and Elegy for Strings (Elgar), Piano Concerto (Grieg, soloist Arta Arnicane*), The Walk To The Paradise Garden (Delius), Symphony No 6 (Stanford).

‘Tales from The Arabian Nights’, May 5: Carnival (Dvorak), Piano Concerto No 5 ‘Egyptian’ (Saint-Saens, soloist Yi Yang Chen*), Scheherezade (Rimsky-Korsakov – WSO’s next orchestral showcase).

Respective winners* of the Sussex International Piano Competition, 2010 and 2018.

Early Music at The International Interview Concerts (St Paul’s Thursday March 21, 7pm for 7.30): medieval group The Telling’s concert-play ‘Vision – the Imagined Testimony of Hildegard of Bingen’.

Prime TV and Shakespearean actress Teresa Banham with The Telling voices Clare Norburn (the playwright) and Ariane Prussner, plus harpist Leah Stuttard, look at the astounding life and compellingly distinctive and popular music of medieval history’s outstanding woman. Audience questions included, café-bar, gift stalls.