An off-the-shoulder, full-length dress in glowing crimson, green, black and purple revealed itself as she took the stage from behind the violins. A woman born on a day in May ready to play a sumptuously sensual musical work inspired by a Polish poem called ‘May Night”, Tasmin Little was dressed for the evening’s experience like a mysterious exotic bird. And often she sultrily played like one.
Poland’s father of modern music, Karol Szymanovski has been invading Worthing’s consciousness the past couple of years, and making the WSO sound like never before. Few of the WSO had ever played his Violin Concerto No 1, but these are among London’s famously capable orchestral players. With one rehearsal under conductor John Gibbons they handled the task and created with Little a night to remember for its erupting sensuousness, of its woodland and lakeside tints and colours - and the profuse accompanying birdsong (eat your heart out Olivier Messaien!).
Much as Sir Simon Rattle did in the WSO concert magazine, Gibbons confided to his audience one delicious fact. “This music is simply about being in love,” said Gibbons. “And when it’s that, you know it’s never all plain sailing - so just go with the flow.” Little soared and glided among billowing clouds of brass and strings, and then stroked and soothed with brushes of clarinet and flute, and sweeps and ripples from the harp.
Exactly 100 years old, this Szymanovski piece ravishes his audience and Little, always intelligently, captured the frequent liberation of it all. Inhibitions long-shed in the big moments, her cadenza was the last of many enriching challenges to the imagination, after which Szymanovski deflates the tension and has the birds in his orchestra quickly and knowingly take their discreet leave of the steamy, now sleepy scene.
Tasmin Little’s 20-year absence from The Assembly Hall stage ended on Tuesday evening thanks to Facebook. England’s leading international female violinist read there that Scotland’s half-Italian heroine Nicola Benedetti had launched Szymanovski’s Violin Concerto No 1 into her repertoire via a performance with Worthing Symphony Orchestra in January, as her currently annual contribution to the town’s classical music life.
Little, like Benedetti a former Menuhin School student, plans a recording of Szymanovski’s No 1 with Chandos and she immediately asked Gibbons if she could take the same route. “I love this piece and I saw Nicola came here to do hers,” she said. It is the piece Benedetti chose to play in her winning final of the BBC Young Musician of The Year.
Little is an audience’s delight. She brought her mother and some friends to the concert. With that ever bursting smile, after playing she met and talked to the audience in the bar and display areas, and helped sell to them some CDs in the foyer (she’s recorded nearly 50 already), before departing home for, she said, the first night in her own bed after more than a week of dashing everywhere else doing concerts.
The stage was splendidly decked in Worthing Symphony Society member Pam Hurcombe’s Christmas decor with an eye-catching Nutcracker ballet theme. To open the concert Gibbons duly unwrapped some parcels from the Nutcracker Suite, although rather too easy-goingly to persuade us he was bringing the magical touch of Herr Drosselmeyer.
Concert hall performances rarely convey the lure of ballet when orchestral conductors gravitate more towards the drama than the colour or rhythm, while ballet theatre orchestras do all three naturally. The Nutcracker Suite has negligible drama, so colour and rhythm is paramount, especially in its National Dances whose character are clinched by Tchaikovsky’s authentic extra percussion.
We could not hear decisively enough Chris Blundell’s tambourine in the Russian Dance, nor his glockenspiel in the Chinese. Although things started feeling like dance in the final Flowers Waltz, I look forward to Gibbons’ next visit to this ballet not leaving its vitality, spring and own miraculous colour behind in the theatre.
Romantic abandon, surge and triumph in their performance of Rakhmaninov’s Second Symphony concluded WSO’s 2016 with no such sense of sitting back on a safe bet. Gibbons impressed with this Symphony not that long ago and he re-introduced it by saying, “After all that’s happened in 2016 we all need an uplift, don’t we - to help us through Christmas!”
Tongue was in cheek yet again, uplift it emphatically did for a whole hour and the WSO themselves left the hall even more buoyant than the audience. In Dave Lee’s absence, Richard Steggall led the horns’ charge in the scherzo and Ian Scott’s clarinet caressed the cherished slow-movement theme. Scott, appropriately from Perth, has a concerto written for him by Paul Lewis, the Sussex composer who travels from far Pevensey to hear this orchestra. On his way out through the door, Scott elatedly asked: “How did that sound? Because it was a great noise up where we were.”
Next WSO at The Assembly Hall:
Bank Holiday Monday, January 2 (2.45pm): Viennese New Year Celebration (Strausses, Dvorak, Suppe, Waldteufel). Including Fledermaus Overture, Isabella Overture, Skaters Waltz, Song To The Moon (from Rusalka; soprano Natasha Jouhl), Pleasure Train Polka, Thunder & Lightning Polka, Fairy Tales from The Orient, Vienna Blood, The Blue Danube, Radetsky March.
Thursday, January 12 (7.30pm): Nicolas Benedetti plays Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. Also Hamish MacCunn, Land of The Mountain and The Flood; Dvorak, New World Symphony.
John Gibbons has been conducting the BBC Concert Orchestra on Radio 3’s Afternoon on 3 twice this week and again championing British music. From the Malcolm Arnold Festival was Arnold’s Tam O’Shanter, Guitar Concerto (soloist Craig Ogden), Serenade, and Symphony No 6; William Walton’s Funeral March (Hamlet) and William Alwyn’s Suite, Odd Man Out. There was separately his performance also of Alwyn’s Symphony No 3, and from Snape Maltings he and soloist Jennifer Pike in Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto.
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