It comes to Worthing first! For what the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and conductor Lehav Shani are about to receive, the Assembly Hall’s classical music fans are already truly thankful . . .
Young world celebrity violinist Nicola Benedetti is Brummy-bound later this month with her Gariel Stradivarius of 1717 on her back and Karol Szymanovski’s unfamiliar 2nd Violin Concerto in her head. But she runs prestigious things like these past Worthing first. One day, Andy Murray may start using West Worthing’s sunny tennis warm-up facilities when it’s dull in London)
My little bout of Worthing patriotism over, I report than 800 people nearly sold out Sussex’s acoustics-leading music building to hear Benedetti dish onto their dinner plates a concerto which most by far had never heard of. But they trust her menu and especially her cooking, and love her Stradivarian cutlery.
In 90 years of the WSO here, there can hardly have been a greater demonstration of music’s power of persuasion. Benedetti and conductor John Gibbons, plus his verbal ‘on-foot guide map’, were determined to create another experience their fans would not forget. They might not love the music straight off, but heck, they would know they’d been out for an evening.
And they came and sat down for the meal. First to an entree of Grieg, with Monica McCarron’s golden flute ushering in the Morning for oboist Chris O’Neil to lead the resultant birdsong: so there was a champagne moment at the start of the meal. The tempo wasn’t soppy and sentimental, the sun got on with rising, the strings were ready with its sudden warmth, and Gibbons’ made us think of Delius at the end. Or is it Delius who sometimes make us think of Grieg?
Gibbons moved us with the Death of Åse, simply by allowing Grieg to do Peer’s comforting farewell job his own way. The conductor’s words had first reminded us that Anitra is dancing for Peer Gynt in the Arabic heat, not the Norwegian snow. And Gibbons’ performance corrected us that Grieg is not looking for Tchaikovsky’s sultry Nutcracker Coffee Dance but is showing us that Anitra is light and enticing to Peer. The spoons finally clanked noisily around the emptying plate: and after the stamping thundrous trolls dance you’d have been forgiven for thinking the tradition was to throw the finished starter plates back over your shoulders.
Such a colourful Suite subtly prepared the aural canvas for a 1930s concerto Szymanovski conceived with folk juices from his youthful residence in the Ukrainian territories of old Poland, infused with the scents and sensations of Sicily and North Africa, the sensual eruptions of Scriabin and wanderings of Debussy − though written for a violinist friend who performed it terminally ill.
All this and more within intense music Gibbons and Benedetti took surging from screwed-up tension out of chaos − through swirled-up dissonant tension in the central solo violin cadenza – bursting towards a sunrise-like passage that elevated everything − to a finale of whirled-up dancing tension release.
Following Grieg’s Gyntian soundworld, Szymanovski’s moody, tolling entrance had a sonic kinship Gibbons surely had programmed in knowing sequence.
In thrall at startling music of empathy and passion, offering a concerto experience new to them, the audience rose to Benedetti. She applauded Gibbons (they and the WSO had worked hard in a productive rehearsal), she returned, received a basket of flowers and applauded the entire orchestra. So, to the interval, napkins-wiped mouths, and a breather for the main course to go down.
A surprise from the chef came next. A dessert of significance. A second Benedetti piece. Excluded from initial publicity, no description in the programme running order, it brought hostess Benedetti back in her slimline full-length black number with criss-crossed straps to serve Chausson’s Poème for violin and orchestra. Hundreds present probably had no idea it was going to happen. Had it been fully promoted as included, more people would have been turned away at the door.
There are no French violin concertos among the great; just this cherished and characterised example, fervent but elusive in its single movement, and with it The Lady Of The House soothed the palates that had been spiced by the Szymanovski.
The cheese and biscuits? The port? The profiteroles? The mints? I jest. To build up the constitution against the gathering Arctic cold outside came Tchaikovsky’s loudest, noisiest work. The cannons and muskets of the 1812 Overture make a racket and shake a building, but that’s a storm in a teacup by comparison to his dogged and harangued 4th Symphony. After nearly 40 minutes, Fate is still hammering out the torment .
Whipped up by Gibbons, the WSO were at time terrifying. Dave Lee’s gang-of-four horns could have been aspiring to be Ivan the Terrible’s even-worse cousin. But I forget. It’s a nut with a soft centre. The WSO gave the Andante its stretchy mallow and the Scherzo its subtly crunchy mischief, with its soldier marches and children’s games (“Hey, who said you could get up from the table?”).
There was the constantly attention-seeking massed brass and loquacious winds. But amid it all, often above it all, were leader Julian Leaper’s battling, crying, raging 32 strings of the WSO. They did the thing proud.
Next-up WSO (Assembly Hall with Gibbons, 2.45pm)
Sunday, February 14. “Valentine’s Day” concert featuring the German, Leonard Elschenbroich - Benedetti’s cellist from her piano trio (now gathering formidability – their superb pianist is Alexei Grynyuk, seen here with her last January). Elschenbroich’s in the Cello Concerto by William Walton, writer of the famous Henry V film score. Also, A Midsummer Night’s Dream overture (miraculous Mendelssohn), Salut D’Amour (earnest Elgar), the Manon Lescaut Intermezzo (Puccini), Overture O.D.T.A.A. (Doreen Carwithen), and the fantastical Suite from the Firebird ballet music (Stravinsky).
Sunday 6th March. “Ode To Spring” concert with a double dose of magisterial and venerated pianism from the incomparable Idil Biret. Sumptuous, vivacious romance from France. Cascading Chopin in the Andante Spianato & Grand Polonaise. The absorbing and charming Symphonic Variations of Cesar Franck. The discovery for most will be Edmund Rubba’s revered 4th Symphony. The always excellent programme magazine will include musical guidance from one of this work’s expert afficionados, Tony Purkis. And Schumann invokes the coming season with his No 1 Symphony “Spring”.
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