REVIEW: Worthing Symphony Orchestra

Autumn Delights Concert’ – Worthing Symphony Orchestra, conductor John Gibbons, with Anthony Hewitt, piano and Jess Gillam, alto saxophone (Assembly Hall, Sunday October 12)

THE instant cheers, whoops, whistles and unchained applause were for Glazunov, his Concerto and a 17-year-old girl from Cumbria whose saxophone matched the carroty gold of her long hair. Yes, this was a classical music concert, the audience contained a throng of students from Worthing College in the balcony and there were people two and three generations older making just a much fuss.

The girl was Jess Gillam, wind instrument finalist in the 2014 BBC Young Musician Of The Year competition and she had given the crowd 15 minutes of exhuberant release into the rainy evening with a display of skill and musicianship that filled the Assembly Hall with feelgood factor to the brim.

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Holst had just stirred it up with his St Paul’s Suite, each line and infectious rhythm sharply defined in his expert purpose of giving that London girls school orchestra a new piece to learn and play. Now it was the end of the afternoon and once again WSO artistic director had gauged his programming order just right.

The Glazunov Saxophone Concerto, written by a self-exiled Russian in Paris in the 1930s, by which time Stravinsky and Ravel among others had already begun to absorb jazz into the art music vocabulary. It’s not a jazzy piece but some inflections are there and it’s like a clarinet concerto for an instrument with a bit more substance at the top end.

Jess Gillam, who also plays tenor and soprano saxes, was inspired out of her father’s carnival band and into the jazz world by Snake Davis, and on into the classical world she now comes storming, already among the country’s leading players. She and this Glazunov Concerto, plus others by Richard Rodney Bennett, and special works by Villa-Lobos, Ibert and Debussy, are surely due their more prominent time in the near future. We heard her play it first here and the audience will want her back.

This second WSO concert of the season was even more rewarding than the first – both of them symphony-less. It was strings-only and unexpectedly the drinks bar – maybe in the absence of any thirsty woodwind or brass players – stayed closed. Second-desk first violins, Katherine Adams gave me a wry smile in the foyer afterwards.

“Phew, that was tough,” said the Worthing-based member of super-versatile ‘perform-anything’ BBC Concert Orchestra. “There were three pieces I’d not played before – the Glazunov, John Ireland’s Concertino Pastorale, and the Piano Concerto. There were lots of note to play I didn’t know.”

Something special is happening here in Worthing with this man Gibbons at the WSO helm. Already for several years he has been outflanking the Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra in programming enterprise, imagination and appeal. And if you compare this season with the very ordinary one of the London Philharmonic Orchestra at Brighton Dome (duller, even, than last season), it’s not difficult to spot the most interesting and furthest-reaching of the three orchestras.

The sense of listening fulfilment on Sunday was strong. Grieg’s familiar Holberg Suite was the WSO’s warm-up and although they did not make the slickest start, they then swung into the reflective but satisfying three-movement John Ireland work, which contained some characteristic 20th Century English-music solos from the violin (leader Julian Leaper) and viola (Stephen Shakeshaft). Then they accompanied another Cumbrian, soloist Anthony Hewitt, in the Piano Concerto by composer William Alwyn’s wife and assistant, Doreen Carwithen.

Gibbons’ mission for home-grown music – he is vice-chairman of the British Music Society – has revived much neglected music of the post-war period, when Carwithen wrote upwards of 30 film scores. Hewitt played the Piano Concerto earlier this year with Gibbons in Ulverston, the base of both he and Jess Gillam, and only three pianists in the world yet play the work.

Hewitt’s appearance was fortuitous, despite being knocked off his bicycle only days earlier, been shaken up and left with shoulder and collarbone pain. Had he ended up in hospital, Gibbons explained to the audience, the other two pianists who perform it (one of them Howard Shelley) would have been out of reach in action elsewhere.

The Concerto had a Proms premier in 1952. It’s robust and tender by turns, likewise serious and playful. Hewitt brought out all these qualities but it does not have conventional concerto shape and, although it has power, it does not have the breathtaking bravura famous pianists like to seize on to further their careers. Hence its obscurity. It’s an absorbing listen and the slow movement found Hewitt at his trademark poetic and in sweetly lyrical conversation with the excellent Julian Leaper.

If Hewitt fancied a gift bouquet, he stereotypically ended up with a male’s bottle of wine at the second of his three curtain calls. After the interval, Gibbons gave us another if his discoveries – not British this time but the religiously-feeling Nocturne by Dvorak. It’s beautiful slender eight minutes of length seemed like only five. Echoing the adage that time flies when you’re having a good time.

Richard Amey

Next concerts:

Sunday November 9 (2.45pm at Assembly Hall) ― WSO, Gibbons, Poom Prommachart (piano, Thai winner of 2013 Sussex International Piano Competition); Barber’s Adagio, Sibelius’ Fifth, Ernest Farrar’s Heroic Elegy and the Piano Concerto by Arthur Bliss.

Thursday November 20 (7.15pm at The Denton, Worthing Pier) ― ‘A Soirée of Preludes’ Interview Concert, seating in the round: Jessica Zhu (Audience and 3rd Prize Winner in the 2010 Sussex IPC). Chopin’s Opus 28 and 10 from the two books by Debussy.

Next Sussex International Piano Competition (with Gibbons & WSO, Assembly Hall, Worthing): week commencing April 10 2015.