‘Romantic Valentines’ Concert – Worthing Symphony Orchestra, conductor John Gibbons, Rabiga Dyussembayeva (piano) at Assembly Hall

Tchaikowsky: Fantasy Overture, Romeo & Juliet and Rose Adagio from Sleeping Beauty; William Alwyn: Piano Concerto No 2; Tchaikowsky: Symphony No 5.

So, what would YOU choose for an orchestral concert themed on great romance? Try not to mention Elvira Madigan. Mozart’s 21st Piano Concerto (no, not his 21st propositioned soprano!) is rather one of classical music’s lazy clichés in this scenario and WSO’s John Gibbons is unlikely to serve up one of those. We receive something more imaginative.

To his audience on Sunday, he noted the high early subsequent mortality among popular musical romantic heroines. Take Juliet and Francesca De Rimini for starters. Both interested Tchaikowsky but, alas, when we hear the great love theme in his Fantasy Overture, Romeo and Juliet, which opened this ‘Valentines’ concert, we already fear how dreadfully short-lived is to be the joy.

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Balance-wise, the WSO violins were several short of being evenly-matched protagonists when the distinctive-sounding ensembles of wind, brass, strings and percussion clashed head-to-head in the market place, with the harlots fleeing for cover. Gibbons amassed his orchestral warring family forces (and for, later, the skirmishing sexes) with all his 12 brass arrayed across the battlements and his percussion out on their right flank.

Then, for four minutes, we had four courtly princes bidding for the hand of Princess Aurora in the momentous Rose Adagio from Sleeping Beauty. Once each has spun her slowly once around on pointe, she triumphantly pops eight new roses into her trophy vase. Big romantic music, but there’s no kissing going on.

Next was a 34-minute, near-unknown concerto by the late Briton, William Alwyn. Mr Gibbons informed us that the married Mr Alwyn became so taken with fellow composer Doreen Carwithen, that they both took off into Suffolk residence for creative purpose. The fruits of this 1950s union, we were told, are presumed to be in this turbulent, tender and sometimes terrifying music.

The orchestra sometimes simply crushed the piano. We knew this because powerful soloist Rabiga Dyussembayeva was at the keyboard and capable of keeping the Steinway on more or less even terms. Her often plaintive passages, presumably indicating more sensuous or seductive events at hand, were of stark contrast and respite. But one was left convinced that this romantic couple spent rather far more time than was reasonable having blazing rows in the kitchen, the scullery, the coal cellar, the attic, the bathroom and probably even outside the loo at the bottom of the garden.

It was almost exciting at times but the audience generally felt unable to warm to the Concerto. Never mind romantic kissing, there hardly seemed to be any singing going on in the music.

So, in the main still left searching the afternoon for frisson, if the audience couldn’t now find it in the interval tea, coffee, ice cream or drink from the bar, or from someone intriguing buying it for them, they were now depending on Tchaikowsky to show in his unsettling 5th Symphony something to which heterosexuals as well as their counterparts could relate.

It’s stirring music and a journey enough involving to make one forget about St Valentine’s Day altogether. And largely, the WSO, on familiar territory, touched the elevated zones we know they can frequent. The slow movement may proffer a flower of love in its opening horn solo. But for all his opera house experience, I wondered if Dave Lee has been short of romantic times lately. Or has he been playing this hit melody too often?

Tchaikowsky’s characteristically yearning other music in this second movement is also in Act 2 of Sleeping Beauty when the lovers meet supernaturally. That might have suited this programme but probably comes not in extractable form. The carefree, waltzing third movement of the Symphony brings relaxation rather than romance, so the marching, festive finale has to be our closing consolation on an afternoon when our date failed to show up.

Rabiga Dyussembayeva’s was the personal triumph and achievement of this concert. A late deputy for new mother, Arta Arnicane, the young Kazakh learned and prepared the solo part in barely a fortnight, among other music she was preparing, and it was she who made possible this, the first professional performance on Britain of Alwyn’s Concerto.

The BBC commissioned it for the 1960 Proms, and once that was scuppered by the soloist losing the use of an arm, with no replacement pianist forthcoming, they couldn’t be bothered to reschedule it. So William and Doreen were quarrelling away on licence payers’ money. After its subsequent languishing neglect except for two recordings, one hopes all Dyussembayeva’s work has not been in a lost cause. Or that of Arnicane, who played it twice last summer, with Gibbons and Ealing Symphony Orchestra, then in her Latvian homeland.

. . . . so, what, then, would YOU choose for an orchestral concert themed on great romance? Gibbons was getting warm, by heading towards the ballet. Berlioz actually comes into my mind, with several offerings. We’ve a year to mull it over and enjoy our own debate.

Next WSO concert: Spring Awakenings with Laura van der Heijden playing Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No 1, last heard around here several years ago in Brighton with Steven Isserlis, Vladimir Ashkenazy and the LPO. Glinka’s Ruslan & Ludmilla Overture kicks it off in frenzy and there is Bruckner’s Symphony No 3, popular with listeners new to the composer.

Did you know? ― that two Sussex International Piano Competition finalists have recently given birth. As well as Latvian, Arta Arnicane, this month, there was Ukrainian, Olga Paliy, in the autumn. Both babies were boys.

Did you know? ― that WSO timpanist Robert Millet is not only principal percussionist with Rambert Dance Company. He is Musical Director of The Globe Theatre in London.

Did you know? ― that young blonde WSO 2nd violinist Hayley Pomfrett will lead a live string quartet in ITV’s quiz show, 1000 Heartbeats, starting on February 23 a 6-week series, each Monday to Friday at 4pm. The presenter is Vernon Kay. Miss Pomfrett in April, and in the 1st violins, will tour USA for a third time with the BBC Concert Orchestra.


Richard Amey