Spring Awakenings Concert – Worthing Symphony Orchestra,

Conductor John Gibbons (conductor), Laura van der Heijden (cello). Glinka, Overture Ruslan and Ludmilla; Shostakovich, Cello Concerto No 1 in Eb; interval; Bruckner, Symphony No 3 in D minor.

Worthing Symphony Orchestra, now 80 years old, after many years as its backbone, has become a phenomenon in the town’s musical life. Likewise, its audience. After 10 years at its helm, artistic director and conductor John Gibbons is striking out into feistier musical seas and Sunday’s concert proved that his explorations beyond safer classical waters has bred an audience that trust him.

He has aboard not merely a ship’s crew adding up to a few score enjoying and relishing his adventures, not a larger flotilla of craft supporting the flagship and numbering three figures, but now a whole navy’s worth in their many hundreds. This audience back him, and do not fear the unknown on the stranger or more daunting shores he visits.

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I went to the Assembly Hall on Sunday fearing the programme would draw the season’s smallest crowd. To have been wrong was a delightful mistake. And all because of Gibbons’ constant contact and dialogue with his audience between pieces of music, and his performances intended to avoid obstructing the music’s message and impact, and often disregarding popular or traditional practice in conveying the best-loved classics.

Glinka’s Ruslan and Ludmilla opera overture was the spark plug and the WSO left port with all the orchestra aboard and tympanist Robert Millet’s cannons punching them on and out through the harbour entrance. Where to? Straight into the hostile, oppressed, distressed world of Shostakovich’s post-war Stalin Russia of artistic dictat and purge. Why?

Because it gave Worthing the privilege of hearing the 2012 BBC Young Musician of the Year, Laura van der Heijden, giving her first performance of Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No 1 before taking it to Harrogate, then touring it to four venues in Wales.

Learned and memorised in just a month − between school A Level studies − she took the audience progressively deeper into Shostakovich’s world of desperate high spirits in the first movement, to introverted retreat and loneliness in the second, to a soliloquy of despair and disbelief that became a nightmare of frustration and injustice in its movement-long cadenza.

Hopeless outreach towards freedom from inside an iron cage was sensed in the humour-seeking finale, and throughout the Concerto Laura was an engrossing and enthralling musical presence with a flow of instrumentally articulated challenges and complaints to ears pre-warned by Gibbons to expect grit and guts. She made her cello growl and grumble, sneer and shudder, and sing angular songs of melancholy and defiance, death-wish and life-grasp.

The audience did not want the girl in the long scarlet/coral dress to go, and if she returns over the coming years, she will surely to this audience become an adopted younger ‘sister’ to violinist Nicola Benedetti.

Invigorated by difficult music in the surefire way only live music can achieve, the audience were then transferred south to the mountains and foothills of Alpine and Upper Austria, the domain of Anton Bruckner. They’d been once before with Gibbons, in his ‘Romantic’ Symphony No 4. This time, No 3, and changing from Shostokovich’s angst and sarcasm to Bruckner’s richly rounded sound world borne of spiritual security and assurance.

Nothing if not dedicated to presenting Worthing with new sound experiences in its envied Assembly Hall acoustic, Gibbons led Bruckner newcomers into this all-enveloping aural realm and sonority, with a complete conviction in letting it cast its own spell. Listeners were afterwards asking each other how much they knew of Bruckner before this, and went away intrigued and inspired to explore more. In such sublime ways does great classical music grow inside people and spread from them.

By happy coincidence, Gibbons’ new history-making recording of Bruckner’s monumental Symphony No 9 was on sale for the first time on Sunday. Many WSO listeners bought and took a copy home, to continue their exploration with him, beyond the Assembly Hall. [Richard Amey will review this CD for Worthing Herald website in due course]

Special credit on this day to leader Julian Leaper who spearheaded the violins through the special obstacles, uncertainties, cliff-edge plunges (I nearly said ‘leaps’), to the concluding regal assertion of Bruckner’s finale. Also to Timothy Hawes for looking so carefully after the main theme in what Wagner called Bruckner’s trumpet symphony. And also to first horn Dave Lee, not only for his section leadership throughout the Bruckner, who does beautiful things with horns, but accomplishing the singular and exacting role which Shostakovich game him.

WSO under Gibbons has moved from being solidly and consistently special, to preciously extraordinary, and now adventurously phenomenal. In guest appearances, the WSO export Worthing’s name to towns beyond the county. It leads orchestral artistic life in all Sussex and is a cultural vanguard and standard-bearer of a Worthing with precious little else non-artistic to sell, it appears, except its pier, its Dome, and its crassly-conceived new chest-beating, high-rise private seafront flat accommodation.

April brings the 3rd Sussex International Piano Competition, Worthing’s own baby conceived and delivered by Gibbons and volunteer members of the WSO’s fan group, the Worthing Symphony Society.

In five days from Tuesday April 14 in the Assembly Hall, it features not only 24 competitors from worldwide, plus the WSO in the Grand 3-Concerto Final on the Sunday, but a special solo concert on the Thursday afternoon by Turkey’s great pianistic export, Idil Biret, playing Chopin, Rachmaninov and Scriabin. She is on the competition jury, and I understand that otherwise-occupied new mother Arta Arnicane, the first SIPC winner, will be replaced on the panel entirely appropriately by second SIPC winner, Poom Prommachart.

Tues 14 & Weds 15: quarter-final sessions 11.30am, 2.45pm & 6pm- 7.30. Thursday 16: Idil Biret at 2.45pm. Friday: semi-finals at 1pm-4.30 & 6pm-9.30 (6 pianists). Sunday: Final at 2.45 (3 pianists). Tickets from Worthing Symphony Society (quarters and semis, 120 West Way, Lancing BN15 8NB or on the door) and for the Grand Final from Worthing Theatres 01903 206206.

The competition already has a reputation stretching across seas and continents. Is this orchestra not a Worthing asset and regional attraction?

Richard Amey