Glittering performance by Horsham Music Circle: review

It may have been the Eurovision Song Contest, but for literally hundreds of local music-lovers there was no contest: Jess Gillam – that dynamic, glittering mega-star saxophonist, was in town with her brilliant Ensemble, and we were all packed into St Mary’s Church to welcome them, writes Jane Thomas.
The Jess Gillam Ensemble performs for Horsham Music Circle's 81st Anniversary concertThe Jess Gillam Ensemble performs for Horsham Music Circle's 81st Anniversary concert
The Jess Gillam Ensemble performs for Horsham Music Circle's 81st Anniversary concert

I say “glittering”, and the word applies both to her trademark concert wear – (last time, in 2018, it was a dazzling golden dress; this time an equally dazzling black and gold ensemble setting off her beloved golden soprano sax to perfection!) – and to her incredible virtuosity on that instrument.

Jess also introduced the items with her usual delightful spontaneity, and that added greatly to the enjoyment of the evening.

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This was the HMC’s 81st anniversary concert, and Jill Elsworthy is again to be congratulated on achieving such a coup.

The Jess Gillam Ensemble has been featuring prominently on Radio 3, has just been performing in such prestigious venues as St Martin-in-the-Fields, and now here they were, striding down the aisle of St Mary’s with such energy and enthusiasm that we knew we were in for an extremely special evening!

And it certainly lived up to our expectations. From their first piece - Will Gregory’s emotive ‘Orbit’ with its mellow sax over a gently insistent metallophone ostinato - to the final wonderfully frenetic Barn Dance from Harle’s ‘Briggflatts’, the individual virtuosity of each player was harnessed joyfully to the ensemble.

The CPE Bach flute concerto lent itself astonishingly well to a modern combo, as do the works of his more famous father, with Jess’s soprano sax solo all mellifluous beauty one moment, then whizzing around with dizzying speed the next.

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This was followed by a lovely arrangement of Sakamoto’s award-winning score for the 1983 film ‘Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence’, where the rich tones of Eoin Schmidt-Martin’s viola harmonised particularly well with the lower sax timbre. Then it was back to Baroque – with an extremely effective performance of Marcello’s famous oboe concerto, in which the remarkable rapport between cellist Gabriella Swallow and bassist Sam Becker made one wonder why a harpsichord is needed at all!

The first half ended with a visit to Argentina’s nightclubs, with Piazzolla’s popular tangos ranging from the driving rhythms of ‘Bordel’, through the languid, melancholy grace of ‘Café’, to the explosive excitement of ‘Nightclub’ – complete with a beautiful high violin solo from Ciaran McCabe.

The music to ‘West Side Story’ is extremely well-known and extremely difficult, especially with a small group doing the work of a large orchestra! However, with the brilliant Elsa Bradley leaping from tuned to untuned percussion with equal panache, a middle section with lovely cello solo, and violinists Ciaran and Michael Jones elegantly completing each other’s phrases before the final frantic ‘Mambo!’ - it was all sheer enjoyment for players and audience alike!

And mention should be made of the brilliant arrangements of many of the pieces by Simon Parkin. What a talent!The following ‘Clair de Lune’ featured pianist Leif Kaner-Lidström, equally at home with fluid Debussy and the more percussive requirements of the upbeat numbers.

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Rune Sorensen’s ‘Shine You No More’ presented the ensemble as one big, happy folksy band; and Barbara Thompson’s ‘The Unseen Way’, with soprano sax wailing over a sonorous bass, was immensely moving.

Then with bassist Sam Becker transferring to guitar for the final ‘Briggflatts’, by John Harle, and Jess’s playing reaching even more phenomenal heights of virtuosity, the concert ended on a fantastic high which was greeted with a standing ovation not often seen in the serene setting of the parish church. What an inspirational evening!Jane Thomas 13.05.23

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