Review: Worthing Philharmonic Orchestra - "achievement high and proud in remarkable concert"

Review by Richard Amey. Worthing Philharmonic Orchestra concert at Assembly Hall, Sunday 26 November 2023
Dominic Grier (pic by Keith Tellick)Dominic Grier (pic by Keith Tellick)
Dominic Grier (pic by Keith Tellick)

Leader Preston Yeo, conductor Dominic Grier, piano soloist Julian Chan. Anatoly Lyadov, Polonaise Op55; Sergey Rachmaninov, Piano Concerto No 3; Edward Elgar, Symphony No 2.

A second jewel now unquestionably sits alongside that of Worthing Symphony Orchestra in the crown of the town’s musical offering as recognised by Worthing Theatres & Museum’s entertainment promoters. It is that of Worthing Philharmonic Orchestra under its musical director Dominic Grier, whose joint achievement reached high and proud in this remarkable concert by the town’s domestic orchestra. Both orchestras are long established here, The Symphony comprising full-time London professionals, The Philharmonic the musical professionals of teaching, coaching and instruction alongside former professional performers or young ones destined to be, or thereabouts, plus those musicians outstandingly gifted who fit neither category, some trained in Europe.

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Originally from Liverpool, Grier is in his 10th year with WPO, newly resident in the town personally, formerly in London, and is Worthing’s young star musical leader. He is distinctively super-slim, dark, well-groomed, poised and modest. He is already an artiste of distinction, purpose and enterprise. He works not only in the international concert hall and recording studio but also the theatre, being of The Royal Opera House, Birmingham Royal Ballet, the Dutch, Northern and Scottish ballets - plus several European opera houses. Already, he shares his expertise as a Royal Academy tutor, following his own probably priceless conductor’s training there under the late Sir Colin Davis (LSO, Concertgebouw, Bavarian Radio, Royal Opera House director) as well as mentors Colin Metters and Mark Shanahan. It seems almost fantasy to anticipate that Grier, Merry Opera Company and The Phil will now bring Mozart’s The Magic Flute live, fully staged, to the Assembly Hall on 20 April. How, why and wherefore in an interview article to come.

Grier took his Worthing Phil across further new and sternly-testing terrain on Sunday with an unorthodox choice of rousing and elevating Russian concert opener (“I love the thrill of the polonaise rhythm” – Grier told me), the popular immenseness of Rachmaninov’s Third concerto (“Demanding for all of us” – David Holmes, Phil first violins) and Elgar’s Second symphony (“You don’t hear of provincial orchestras like this attempting that” – Colin Metters, there watching and listening). Close your eyes and you’d not believe where you were, or who you were listening to. Two tests of a non full-time orchestra’s calibre are its stamina and its ability to play quietly, and then quieter still. Elgar’s long four-movement opus about all human life, its triumphs and joys overcoming its losses and sadnesses, its musical moods as startling as they are compelling, presented large litmus tests for these players, let alone Grier himself. And the outcome? Convincing – beyond mere persuasiveness.

The treasures of this performance were not only the WSO’s transmission of the brassy assurance inside Elgar’s writing for “My friends the orchestral musicians of England”, not only Grier’s sure grasp and illumination of the Symphony’s architecture, but the dreamy sidetracks Elgar’s music takes into private nostalgia, romance, hints at personal confidences and sheer mystery. These sometimes gossamer textures need collective softness in utterance from the WPO’s onstage ranks of 48 strings, 20 wood and brass winds and 5 percussionists. This was all an achievement of heightened endurance – following as it did the rampaging and reflecting Rachmaninov, in which they and the soloist drew a cheering standing ovation from around 40% of an audience younger than the WSO are used to. The Phil represents a learning and social hub for young orchestra fans and classical newbies.

In the concerto, The Phil’s alert industry and dedication to their role and duty, in which their woodwind principle players swapped from those for the Elgar, laid solid and responsive foundation beneath the Grier baton for prizewinning Malaysian pianist Julian Chan’s commanding and daring contribution. In only his second full-length performance of Rachmaninov’s Third concerto, head weaving, swaying dipping and bobbing, his Steinway thundering and torrenting, he hardly looked or sounded green around the gills after four years’ preparation of this work. The Phil’s audience reception to both performances had more to give but their applause was snuffed out when the orchestra sat down after the first return to the stage of Chan and Grier.

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Chan told me he played Saint-Saens’ Egyptian Concerto with John Gibbons’ Northampton SO after Yi-Yang Chen had done it with Gibbons and the WSO here in 2018-19. One of Chan’s teachers at the Royal Academy is Ian Fountain, past soloist with The Symphony in some big concertos, including Brahms’ First, in February, when Chan was in the audience.

As with WSO, The Phil produce an excellent concert programme brochure. It has several interesting, informative, unstuffy in-house writers about the music. This time Tim Schofield introduced the two opening Russian works, and we learned how Rachmaninov preferred to perform a shorter first-movement cadenza than the titanic one he also wrote, which from 1958 Van Cliburn standardised. And cellist Andy Fryer, no doubt a lover of Elgar’s Concerto for his instrument, gave us some vitally important composer’s own quotes with clues about the Second Symphony. Anyone, like me, who senses Elgar was secretly writing at one point in the first movement about stolen courtship sensuality, will be vindicated.

Dominic Grier welcomed the audience through the microphone and pointed up the £50,000 Worthing Theatres and Museum target to raise, for the Assembly Hall’s updating programme, including seating and toilets, with its 90th anniversary falling next year. The appeal is called Fit For The Future.

Chesswood Junior School’s Choir confidently singing their hearts out threatened to steal the show at Worthing Choral Society’s fine concert the night before at St George’s Church. Their admirable trainer and teacher Claire Cossins brought them to perform two of their favourites, Lin Marsh’s There’s Power in the Music and One Little Voice by Mary Green and Julie Stanley. But then they joined with WCS and Call Me Al’ Quintet in Alexander L’Estrange’s livewire Wassail! Songs of Hope and Joy – which both stole and sealed the show. L’Estrange, not alone in being self-confessedly inspired by Maddy Prior and The Albion Band’s folky take on Christmas material, paraded his own welcome arrangements of many familiar carols in their original historic versions – all vitalised by L’Estrange on double bass in his ensemble of recorders, accordion, guitar and percussion.

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WCS had set the scene with Morten Loridsen’s O Magnum Mysterium as a surprise opener, leavened then with Kerney’s own Blow Ye the Trumpet arrangement of the Worthing Downs Shepherd’s Folk Carol (collected by The Sompting Morris), followed by Walking In a Winter Wonderland.

Once again WCS included in their tickets their distinctive illustrated concert programme brochure. Always with so much to read and inform oneself in its 24 A4 pages. The concert brought to public fruition the singing and performing elements of WCS’ Celebrating Music project for Selden Ward and wider Worthing, which pools, inter-generationally, professional musicians with adult and child singers. A Worthing Borough Council grant from its Community Infrastructure Levy assisted.

Richard Amey

Next Concerts

Sunday 17 December (3pm), Assembly Hall: ‘Christmas on Broadway’, Worthing Philharmonic Orchestra, Worthing Choral Society, Sompting Village Primary School Choir, conductors Aedan Kerney, Sam Barton. Selections from Lerner & Loewe’s My Fair Lady and Rogers & Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music; Leroy Anderson, A Christmas Festival; Hely Hutchinson: A Christmas Carol Symphony; and seasonal favourites and carols for all.

Sunday 7 January 2024 (2.45pm) Assembly Hall: ‘New Year Concert’, Worthing Symphony Orchestra in their popular annual celebration of the operetta stage and dance floor favourites of vintage Vienna.