Review: Worthing Symphony Orchestra return to the concert platform

REVIEW BY Richard Amey


‘Return of the Symphony’ concert: Worthing Symphony Orchestra at The Assembly Hall, Sunday October 10, 2021 (2.45pm), clarinet soloist Ian Scott, conductor John Gibbons.

Haydn, Symphony No 64 in A ‘In Tempora Mutantur’; Mozart, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik K525; Weber, Clarinet Concertino for Clarinet and Orchestra in Eb Op26; J.Strauss Jnr, Neue Pizzicato Polka Op449; Beethoven, Symphony No 4 in Bb Op60.

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A crescendo from polite applause grew fast into cheers then whoops as music director John Gibbons took the stage to end 20 pandemic-plagued months in West Sussex without its professional Symphony Orchestra. The musicians were already sitting, smiling, waiting. The unleashed rejoicing was for he, the returning hero who had now decided WSO concerts should resume, to end the starvation.

“Wow!” he chuckled into the microphone, apparently surprised at the highly vocal welcome. “I was worried my flies were undone!” Sfordanzi of unsurprised audience laughter. An instant snapping-in of his shared sense of fun. OK - name me a conductor of a professional orchestra with this kind of easy rapport with his trusting, admiring audience.

You would not have realised the place was barely half-full. Main entertainment venues in Worthing and Brighton are expecting only 50% attendance as half the concert-going Covid virus survivors and avoiders grapple with their decision about whether the world is yet safe enough. Brighton have had professional classical concerts since mid-May in its Festival. This was Worthing’s first since February 2020.

The Assembly Hall had reduced capacity. In the rear half of the hall, half the stalls rows were alternately removed for optionally distanced seating, in front and behind. Roughly half those were sold. Seats next to each other had no separation. At the door, tickets were scanned instead of handled, and hand sanitiser offered. Masking was recommended only. At a guess, 45% of the audience remained masked.

Audience confidence will inevitably increase, and WSO have a further climate-testing concert on November 14 (see below) before deciding when next. The orchestra woodwind were the sole section sitting distanced. Just 19 strings; winds and brass in pairs except a single flute; drums – just 31 players, as planned in advance, expecting less on-stage freedom than is now possible.

Gibbons in lockdown has been extending his recording discography with British music, conducting a Latvian orchestra, including a cello concerto with Florian Arnicans the German husband of Arta Arnicane, who have twice performed in Worthing since her 2010 inaugural Sussex Piano Competition triumph.

Also in studio action creating his third album has been clarinet soloist Ian Scott. He is principal with WSO, the Royal Ballet Sinfonia (presently performing Romeo & Juliet twice daily at Covent Garden – punishing woodwind work if you can get it),and The Orchestra of St John’s. And often guest principal with all London’s top orchestras and guest soloist across the UK. Quality is assured at WSO!

Scott’s a Scot on an invasion. He began 18 years ago with a CD of British Clarinet Concertos before leaping Hadrian’s Wall to carry off some English pieces on a second disc. The Sassenach canon cannily conquered, in his latest release he’s stuffed some Russian music into his sporran.

Clarinet soloists are rare birds at WSO: previously Emma Johnson (Finzi Concerto) and Julian Bliss (award-winning Mozart). Scott got less time to parade his mettle, in the 8-9minute Concertino with which Weber tested his market and hit the spot. The composer and Scott instantly made the case for more clarinet solo pieces at WSO, for examples with flair, excitement and elan alongside the lyrical cappuccino clarinet sound we know and love.

After delivering Concertino’s thrills, frills and flourishes, and the clouded contrasts of Weber’s trademark night-time forest ventures, Scott’s triumphant fist-pump final chord was his own. Weber’s part mutes him, but Scott, as he is entitled, added his own Eb note, giving us that delicious firm orchestral chord containing clarinet. Slightly nasal, but rich, succulent, and warm as a sun-bathed Victoria plum. Think the first chord of Haydn’s 99th Symphony, and Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto (see below).

Scott told me he plays a wide-bored English clarinet by contemporary maker Peter Eaton, and stylistically he’s of the British school. He also trained in America, but under an Englishman.

Asked what he’d recommend we hear in concert, and it was not only Weber’s Concerto No 1, he reminding that it contains a slow movement, later set with choir at the exhausted Weber’s own funeral. Scott also cited Sussex composer Paul Lewis’ Tauranga Concerto, and the Mozart Sinfonia Concertante for clarinet, oboe, horn and bassoon – a showcase for he and WSO colleagues Christopher O’Neal, Richard Steggall and Simon Chiswell?

All four plus flautist Monica McCarron shone strongly in Beethoven’s 4th Symphony. Mendelssohn, wrote Gibbons in his programme notes, chose this symphony for his inaugural concert in charge of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. Now it sealed WSO’s return from silence. A performance to savour, since this, of Beethoven’s nine, is the least-performed live. Those who come to know and love as a result are the favoured few.

Some of WSO, despite vast working experience, had hardly ever played it before. The WSO not for 20 years. It has undisguised romance, unbridled optimism, constant wit, blazing originality within a proven framework, and supreme extrovert confidence. How and why it is sidelined and ‘non-box office’ in Britain beggars belief. The nation must now be almost ignorant of it. The WSO did a super job in what is, therefore, at test case in skill and spontaneity for a British orchestra, though not a German one of Beethoven’s own nationality.

WSO were also returning with a pizzicato Viennese ballroom dance and a little night music. But, moreover, Haydn. Gibbons, a late arrival to this master composer, now an enthusiast, told us he’d selected hearing all 104 symphonies as a lockdown project.

These, like laughter, ought to be available on British doctors’ prescription. Haydn composes universal humour, yet reluctant and non-comprehending British conductors have failed, and some still fail, to get the jokes. Yet in London’s 1790s, we British worshipped Haydn. He is not a composer one grows out of, but a lifetime’s worth of adventure to discover, explore and admire.

The WSO chief is now aware, and likely to prescribe more. For the occasion, Gibbons seized on a Haydn symphony whose title means ‘Times change, and we with them, but not for the better’. In these existential reformative times, the message appealed not only to the political observer in Gibbons but also the philosopher.

The scintillating high horns, the taut rhythms and perky themes, the economy and precision of expression throughout. Gibbons spoke about the slow second movement deliberately sounding disjointed. Mindful of the sobering title, keen listeners will have heard Haydn enacting in music the equivalent sense of our post-modern pre-covid world now fracturing under challenge; of we struggling to focus, being spuriously distracted, and striving to assert our re-awareness of necessity.

Richard Amey

Ian Mardell’s picture shows Ian Scott (centre) and his second clarinet Alan Andrews in WSO action. Beyond Scott is principal bassoon, Simon Chiswell.

Coming next:

Friday, October 15 (7.30pm): Former Sussex International Piano Competition 2015 finalist, twice WSO guest soloist, 2017 International Interview Concerts guest subject, DINARA KLINTON is at Music & Wine at St Luke’s series, Queen’s Park, Brighton. Intimate, more private, lyrical, poetry and folk-influenced solo piano music from the Russians – Rachmaninov, Taneyev, Scriabin, Lyadov, Glinka, Balakirev, Medtner. On the door £7 (£5 U25s, free for U16s).

Sunday, November 14 (2.45pm): ‘Renewal and Remembrance’ concert by WORTHING SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA, conductor John Gibbons, piano soloist Maria Marchant. Beethoven, Prometheus Overture and Emperor Piano Concerto; Elgar, ‘Sospiri’; Puccini, ‘Chrysanthemums’; Butterworth, ‘The Banks of Green Willow’; Ravel, ‘The Tomb of Couperin’. (£35, £29, £21, £10 19-25yrs, £5 students). 01903 206206.