Review: Worthing Symphony Orchestra’s Remembrance Sunday concert
Jean Sibelius, Finlandia; Bernard Stevens, Liberation (Final 3rd movement from his A Symphony of Liberation Op7); Antonin Dvorak, Violin Concerto (soloist Simon Zhu, violin); Sibelius, Symphony No 2.
International tension and struggle never cease. Musical commentators find nothing changes. Take Jewish septuagenarian Keith Reid’s despairing song words for Procol Harum*about war and conflict at numerous points during a writing career concluded by his death earlier this year. John Gibbons kept his WSO ship customarily on its Remembrance Sunday musical course, while incidentally the same day Joanna McGregor apparently steered Brighton Philharmonic completely away from a sense of artistic commemoration.
Music adopts comfortably the attire of Remembrance, even when originally dressed in something else. Witness the annual potency of Elgar’s friend pictured within, Nimrod, at the Cenotaph. Gibbons annually hunts down compositions that stir feeling and empathy for national and individual war-loss. This year he drew on an obscure Briton alongside music’s most celebrated Finn.
Sibelius’ Finland in 1899 found that the relationship trials with its controlling and censoring neighbour, Russia, and its nationalistic hopes of breaking its chains encapsulated and elevated in his eight-minute Finlandia – previously called Finland Awakes. Its international familiarity down Europe’s post-war years was Gibbons’ starting point. Next, another eight minutes, about Liberation, by Bernard Stevens, whose poor eyesight spared him 1939-45 war action when in the army, and who was 67 when dying in Essex in 1983. Gibbons’ personal embedment in British music enabled him to lift this, the finale from Stevens’ 1946 newspaper competition prize-winning war symphony.
Dvorak’s Violin Concerto demonstrates sober and symphonic intensity, as did his Cello Concerto on a previous WSO Remembrance occasion at The Assembly Hall, and with Du Pre and Barenboim at The Royal Albert Hall after Soviet tanks took over Prague. But the Violin Concerto’s brightly lit finale sent Sunday’s audience buoyantly into the interval.
Gibbons had performed neither Liberation nor the Dvorak Concerto before, but he had the Sibelius Symphony No 2. Here in its highly unsettled second movement came affinity with Remembrance commemoration – not from Sibelius a public, community-binding statement of regret, but an exclusively personal reaction to more than one through-running stimulus.
John Gander’s research for the £3 concert programme brochure found that Sibelius, in Italy when composing the movement, was mulling over the legend of Don Juan, and had also written ‘Christus’ over his sketch of the movement’s second theme – and, incidentally, had met Dvorak, in Prague.
The following scherzo of blazing energy, interplaying with sublime repose, surged across the audience and poured into the monumental finale which could not fail to clinch the task of this concert. Jubilant cheers greeted the Sibelius and the Dvorak and respecting applause the Stevens after undoubtedly the audience’s first hearing.
Enthralled applause and more unbridled shouts saluted an encore from a new young violinist who was captivating Worthing on his WSO debut. Many were fascinated that a young Chinese man would be so physically involved in the Western classical music performance he was giving. Violinists seem either to stand studiously stock still when the orchestra plays by itself, or physically move with the music. This one stood and swayed with the tempo as he absorbed himself in Dvorak’s Concerto. And when he was playing there was complete assurance, accomplishment, and direct communication with his listeners.
No surprise. Simon Zhu (say it “See-monn Zoo”) only in October added to his success in the Yehudi Menuhin Competition (which landed him this concert) with yet another victory, this time in Genova’s Premio Paganini Violin Competition. The 23-year-old walked away from Italy with a heck of a prize: 30,000 Euros, more than 70 engagements across mainly Italy and Germany, and the chance to have a go on one of the preserved violins owned by Nicolo Paganini, the 19th century devilish king of the instrument.
Still studying in Munich after attending a string of other European training bodies including the Mozarteum Salzburg, Zhu told me he’ll have to spread those engagements over the next two years. His range crosses baroque, classical and romantic, and his home is Berlin – the residence of his parents, who met and paired in his birth nation, Germany, after separately leaving the Chinese cities of Beijing and Nanking.
Zhu took the stage in a black suit over a tieless white shirt with a generous stand collar. A red poppy on his left breast pocket was visible under his violin as he played. He made his on-loan Bergonzi fiddle race or reflect, sing, skip and trip through Dvorak’s Concerto role, his instrument’s role more integral within the orchestra than conventionally stand-out showy.
After, despite this, an excited and perceptive audience reception, Zhu spoke to his listeners about ‘this special day’ of ‘calm remembrance’ as influencing his choice of encore. It was the Andante from Bach’s Solo Suite for Violin No 2. And, as with Jess Gillam in the previous WSO concert, his audience were mesmerised and hankered for more.
Gibbons gave the opening Finlandia a briskish tempo, avoiding the traditional overblown and grandiose kind of reading. It stripped away overt patriotism, made it more the people’s music than that of the establishment, and spoke of today’s public cynicism about the motives of war, and their own despair at its reckless and hollow waste. Even so, Gibbons gave the brass their day, though less the strings, whose crucial rising and surging sweep in this piece was once or twice out-voiced by the heavy metal.
It was important to hear next the Stevens work of 1940-45, emotionally dedicated to a fallen friend. The music of his ‘Liberation’ came over as a release being felt in the more balanced context of a summation and assessment of suffering and sacrifice, rather than a hymn of untethered triumph and glory. It began with the offstage three bell-tolls of the town Hall clock – here more a fortunate contribution than an intrusion.
The opening section of Liberation seemed to take stock of the war striving within its previous two movements we’d not heard (Enslavement = recruitment and optimism, Resistance = later defiance by beleaguered forces and civilians). It sounded cost-resigned to the damage to everything. But then the horns lifted the atmosphere into a mobile optimism. The brass coaxed the hesitant, distrusting strings out of their reserve and the quite brief remainder breathed encouragement and hope.
After the interval, Sibelius’ second symphony was a predictably crowning success. Gibbons’ characteristic tight rein of control on both mysterious and climactic symphonic proceedings paid ultimate dividends – just as Sibelius intended with his long deliberations, dark and deep passing moods or outlooks, and fascinating organically developing themes.
The WSO leapt into their most concentrated mode. All sinews flexed and guns blazed in the first movement. In the second they spoke appositely of anguish, struggle, exhaustion and sometimes almost grotesquery. The third movement juxtaposed on itself like another autumn storm savaging Worthing seafront before the relieving peace of next day, with the symphony’s following transition into the finale surging like the successive, ever-mounting and still angry waves of the gale-roused sea.
The splendid procession of the homecoming finale, alternating gravitas with deep elation, was unfolded surely and inexorably by Gibbons. The audience intently sailed on the crest of it all, and erupted at its close. The WSO sections applauded each other as Gibbons finally summoned each to their feet. They are a bonded team that drive down here mainly from London to relish the rapport they have built and maintain within their ranks, and beyond the stage edge with their loyal, devoted and enlightened fans.
*eg: Fires That Burn Brightly, Holding On, The Blink Of An Eye . . .
Concerts to come (Tickets from WTM -01903 206206)
Worthing Philharmonic Orchestra– Sunday 26 November (3) at Assembly Hall, conductor Dominic Grier: Anatoly Lyadov, Polonaise Op55; Sergei Rachmaninov, Piano Concerto No 3 (soloist Julian Chan), Edward Elgar, Symphony No 2.
Worthing Philharmonic Orchestra, Worthing Choral Society and Sompting VCillage Primary School Choir – Sunday 17 December (3), ‘Christmas on Broadway’ concert at Assembly Hall. WPO conductor, Dominic Grier; WCS conductors, Aedan Kerney and 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.
Worthing Symphony Orchestra – Sunday 7 January 2024; The Assembly Hall, 2.45), New Year Concert; the popular annual celebration of the operetta stage and dance floor favourites of vintage Vienna.