REVIEW: Four horns plus Beethoven 5 in rousing Worthing Symphony Orchestra outing

REVIEW BY Richard Amey – ‘Beethoven 5’ concert by Worthing Symphony Orchestra at Assembly Hall. Leader Julian Leaper, conductor John Gibbons, soloists The Dave Lee Horn Quartet (1 Dave Lee, 2 Tom Bettley, 3 Richard Steggall, 4 Jane Hanna).
Dave Lee Quartet - Richard Steggall, Lee, Jane Hanna, Tom BettleyDave Lee Quartet - Richard Steggall, Lee, Jane Hanna, Tom Bettley
Dave Lee Quartet - Richard Steggall, Lee, Jane Hanna, Tom Bettley

Wolfgang Mozart, The Magic Flute Overture; Peter Warlock, Capriol Suite*; Robert Schumann, Concert Piece for Four Horns and Orchestra; Albert Roussel, Sinfonietta Op52*; Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony No 5 in C minor Op67. (* strings only)

Picture: Dave Lee Horn Quartet – Richard Steggall, Dave Lee, Jane Hanna, Tim Bettley

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Beethoven 5 upstaged by The Dave Lee 4? Quite likely. One doesn’t dare to suggest that arguably the most universally impactful piece of Western music could ever be thus displaced inside the ears and spirit of an audience. But the spectacle of four of the WSO’s own French horns gleaming in the lighting, teaming in concert as joint soloists, surrounded by their orchestral colleagues, was a real eye opener, a heart warmer and potentially a memory lasting longer than yet another Beethoven performance.

Making their public debut in this personnel combination, the WSO horn section that Lee leads as their principal made an unexpected stage entry. They came through the upper door straight onto the middle tier of the stage – to perform standing instead of sitting behind their waiting music stands, placed alongside the flutes, with Schumann’s orchestra horn pairing sitting behind them, and the dozen WSO violins in front of them on the level below. Something special about to happen.

Lee’s personality (read his WSO website profile), welded to his trademark instrument, makes him a bit of a swashbuckler as one of the audience’s most popular WSO musicians, and he’s already featured with the orchestra in Mozart’s famous Fourth Concerto. But the combined worth to music of him and his three colleagues became substantial to readers once they’d read their individual background profiles in the concert programme brochure. At last, these four could be spotlighted in this Schumann work, something not presented in this town for probably 30 years, with Worthing Philharmonic Orchestra and their own foursome led by the late Alan Newnham – whose own WSO tenure as horn No 2 reached into the present 22-year John Gibbons conducting era.

The bemusing case of ‘Three Bottles for Four Horns of Plenty’ . . . Both these Schumann displays included a female horn player, and while during Sunday’s applause the three men received the routine gift to a male of a bottle of wine, Worthing Symphony Society’s offering to Jane Hanna was their female-customary basket of flowers, tea and jam. Pink for a girl and all that. But spend a little time around an orchestra and it’s standard that, across the genders, brass musicians regard not much less than a crate of beer as being adequate after the performance. Think long deep puffing adding up to long deep thirst.

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But who knows? The ensemble might well have seen this coming and had one ready in their dressing room. They knew they’d be in pretty dire need, particularly the veteran Lee himself. No 3 Richard Steggall told me how Schumann, composing for the newly-invented valved horns, wanted to set a testing future standard of performance expectation by giving the No 1 plenty of taxing high notes.

The opening section drew from the Lee Quartet plenty of tight ensemble to frame their internal musical discussion and safeguard their external one with the orchestra. They then sustained a warming constant flow of melody in the middle Romanze, and in the lively finale they gave us some warmingly mellifluous interplay.

“Bravo!” One huge shout from the balcony in Latin, among the enthusiastic audience reception. During which, true to essentially anti-heroic horn playing character, Lee smiled, shuffled self-effacingly and had evidently been unable to train he and his crew into the kind of co-ordinated bowing to the audience well-honed by musicians like WSO leader Julian Leaper in his well-groomed Maggini String Quartet.

But have a heart: when else in concerto repertoire are four horn players obliged to do this and get the practice? Their laid-back approach repaid the audience with the rarity of an encore – and in core brassy style. Lee asked the crowd if he and his colleagues could dare take up a little bit more of their time “to say Thank You for Coming?”

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“Yes, please” was the universal reply and out came I Do Love To Be Beside The Seaside . . . in a jolly, roguish arrangement by incorrigible No 2 horn Tom Bettley. Thrown in for the quizzers were theme snatches of Mozart’s two most popular Horn Concertos, Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier and Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. One speculated in what anguish Bettley might have forced himself to leave out the horny main theme of Strauss’s Don Juan.

One must never take for granted a performance of Beethoven’s Fifth – probably still the world’s most-performed and humanity-weighted symphony. But on a landmark weekend in the classical music life of Worthing on the Assembly Hall stage, with what act instead could WSO have followed the eye-catching, ear-melting delight of the world’s most-performed opera, The Magic Flute? (see separate report on this)

Barely 19 hours after Worthing Philharmonic had set their opera scene with its Overture, WSO were playing The Magic Flute Overture themselves – programmed months before entirely by coincidence. Conductor John Gibbons asked his audience if anyone had been getting a sense of déjà vu, but added that great music easily stood repeated playing.

He later asked for a show of hands on who before had heard Roussel’s Sinfonietta. Without sharing Gibbons’ vantage point across the audience, I assumed he’d drawn a blank. The Sinfonietta was his musical insertion to give his listeners an aural re-set. His strings had already played the 1926 Capriol Suite with Warlock’s deliberate dissonant jabs occasionally spiking the ancient French dance tunes during the Suite’s 11 minutes.

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Now the dose peppered all nine minutes of the French maths student’s energetic, shingle-scrunching, neo-classical 1934 Sinfonietta – but to the purpose of administering to the audience some Sunday afternoon smelling salts. After this, Beethoven 5, as the work that fully woke up 19th Century world music, found itself subtly thrown into slightly lesser relief.

In a first movement with its early repeat ensuring there came two loud-in-your-face horn calls instead of one, I’d have liked a little more highly-strung teeth gritting in the first movement from the strings. That explosive tension having been perhaps slightly underplayed, the performance became ever more enriched, counter-calmed and coloured by the authentically beautiful sound of the WSO woodwind principals Monica McCarron (flute), Christopher O’Neal (oboe), Ian Scott (clarinet) and Simon Chiswell (bassoon). All the winds and horns had sounded eagerly in full readiness for this during their Mozart Overture showcase.

Beethoven ensured the audience left in higher spirits than in which they arrived, and those maybe sampling WSO for the first time because of Beethoven’s ageless drawing power will have gone away intending to seek out more experience of Worthing’s widening classical offering.

In his Fifth, Beethoven pulled in the piccolo, bass bassoon (‘What’s that long curly thing?’) and three trombones for their symphonic debuts, disclosing their credentials in elevating the music’s power and light. Introducing the piece, for their identification Gibbons got each player to stand up and brandish their weapons. But then all five – lacking any magazines to read – had to sit out the first three movements before Beethoven unleashed them into the fray. That considerable wait vaguely seemed to impact Luke Strevens. Having waved his piccolo as commanded, then returned it to his jacket inside pocket, a bit later did he not appear almost to nod off?

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Entirely logical, maybe. Having been offstage, as a non-string player, he had missed the Roussel smelling salts. Would it have been a case of simply too much assuringly beautiful woodwind? Or sheer familiarity with the music?

Or might it have been simply that Luke Strevens, fraternising in the interval, had traded his own beer bottle for one of the horn soloists’ gift wines? Highly improbable, but the implacable WSO timpanist Robert Millett can’t have been to blame. His crisp drilling and hammering gave the WSO all the penetration it needed for an electrifying Beethoven 5 account.

However, some mischievous thinking out of the box suggests a future stock anti-snooze measure for the first three movements of Beethoven 5. While the reinforcements wait, the trombonists can keep combined watch on one another. But perhaps best break with tradition and seat the piccolo and contrabassoonist together. They can then have a silent game of poker or chess until summoned by the composer.

Richard Amey

This weekend (tickets from

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Saturday 27 April (6pm) & Sunday 28 April (3.30pm & 6pm) doors 25min ahead at Lancing College Chapel. Smugglers’ Folk Opera: Beware The Mackerel Sky. The Boundstone Chorus, Worthing Choral Society, Lancing College Choir, College Singers, massed children’s choir; Yehudi Menuhin School & String Academy orchestra.

Next season WSO dates – one Saturday in late September, to be announced; seven Sundays: October 20, November 10, January 5, January 26, March 9, April 6, May 18;

Concerts to come (tickets from

Sunday 19 May, Worthing Symphony Orchestra Concert – 2.45pm, Assembly Hall; leader Julian Leaper, conductor John Gibbons, piano soloist Maria Marchant. Glinka, Ruslan and Ludmila Overture; Scriabin, Reverie; Chopin, Piano Concerto No 2 in F minor; Brahms, Symphony No 1. Marchant returns after previous wowings with Gershwin Rhapsody in Blue (2023) and Beethoven Emperor (2021), here playing the Chopin concerto with which Varavara Tarasova won the 2015 Sussex International Piano Competition with WSO in Worthing.

Sunday 9 June (the opening weekend of Worthing Festival), Worthing Philharmonic Orchestra ‘Musical Pictures’ Concert – 3pm, Assembly Hall, leader Preston Yeo, conductor Denise Ham, violin soloist June Lee. Berlioz, Roman Carnival Overture; Bruch, Violin Concerto No 1 in G minor; Debussy, Prelude de L’Apres Midi D’un Faun; Mussorgsky (orchestrated Ravel), Pictures At An Exhibition. Be ready for a possible pre-concert talk with WPO musical director Dominic Grier.

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