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Finzi: For St.Cecilia
Elgar: Enigma Variations
Holst: The Cloud Messenger
The concert given on Saturday 19th November in Tonbridge School Chapel by the Tonbridge Philharmonic Society Choir and Orchestra was a very special occasion. It had long been the ambition of their conductor, Matthew Willis, to perform Gustav Holst’s The Cloud Messenger, a work that has rarely been heard since its first performances in 1913 and the years immediately following. So special was this concert, that the audience was joined by Holst scholar, Raymond Head, former Trustee of the Holst Birthplace Museum, who contributed an informative programme note and admitted that even he had never heard the work in a live performance.
Holst’s large-scale choral work, although being based on a love poem by the 8th century Hindu poet, Kalidasa, was, in fact, a work typical of the English choral tradition of the early 20th century, albeit with exotic elements in the harmony and orchestration. Certainly a challenge for both singers and orchestra, partly because this would have been the first time that any of them had performed the work, nevertheless this was a performance of enormous conviction and interpretative insight. Matthew Willis is to be congratulated for introducing us to this colourful and original music and for guiding us through it with such assurance. The choir sang with great expressive power, a large dynamic range and subtlety of phrasing. Holst had scored the work for a large orchestra, but so skilfully, that the choir and orchestra were seen as equal, but complementary, partners in this fascinating sound world. Clarity was paramount. The wonderful vocal warmth and expressive range of mezzo-soprano soloist, Linda Finnie, was heard to full effect in her dark-hued solos.
The concert began with Gerald Finzi’s Ceremonial Ode: For St Cecilia (appropriate as St Cecilia’s Day is November 22nd). Although another great English choral work with echoes of Parry, Vaughan Williams and Elgar, this music is of a different nature to the economically-textured Cloud Messenger. Finzi’s music was lavishly scored, and at times the choir and soloist found it difficult to compete with the powerful orchestral writing. A setting of a charming poem to St Cecilia, patron saint of musicians, by Edmund Blunden, a better balance of forces would have helped us appreciate the imaginative word setting. Aspects of the problem are the generous acoustics and unhelpful positioning of singers and players in the Chapel. There is no real solution to this, but the audience must trade off the beauty of the building and the warm acoustic environment with clarity of sound.
This issue of clear lines of sight and balance of sound was also noticeable in the Elgar Enigma Variations. If only the woodwind could have elevated on tiered staging so that their subtle and beautiful playing could have been fully appreciated. The Philharmonic Orchestra goes from strength to strength, and it is easy to judge it as a professional rather than an amateur orchestra.
Matthew Willis showed himself a master of control of the structure and variety of this piece, holding together its many contrasting moods, and leading to its wonderful conclusion. Even though not large in number, the strings played with warmth and breadth of tone, and there was much fine solo playing, ranging from cello to brass, not forgetting the extravagant timpani solo. This was a splendid achievement from our local musical friends, ably led by Susan Skone James.
An evening which presents music, familiar and unfamiliar, at such a high standard is something we should value highly in our town. Well done, Tonbridge musicians.
Orchestral & Choral Concert - 19 Nov. 2016 Tonbridge School Chapel
What a good time we had! Tonbridge Philharmonic Society and the Tonbridge Round Table again presented their Family Carols in Tonbridge School Chapel on 17 December. The Chapel housed not only the Philharmonic’s Choir, conductor Matthew Willis, with organist Chris Harris and guest trumpeter Andrew Quinn, but members of Tonbridge Grammar School’s Motet Choir with their conductor Adrian Pitts and keyboard accompanist. Also present as readers of the lessons were our MP, Tom Tugendhat, and Mark Rhodes, Mayor of Tonbridge and Malling; other readers were, for the visit of the Wise Men, three beautifully clear junior school pupils, the senior members of each organisation involved, and, finally Robin Morrish, President of Tonbridge Philharmonic Society, with the noble message of St.John recited by heart.
The rest of us came to fill every part of the Chapel, all ages from the young to the rather older. Moved by the intensity of the whole event, we certainly sang!
The organisation of the whole, and the introduction of the guests, was guided by the musical judgement of Matthew Willis, in his red waistcoat. In a practical welcome, he sang us into the afternoon from O come all ye faithful . This great Chapel lends itself to his flexible and thoughtful approach. We had, from the Philharmonic Choir (joined by some of their Orchestra colleagues for the occasion) and the Motet Choir, examples of traditional and new carols, and of ingenious new settings of favourites, enhanced by the short organ and trumpet interlude. Andrew Quinn played Hear, King of Angels (arranged by Layton James) from the Christmas Oratorio by J S Bach, accompanied by the redoubtable Chris Harris, who played us out at the end with
Où s'en vont, ces gais bergers?, a noel with variations by the French Baroque composer Jean-François Dandrieu. The Motet Choir gave us a dramatic performance of items with decreasing numbers of singers, sometimes unaccompanied and without conductor - a virtuoso contribution.
How soon it was over! We hoped, as we enjoyed our refreshments and talked to both audience and performers, that the chosen charities The Kent, Surrey and Sussex Air Ambulance Trust and The Scott’s Project Trust will benefit hugely from our contributions.
19 December 2016
Family Carols at Tonbridge School
17 December 2016
Photographs © Jon Whitmore
On Saturday 18 February a large audience enjoyed a varied and unusual programme presented by the Tonbridge Philharmonic Society under their conductor, Matthew Willis.
First were the Nocturnes I and II by Debussy. The first, entitled Nuages (Clouds) was atmospheric – the Philharmonic clearly demonstrated that they knew how to play a pianissimo that was most effective. We experienced some fine visual scene painting, lulled by a gentle, rocking motion on woodwind and muted strings, with the harp ably played by Anna Wynne. The second Nocturne, entitled Fetes, was very much in the spirit of a carnival or a procession, the score marked animé et très rythmé – and the orchestra played exactly that.
The second and very different piece to the played was the virtuosic Trumpet Concerto by Arutiunian, and we were given a stunning performance by 21 year old Matilda Lloyd from Sevenoaks. This piece involves some exciting dance-like rhythms of an eastern European nature; the soloist has to use some rapid-tonguing at times. There was a lovely contrasting cantabile interlude section in the middle, using muted trumpet and with jazz-like melodies. This was the orchestra’s first concert in St Peter and St Paul’s Church and the acoustics were ideally suited to show Matilda’s fine tone and command of the instrument. Throughout, the orchestra’s accompaniment was impressive, and I felt that they really entered into the spirit of the music – no mean feat.
After the interval, the orchestra played the Symphony in Bflat by Ernest Chausson, a work that was unfamiliar to many of us in the audience. This was sensitively played – it is quite a dark piece on the whole, although there is a slightly more optimistic mood in the second movement. There is a tempestuous section for strings and woodwind, and here the cellos’ brooding tone came to the fore and the strings were well together. The brass section had a short chorale, before a return of the first movement stealing in and fading away, achieved to great effect.
The whole made for a very entertaining and enjoyable evening and I, for one, was grateful to be introduced to these lesser-known works – we are fortunate to have such an orchestra who can do so.
Orchestral Concert at St.Peter & St.Pauls
18 February 2017
After a very Mozartian start to Cherubini’s Overture Anacréon, the Allegro found the Tonbridge Philharmonic Orchestra in dashing mood. From the quiet ‘cello start to the dramatic wind crescendi under the baton of Matthew Willis, this was a well-shaped performance.
Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.22 featured young TWIYCA winner soloist Marina Koka. With this piece the orchestra seemed to find more assurance. Richard Dain’s piano was well suited for the acoustic of the Chapel, with clarity throughout the range. Willis set a ceremonial mood with fanfares and trumpet-and-drums heroics, and skilfully brought out the wind band sonorities of the work.
Miss Koka’s effortless technique took us on a journey through the key themes of the movement in her cadenza. A gorgeous Andante saw Willis draw out intimate interplay between his players, and between piano soloist and orchestra. The final Allegro returned to the hunting music, interrupted by a minuet and wistful echoes of the Andante, with more glorious writing for the winds, which the orchestra brought out beautifully. Miss Koka’s playing was warmly received by the audience, who were rewarded with a lyrical encore of Elgar’s Salut d’Amour.
The combined forces of the TPS Orchestra and Choir featured in the Requiem. Here Willis’ vision of the work was both grand in scale and intention, yet still remarkably personal and individual. The Tonbridge Philharmonic Choir was in excellent voice. After a portentous Requiem aeternam, Sofia Troncoso’s Te decet hymnus was lyrical and the music moved up a pace or two. Willis’ singers were well focused and shaped their phrases well. After a dramatic pause, the basses led the Kyrie with an incisive definition and there was no woolliness you find in some quarters of the choral world.
The Dies Irae continued with brisk urgency, the choir again showing good ensemble, diction and power. After the wonderful interplay between Tristan Hambleton’s rich bass and Neil Jones’s trombone solo in Tuba Mirum, Hannah Pedley’s lyrical mezzo and Andrew Bain’s heroic tenor finally joined the ensemble. Willis brought out all of Mozart’s lyrical appoggiature, with the strings in fine form led by Susan Skone James.
The weighty Rex Tremendae saw fantastic contrasts between the well-articulated King of Majesty, and the tender and pure Salva me beautifully spun by the upper voices. Willis encouraged his male forces to attack the Confutatis with another movement of great contrast of tone and dynamics. The thrilling ppp singing particularly from the sopranos at Gere curam and the tortured chromatic harmonies was incredibly effective, not least as a shift in mood to the Lacrimosa. The weeping figure in the strings was amply matched by the choir at a broad tempo with Willis finding new details in the writing. The fugal sections of Domine Jesu and Hostias were dramatically articulated, and the dynamic contrasts were a real coup de théâtre.
In Willis’ grand vision, the Sanctus and Benedictus assumed a more positive tone before the achingly beautiful singing for the Dona eis requiem. This led on to a real choral tour de force in the concluding fugue at a brisk Allegro, with some thrilling trombone playing colla voce. A dramatic pause before the final syllable of the work was followed by the open 5th chord of almost visceral force tutta forza brought to a stunning, very personal and interesting account of this familiar work to a close.
"Mostly Mozart what a fantastic eventful evening . Orchestra, Choir, Marina Koka breathtaking performance Piano Concerto no. 22. Fantastic night all put together by conductor Matthew Willis . More soon please." Facebook review about concert March 2017 from Deny de Ambrosi
Joint Concert in Tonbridge School Chapel
25 March 2017
On Saturday 20 May, Tonbridge Philharmonic Society under their conductor, Matthew Willis, gave what he called “a challenging” concert, and they certainly rose to the occasion with a spirited performance. The programme was full of interesting contrasts, starting with three sections from the much loved Má Vlast by Smetana. This was followed by the Tonbridge première of a Symphony in (Approximately) 15 minutes by Richard Norris, who’s work has been broadcast by the BBC and is currently composer-in-residence for the Keele Bach Choir. The evening finished with Symphony No. 2 in B Minor by Borodin.
Vltava is the second of the six tone poems that make up ‘Má Vlast’ (My Country). Probably the best-known of the six, it was the first to be played. It is a very descriptive piece picturing the course of the eponymous Bohemian river, and the orchestra set the scene with gentle pizzicato on the strings and a evocative woodwind accompaniment. The music seemed to flow continuously as the river passes through the landscape, before changing to a charming dance-like rhythm where a wedding is being celebrated and then to a mermaids’ moonlit dance, all beautifully captured by the orchestra. The piece ends with a flourish dominated by woodwind, brass and percussion as the river widens and vanishes into the distance.
The third section, Šárka, required a complete change of mood and seemed threatening in contrast to what went before. In the middle section there was a lovely solo duet between clarinet and cello, followed by lyrical love music as the Prince is seduced and drugged. A horn summons Šárka’s sisters to murder their insensible enemy and the whole ends in a frenzy of sound. The orchestra really demonstrated their versatility.
The final poem, Blanik, describes a mountain and the Knights that dwell therein, and had a nationalistic theme with a rousing finale that ended on a hammering crescendo of bassoons and brass.
Richard Norris’s Symphony could not have made a greater contrast. Matthew explained to the audience that this piece had no ‘correct’ interpretation, but it was up to the listener to use their imagination. It was a most interesting piece and the audience followed the conductor’s instructions. For my own part I felt it rather primitive in character, picturing Creation, the planets, the passing of time and the elements, rain, storm and sunshine breaking through. The orchestra entered into the spirit of this challenging piece very successfully, and the audience members around me were quite clearly enjoying their own interpretations.
The Borodin Symphony No. 2 in B minor is in four movements. The first starts with very typical dark music in a minor key, depicting Russian knights and using motifs based on folk songs. The lighter middle section of this movement, “The Nightingale”, ends on a triple forte repeat of the opening. The second movement presented the orchestra with a challenge, with its odd time signature of 1/1 and a syncopated rhythm with alternating 4 and 5 bar phrases, but to their credit they carried this off. The third movement was gentle and evocative, with a lovely harp solo portraying a minstrel on his zither. This movement carries straight on into the Finale which had a really festive air enhanced by the percussion and ending with a rousing finish to a most enjoyable evening.
Orchestral Concert, St.Peter & St.Pauls
20 May 2017
Tonbridge Philharmonic Society Review by Sara Kemsley
Carmen by Georges Bizet
Saturday 1 July 2017
Matthew Willis is an adventurous conductor for the TPS. He is constructing a journey, which is taking this already good amateur society and its audiences to new territory with well-judged steps. This first outing into a semi-staged performance of an opera, in a church building, could have gone haywire on many counts. That it didn’t - on the contrary it was extraordinarily exhilarating and moving - is testament to his skills and the performers’ growing confidence in their abilities together.
The deliciously open space in St Stephen’s Church, with mid-summer sun flooding down through the columns and wooden vaulting, conjured up Moorish Seville for Bizet’s tragic tale of scornful love. A capacity audience was able to watch from three sides the carefully staged presentation. The orchestra unusually was all at ground level. The three soloists had the raised church steps on which to tell their tale. The chorus was raised up on professional staging to maximize their ability to be seen and heard and to join in with the action. With minimal props and colourful shawls, the ladies sounded, as well as looked, like young cigarette girls and gypsies. The men portrayed the soldiers and smugglers with enthusiasm, if at times sounding more Gilbert and Sullivan than Andalusian!
From the moment of Hannah Pedley’s first sultry entrance in high-split evening dress and vocal score in hand, we were lost to the sex-fuelled, dust-filled atmosphere of Seville. This was a Carmen you could believe in; she fairly ripped Don José’s heart from him with her beauty, her voice and her taunts. Anthony Flaum as Don José was less experienced but he brought great fervour and resonance to his part and filled the auditorium with his passion and his conflicted emotions. The third soloist, Tristan Hambleton, played two roles: Captain Zuniga and Escamillo. His skilful vocal qualities, aided by a subtle change of jacket, were enough keep us very clear on who was who. By the by, whoever was responsible for the cut-down version of this opera did a cracking job. It is so well-known but not for a moment did I feel the lack of detail or characters. The orchestra contributed really well, although at times the tuning was not up to the usual standard. The players barely skipped a beat in handling all the subtle and quick changes of an operatic score and delivered the many set pieces with verve.
"Had a fab evening at Carmen at St Stephens Church. Amazing singing and the lead singers entertained us with their acting too. Very professional and lovely evening." Judy Bonsall July 2017
"Carmen! A wonderful evening - exciting, dramatic, so much energy. Thank you TonPhil!" Marian Hemsted July 2017
Summer Concert, St.Stephen’s Church
1 July 2017