Reviews 2003/4

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There can be few works as monumental in scale and conception as Beethoven's Missa Solemnis and it was fitting that this work was given a majestic interpretation by the combined forces of the Tonbridge Philharmonic Society Choir and Orchestra at the weekend. It deals with big issues such as war and peace, and big ideas such as Divine glory and the insignificance of man.

From the opening solid chords of the Kyrie the Choir was in warm and expressive mood. The lovely rich rounded sounds of the basses and the 'altos led into an equally impressive solo quartet. Maureen Brathwaite's fluently soaring voice was particularly effective in the sanctus. Alison Kettlewell's velvety 'alto was well counterpointed with Richard Coxon's heroic tenor. Bass Simon Neal added suitable gravitas to complete a fine quartet.

Coxon's magic spell was cast during a dark and forboding Crucifixus - here the Choir was wonderfully hushed before the joy of the resurrection. Conductor Robin Morrish drawing out the sombre hues of much of this music. In the faster movements he urged his forces on, sometimes encouraging them, sometimes sustaining them in the pages of incredibly high soprano tessitura. The occasional hesitation by the chorus took some of the drive out of some of the fugal writing, but they were carefully balanced and precise nonetheless.

Notable in the Orchestra were the flutes, leading a woodwind ensemble that seemed more at ease after the interval, particularly in the Benedictus. Here too, leader Penelope Howard's solo violin obbligato showed her usual sensitivity for line and dynamic nuance. Morrish drew some incredibly quiet sounds from his orchestra in the dramatic Agnus Dei as well as coaxing his combined forces to a marvellously climactic Dona Nobis.

The Missa Solemnis is undoubtedly a challenge to amateur forces, even those as good as this, but it is reassuring that generations of performers seek out its message of hope, as it still has much to say to our 21st Century lives.

Adrian Pitts

Orchestral & Choral Concert  - 15 November 2003 - Tonbridge School Chapel

Orchestral  Concert  - 21 February 2004 - Tonbridge Big School

The Orchestra of the Tonbridge Philharmonic Society filled Big School recently with an attractive programme consisting of music by two masters of the modern orchestra, Berlioz and Tchaikovsky, together with that most romantic of all piano concertos, Schumann in A minor.

Hanlie Martens was the soloist, making a very welcome return to the town; the orchestral leader was Penelope Howard and the conductor was her husband, Robin Morrish, the Society's musical director.

In the 'King Lear' overture by Berlioz cellos and double basses filled the hall with warm, rich sound in their angry opening statement, drawing a beautiful response from Nancy Sargeant's solo oboe in the so-called 'Cordelia' theme. Some lack of intonation from the attenuated upper strings (and it was a very cold evening!) was overcome, and the remaining episodes of this rarely performed piece, with its sudden melodic thrusts and dramatic outbursts, were in turn revealed by Robin Morrish to great effect.

From the opening flourish of the Schumann concerto it was clear that with Hanlie Martens at the Bosendorfer keyboard we were in very safe hands indeed. She gave a beautifully balanced performance that revealed her understanding of the inner secret of this most poetic work: that the piano part is so skilfully interwoven with that of the orchestra it is impossible to think of one without the other. Indeed, at one of those points where the orchestra gives way to the piano, allowing the solo instrument to weave a series of delicate arabesques, I spotted Robin Morrish actually conducting Hanlie Martens - an uncharacteristic but entirely forgivable lapse! Such was the closeness of the partnership in this most satisfying performance, which conveyed the excitement and thrill of Schumann's virtuosity without any loss of his magically poetic inspiration.

All sections of the Tonbridge Philharmonic Society Orchestra seized their opportunity to shine in the major work of the evening, the fifth symphony of Tchaikovsky, a composer much influenced by Berlioz, whose work he greatly admired, and some of whose orchestral effects can be no less terrifying to listen to and to perform. The dark, brooding melancholy of the opening theme, which in various guises dominates the entire work, caught the mood completely, the brass stabbed away relentlessly and the strings responded with a conviction that carried the music forward under Robin Morrish's clear and powerful direction.

Jackie Sanjana handled the legendary horn solo in the andante cantabile with great aplomb and sensitivity. The lilting Waltz reminded us how close Tchaikovsky always is to dance and ballet, while the notorious time-shift in the Finale was negotiated with truly professional skill.

As this powerful and rewarding performance came to its end Robin Morrish waved his conductor's score aloft to acknowledge the enthusiastic applause. As well he might, for the occasion was a triumph for him, a triumph for the Tonbridge Philharmonic Society and a triumph for Tchaikovsky.

Robert Hardcastle