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'Euryanthe' and 'The Swan of Tuonela.'
A new season of concerts by the Tonbridge Philharmonic Society was celebrated with an impressive new format for the programme. The new-style booklet is both visually attractive and helpfully informative. The first part of the evening was devoted to two challenging orchestral pieces. Weber's Overture to Euryanthe set the tone of the evening with accomplished orchestral playing and sensitive direction by the conductor, Robin Morrish. The mood became darker and more introspective with Sibelius's evocative tone poem, The Swan of Tuonela. Whereas the Tonbridge School Chapel acoustic did not help the Weber, in the Sibelius the beautiful muted strings, the quietly disturbing bass drum and the extraordinary melancholy of the cor anglais were ideally placed in this large, resonant space. The solo was played with superb control and haunting tone by Paul Ripley. This was a wonderful performance by conductor, soloist and orchestra.
'A Sea Symphony'
The major work of the evening was Vaughan Williams's A Sea Symphony, featuring two highly accomplished soloists, Natalie Raybould (soprano) and Adrian Powter (baritone). This work sets tests by the American poet, Walt Whitman, presenting a metaphor of the spirit of mankind on its eternal quest for meaning venturing forth into the vast uncharted waters. Robin Morrish was able to shape the structure and draw out the colours of the work to emphasise the contrast between the extrovert, very physical world of life at sea with the introspective, philosophical restlessness of the soul. The constant shifting of focus between the large, impersonal forces of choir and orchestra and, nearer to the audience, the individual personalities of the soloists emphasised this relationship.
Balance between the large orchestra and the more distant, medium-sized choir would always be a problem. Nevertheless, the high standards achieved by the Tonbridge Philharmonic Choir and the obvious sense of friendly collegiality are a good advertisement for other singers in the area to join them. The clear, incisive singing and varied tone colours of this choir contributed much to reducing the problem of forces as much as possible. The climaxes of volume and tonal intensity were huge and overwhelming, but the quiet passages suffered a little from tonal insecurity when at the extremes of the pitch range because each individual singer had to work too hard. This is a challenging work to perform, both in terms of technique and resilience. Although the Scherzo was on the slow side and the broad, philosophical musings of the last movement needed more expansiveness, Robin Morrish was still able to capture the spirit and moods of these two original and evocative movements. His success was especially the result of his attention to details of articulation in the singing. Perhaps the highlight of the evening was the very palpable experience of ecstasy achieved by the two soloists as they gave physical expression to the life of the soul.
Congratulations to all for bringing to life and welding into a unity this vast sprawling musical edifice, and for giving the audience a taste of both the sensuality of musical sound and a vision of the numinous infinite.
Orchestral & Choral Concert - 27 November 2004 - Tonbridge School Chapel
Orchestral Concert - 19 February 2006 - St.Stephen’s Church, Tonbridge
Schumann: Overture, Scherzo and Finale
Weber: 2nd Clarinet Concerto
Nielsen: First Symphony
A courageous choice of programme was one of the hallmarks of the second orchestral concert in the Tonbridge Philharmonic Society's season, presented mid-February at St. Stephen's church. It is not often we have an opportunity of hearing a live performance of Schumann's Overture, Scherzo & Finale nor, for that matter Carl Nielsen's first symphony, both of which present many formidable challenges to an amateur orchestra. On the other hand, Weber's two clarinet concertos, of which we heard the second, have been standard repertoire for many years. Both provide a dazzling central showpiece for any concert programme and for any virtuoso performer.
The resident conductor of the Tonbridge Philharmonic Orchestra, Robin Morrish, modestly took a place among the first violins, handing over the baton on this occasion to guest conductor Francis Griffin, who has worked with orchestras and operatic societies throughout south-east England. The structure of the orchestra (thirty strings, ten woodwind and nine brass) presented him with problems of sound balance within the lively acoustics of a church, and I was reminded of the advice Richard Straus often gave to young student conductors, '... never look at the brass: it only encourages them!' However, Griffin's beat was clear and firm; his control of dynamics secure, and his conducting style vigorous and emphatic.
Which brings me to a question I cannot satisfactorily answer, and which is not quite as daft as it sounds. Why choose Schumann's strange, mongrel piece to open a concert on a cold winter's evening? Although the church heating took the worst of the chill out of the atmosphere it was still not enough to warm and relax string-playing fingers, faced with a sustained mezzo-forte opening, or to avoid some stridency in the woodwind.
The result was a shaky and uncertain start, lacking warmth and proper intonation, to a piece which, as I have suggested, has not secured a firm foothold in the concert repertoire. Indeed, one unkind critic who shall remain nameless for the very good reason I have forgotten his name, went so far as to say that this comparatively early orchestral work by Schumann shows 'painstaking workmanship applied to indifferent material'.
it might be objected that it is no part of a reviewer's job to criticise or even to comment on programme building; what really matters is the way in which the players responded to the various challenges. How good, or otherwise, was their performance? To these questions I would answer that under Francis Griffin and the inspirational leadership of Penelope Howard the performance gathered strength and confidence as it went along - a comment true not just of the Schumann item, but of the concert as a whole.
A smaller orchestra was required for Weber's second clarinet concerto with soloist Shelley Phillips, who started her concert career with the Royal Tunbridge Symphony Orchestra and helped to organise the first Tunbridge Wells Music Festival in 2003. She established her authority from the outset with a steadiness of attack, beautifully controlled arpeggios and mellifluous warmth of tone, heard to best advantage in the gorgeous slow movement. But Weber's main concern was to demonstrate the brilliance of his chosen instrument, which he did in the outer movements with a series of saucy impudent tunes, many of which would not have been out of place in a Victorian music hall or circus, tumbling out like clowns one after another. The orchestra provided gentle, good-mannered support at every turn, and clearly enjoyed the performance as much as the soloist and her audience.
Stronger meat followed the interval with the first symphony by the Danish composer Carl Nielsen. It is a work somewhat in the style of Brahms and firmly rooted in the Beethoven tradition, where conflicting musical ideas are eventually resolved in splendid synthesis. The vigorous exchange between the brass and the rest of the orchestra and the sustained energy of the string players, unanimous and crisp in their attack, were among the many strengths of a natural and unaffected performance, for which each section of the orchestra and their guest conductor deserve the greatest credit. This was live music-making at its most compulsive.
Bach - St John Passion
Time stood still for a couple of hours in St Augustine's Chapel just a week before Good Friday, the day for which Bach composed his Passion according to St John - a form of job interview the like of which surely has never been seen before or since.
We, the soundbite generation, take for granted easy and immediate access to music in all its forms today. To attend a complete two-hour-plus performance of such a work - yes, including unforgiving pews seating! - takes one into a different dimension of thought and experience, drama and serenity. Thought about the Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, drama of the betrayal and subsequent crucifixion, and serene reflection as the drama unfolds in the form of aria, arioso, chorus and chorale, all brought to us through the genius of J S Bach, filtered through two and a half centuries of human experience. How surprised old JSB would be to know that people were hearing, in a different society and age, the music he wrote only to be heard once!
For this listener the evening provided four indelible memories. One, what a fine choir the Tonbridge Philharmonic is. From the first bars of the beautiful little 16th century motet by Felice Anerio that made an entirely apt preface to the Bach, there was present a balance of sonority and weight of choral tone that was satisfying in the extreme at all dynamic levels, coupled with a unanimity of attack and a flexibility of phrasing that speaks volumes about the training of its chorus master. The big nineteenth century choral works make their effect in broad brushstrokes. The real basic qualities of a chorus in terms of balance, diction and phrasing are shown in the four-part choral content of a work such as this.
The second recollection is that of the superbly balanced and contrasting voices of the soloists - six of them, plus two short contributions from members of the chorus. Bach's St John Passion is not a work of ensembles, trios, quartets and the like. No, if ever there was one, this is a work where teamwork predominates, and a match of voices is important for colour and contrast.
The third memory is of the excellence of the continuo players whose contribution was near continuous, and the obbligato soloists, as well as the orchestra led unostentatiously, as always, by Penelope Howard.
Fourthly, the wise guidance and direction of Robin Morrish, presiding over the unfolding drama, keeping it moving where necessary and allowing a magical silence to play its part from time to time - a silence that drew the audience in and allowed no pins to drop in case they should be heard.
In this team performance, certain things need to be acknowledged. Richard Edgar-Wilson's Evangelist narrated the story with conviction, colouring his voice and its dynamics without ever becoming repetitive. Jon English delivered the agonised aria after Peter's denial in ringing stentorian tones, yet a little later sang the long demanding tenor aria 'Behold him! See!' with exceptional tenderness and accuracy of note value and pitch - a highlight.
Simon Deller's soft-grained bass made a totally convincing Jesus, emphatic where necessary, meek where appropriate. The difficult role of Pilate was admirably filled by Toby Barrett, his repeated 'I find no fault in him' clearly delivered without exaggeration, making the poignancy of the drama more intense. The gentle brightness of Bibi Heel's soprano contrasted well with the warmth of Susan Legg's alto, their comment arias beautifully sung - and let us not forget those two un-named bit part players from the chorus, all fulfilled their roles admirably. One of the remarkable aspects of this performance was hearing the various participating voices coming from different points in space, emphasising the dramatic events taking place.
The choir, frankly, covered themselves with glory from the opening agonised chorus, through the rabble-rousing of the crucifixion, to the final 'Lie still, lie still, O sacred limbs'. Robin Morrish's direction of the chorales, forthright, mezzoforte and without exaggeration - they are hymns after all - made of this an uplifting and emotionally charged experience, very necessary from time to time in this day and age. Last, but by no means least, the provision of a forty-page programme book containing words, section headings deserves mention - a major enhancement of the audience's enjoyment. The thanks of all those present go out to all concerned with this timely event.
Orchestral & Choral Concert - 19 March 2005 Tonbridge School Chapel
Orchestral Concert - 14 May 2005
Tonbridge Baptist Church
The Tonbridge Philharmonic Orchestra was in fine form in a programme of Mozart, Mendelssohn and Beethoven. It settled into the warm and yet crystal-clear acoustic of the Baptist church giving the listener a treat. The standard lamps at the back of the platform suggested something of a chamber music evening, and much of the playing, particularly from the wind group was in that vein.
The large audience was treated to Mozart's bubbling and youthful overture to "Cosi Fan Tutte" (That's what they all do) to set the tone, with a sonorous slow introduction and felicitous Allegro. Director Robin Morrish's clear and animated direction was reflected in the obvious commitment from his players.
This new venue for the orchestra proved to be very successful. Without the aural cloud that sometimes surrounds the orchestra at other venues, the TPO was revealed to be a precise and flexible instrument. With this programme, the audience was treated to a alth of detail. The odd imperfection in ensemble was more than compensated for by the clarity of the part writing.
The next item was the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor, with Gillian Ripley as soloist. Ripley, who started with a local doyenne of the violin, went to school in Tonbridge, made her way from Kent Youth Orchestras to university and the world beyond, and was in full command of the piece. It would be easy to write of a "local lass returns in triumph" but on this evening, it was true!
The soloist is launched at us after only a few chords, and Ripley's playing took flight. Her sustained playing brought out the lyrical nature of the piece. The cadenza was carefully drawn with a moving intensity. The second subject was relished by the woodwind. There was more poetic and meditative playing in the Andante. Ripley's singing tone and subtle rubato was effortless. The TPO was a subtle and flexible accompanist.
The tricky last movement was exciting, with Ripley's musical gymnastics being matched by an orchestra on their toes and on their metal. Morrish kept his players alert to Ripley's subtle changes of speed, and with only one or two bumps along the way, the piece concluded with an exciting flourish. The burst of applause and shouts of "Bravo" was well deserved by everyone.
The final work was Beethoven's 8th Symphony in F. Here the TPO had their chance to let down their hair. The rhythmic intensity of Beethoven was clearly drawn by Morrish and his players. Much of the music was wittily played with exaggerated dynamics and accents. The motivic writing clear and precisely played.
The second movement, with its clock-like ideas was suitably paced. The clarity of the sound made it easy to pick up the details in the score. The Minuet and Trio from the 18th Century was perhaps a little too straight-laced, but Morrish worked hard to bring out the individual lines and flexibilities of rhythm.
The Finale was very enjoyable. The Orchestra seemed to relax and the music making was particularly notable in this movement. The TPO highlighted the abrupt dynamic and key changes and the seemingly serious second subject again gave way to more humorous playing. The evening finished with an uplifting flourish.
A smaller-than-usual audience was royally rewarded in Tonbridge School Chapel on Saturday by a chorus augmented by the return visit of the Arvoly Choir of Le Puy-en-Velay. If any regular supporters were put off by the slightly austere look of the programme presented by Robin Morrish and his entourage then it is “they of little faith” who were the losers.
The programme began with Saint Saens’ Messe de Requiem, in which the opening two movements, “Requiem Aeternam” and “Dies Irae” immediately offered the conductor the opportunity to test the balance of his widely spaced forces in a variety of dynamics and moods.
With organ at one end and large orchestra, chorus and solo quartet at the other, there is always extra pressure on both organist and conductor, but neither of these fine musicians showed any sign of being affected by the extra concentration required of them. Indeed, organist Pamela Colverson, for whom this was the last concert with the society after many years of energetic and expert service as accompanist, achieved a remarkable symmetry of timing and dynamics which kept the whole ensemble tightly together. The only imbalance occurred in the quartet of soloists, where the rich voice of bass-baritone Simon Kirkbride was over-strong, and the sweet sound of Mezzo Harriet Williams a little too soft. This imbalance remained through all the solo quartet sections.
The choir generally maintained its usual high standards throughout the evening in a programme which was full of rewarding , occasionally thrilling music to sing. Some soft entries were a little ragged to start with, but choir and orchestra appeared inspired by the trombone entry in the Dies Irae magnificently played by Richard Turner. From this moment everyone was lifted to a higher plane of involvement and the work moved and excited us by turn.
The Agnus Dei of this work gave us the one haunting melody to take home, and left us anticipating the excitement of the much more familiar Poulenc Gloria which followed. In this work, the only disappointment was the lack of rhythmic bite in the very first Gloria section. This may have been triggered by the only poor tenor / bass chorus lead of the evening, but thereafter the performance showed us its vital and original use of pithy rhythmic motifs, all decorated by the quite magical sound of soprano Patrizia Kwella. No excess of vibrato; perfect intonation; phrasing exactly suited to the different moods required of the piece, and perfectly executed rising octaves in the Domine Deus; these were the features of an outstanding rendering, ably backed by an ever-improving chorus and an orchestra growing in confidence with every movement.
Reading the lengthy lyrics of Finzi’s “For St. Cecilia”; a flowery history by Edmund Blunden of music’s “Patronic Goddess” and the composers who have written works devoted to her, I felt sure that the concert should have concluded with the Poulenc. How wrong I was !
Finzi is much loved and admired for his chamber music and songs, but the large orchestra and chorus were all taxed by a fast-moving text and music which showed elements of the great early 20th English composers but which had sufficient individual use of harmony and orchestration to capture the attention of every listener from first chord to last. Truth is, that all earlier shortcomings were immediately dispelled by the vitality and richness of choir and orchestra in a performance which matches the best I have heard from the society. The sopranos and tenors of the choir deserve special mention; sopranos for blend and clarity of sound, and the tenors for richness and enthusiasm which stays under control. Surely this is the best tenor section of all local choirs at present. Perhaps they were inspired by the performance of soloist Hugh Hetherington, who was clearly the icing on a cake of rich ingredients. His was a performance of the highest class. High Bb’s effortlessly produced; excellent diction and audience contact, and at one with all the forces around him. The orchestra was a new beast in this work, too, with Finzi’s orchestration giving taxing but highly-rewarding parts to woodwind and brass; opportunities grasped willingly by these sections. To everyone’s credit; especially to Robin Morrish for his tight control, at no time was either the soloist or the chorus drowned by over-exuberance of the players.
Orchestral & Choral Concert - 25 June 2005 Tonbridge School Chapel