Reviews 2006/7

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The Tonbridge Philharmonic Society completed its 60th anniversary season with an orchestral concert in Big School, Tonbridge School on Saturday 30th September. The orchestra has a fairly consistent membership and this was a distinct advantage considering the concert was being presented after only four weeks of rehearsal. A strong sense of teamwork was evident, as was the benefit of working regularly with the distinguished and highly-experienced conductor, Robin Morrish.

The players may be used to working with each other, but the music was far from familiar. The concert began with two works which are rarely played, both being early works of their respective composers, Brahms and Wagner. Although these two giants of the 19th.century German Romantic repertoire were complete opposites in their artistic temperaments, when seen from the perspective of their mature works, these two early works showed less stylistic contrast.

The Serenade in A major by Brahms opened the concert, and presented an immediate challenge to the wind section of the orchestra. Brahms did not include violins in this piece, instead, giving most of the melodic and harmonic content to woodwind and horns, accompanied by violas and cellos - after all, the original Viennese serenades were often written for wind only. The Tonbridge wind team responded confidently and flexibly, with some excellent phrasing and beautiful colouring. Although Brahms set almost insuperable problems for tuning and ensemble, the players tackled them mostly with great success. It was good to enjoy this opportunity for the wind and horns to be in the spotlight, although it would have been advantageous for them to have been in a raised position on the stage. That said, Tonbridge Big School proved to be an excellent venue for both orchestra and audience, and the acoustic was most sympathetic.

The second work was an overture, Die Feen, by a very youthful Wagner. Steeped in the German Romantic operas recently developed by Weber, Wagner here reveals enormous potential, but only occasional hints of what his mature style would be. This is an exuberant and imaginative, albeit somewhat naive work, but it gave the orchestra a chance to show its subtlety and its brilliant power. Robin Morrish demonstrated great sensitivity in shaping the dynamics and structure of the music throughout the evening, but it was in this work that he drew out the glorious tutti of the orchestra for the first time.

The second half of the concert continued to highlight the excellence of the full orchestra. Schumann's Symphony no.3 was a great contrast to the Brahms Serenade - it is a work of his maturity, and it concentrated on presenting the orchestra as a unity of mixed tone rather than a group of soloists co-operating. There were many opportunities to appreciate the wonderful sounds of the heavy brass and timpani, even though Robin Morrish had to restrain their enthusiasm on several occasions. This is a long work in five movements, and Robin Morrish showed his control over pace and direction in a masterly way. The orchestra gained confidence from the solid scoring adopted by Schumann, and this enabled the ensemble to reflect the changing moods of solemnity, introspection and joyful celebration.

This was a fine evening and a tribute to conductor and orchestra as they embark upon their next sixty years of spirited and dedicated music making in Tonbridge.

Roger Evernden

Orchestral & Choral Concert  - 30 September 2006 - Tonbridge Big School

Orchestral  Concert  - 25 November 2006  Tonbridge School Chapel

Mozart Celebration Concert:

Tonbridge Philharmonic's decision to celebrate the Mozart anniversary year with an all-Mozart programme was a courageous one, for Mozart's music, so familiar and easy on the ear is notoriously difficult - the slightest imperfections can be all too obvious. For the orchestra especially the challenge was huge. There were to be no easy options in a programme which included the Overture to the Magic Flute and the Haffner Symphony as well as the great Mass in C Minor.

The concert opened with the Magic Flute, instantly demonstrating just how difficult this music can be, and how cruel to the strings where the slightest wobble in ensemble is instantly apparent. That said, conductor Robin Morrish drove the piece through with a keen sense of drama. It was followed by the well-known motet, Ave Verum Corpus. Given that the Chorus were singing this from cold, (this short but exquisite piece being their one contribution to the first half) the pitch could easily have sagged, but not a bit of it: This was a musical high point of the evening, beautifully played and sung, and phrased to perfection.

There was also much to enjoy in the Haffner Symphony: crisp, tight playing in the strings (led superbly as ever by Penelope Howard) in the first movement, and dramatic energy in the last. However Mozart is not all Stürm und Drang - perhaps a more relaxed tempo in the Menuetto and Trio would have allowed more space for the lightness and delicacy of this music to come through?

One of the most tantalising questions in all music relates to the missing movements of Mozart's Mass in C minor. The ravishing Et incarnatus leaves the listener poised awaiting an equally moving Crucifixus, and then…? Tonbridge Philharmonic's interesting solution to this perennial problem was to complete the work by supplying the missing sections from the Coronation Mass in C, K317. For this listener at least, the change in mood which followed served best to reinforce what an astonishingly powerful work the C Minor Mass is - Mozart at the absolute height of his creative powers.

The operatic nature of the work demands a highly skilled solo quartet consisting of, unusually, two sopranos, tenor and bass. Bibi Heal carried off Mozart's coloratura with ease; Emma Tring has a darker, potentially richer voice, still light in weight, which will no doubt develop in the future. Although it was a pity they were not better matched for the spectacular duet Domine Deus, both gave fine performances, as did the tenor, Hugh Hetherington, (especially in the Quoniam trio) and bass, Stefan Hölstrom.

The Philharmonic's chorus has grown in size and confidence over the years, and in spite of being heavily weighted towards the top (at least 75 ladies!) produced a warm, well-balanced sound, singing with excellent attack and discipline in the opening Kyrie and in the big climaxes of the Gloria and Credo. There were dramatic subito pianos in the Qui tollis and the balance with the orchestra was excellent. Might one suggest, however, that the orchestra be invited to play more delicately when accompanying softer passages, to allow the chorus to sing more lyrically? But that is a minor point - this was a programme which would challenge a top professional chorus and orchestra, and it is immensely to the credit of Tonbridge Philharmonic Society and its conductor, Robin Morrish, that the large and appreciative audience in Tonbridge School Chapel was treated to such a fine evening of music-making.

Charles Vignoles

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