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A FRENCH EVENING
An evening of Romantic French music at St Stephen's Church delighted a large and enthusiastic audience. Under the energetic direction of guest conductor Michael Hitchcock, the orchestra gave stirring performances of works by Berlioz and Bizet. It was a veritable tour de force.
In Berlioz's Overture, Les Francs-Juges, the menacing trombones together with the percussion and brass section conjured up the terrifying ordeal endured by prisoners on trial for whom the only sentence was death.
Harold in Italy is essentially a conversation between orchestra and solo viola. Soloist Robin Morrish gave an assured, warm and sonorous performance but, because of the muted nature of the instrument, its sound carried more readily in quieter moments such as the beautiful duet with the harp in the first movement. The relentless double bass pizzicato effectively underpinned the second movement, reflecting the pilgrims trudging along to evening prayer. The final movement is otherwise called the Orgie des Brigands, and it is certainly furiously dramatic. However, on this occasion the tempo was a little cautious to be described as allegro frenetico.
The orchestra was in its element in the L'Arlesienne Suite by George Bizet, drawn from incidental music composed for Alphonse Daudet's eponymous play. They opened the work with a splendidly confident unison string theme for the Marchio dei Rei and produced stunning solos from flute, harp and saxophone. In the final movement, where march and Provencal Farandole come together, the orchestra played with verve and panache.
Michael Hitchcock is well-known for his work with young people as a music teacher and orchestral trainer. He successfully brought out the best in this talented and hard-working local orchestra.
Orchestral Concert - 21 February 2009
St.Stephen’s Church, Tonbridge
Orchestral & Choral Concert - 11 April 2009
Tonbridge School Chapel
Conductor Robin Morrish's speeds were spot on, exuberant and dancing in 'And the glory of the Lord' and with exactly the drive to sustain the drama in the Passion sequence choruses at the opening of Part II. Here the chorus came into its own with the tenors providing a much-needed incisiveness of tone at the great climaxes. At modern speeds articulating Handel's florid runs is seriously difficult, especially for a large chorus. It was to the credit of the strings, ably led in all sections, that their precision and clarity of articulation provided the essential rhythmic under-pinning to so much of the performance.
As ever, the Philharmonic was well served by an admirable quartet of soloists. If the somewhat gentle voice of contralto Leonie Saint seemed restrained it was only by comparison with the stellar trio of her companions. Tenor Sam Furness set the performance alight with truly Baptist-like fervour in his first recitative and was most moving in 'Thy rebuke hath broken his heart'. Wendy Nieper sang the angel's recitative with perfect simplicity and then gave her arias exactly the operatic style Handel requires, complete with beautifully judged ornamentation and sparkling fioritura. Her performance of 'I know that my Redeemer liveth', accompanied solely by Penelope Howard's exquisite violin obbligato, and with excellent continuo support from Elizabeth Moore (cello) and Chris Harris (chamber organ), was a moment of true musical perfection. The bass of Edward Price excelled throughout, holding us rapt in 'Behold I tell you a mystery' and, perfectly paired with Jeremy Clack's brilliant solo trumpet, blazed with conviction in 'The trumpet shall sound'.
At such moments, and indeed, when choir, orchestra, soloists (and audience!) joined forces for the great 'Hallelujah!' and, in the final magnificent fugal 'Amen', Handel's masterpiece came spectacularly to life.
This was my first Philharmonic concert and the first time I'd been inside Tonbridge School Chapel since 1971 - two memorable experiences in one evening. The chapel is kinder to quieter music: in both the choral and orchestral halves of this concert the climaxes could sound aggressive.
We began with a sequence of twelve short choral pieces covering four centuries - too many pieces to make a coherent programme without some strong underpinning theme, however attractive each one may be.
I don't think I've ever heard Monteverdi sung by such a large choir, but the conductor's clear beat and well-signalled entries ensured firm rhythms. Variety of texture was thrillingly provided by the brass quartet's toccata from the organ loft and later by Helen Page and Hattie Serpis, also aloft, singing like angels - or perhaps cherubs, with their boyishly pure vibrato-less tone.
The commonly repeated opinion that there were no great British composers between Purcell and Elgar, or even Purcell and Britten, seems to belong to the old mountain peaks and foothills view of art and music history and also to disparage many composers of considerable merit - including several Wesleys, and at least two more composers featured in this evening's choral selection.
But next, Purcell. A choir of this size rather softens the contours of a work such as Hear my Prayer. However, when we reached Samuel Sebastian Wesley, the programmed music was at last growing into the clothes provided. Ellen Thomas sang the solo with a beautiful treble-like voice (another cherub). The most usual excerpt from Brahms' Requiem followed, with organ accompaniment.
After so many short, relatively subdued pieces, the rousing start of Parry's I was glad was particularly welcome. The pieces by Charles Wood and Patrick Hadley were new to me and might have made a stronger impression in a different programme. The Evening Hymn came as quite a shock to someone used to singing this every term-time Sunday for four years in its chaste Gregorian form. Henry Balfour Gardiner's setting (whose opening notes recall the Gregorian) was rich gourmet fare on which to end the first course of the evening.
What a grand classical composer Saint-Saëns was, and how wonderfully he used a full Romantic orchestra in his Third Symphony! He was full of classical wit too in the multifarious ways he introduces his germinating theme. In the middle of Part I he lets us hear how this apparently Mendelssohnian scherzo theme is a close relation (or near miss) of the famous Gregorian Dies Irae. In the Adagio another mutant sneaks in slyly on pizzicato basses. And at the end, what Maestoso grandeur in the apotheosis of the theme!
I had looked through the score earlier in the week and thought if the Philharmonic Orchestra can play this they must be good. They did and they were. There are always things it's not fair to expect from anything less than a fully professional orchestra: the building of long spans, total cohesion at moments of high speed and high activity (the Presto sections in Part II were a bit wild, but nonetheless exciting). And fugal entries are merciless exposers of anything less than perfect intonation. But all this was as nothing given the glorious climax as organ and orchestra resounded from opposite ends of the chapel at the end of a wonderful summer's evening.
Choral & Organ Concert -23 May 2009 Tonbridge Big School
Orchestral Concert - 20 June 2009
St.Stephen’s Church, Tonbridge
The two speakers at the start of the concert made much of the orchestra's amateur status and, with a programme of giants of classical music - of Schubert, Weber and Brahms - a slightly apologetic scene may have been set were it not for the obvious love for the humanising power of music from conductor, Robin Morrish.
The 'Unfinished' Symphony started with hushed reverence in the lower strings. The violent contrasts in dynamics were effectively judged, although the additional brass created a wall of sound, which sometimes overpowered the leaner woodwind lines. The delicious second movement was an oasis of calm and tender playing, with lovely dynamic shading across all the sections of the orchestra.
The Mozartian wit and charm of the Weber Bassoon Concerto, caught from Michael Haydn, Weber's teacher in Salzburg, was evident from the opening chords. There was no sign of the mysterious world we had just left behind; now the Phil were spritely and sounded more homogenous altogether.
It was a welcome return to Tonbridge for soloist, Hannah Balcombe, who discovered the bassoon at local Tonbridge Grammar School for Girls before an illustrious career at Music College and lately in the music services of the Royal Air Force.
Balcombe's lithe passagework and singing tone caught the classical grace and balance of this concerto well. She played with touching cantabile across the range of the instrument, particularly in the Adagio. Soloist and orchestra thrillingly captured the contrasts between dynamics. The rondo finale was a dramatic tour de force, with Balcombe showing a formidable technique, as well as the operatic nature of the music, not just through her instrument but her facial expressions as well. Characters appeared in the music. Witty then coquettish, the streams of notes never lost direction and purpose, and the orchestra judged their accompaniment well. At times ,I was struck by how much the music seemed like wordless Gilbert and Sullivan, and at others, high drama.
The main work of the second half was the mighty Brahms Fourth Symphony. This again was a labour of love for conductor Morrish who performed every nuance and twist of the music himself as he goaded his players to join him. The lovely rich string playing in the slow movement was beautifully controlled, and contrasted with the giocoso of the third movement. No traditional scherzo this, no jokey elements, with a confident interplay between the piccolo and flute. The orchestra was generally more suited to the Germanic textures of Brahms, playing the rhythms tautly, and with a real yearning at times. The passacaglia was an intellectual and emotional outpouring, straining the players but sustained by their genuine love for the music. The sustained applause after the thrilling coda was well earned.