Reviews 2009/10

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Mendelssohn's  - 'Elijah'.

Like many music societies, The Tonbridge Philharmonic is including works by Mendelssohn in its current programme. The season started in grand style, on Saturday 21st November in Tonbridge School Chapel, with one of Mendelssohn's last and most popular works, 'Elijah'. The choir, which maintains a large membership, was on strong form, being particularly effective and convincing in the bold chordal passages and the well-known expressive meditations. The sopranos sang with a confident and well-focused tone, and this was very apparent in the trio movement for upper voices.

As we have come to expect with the society, there was a very strong line-up of soloists. The key part of Elijah was splendidly sung by Edward Price whose powerful voice was ideal in portraying the brooding and archetypal prophet, even if his youthful looks belied this fact. He commanded a wide range of expression, capturing the changing moods of the drama. One of the most magical moments of the performance was his duet with the cello solo, beautifully played by Danny Kingshill. The role of the enigmatic commentator, Obadiah, was sung with great focus and tonal control, and in a suitably detached manner, by Geraint Hylton. The soprano and mezzo parts were taken by Wendy Nieper and Susan Mackenzie-Park, whose voices both contrasted and blended, as required. The sheer beauty of sound and the vocal flexibility made their parts highlights of the evening. The sheer professionalism and experience of these singers did much to inspire the sterling work of the amateur chorus and orchestra. Hattie Serpis rightly received enthusiastic applause from audience and soloists for her small, but vital, role as the youth who finally sees the coming rains, and thus turns the mood of the drama. She sang with a superbly pure tone, which properly contrasted with the other voices.

'Elijah' is a long and diffuse work, and credit must rightly go to the society's conductor, Robin Morrish, for steering and controlling the unfolding structure in terms of changing tempi and mood, and judging pauses absolutely for dramatic effect. The orchestra, as always, responded to any challenge put before it. This is a tiring work to play, with few places to relax. Rarely did concentration fail the players, and the audience was treated to some splendid wind solos and refined string playing. As there will always be with amateur performances, where there is very limited rehearsal time with the professional soloists, there were a few tense or ragged moments, but these were well compensated for by much lively and spontaneous playing and a real sense of commitment.

The healthy state of the Tonbridge Philharmonic Chorus and Orchestra is a heartening example of this long-lived and vital part of British musical life; one of which we should rightly be proud. It was for just such a collaboration of amateur and professional musicians, performing for an audience from the local community, that Mendelssohn composed 'Elijah' in 1846. He would surely be very happy to see his work still delighting similar performers and listeners so many years later.

Roger Evernden

Orchestral & Choral Concert  - 21 November 2009 - Tonbridge School Chapel

Orchestral & Choral Concert  - 27 March 2010   Tonbridge School Chapel

Bach - St Matthew Passion

What more splendid setting could there be for a performance of J S Bach's challenging masterwork, the St Matthew Passion, than the Chapel of Tonbridge School? Seated in the sideways choir stalls, this was as much like attending the original performance in the Thomaskirche as you could get. From the opening moody chorus to the final gently sorrowing one, the Tonbridge Philharmonic held us in a sound world and spiritual theatre, which Bach would have recognised. Conductor Robin Morrish is to be congratulated, not only for his masterly control of the endlessly changing sections but for calling upon and getting from his troops outstanding concentration and attention to the musical detail from first to last and top to bottom.

St. Matthew Passion takes us through the drama of Christ's betrayal by Judas, his trial, crucifixion and burial. It is an austere work giving us all of the sorrow without the uplifting resurrection which followed. However, Hugh Hetherington, as Evangelist, took us into the theatricality too. He captured the excitement of the crowd, the suspense before the arrest and even the crowing of the cock with his flexible vocal skills. The choir managed the interjections of the baying and ignorant people with some skill and characterisation.

Edward Price as Christus had presence. Clear tone and articulation carried the role but I could not help wondering about the consistently slow tempi. Jesus was a young man in his prime, aware of his destiny and scared. Here was the solemn reassurance of the Son of God but perhaps not the human element. By contrast, Jonathan Prentice (Bass) gave us much more light and shade. He maintained a richness of tone across his considerable range with great clarity.

Soprano, Wendy Nieper, has a fine, pure and flexible voice. There was some beautiful phrasing, for example, in the aria 'Jesus, Saviour, I am Thine' against the sprightly pair of oboe d'amore. Sadly, from either side of the chapel, her words were lost and needed to be brought forward in the mouth.

It is not often that a contralto role can be a starring one but in Susan Legg's hands it really was the highlight of an impressive performance. She captured the sighing resignation of womankind left to endure and to pick up the pieces of man's cruelty. Her refined and beautiful singing was moving in its restraint. In the aria, 'Have mercy, Lord' the accompaniment is a liquid violin solo, performed magnificently by Penny Howard, over a simple pizzicato bass. Susan Legg's beautifully controlled tone, phrasing and articulation made this a poignant and memorable moment.

Finally, I must commend the double orchestra of strings and woodwinds. Not once did it overshadow the vocal lines neither was it ever weak. It provided just the right amount of support and some magical solo and ensemble performances. The choir was able to soar above it with little evidence of strain and great clarity of text. This was Tonbridge Phil at its best and a night to remember.

 Sara Kemsley

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