Reviews 2010/11

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Elgar: The Dream of Gerontius

On a surprisingly chilly November evening, a sizeable audience assembled in the imposing setting of Tonbridge School Chapel for Tonbridge Philharmonic Society's performance of Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius.

Conductor Robin Morrish eloquently dedicated the concert to Isabel Denny, a long-standing member of the choir who died earlier this year.

Robin conjured a lugubrious start from the orchestra. The wind playing was solid, but the strings brought a lovely depth on their entry. During the orchestra's introduction, despite some stray tuning, it was clear that the evening's concert was going to be more than satisfactory; in the dynamic range above mezzo-forte there was a wonderful sonority and great security.

Hugh Hetherington made a good Gerontius; he had a warm tone, accurate intonation and good diction. Robin Morrish managed the balance between solo and orchestra carefully. In the "Sanctis fortis", Hugh was heartfelt. He did strain at the high notes, but this was very easy to forgive, as his performance was full of humanity and pathos.

Elgar warms the choirs up with gentle pianissimo legato. The Temenos Chamber Choir semi-chorus and the Philharmonic Choir both enunciated their words clearly from their first phrases. The impressive chapel had so far lent a warm bloom to the tone of the Tonbridge Philharmonic; the reverberation now provided a challenge to the musicians in the larger texture of "Lord deliver him". Here, Robin and the Society produced a good ensemble where dynamic contrasts and rhythmic strands were all carefully outlined.

Baritone Piran Legg had a rich and authoritative tone, lending the priest appropriate solemnity. Joined by the two choirs, the balance between the singers and orchestra was again judged very well indeed. The Edwardian splendour of "Go in the name of Angels" was captured wonderfully.

After the Interval, Louise Winter (brought in at the last minute) sang the mezzo-soprano rôle of the Angel. It took her a while to settle; her diction, pitch and rhythm were not initially as secure as Hugh and Piran's, but she always demonstrated a good sense of line and phrasing.

The Demons' Chorus communicated a powerfully hellish wrath, competing on equal terms with the ferocious orchestra and overcoming the chapel's lush acoustics. The intonation of the chorus suffered when the ladies sang whilst sitting. They quickly redeemed themselves with a "Praise to the Holiest" that was gloriously triumphant, joyfully negotiating the rhythmic hurdles.

The grand tradition of British amateur choral societies tackling the repertoire with gusto and strength is a long and noble one. Of all the great choral warhorses commonly performed, The Dream of Gerontius is arguably the most challenging. It took all of Elgar's genius to set Newman's solemn and mystic poem; the final score is rich in detail, complex and intricate. Robin's expansive conducting sometimes encouraged a rather overly enthusiastic piano from his musicians, but his tempi were always well chosen. The result was musical and cohesive throughout; the combination of Elgar and the Tonbridge Philharmonic Society was a winner.

Mike Kent-Davies

Orchestral & Choral Concert  - 27 November 2010 - Tonbridge School Chapel

Orchestral  Concert  - 2 April 2011
  Tonbridge School Chapel

Haydn Nelson Mass and Mozart Requiem Concert

An inspired piece of programming gave us an intense and thought-provoking evening for the Tonbridge Philharmonic Society's Easter concert. Both the Nelson Mass of Haydn and the Mozart Requiem were written in 1798. Both were late works, written at a time of personal and political struggle and both begin dramatically in D minor. Haydn himself dubbed this mass 'Missa in angustiis' a 'mass for troubled times', referring to the threat from Napoleon, who was already advancing in Austria and other parts of Europe. It had a resonance for us today with our concerns for civil unrest in the Arab world, natural disasters on the Pacific Rim and economic downturns across the world.

In troubled times, you turn to your family and a performance from the Philharmonic Society has all the qualities of a family gathering. The performers have been together for some years and have complete faith in their conductor Robin Morrish who never leads them astray. The accomplished soloists return time after time and take evident pleasure in their Tonbridge gigs. The audience is full of familiar faces since parents, partners and children lend enthusiastic support. The occasion, though formal, is relaxed.

Settings of the medieval Latin words of the mass are challenging to perform well and these pieces are no exception. There are frequent changes of mood and tempo in order to bring the words to life. Robin handled this well. For example, he demanded nervous energy from the choir through well-placed accents in the opening Gloria and followed this with sensitive, throbbing heartbeats from the orchestra under Thomas Eaglen's baritone solo in Qui tollis. In parts, the choir achieved spellbinding soft unisons such as the repeated Miserere (Have mercy on us), but at others lacked real power and precision for the dramatic loud sections. Tightening up on rhythms and the placement of consonants in a large choir is like tuning an engine. When the conductor puts his foot down, the engine will roar into life.

The demands on the soloists too were unusual. No long arias followed by a long sit down in these pieces. All four soloists had to remain fully concentrated throughout as the drama was portrayed through snippets of solos, pair work and the full quartet. Wendy Nieper, Susan Legg, Geraint Hylton and Thomas Eaglen did not disappoint all evening. Individually excellent voices, they also managed to blend well in an acoustic which does not favour clarity or the upper registers. Nowhere was the quartet better displayed than in the Sequentia of the Mozart Requiem, which tells of The Last Judgement. When the 'trump' sounded (magnificently performed by trombonist Neil Jones), each voice in turn put its interpretation upon events; the stern and threatening baritone, the excitable tenor, the pragmatic mezzo and the fearful soprano.

The orchestra, led so well by Penny Howard, accompanied throughout with subtlety and style, maintaining the careful balance required for professional and amateur voices.        

   Sara Kems