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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.
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.
Rossini, Elgar & Beethoven
When an orchestra includes in its programme two such well known works as Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony and Edward Elgar's Cello Concerto it has clearly set itself a real challenge. Both works are so familiar to the concert going public that the audience will always have a clear preconception of what to expect. The cello concerto, in particular, has a special place in our national heart with the recording by Jacqueline du Pré being regarded by many as the definitive interpretation of that work.
The Tonbridge Philharmonic orchestra never shies away from challenges and under the masterful baton of Robin Morrish it has grown in confidence over the past few years. This concert proved to be a delight, with each work portraying its unique character in full. First there was Rossini's overture Semiramide, not one of his best known, but very much in the style of The Thieving Magpie and William Tell. From the first note it could have been composed by nobody other than Rossini with tuneful melodies, captivating rhythms and lyrical passages which climax in a splendid finale. Robin Morrish kept the orchestra, especially the strings, moving forward at an exciting pace, making the most of the long crescendos and gave the evening a happy and joyous start.
The soloist in the cello concerto was Oliver Coates a young cellist of the highest quality. His reputation was enhanced as he captured not only the emotional side of the work but also relished the more reflective passages with his graceful playing. It was not a flamboyant interpretation but deeply reflective, allowing us to have an insight into Elgar's troubled mind as he composed it shortly after the horrors of the Great War. In the second movement the orchestra occasionally threatened to overpower him but always retreated just in time. The simplicity of the third movement was beautifully interpreted with each phrase a joy to hear and reflect upon. His warm tone and sensitivity seemed to be a product of his personal insight which recognised in full Elgar's private world.
Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony is one of his best known. Composed at the height of his powers in 1808 these recollections of country life require the listener to be transported into an early 19th century landscape on a warm summer's day, albeit one which will include a thunderstorm. The second movement By The Brook is dependent on flutes and clarinets and that section of the woodwind played with great sensitivity and feeling. In the third movement, The Happy Gathering of Villagers, it is the oboe and strings which make or mar the section; both were superb. Next is the Thunderstorm which requires the brass to be on top form. The sound produced made the audience feel that perhaps the drought was coming to an end so realistic was the thunder. Finally the Shepherd's Song where the strings were inspired to produce a rich dreamy sound that sent the audience home proud of their local orchestra which had enhanced its reputation yet further.
Orchestral Concert - 21 May 2011
St.Stephen’s Church, Tonbridge
Choral & Orchestral Concert - 25 June 2011
Tonbridge School Chapel
Vivaldi Gloria, Verdi Te Deum, Rutter Magnificat
Three joyful settings of liturgical texts made up the programme for Tonbridge Philharmonic Society's final concert of the 2010-2011 Season. Tonbridge School Chapel was the perfect setting and acoustic for these vibrant works. Opening with Vivaldi's Gloria, the chorus and orchestra gave a confident and buoyant account of the work, written while he was teaching at the girls' orphanage in Venice. Guest soprano soloist Wendy Nieper, making a welcome return to sing with the Society, was joined by the chorus's own Dilys Benson in the duet Laudamus te. This was beautifully delivered; their voices well-matched, revealing clearly the delicate interplay of the parts. Contralto Margaret Bolt, also a member of the chorus, gave creditable renderings of the arias Domine deus and Qui sedes. There was striking singing from the chorus, and the words were completely audible. Always given balanced support by the orchestra, the work set exactly the right mood for the evening. The strings shone under the leadership of Penelope Howard.
Verdi's Te deum, composed late in his life, is the last of his Four Sacred Pieces. Although operatic in style, it also shows his personal response to the text, with dramatic dynamic contrasts in the different sections. At times, the large orchestra threatened to overwhelm the clarity of the chorus's words, but they met the challenges of the work and sang with evident delight.
Magnificat, set by the ever-popular John Rutter, comprised the second half. Using strong dance rhythms and syncopation in many sections, the work is the epitome of energy and gladness. Throughout, from the brilliance of the opening movement through the dark steamy, almost night-club atmosphere of the Fecit potentiam, conductor Robin Morrish drove the work along with verve and intensity, eliciting some thrilling playing from the brass section. However the two quiet and reflective sections were particularly moving and memorable: the chorus's sensitive singing of the lilting setting of a 15th century poem Of a Rose, a lovely Rose, and in Esurientes (He hath filled the hungry with good things), a duet with Wendy Nieper who displayed her glorious upper register, soaring above chorus and orchestra.
Special mention should be made of outstanding orchestral playing: in particular the solo trumpet, oboe and harp to name but a few. The orchestra excelled itself, and the Society's performance was given a justly enthusiastic reception.
A presentation was made to Choral Chairman Eileen Best after serving five years in that post and over thirty as a member of the chorus. Huge gratitude was given for unstinting service to the Society by her and her late husband Harold.
LD & RL