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Tonbridge Philharmonic Society's programme of music by English composers was excellently chosen, Vaughan Williams' overture The Wasps and the Five Mystical Songs providing a sparkling aperitif followed by some moments of calm reflection before we were launched into the barbaric ferocity of Walton's Belshazzar's Feast, or 'Belli's Binge' as the composer called it!
The Philharmonic orchestra was on fine form. Ably led as ever by Penny Morrish their performance of The Wasps overture was thoroughly enjoyable with excellent playing in all departments, especially the strings. Given that the bass-baritone soloist in Belshazzar has relatively little to sing it was a good decision to invite him to perform The Five Mystical Songs. Piran Legg, a superb young bass already embarked on a fine career, sang these exquisite settings of George Herbert's poems most musically, dropping to a magical pp when required and filling the chapel with glorious tone at the climaxes. The seated chorus accompanied with sensitivity and excellent tuning, rising to their feet to give a splendidly confident and committed performance of the Antiphon Let all the world in every corner sing.
And so, to the main event. Belshazzar's Feast is arguably the greatest, certainly the most exciting, and surely the most enjoyable work to be written by an English composer in the years between Elgar's Dream of Gerontius and Britten's War Requiem. It is also one of the most difficult, needing huge resources and making immense technical demands on singers and players alike. Hence, opportunities to hear a live performance are relatively rare so it was disappointing to see such a small, if appreciative, audience.
Walton's writing for the chorus is wonderfully exuberant, but demands colossal energy and stamina: how do you sustain a top A for 8 bars ff, only to be asked to do it all over again half a page later, as well as coping with jazzy cross rhythms, tricky entries and chromatic close harmony? Such difficulties can seem insuperable and it is a credit to all that so much was achieved. A feature of this great work is its narrative drive. There are also glorious expansive moments of pathos and beauty supplied by the chorus in passages that are marked pp especially in the opening 'By the waters of Babylon' and even more importantly at the magical words 'The trumpeters and pipers are silent'. It was sad that these passages which can be so moving and were composed to be sung unaccompanied required instrumental support on this occasion.
That said, this performance had drama in plenty. Robin Morrish set commendably steady tempi. The gods of gold, silver, wood, brass, iron were praised with virtuosic vigour in brass and percussion (indeed, the orchestra played with terrific energy throughout) and following Piran Legg's spine-curdling account of 'Mene, mene, tekel upharsin' (Thou art weighed in the balance and found wanting) Belshazzar was duly dispatched with a 'SLAIN!' that must have been heard half-way down the High Street! There follows one of the most vivid depictions of a rave in all music, and so, the finishing straight having been finally reached and the Philharmonic's chorus and orchestra having joyfully united to give Walton's riotous Alleluias their thunderous all, it was right that the audience erupted in well-deserved applause.
Orchestral & Choral Concert - 3 December 2011 - Tonbridge School Chapel
Orchestral Concert - 18 February 2012 St.Stephen’s Church, Tonbridge
The orchestra of Tonbridge Philharmonic Society set itself a huge challenge with the programme for its February concert at St Stephen's Church. Guest conducted by Michael Hitchcock, three works of varying length and difficulty were the goals challenged and bravely met. It was good to see resident conductor Robin Morrish playing in the viola section and his wife Penny leading the orchestra with her customary unassuming expertise.
Opening with flutes & luscious string playing, we set off on a watery journey down the mighty River Vltava in Smetana's eponymous symphonic poem. A masterpiece of word painting, the orchestration matches beautifully the twists and turns of the river, the changing scenery and life on the banks alongside. Each section of the orchestra had its chance to shine, and the lower brass instruments were commanding in the turbulent moments, in comparison with the shimmering evocation of the moon shining on the water. Reaching the wide reaches of the river's flow into Prague, the orchestra came together in a majestic finale before gliding on towards its destination and the final two cymbal crashes.
The Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera was commissioned to write a concerto in 1956 by American harpist Edna Phillips, but it was not performed until 1965. At Tonbridge Phil's concert, soloist Anna Wynne was more than capable of taking on this work of dazzling virtuosity. Demanding a wide range of effects and skills, the influences of contemporary composers were evident, from Copland and Stravinsky to Bartok and Berg. The orchestra is required to display its own abilities too, with an especially important role for the large percussion section. Players and audience alike enjoyed the Latin dance influence and jazz rhythms. From the opening notes, Anna Wynne demonstrated her supremely confident technique, and mastery of the instrument. Communication with the conductor and orchestra resulted in a performance of breathtaking art. The gorgeous dialogue between harp and birdsong of the woodwind, and magical ending to the second movement left one unprepared for the dazzling cadenza which preceded the third and final movement. Rapturous applause was well deserved for both soloist and orchestra.
Bruckner's 4th 'Romantic' Symphony is a tour de force for any orchestra. This is a monumental work-out for every section, with tremendous pits and troughs like a galleon on the high seas. Michael Hitchcock piloted the ship with quiet authority, and a dependable, decisive beat, urging and cajoling his sailors to ever more effort. Although a few intonation problems did occur the during the symphony, the overall standard of playing was impressive, considering this was a performance lasting eighty-five minutes. The brass section was thrilling throughout. Special moments included the 'cellos in their sumptuous melody and beautifully controlled phrases thrown from one player to another in the second movement; some lovely woodwind passages in the Ländler section of the Scherzo. In the amazing Finale, just when one could not imagine Bruckner thinking of anything else to say, yet another thrusting crescendo would manifest itself until the the end came into sight, leaving orchestra and audience exhausted but exhilarated.
The Mass in B Minor is the only full mass, which Bach wrote and it was also his last major composition. It was pulled together from movements written earlier in his life to which he added newly composed sections. There is speculation that Bach wrote this full mass, not for liturgical use, but as a statement of Christian beliefs for all people and for all time. Musically, it represents the pinnacle of High Baroque style. Bach's own sons were already writing in a simpler, galant style. In this sense, Bach was behind the times but this piece is the mature work of a genius. The different colours of each movement and section are created by unique combinations of wind, brass and string timbres. This is the canvas upon which the words of the mass are layered. The skill level demanded from instrumentalists and singers is equally high and this represents a challenge of the highest order to any amateur groups.
The opening movement, Kyrie eleison, sets up all that is to follow. A short, chromatic, choral declamation in B minor is followed by an instrumental prelude of dark and subdued nature from strings and oboe d'amore. This was disappointing from the Philharmonic; despite the initial richness of the basses and well-blended tenors, the singing was tentative and the orchestral tuning suspect. It seemed to take a while for both singers and players to warm up to their task, but warm up they did! The long, fugal section was clearly articulated and the conductor, Robin Morrish, initiated thoughtful light and shade, which is not always heard even in professional performances.
The Gloria began with sparkling high trumpets, which was hard for the low alto section to match but, when the other voices joined in, this movement was spirited and the choir handled the changes of speed and dynamic well. The four professional soloists were joined by orchestral member, Caroline Walshaw, for part of the Et in terra pax section. This choice to replace some choral sections with soloists was unexpected but effective here and elsewhere in the work.
The soloists were particularly pleasing and generally well-matched. Soprano, Laurie Ashworth and Mezzo Soprano, Clare McCaldin, worked well together and individually. Laurie's Laudamus te showed fluid precision and Clare's final Agnus Dei was just wonderful. Tenor, Andrew Mackenzie-Wicks, and Bass, Christopher Foster, gave good accounts of themselves also.
There were moments of disappointment when the enormity of this piece daunted the normally fearless Tonbridge Phil. There was a tendency for the pitch to droop especially in slower sections where the need for correct breathing and nourished legato singing is all important. At times, the string section seemed too strong for the intricate wind writing to come through. However, these times were few and the joyous, open sound of the faster movements such as Gratias agimus tibi, the individual performances of Alison Aries (flute), Penelope Howard (violin) and Jackie Sanjana (horn) and the confident and accurate work by the men of the chorus far outweighed any occasional lapses.
Orchestral & Choral Concert - 31 March 2012 Tonbridge School Chapel
Orchestral & Choral Concert - 23 June 2012
Tonbridge School Chapel
The audience at the concert given by the Tonbridge Philharmonic at Tonbridge School Chapel on a rather chilly summer evening last Saturday were treated to some real summer warmth as well as continuing Diamond Jubilee celebrations with the music of Parry, Stanford, Sullivan and Lambert. At the beginning of the evening conductor Robin Morrish invited the audience to join with choir, orchestra and organ in the singing of the National Anthem. This was followed by Parry's wonderful anthem "I was glad" which was sung at the Queen's coronation. Choir, orchestra and organ gave a rousing performance with a thrilling trumpet fanfare climax which heralds the chorus acclamation "Vivat regina Elisabeta".
Stanford's settings of five poems by Henry Newbolt for baritone solo, chorus and orchestra, the "Songs of the Fleet" op 117 deserve to be much better known. This performance, dedicated to the Duke of Edinburgh, was sensitively given; the mood and atmosphere of each song brought to life by Stanford's wonderful use of orchestral colours. Soloist, bass Stephen Lazell , produced a light but pleasing tone, although he was sometimes overwhelmed by the rich orchestral and choral textures. However he was much more comfortable with the two livelier songs where his clarity of diction was exemplary and which he sang with confidence and commitment. The third song "Middle Watch" is especially worthy of mention because of the way that the extraordinary and atmospheric sound world was captured so convincingly by both choir and orchestra, enabled by Robin Morrish's sensitive conducting.
After the interval the audience was delighted by "Pineapple Poll", a selection of dances from a ballet arranged by Sir Charles Mackerras from music by Sir Arthur Sullivan. The orchestra obviously enjoyed this opportunity to let their hair down and gave a wonderfully spirited performance of the more lively dances which sparkled with humour and had the feet of many audience members tapping. These contrasted with the more lyrical movements such as Jasper's Dance which gave brief opportunity for lovely solos from woodwind and horn and warm string playing. "Belaye's Hornpipe" was a boisterous romp for brass and percussion, which was played with great joie de vivre. Sullivan's orchestral scores are notoriously difficult and require virtuoso playing from all sections of the orchestra. Tonbridge Philharmonic orchestra showed that it was more than up to the job and gave a performance that was thoroughly enjoyable and greatly appreciated by the audience.
From the arresting opening bars of Constant Lamberts "Rio Grande", I knew we were in for a memorable performance. Robin's choice of tempi, the warm tones of the choir, spirited orchestral playing and David Williams' wonderful piano solos transported the audience from a cold British summer evening to the sultry warmth and flamboyant dances of Brazil. The solo piano part needs a virtuoso pianist, not only able play with great dexterity but also able to give the jazz rhythms a convincing flexibility and enable the more reflective moments to really sing, all of which was heard in David Williams' performance. Helen Page's contralto solos were sung with warmth and her sensitive singing, along with that of the choir brought this exciting performance to a peaceful close.