Reviews 2011/12

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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.

  Charles Vignole

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.

Ruth Langridge

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