REVIEW: Songs of the Sea Concert – Worthing Symphony Orchestra, Helena Dix (soprano), John Gibbons (conductor), Assembly Hall.

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The WSO bells of connection chimed louder than ever in Worthing audience ears in one of the most potent season-opening concert programmes devised and presented by artistic director John Gibbons. The sea is our companion in this town life, and here was our orchestra sounding just like it.

Bursting unannounced into Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman Overture, the WSO crashed over the promenade railings in storm waves of sound. Then, breaching all defences they surged on and up the streets in Wagner’s Tristan & Isolde Prelude and Liebestod. And in the concluding masterpiece, Debussy’s La Mer, they gave us a chain of pictures, visions and impressions of the human wonders in the beholding and experiencing the sea’s irresistible power, beauty and mischief, in Debussy’s La Mer.

In between, Gibbons and the WSO lifted us onto a clifftop to look seaward and beyond, in Delius’ A Song of Summer, in notes dictated and scenario described from the composer’s sickbed or bath chair to his young pen-in-hand assistant Eric Fenby. And later, we visited another part of the French coast with Debussy’s fellow-countryman Chausson, whose rarely performed Poem of Love and the Sea sets the words of a young woman experiencing a deeper romance.

Here Gibbons was presenting British and French music written under the aural German influence of Wagner. Soprano in the Chausson, Helena Dix, came to Worthing on Sunday as one of the final eight in Seattle International Wagner Competition, where she impressed as Isolde, and also as Sieglinde from The Valkyrie.

The WSO were a full force of 61 players, including triple woodwind, with two harps for La Mer, along with five trumpets and five horns alongside the trombone-tuba quartet and a four-man percussion department including Chris Blundell this time on glockenspiel and gong.

The Dutchman Overture was like a sudden sea squall blowing up out of nowhere, heaving and battering The Denton. Gibbons’ was an account unconcerned about crisp slickness and momentum, but all about the mass and weight of the churned-up sea and the towering strength of the gale. The sailors’ chorus was a rustic thing mustered out of the duress of sheer survival depicted by Wagner after undergoing his own turbulent and protracted North Sea crossing from Riga to London to elude his creditors.

Later, La Mer had the Pier shuddering at several junctures and if the orchestra had sounded good earlier in the afternoon, it was all only building up to this explosive catalogue of orchestral colour and drama. No one is sure if La Mer has ever before been performed by any Worthing Symphony Orchestra. This programme alongside his previous work in Gibbons’ decade of directorship testifies to a probably unequalled versatility and daring in WSO annals.

If ever Worthing Symphony Orchestra record a CD the first surely should be of sea music (and I’d include Frank Bridge’s suite The Sea on the follow-up album!) and to have La Mer included on the debut release would be the perfect marketing statement. If Debussy visited Eastbourne during its composition, that’s only around the next headland from here.

So what about funding it, local authorities or business? Especially with the WSO sounding this enthralling, with the vivid textural detail unmissable in the faithful Assembly Hall acoustic.

We’ve not got at Worthing the ruggedness of a Cornish or Brittany coastline to backdrop Tristan & Isolde but, surrounding Britons all, is the sea, and emotionally we can relate to ‘the infinite sea of love’ Wagner spoke of ― quoted by Gibbons in his consistently superb programme notes. The WSO and Dicks unchained the tidal wave of desire and longing which the two illicit lovers enjoy under a love potion and, at their moment of mutual death, riding the wave crest, the white horse was Dix’s soaring voice ― an integral, ecstatic instrument amid the entire mounting orchestral sound, just as the passionate force of nature which Wagner’s Isolde is.

Gibbons had been lining us up for this second big Wagner operatic concert experience, following his presentation of bass-baritone Sir John Tomlinson as chief god Wotan late last season in a sequence of music from The Ring. Now was the turn of Woman. And both these performances have written gilt pages in WSO history.

We came back to the new WSO season from a splendidly clement summer to confront what effectively were five works all describable as tone poems. And what a rewarding and uplifting experience that proved. Gibbons over the years has enlightened the WSO audience so that on this occasion, with not a concerto or symphony in sight, just as rules are there to be beneficially broken, likewise can concert programme routine be gloriously dismissed.

Welcome back in the cellos fold was regular, Vonni Parsons, after some periods not in evidence. She was encouraging a collection in aid of The Royal Society of Musicians and the audience produced a spur-of-the-moment £80 for this benefit organisation that helps players in difficulties.

Since childhood, Vonni’s nervous and immune systems had been progressively diminished by swimming-bath chlorine poisoning and illnesses had left her with a blood disorder and severe auto-immune deficiency. The RSM’s £2,000 gift enabled her to find a pioneering cure in Denmark and, in the 12 years since, she has been accumulating strength.

Effusing now so much new life and vitality, to repay the RSM voluntarily and unprompted, this summer she swam the dangerous strongly-currented Solent from north-west Isle of Wight to Hengistbury Head on the Dorset mainland.

The concert therefore boasted a second maritime heroine. Having announced her bravery, Gibbons brought Vonni to her feet for audience’s salute ― though presumably the news had reached him too late to slip in a few strains of Elgar’s The Swimmer from his five Sea Pictures.

Aha! There’s another item for that first WSO disc. So much great music about the sea . . . It’s no use: there will have to be a series of CDs.

Richard Amey

Further information about Yvonne Marie Parsons’ swim can be found, and donations to The Royal Society of Musicians can be made, via www.justgiving.com/TheBigSwim2014

Vonni said: “Please give my absolute hugest thanks to the wonderful people of Worthing for the support so far. Really stunning.” She is approaching half her target of £5,000.

“I wanted to return the money back to the RSM, even though they’ve not requested this, and I want to raise more money still, so their help for others can continue. I wouldn’t be here today without them.”