TROTTING OUT waltzes, polkas, gallops, polkas and operetta pieces from vintage Vienna in the first days of January is for British classical orchestra organisations second only in predictability and profitability to mounting their own Last Night of the Proms at times of the year other than early September. This aping of the original concert model is the closest they get to being tribute bands.
Worthing Symphony Orchestra chief, John Gibbons, though is more resourceful than that. A decade of growingly imaginative concert programming in Worthing led two years ago to successive early January concerts featuring instead a substantial piece with narration. First, Britten’s Young Person’s Guide To The Orchestra, and then Prokofiev’s Peter And The Wolf.
This year the Viennese music returned in force. Why, we won’t know, and if we asked him Gibbons might not answer. But for the speculative among us, Gibbons’ narrator, John Inverdale, underwent a ‘Looker-gate’ during his 2013 Wimbledon BBC presenting, which may have figured. Even so, as well as a number of new Viennese items refreshingly replacing some of the old chestnuts, Gibbons gave his audience so much else as well.
We had Elgar’s Three Bavarian Dances - not a million miles from Vienna, as Gibbons justified – and we had an Armenian Soviet composer of flair, Aram Khachaturian and his sweeping waltz from his Masquerade ballet suite. There was music from 11 different composers.
We had a horn concerto from Vienna, Mozart’s No 4, with WSO principal and familiar London orchestral face Dave Lee soloing. And we had a young, willowy, blonde soprano singing as Vilja from The Merry Widow (Lehar), Musetta from La Boheme (Puccini), adding an item from Die Dubarry (Carl Millöcker – yes, a new name to me, too) and also performing Adele’s Laughing Song and Rosalinde’s Czardas, both from Die Fledermaus (Johann Strauss II).
That singer was Prudence Sanders, Australian-born and educated, but also trained in London. She was singing gay, coquettish roles, in character, and a slinky, scarlet, sleeveless full length dress slit at the left knee. Whether or not you cared for her slightly shallow tone, this was girly, uplifting fun and frisson from music that widened further the dimension of the afternoon’s entertainment. She was well-cast for the occasion by Gibbons.
Lee took the stage in a Tuxedo, played from a music stand, and for fortification before the finale, took a swig of transparent liquid he audibly wanted to assure us was water. He wasn’t note perfect because a horn is a variable beast combining air, moisture and metal in an unconquerable unpredictability that recording engineers can hide away in re-takes. But this was live, mate, and Dave gave us a cadenza cheekily slipping in a Radetsky March quote, and paused on a note as low as he could go without blowing too obvious a raspberry.
Among other things, solo horn playing is about spirit, enterprise and self-effacement, and it produces a species of player epitomised by Lee’s cheery downplaying of the occasion and, at his final curtain call, his holding up of his French horn to wave it at the audience, and then, in an even more significant gesture of modesty, his picking up his Mozart score and brandishing that in the same direction.
Before or since Mozart, only Richard Strauss has dared, let alone succeeded, in giving the concerto world something great for the instrument. And, we learned from Gibbons’ always generous programme notes, the soloist good enough to make that possible for Mozart was expert horn player Joseph Leutgeb, a businessman in cheese and sausages in 1770s and 1780s Vienna. Their instruments sit somewhere subsidiary to drink and food on the agenda of most horn players, one gathers.
It was an amusing and relaxing concert, with Gibbons soon referring in his audience introductions to the 5-0 humiliated English cricket team. Two onstage Christmas trees maintained the festivity. In the programme we had a whole page advert devoted to Rosemary Hawthorne, The Knicker Lady. And in the percussion kitchen, side-drummer Chris Blundell of Biggin Hill also tinkled triangle, jingled sleigh bells and glistened a glockenspiel, while beside him was Peter Henderson with his magic folding-up bass drum.
As if watching orchestral instruments being played wasn’t eye-catching enough, WSO timpanist Robert Millet’s deputy was with us this time. Scott Bywater is one to remember, with his high backlift and full follow-though (no, not trained by England batting coach Graham Gooch) plus his suave upright German rack stand for his beaters. Superbly accurate, fascinatingly flamboyant, he’d look great in Trooping The Colour with the Horse Guards thumping away with panache on one of those enormous shaggy shires. The WSO was borrowing him from The Hanover Band and The Academy of Ancient Music, where he plays pigskin kettledrums.
Poom Prommachart of Bankok, winner of last year’s Sussex International Piano Competition at the Assembly Hall, returns on February 16. In the Competition Final it was Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 3. This time it’s Chopin’s No 1. Mozart’s bubbling Cosi Fan Tutte Overture precedes it and following it are Grieg’s Two Elegaic Melodies and Schubert’s Symphony No 4.