REVIEW: RAF Centenary Concert, Worthing Symphony Orchestra

Barbara Thompson in rehearsal with Jess Gillam, John Gibbons and Jon Hiseman
Barbara Thompson in rehearsal with Jess Gillam, John Gibbons and Jon Hiseman

Worthing Assembly Hall on Sunday April 7 2018 (2.45pm), soloist Jess Gillam, saxophones; conductor, John Gibbons.

Exactly 30 years ago, someone wrote a Saxophone Concerto. Female. Any ideas? Difficult question. Think back a bit. Here’s a quiz clue, contestants, fingers on buzzers: it was Barbara someone . . .

“Hepworth?” Wrong art, she was an artist and sculptor . . . “Windsor?” No, but someone probably did sculpt her. Carry on guessing . . . “Castle!” Mmm. She’d have been Musicians Union all right: she was a Labour politician. “Woodhouse”. Don’t be daft. A concerto for a sax, not a dog! “Cartland?” A novelist, I’m told, who never wrote about sax. Sorry, sex. But you’re warmer.

OK, I know the surname doesn’t trip off the tongue. No woman composer does – yet. “Maybe Streisand?” At last a musician! Nope. Wrong spelling of Barbara. “Glazunov. Didn’t he do a sax concerto?” Yes, and WSO have played it with Jess Gillam. But he was a bloke.

Right, one last guess, everyone . . . “Thompson!” Hey, you cheated! You were at the WSO concert on Sunday . . .

William Walton, Spitfire Prelude and Fugue; Ron Goodwin, Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines; William Alwyn, They Flew Alone; Barbara Thompson, Concerto for 3 Saxophones (interval); Walton, The Battle of Britain, Goodwin, 633 Squadron; Beethoven, 5th Symphony; Eric Coates, Dambusters March.

There had been enough cheers already in reception to Jess Gillam’s performance when a woman wracked by Parkinson’s Disease, to mounting awareness and acclaim, stood up from her audience seat and vigorously sort-of wriggled her way to a central spot the floor in front of the stage, to be joined there by Gillam and John Gibbons. The hair was the trademark blonde of the person who from the mid-1970s showed the startled world that women could play substantial solo jazz sax, or flute, alongside the best of them.

Barbara Thompson, engulfed by the other two, took the ovation in what will be one of the most poignantly triumphant moments in the WSO annals. Then Gillam picked up her soprano saxophone and walked around half the hall playing an encore, a Hungarian Folk Song. A solo walkabout idea similar to the longer one made by Polish violinist Kamila Bylowska seven days earlier during the International Interview Concert at St Paul’s Worthing. Such a thing entrances an audience, then leaves them feeling somehow blessed.

More cheers: only an interval could follow that. The Saxophone Concerto and Beethoven’s 5th were the only non-film music within a spanking parade of the cinema’s dynamic depiction of World War II aerial heroism. It had been devised with authority and logic by British music expert Gibbons, assisted in the programme brochure by the diligently comprehensive writing of WSO Administrator, John Gander, who is ex-RAF Tangmere.

The concert decor matched. A large model spitfire from Shoreham Airport building banked lethally in towards the conductor’s podium from behind the double-basses on the far right. RAF flags and insignia hung above the orchestra of 55 musicians. Flight-inspired floral displays bedecked the stage. Blazered RAF veterans sat in the audience, uniformed younger cadets punctuated it. The WSO, unknown to the audience of 724 listening, included from Biggin Hill, Chris Blundell, their busiest percussionist.

I met John Bell, a still-upright former 6ft 4in wartime 7-crew Lancaster bomb aimer, now 95, from Storrington. He flew 50 sorties from age 18, at German industrial targets with 619 Squadron, then at their ‘doodlebug’ factories in France with 617 Squadron, renowned for their accuracy. An RAF man for 37 years.

I met Bryan Baker, in the force only a year less, now 85, originally from Hull, now West Chiltington. A Cold War fighter pilot. After Vampires, Sabres and Hunters he flew Harriers out of Wittering and from German bases in Bruggen and Wildenrath. NATO exercises, continual training, constant state of readiness, loaded guns.

Still such optimistic, fresh, young-looking men. Baker saw no action, though owns up that in vertical take-off accidentally shot himself down, lived to tell the tale and dines out on the dubious, semi-hilarious honour. “I was the only allied pilot to shoot anybody down!” He likes trad jazz, and classical music “. . . because it soothes the nerves and helps me drive without aggression”.

Bell MBE DFC Ld’H saw years of action but was spared any flak direct hit, and never attacked. “I was very lucky but I always had a feeling we were going to survive. You can’t dodge flak or bullets. It’s the luck of the draw. I put faith in the law of averages. No point in worrying about it. If we were hit we wouldn’t know anything about it.

His classical? “I don’t like anything heavy and gloomy. I like Beethoven especially.”

Even Beethoven was upstaged this time, by Walton’s 30-years-lost film music for The Battle of Britain. The guy’s composing pen captured conflict and ceremony, and, as willing his advocate Gibbons showed us, he spanned the distance from the slings and arrows of Agincourt in Henry V to the agonised Kentish skies and supremely brave airfield men of 1941.

In a stimulating compilation and presentation by Gibbons, Beethoven’s inclusion as the only non-Briton on the bill was possibly a succumbing to the sentimental tug of the Symphony having then become the popular British national symbol of victory – the opening four notes are Morse Code for ‘V’ and V stands for numeral five (Yes, they made Beethoven commemorate Germany’s defeat, before Europe later made his 9th Symphony its unification anthem).

The human effect of ‘The Fifth’s’ penultimate position on the programme was as though the stamina-challenged WSO, having finally reached the Straits of Dover on their flight home, had then to undergo an extremely taxing surprise attack from the avenging remnants of a repulsed Messerschmitt squadron.

A pity, because WSO fans have waited aeons to hear them do The Fifth. In parts, the performance fell short of Beethoven’s bite, attack and tension although in compensation, the WSO’s transparency particularly in the slower or quieter sections meant we could savour Ian Scott’s wonderful soft clarinet tone. Yet the battle had probably already been clinched in Gibbons’ electrifying Walton and then iced with his scintillating Goodwin 633 Squadron music.

The day for Barbara Thompson’s little-heard Concerto may still be to come, now she, at 73, has a 19-year-old superstar to rejuvenate its three movements for successively the alto, the tenor and soprano saxes. Thompson’s accomplished performing world is fusion jazz-rock but she was schooled classically at the Royal College, also in flute, and compositionally, she enmeshes classical into a personal triumvirate.

This pedigree gave her, those 30 years ago, not only the expressive jazz-rock resources of instrumental virtuosity, upliftingly inventive rhythms and lyricism, but the feel for a good tune used sparingly and the instinct to develop a repeating bass pattern or riff.

And – equally tellingly in composition – her everyday life with Big Bands surely brought her skill in scoring different orchestral units and combining them, often softly, to take the time to pause and create imaginative and frequently spellbinding sounds, colours and atmospheres. Her percussion palate, including three tom-toms and a belltree, emboldening and glossing this complete mix, was a joy to hear.

Jazz orchestral scoring has come on at renewed pace since 1988, and I bet she’d now like a stab at a second concerto with Jess Gillam at her service. To step into her world was a new experience for the WSO audience. From non-acquaintance, this performance was my third hearing in 24 hours. Good music repays repeated hearing, and this seems to me very effective music, anchored in no era and – as Duke Ellington would say – beyond category.

So seek out your second hearing online until someone (probably Gillam) restores it to commercially recorded availability. Beethoven, living now, might be hanging out at German and other European iconic jazz festivals where Thompson is lauded, just as in his young years he was at Mozart’s outdoor concerts in Vienna.

The addition of this Concerto today, for me, made this concert even more exciting that the WSO’s previous party with Bernstein, were that possible. Thompson lives in London with masterly drummer-husband, Jon Hiseman. Maybe Gillam will advance Barbara’s name wider in this country.

Richard Amey

Momentously next up: May 8-13 (Monday – Sunday) – The 4th Sussex International Piano Competition, at Worthing Assembly Hall. Devised and directed by John Gibbons and delivered with administrative work by John Gander and Worthing Symphony Society members.

Firstly, 25 competitors in the quarter-finals on Tuesday and Wednesday (both from 11.30am), then 6 contest the semi-finals on Friday (from 1pm). A £20 ticket allows free audience movement around these three days of absorbing solo recitals which include a midway break. The WSO come in on the Sunday (2.45pm) to play the Grand Final of 3 Concertos with the three pianists left standing. Tickets for this start at £19.

This closes the WSO season until 2nd September 2018 when the new season-opening concert soloist is tipped to be a familiar world-name violinist, to be confirmed.

Box Office 01903 206206, online at www.worthingtheatres.co.uk

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