REVIEW: University of Chichester Symphony Orchestra: First Cathedral Concert, Chichester Cathedral

As the audience arrived in the nave of the magnificent Chichester Cathedral, all 85 musicians of the dynamic University of Chichester Symphony Orchestra – which had been founded only three years ago – were gathering, together with two male and three female singers, in its Presbytery in order to practice in this towering atmosphere.

Although their concert consisted mostly of modern or brand new music, their programme also contained a significant work which had been created by a notable British composer whose remains had been interred in a significant part of this Cathedral, in 1934 – Gustav Holst.

Having been appointed Head of Orchestral Studies at this University, in 2008, Crispin Ward enthusiastically assumed his conductor role by commencing this adventurous concert with Four Moravian Folk Songs, a recently composed, highly pleasant, work, which had been facilitated with the help of Crispin himself, after visiting a friend in Prague, the capital city of the Czech Republic. Like all those before it, the fourth and final song was highly melodic, but – much to the amusement of all those present – unexpectedly ended with a theatrical holler!

Immediately after this conductor had fervently introduced the Roumanian soloist, Emilian Dascal, next came the first performance of Concerto for Viola and Orchestra, by the German composer Thomas Schmidt Kowalski. Although conforming to the expressive principles of most contemporary music, it certainly contained a lot of romantic melody and rhythm, enabling the large string, woodwind and brass elements to combine with the Cathedral atmosphere, especially when this work had utilised 19th century harmony, during its memorable conclusion.

Bearing in mind that his remains are interred below the North Transept of the Cathedral, this concert suitably concluded with a performance of Gustav Holst’s The Planets. Commencing with Mars,The Bringer of War, his normal combination of dramatic melody and deafening rhythm all echoed loudly into the upper levels of such a splendid Cathedral atmosphere, after which came splendid versions of Venus, the Bringer of Peace, the highly melodious and incredibly rhythmic dance music of Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity – and then Uranus, the Magician, which again combined strong rhythm with intense woodwind, brass and all the strings, then concluding, in this composer’s normal style, with immense percussion, which was memorably performed by all those involved. The Planets then came to its final, incredibly haunting, conclusion with an exceptional performance of the ethereal Neptune the Mystic, which had – according to Gustav himself – “dominated my mind as I had wandered through the Downs and countryside, surrounding Chichester itself”, having been invited there by the Bishop of Chichester, in order to assist him with the Whitsuntide Festivals of 1930 & 1931 – in this same Cathedral.

Finally came some unidentified music – which could have been composed by Sir Edward Elgar. Bearing in mind that he had purchased a house in the attractive country village of Fittleworth – not all that far away from Chichester – it was fitting to choose this music as the finale to such a spectacular concert, which was greeted enthusiastically by all those present!

John Wheatley.