REVIEW: Valentine’s Day Concert – Worthing Symphony Orchestra

Elschenbroch, Gibbons, WSO after Walton. Photo by Stephen Goodger
Elschenbroch, Gibbons, WSO after Walton. Photo by Stephen Goodger

Valentine’s Day Concert – Worthing Symphony Orchestra at The Assembly Hall on February 14 2016 at 2.45pm - with Leonard Elschenbroich (cello), John Gibbons (conductor).

Overture ODTAA (Doreen Carwithen); Salut D’Amour (Elgar); Cello Concerto (Walton); Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Mendelssohn); Intermezzo from Manon Lescaut (Puccini); The Firebird Suite (1919 version, Stravinsky).

It has become hard to overestimate the scale of musical experience listeners enjoy at Worthing Symphony Orchestra concerts now.

Sitting down to report on them brings a fear of not knowing where to start.

You know something special has happened when the orchestra leave the hall exhausted and fulfilled. This is now commonplace. “What a concert,” said Russell Gilbert of the 2nd violins, the last to leave on Sunday, in almost a whisper.

Conductor and artistic director John Gibbons is constantly presenting new experiences likely to spark in the listener lifelong connection with musical works.

At times, he like is a dispenser of medicine and balm, at others a dealer in highs and ecstasies.

People fearful or uninitiated were shocked and thrilled at the power and sometimes sheer beauty of Stravinsky’s Firebird ballet music in its Suite selection. Both Gilbert and Gibbons afterwards spoke to me of how exciting it felt on stage to deliver it, in a hall waiting to carry that power faithfully to WSO fans who now trust Gibbons implicitly to please them, tease them, gently to challenge or initiate, and ultimately to delight and enthuse them for more.

This time it was the familiar alongside the unknown. Elgar’s endearing and perfect miniature engagement gift to his Caroline − Salut D’Amour – followed the fun and vigour of Doreen Carwithen’s colourful Overture ODTAA. The literary-inspired “One Damn Thing After Another” jumped out to make you start, with busy marching, drums and tambourine, fanfares, banging on the table, then bits of peace and quiet in between, consoling clarinets and solo flute.

Entertainment from an obscure source. Thanks to the programme brochure and Gibbons’ information in it and spoken from the platform, we were reminded that, mainstream post-war British though her music sounds, the pathetic men then shaping British music had no time for women’s work.

A WSO concert is nothing if not a journey of rewarding discovery. After Salut D’Amour, played soft and loved-up, just like it is, came Sir William Walton’s Cello Concerto. To Worthing audiences who heard his Elgar three years ago, German soloist Leonard Elschenbroich, a product of the Menuhin School in Surrey, seems to the manner born when playing British music of true emotional substance.

His empathy and sympathy flows from start to finish. His sensitivity, depth of tone, palate of colour and nuance of feeling endear him to WSO fans like no other cellist.

This music breathes the romance of Walton and his Argentinian wife Susana in their Italian island home of Iscia in the Bay of Naples. Here is where he wanted them to be, where she could create a garden, and he could create music. And in this case a work based around their La Montello Garden where Gibbons has sat and heard this music in Lady Walton’s hospitality.

Thanks to he and Elschenbroich, we now know this Cello Concerto should always to be mentioned in the same breath as De Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain, Rodrigo’s Concierto di Aranjuez slow movement, and Delius’ In a Summer Garden. There are probably one or two more.

Elschenbroich shared with me: “It’s a very distinct environment that Walton creates. He does so from the very first notes and it lingers with you after the music is over. I like playing concertos of this different kind of quality, where the lower areas of the cello are just as prominent and the upper.

“Kabalevsky’s Concerto is another. And I love it when the composer has the guts to end a concerto quietly.”

On the strength of Gibbons’ spoken preparation, I sat back and let the imagination go. The scene-setting first movement is full of seductive colour, texture and rhythm, caressing, lethargic, languid.

The second begins with a plunge into the sea. The harp splashes and the cello starts running, darting and dodging, like on a love chase through the flowers. And Walton seems to take us on a whistle-stop tour in his Bentley car of the island’s sights and its lunching and tea-taking stops.

All is gentle and affectionate and the soloist starts the multi-sectioned final movement muted and reflective. The cello becomes extrovert, musing about mischief-making, in a solo. The orchestra crash in on the game, castanets, tambourine, bass drum, boisterous, playful. The cello reacts, alone again.

Worries and reservations seem to surface but the harp coaxes him forth, the woodwind open the curtains but now the sunlight seems autumnal. The colours have faded but in the melancholy yet blissful ending, crystalline sounds on high seem to echo Richard Strauss’ closing touches of love.

The Assembly Hall fell silent. The seagulls we heard above were from Ischia.

And that was just the first half of the concert! During the interval a visiting party from Davison High School for Girls were presented with a poster signed last month with a message to them of encouragement by young role-model violinist Nicola Benedetti. She is president of the WSO-supporting Worthing Symphony Society.

Then Mendelssohn, Puccini and Stravinsky took over and even more imagination was stimulated.

The WSO made Mendelssohn’s Dream dazzle. Manon Lescaut’s sad Paris departure to exile was a rare operatic extract in a WSO concert: “More, please,” said audience fan Marilyn Hurdwell, who after The Firebird Suite added, “Just listening to this fantastical music evokes the groundbreaking Ballets Russe with its marvellous choreography, costumes and design. The images filled my mind while marvelling at the virtuosity and dedication of the WSO.”

Watch out in future, perhaps, for this composer’s short piece, Fireworks, and his Scherzo Fantastique (Stravinsky’s ticket to stardom).

Leonard Elschenbroich reveals he is preparing to play on May 17 the premiere of the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra’s commissioned Cello Concerto by British composer Mark Simpson. His performance at the Bridgwater Hall, Manchester, will be recorded for CD.

He and pianist Alexei Grynyuk are preparing to record the Beethoven Cello Sonatas in January.

Upcoming concerts –


Sunday March 6 (Assembly Hall, 2.45pm): Ode To Spring. Turkish doyen pianist, the much-recorded Idil Biret, performs two romantic favourites heard surprisingly scarcely now in concert halls: Cesar