REVIEW: American Masterpieces’ Concert – Worthing Symphony Orchestra

WSO Conductor John Gibbons
WSO Conductor John Gibbons

Assembly Hall, Friday February 2, 2018 (7.30pm), conductor John Gibbons, leader Julian Leaper; pianist Nathan Williamson.

Bernstein, Candide Overture; Gershwin, Piano Concerto; Barber, Essay No 1; Alwyn, Penn of Pennsylvania Suite; Bernstein, Symphonic Dances from West Side Story.

Let no one take this conductor and orchestra for granted. What they delivered this time broke new territory in WSO versatility, new records of endurance, and scaled new heights in virtuosity.

It had been a marathon day of two rehearsals and two concerts. In the morning, the latest WSO Concert for Children, playing to more than 700 young open mouths. In the evening, John Gibbons’ marking of Leonard Bernstein’s birth Centenary, culminating in his explosive, no holds barred, no decibel meter respected, no musical genre untouched Symphonic Dances from You Know What.

For WSO was a bit like asking Mo Farah to run 10,000 metres for Olympic gold but with the last three laps run over a steeplechase course. And with defeat not an option. They had no right to storm these heights at the far the end of the day, and still triumph. But they are professionals, and have to. And unfailingly they do.

These are seasoned musicians of London concert hall, BBC radio, recording studio, opera house and West End theatre. And particular London musicians who not only know what is demanded of them at WSO in a normal single day but who enjoy the frequent extra mile. They were buoyed this time by having first entertained and enthralled the 7s-11s children with Glinka, Ravel, Grieg, Haydn, Joplin, Elgar, Coates, Paul Lewis, Beethoven, Strauss, and the helter skelter Candide Overture of an American dude called Lenny Bernstein.

Into the evening, and comfort zone it was not. Bernstein takes no prisoners among players unversed in American musical culture. Neither for that matter does Gershwin. Candide catapulted the WSO audience across the Atlantic quicker than Concorde. Then Gibbons flipped us back 32 years to Gershwin’s Piano Concerto which commenced with a Charleston dance rhythm, though in masculine costume – nothing as frivolous a flapper’s dress and feather headband.

Soloist Nathan Williamson needed both to attack and beguile – and lots in between – in a work of sometimes bewildering and exhaustingly uninhibited bravura in multi-style and sometimes bitingly flambouyant vari-technique. His role is like a classically-trained jazz pianist in a huge variety band playing arrestingly angular and sometimes thunderous music. Williamson looked and sounded at home in this industrious task, as indeed, his American repertoire promised.

The WSO team sheet had two changes. Russian exit visa rulings over visiting students wishing to perform abroad while studying at places like Moscow Conservatoire prevented admired Thai pianist Poom Prommachart fulfilling the gig on a Worthing return visit. Williamson capitalised.

Then between the Children’s Concert and the evening, Dorset-based flautist Sarah de Bats, sometimes in the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, entered Worthing Hospital, reportedly exhausted after a fortnight fighting off illness. The WSO had used up all their substitutes. But they hardly let it show.

Young tympanist Sarah Hatch, deputising for Rambert percussionist Robert Millett, but with experience in The Philharmonia, sailed through, beaters flying in virtually everything, even during Samuel Barber’s deceptively academic title-sounding Essay No 1. This was a welcome, contrasting and evocative inclusion, and one wonders if this may be a paving the way for his Violin Concerto’s Worthing debut one day.

William Alwyn’s maiden film score suite, Penn of Pennsylvania, gave the orchestra a 1940s British breather before Gibbons gleefully unleashed Symphonic Dances from West Side Story and blew the evening away into the night. Worthing hardly knew what had hit them. But they adored it. Whoops, cheers, whistles, arthritis-inducing prolonged applause. Orchestra on their feet. Some of the audience, too.

Before the evening concert unfolded, lead cellist Miriam Lowbury sat with colleague Anita Strevens forking down some light packed supper. They were renewing their reserves of stamina, although their modest greenish snacks hardly packed punch. I asked where were their carbos? Both seemed too tired to explain away the lack. Invisible, however, was the adrenalin they counted on lying in readiness.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen tonight,” confessed Miriam, “but I know it’s going to be very exciting.”

And later from the podium, Gibbons personally warned his audience before raising his baton on the Symphonic Dances: “This is big. And I mean BIG. And we’re going to enjoy ourselves! . . . ”

Gibbons is celebrating his 20th season as innovative WSO director and this was the first substantial Bernstein programmed here since Gibbons’ predecessor Jan Cervenka’s mounting of Mass on a remarkable evening at the Connaught Theatre, late in his tenure.

My hero of the day? One of the four percussionists in their especially breakneck Bernstein roles. It’s Chris Blundell, erstwhile drummer of the London musical about Queen, We Will Rock You, but long a WSO regular.

“Quite a programme,” he grinned. “I’ve played some difficult things, people like Boulez, years ago. This was quite tough, too!” And there he was, sitting behind a red 4-piece Beverley kit, music stand beside his hi-hat, cool and collected, playing every sort of stuff demanded. “A drum kit, in a classical orchestra?” wondered Worthing, “. . . it must have happened first in America.”

“What a concert,” people gasped. I’ll echo that.

Richard Amey

Worthing mayor Alex Harman drew the playing order of 24 competitors for the 4th Sussex International Piano Competition here in May. Before that, two young superstars join the WSO (both 2.45pm). Sheku Kanneh-Mason, now over the world media, plays Elgar’s Cello Concerto on March 4 (another WSO coup and probable sell-out), and saxist Jess Gillam gives British jazz legend Barbara Thompson’s Concerto in the WSO’s RAF Centenary Concert on April 8. Tickets from box office 01903 206206.

On Easter Sunday, April 1 (4pm), violinist Kamila Bydlowska and pianist Varvara Tarasova play an International Interview Concert at St Paul’s Worthing with a colourful travel-lust itinerary visiting Poland, Germany, Spain and Argentina. Tickets from St Paul’s cafe counter or seetickets.com