REVIEW: Worthing Symphony Orchestr

Varvara Tarasova - by Steven Morris
Varvara Tarasova - by Steven Morris

New Year Tonic Concert at Assembly Hall, Sunday January 7

Conductor John Gibbons, piano Varvara Tarasova. Neu Jahrs Galop (Lanner), Waltz ‘Wine, Women and Song (Johann Strauss II), Mozart, Piano Concerto No 22 in Eb K482. Overture ‘Orpehus in the Underworld (Offenbach), Ciribiribin Waltz (Bucalossi), Thunder & Lightning Polka, Vienna Woods Waltz, Blue Danube Waltz (all Strauss II), Radetzky March (Johann Strauss I).

Five children sat together along a balcony row on Sunday, from two separate families, accompanied by a parent from both. The man and the woman, sitting flanking the five, had bought five of the £1 tickets for Under-19s which are standard pricing for Worthing Symphony Orchestra and the Interview Concerts. Here now is something of the magical experience which may have made the parents feel like children, too.

January 7: slightly late for a Viennese-style New Year celebration but the 900-seat house was almost full. Some audience were there, maybe enamoured by Riccardo Muti and the traditional VPO January 1 almost a week earlier on TV, others to see popular piano soloist, Varvara Tarasova. January 7 is also the date Russians celebrate their Christmas. Tarasova left this behind to fly in from Moscow and celebrate it here.

After a jolly opening gallop, almost a ‘ho-ho-ho’ opening selected by conductor John Gibbons, and then Johann Strauss II’s Waltz on the subject of three things Gibbons told the audience he reckoned were of considerable interest to Mozart – wine, women and song – he left the stage. Then he walked back on with a Russian princess on his arm.

The five children watched a blonde young woman in a ravishing full-length white dress, with silver tiara and white gloves up to her elbows, make a deep curtsey to the audience and take her seat at the Steinway piano for the Mozart Concerto. “She is piano royalty in waiting.” Here was my Worthing Herald colleague Frank Horsley’s 2016 prediction about Tarasova fulfilled, at least in one dimension.

Amid the ovation as the Concerto ended, a woman darted from the front row to give Tarasova a bouquet – the first time at least this century any audience member has done this (and she also proved to be Russian). An official bouquet was then presented by the Worthing Symphony Society representative and Tarasova curtseyed again and left the stage on Gibbons’ arm.

So to the interval . . . and the children? Ice creams, perhaps. A vital loo check. Then back upstairs. The two parents? Probably taken aback by the glamour and fizz about everything so far. The last of the audience had returned for the second half and just as the children had resettled into their seats, there came a rustle of movement behind them.

They turned, incredulous, to find the Russian Princess arriving to take her own seat for the second half – precisely behind them. And Tarasova smiled, laughed and shared with them the romping of the Can-Can in Offenbach’s Overture, the sparkle of a Bucalossi Waltz, the crash-bang-wallop of the Thunder & Lightning Polka, the sounds of nature in the Vienna Woods Waltz, the dreamy romance of the Blue Danube Waltz, and the audience handclapping during the Radetzky March and its encore reprise.

Five quid well-spent, or what?

The Lanner, Bucalossi and Offenbach were excellent pepperings to the Strauss family content. But the stand-out item was the Mozart because of its greatness and newness, therefore freshness, to almost everyone. That included the conductor and many of the London-based WSO – notably both clarinettists (Alan Andrews and Alice Eddie) to whom Mozart bestows pride of place on their first appearance in his 27 Piano Concertos.

Gibbons introduces the WSO audience to plenty of unfamiliar music from unfamiliar composers. But this was prime-composer music scarcely heard outside London, never before in Worthing. In four months Gibbons has premiered in Worthing two of Mozart’s greatest run of three Piano Concertos – this No 22, following No 24 in October.

Horns Dave Lee and Jane Hanna doubtless know this K482 because, like No 15, its finale features the horn calls and the cantering metre of a Viennese forest hunt. Two instruments outshine the rest of Mozart’s orchestra and here spotlighted WSO principals Monica McCarron (flute), and Gavin McNaughton (bassoon), formerly of The Academy of St Martin’s In The Fields, and whose track record features playing the Concertos with two world Mozart-interpreting doyens, Murray Perahia (recently) and Alfred Brendel (in his heyday).

In its composition, Mozart is entering his Marriage-of-Figaro magnificence and compositionally is walking on water. The universally revered Haydn has just told Mozart Snr his son is the greatest composer he knows. Now, in this glowing taster to releasing Figaro to the world, Mozart Jnr lays on a feast of four winds, horns and trumpets, drums and strings, plus the liberating birdsong of the flute.

The sound – like no other Mozart concerto – and outpouring of melody is rich as the cream and chocolate in an Austrian emperor’s banquet. Its mood and key foretells Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ Concerto. It is a royal Concerto, dubbed by one writer as possessing the Venus among Mozart concerto first movements. Both these images gained flesh in Taurean Tarasova’s appearance, stage presence and delivery, for she was the star of this show, fully intended by Mozart, as when he played and directed it himself, surrounded by an orchestra of 102 in 1785.

And here in Worthing, it happening – live. Gibbons wanted his WSO to be assertively ceremonial but virile. No wonder the orchestra got excited in the final movement and let the hunting horses run on. By then, Tarasova had been an inspiration to them: the grace, control, poise and dexterity; the deftness, the dance and wit in her touch; her attention to the precious costume jewellery and embroidery detail glorifying in the right-hand piano part. All enhanced and advanced her stature and gave the finale its consummate Mozartian spontaneity, playfulness and immediacy.

In the diversion of the finale’s ineffable wind septet serenade, the decoration option she eschewed significantly in the first movement now floridly embellished her colleagues’ work with a suddenly apposite extravagance and freedom.

The slow movement, one of Mozart’s greatest, arrestingly combines personal with operatic mourning, longing and a pain at last finding balm in the warming new major key before the returning minor brings down a touching fall of the curtain. Tarasova was introspectively expressive, each note an articulate vowel or syllable, sometimes tragically eloquent, floatingly distant, withdrawn, subdued, in a silent corner on an empty opera stage.*

Mozart, in his prolific haste, wrote no surviving cadenzas. Most revelatory about Tarasova as a Mozartian new to us was her decision in the four moments of obligation to reject any cadenzas composed by scholars or composers. Instead, in the true spirit of improvisation and interpretation, she played her own, which in conception, she revealed to me later, took those recorded by venerable Japanese pianist Mitsuko Uchida as their starting point.

Only a small moment in the last one betrayed, for so young a player, any weakness of invention, and it may be that her imagination in this cadenza practice, when she adopts it, will distinguish and embolden her Mozart among her own generation.

Further convincing evidence of her class since she swept the triple honours board in the 2015 Sussex International Piano Competition on her Worthing debut, then played Scriabin’s Concerto with WSO (which led to Frank’s comment) and made her solo Interview Concert appearance.

On April 1, Easter Sunday afternoon at St Paul’s, in an alluringly-programmed Interview Concert, Tarasova will partner the effervescent Polish violinist Kamila Bydlowska in a fascinating pairing of talent.

(And yes, Tarasova did remove her long white gloves, during the orchestral introduction to the Concerto)

Richard Amey

*The Silent Corner and the Empty Stage – thank you, Peter Hammill, for your album title.

Next WSO (note, weekday and time): ‘American Masterpieces’, Friday February 2 (7.30pm, Assembly Hall): Lenny Bernstein’s Candide overture and West Side Story’s Symphonic Dances (in his centenary year), plus George Gershwin’s Piano Concerto (Poom Prommachart, the 2012 Sussex International Piano Competition winner), and William Alwyn’s film suite Penn of Pennsylvania, and Samuel Barber’s atmospheric Essay No 1.

WSO tickets at 01903 206206. Interview Concerts at St Paul’s Cafe or seetickets.com