REVIEW: Rossini, Vaughan Williams, Dvorak – Worthing Symphony Orchestra, Laura Van Der Heijden (cello), John Gibbons (conductor) at Worthing Assembly Hall.

ALL transpired into serenity in the Worthing Symphony Orchestra’s final concert ahead of the 2nd Sussex International Piano Competition at their Assembly Hall home next month.

Once the orchestra had scrambled their way though Rossini’s Semiramide Overture, with moments of humour crossed with tense building up in preparation for the troubled operatic scenario that’s to follow, the distresses in Vaughan Williams’ Fifth Symphony and the passionate stirrings in Dvorak’s Cello Concerto could not change the underlying current and overall effect of near-stillness in the music made.

The WSO were distinctly sleepy as Semiramide set out on its 12-minute course. Then, as though having rejected Rossini’s occasional smelling salts, the WSO brought forth a Vaughan Williams ‘Five’ somewhat flaccid architecturally in its opening two movements, but once again casting its heavenly aural and spiritual spell in the second two, where conductor John Gibbons tellingly punctuated the final closures to achieve effects of apparent profundity I’d not experienced before.

Then 16-year-old cello soloist Laura Van Der Heijden stayed steadfastly composed and intensely lyrical throughout the Dvorak Concerto, sometimes appearing to reject the orchestra’s subtle attempts to quicken the pulse. Nearly all the sensitive moments are given by Dvorak to the cello and the exhuberant Bohemian-in America outbursts to the fully-staffed orchestra, and it takes powerful cello projection to come through in the music lying between those extremes.

Van Der Heijden received an enthusiastic audience reception after the composer had whipped everyone out of his sad reverie for his lost early love and into the work’s whooping fanfare of triumph.

The second half had begun with an intermezzo from a work from 1937 but only recently discovered among some papers. The composer, long deceased, was James C. White, and he wrote his Chimes of Sunset while first violinist of the Worthing Symphony Orchestra those 75 years ago.

It was a Christmassy, four-square tune, formally cheerful as though a school’s own traditional end-of term song, with a two contrasting episodes and its home verses coloured at the beginning and end by the glockenspiel of WSO percussionist Chris Blundell.

In case you wondered about Monica McCarron’s flute, it is, she told me, real gold – as are several of the flutes of her friend and half-compatriot, Irishman James Galway.

Looking back on the concert one is left with the principal impression of a WSO under Gibbons, a leading campaigner for British music, exploring and wanting to immerse themselves in the Fifth Symphony’s mystical and pastoral atmosphere and its questings and strivings towards its celestial destiny. It doesn’t so much battle with its obstacles, as rise and stretch across and past the ravines and the temptations of its journey.

The wispy understatement of its Scherzo were noticeable and the nobility of purpose in its Passacaglia Finale. To place it before the interval, another assured programming chessboard move by grandmaster Gibbons, gave the audience the chance to travel with the WSO, their attention undistracted by the digestion of interval drinks, nibbles and ice creams.

The result was another fulfilling concert experience of a quality and consistency, concert by concert, unmatched anywhere in the county. The 2nd International Sussex Piano Competition can have no better allies and companions than the WSO and Gibbons when the three in the Grand Final of Concertos on April 14 (2.45pm) present and deliver their talent, musicianship and artistry to the official jury and the willing judges of what should be a large Worthing audience.

After that, on May 25 (NB: 7.30pm), the season ends in sheer and ravishing glory. Smetana’s musical passage of his own national river, the Vltava, from Ma Vlast, will presage Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony. Which lucky WSO musician will be playing the wonderful extended clarinet part in the slow movement?

And there’s a truly special extra treasure on the menu. Royal Opera House head of music, David Syrus, has arranged a scena from Wagner’s Ring cycle for a Sussex resident Wagnerian, world renowned from Bayreuth outwards, and a staunch fan of the WSO itself. None other than Sir John Tomlinson himself. Wotan, at last, may be heard stalking the Assembly Hall stage.

Richard Amey