The Elegance of The Baroque

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The Elegance of The Baroque – Worthing Symphony Orchestra, Graham Mayger (flute), Anthony Hewitt (piano), John Gibbons (conductor), at Assembly Hall, Sunday March 9, 2014

Who said an instrumental Baroque concert of Bach, Gluck, Handel, and Boyce would be all serious? Plenty of dance music there is, and some jollity, but although little discernable humour was on the cards, we nevertheless got that after JS Bach’s familiar Badiniere concluded both his Suite No 2 in B minor and the concert.

Soloists are useful people. Like the orchestra itself, they may not speak but they pierce the uniform sight of many bodies playing instruments while staring at written music. And this time a flautist, Graham Mayger, actually broke ice. Bach asks him to play with little break all through seven successive Suite movements and that spells danger for a wind player. It’s a lot of breath, and therefore a lot of saliva that needs an outlet.

But like when a roof leaks, moisture finds its way into unwanted and inaccessible corners of wind instruments and Mayger realised it was sending one of his notes out of tune. He needed twice to extend the pause between movements to wipe and blow the water away, and after taking his final bow he passed WSO leader Julian Leaper and, rather like Parsifal splitting his hunting bow over his thigh in repentance at having killed a swan, Mayger mimed the summary destruction of his flute.

It was a very funny gesture, made in submission to the trials and tribulations of wind playing, of which pianists or violinists are spared. Mayger was not done with his mock fury. Double bassist and Worthing Symphony Society chairman Edwin Hurcombe came across stage to present a gift package. Male soloists receive wine and no kiss, females flowers and double the opposite. Mayger accepted the bottle, handed Hurcombe his flute in exchange, and left the platform.

His flute is silver and may appear on eBay this week.

We would have been listening to a gold flute but for Monica McCarron, the WSO principal programmed to have played, sustaining a thumb injury that had John Gibbons SOS-ing her predecessor. Mayger, who after college got the job of piccolo and 3rd flute in the BBC Symphony Orchestra while James Galway was principal, spent a short period studying under Jean Pierre Rampal, the influential French flautist who in recordings helped open up the Baroque flute repertoire.

In this Bach Suite and Gluck’s Dance of the Blessed Spirits from Orfeo, Mayger showed his carefully shaded tone and his fondness for the music. Principal oboe Chris O’Neal, also joint principal with the London Mozart Players, shared some fond colouring in the Gluck and then featured alone in William Boyce’s 4th Symphony. These were the only non-string orchestral players the concert required.

Gibbons directed while playing harpsichord continuo, hiding behind the Steinway,and pianist Anthony Hewitt twice took the stage to create heightened interest. Many of us now prefer our Baroque on period instruments for authentic sound and WSO are instead a modern instruments band. But now to hear Bach’s D minor Keyboard Concerto on the piano revealed rewarding sound detail that in live concert hall performance on a hugely weaker harpsichord or clavichord might be obscured by, or battling against, the weight of the orchestra.

The inventive and capricious finale clinched Hewitt’s dextrous success in this. Before the interval he had been a conspirator as Gibbons (chairman of the British Music Society) smuggled into the proceedings Malcolm Arnold’s 2nd Piano Concerto of 1960. Energetic, spirited, busy, witty, almost humorous, perhaps more Concertino in scale rather than Concerto, it and Hewitt won over any frowning Baroque doormen, despite its nods more to Gershwin and Shostakovich than to Handel or Scarlatti.

The audience were greeted by an orchestra of 15 ‘chosen few’ strings and two winds on a stage decorated with seven semicircular, rainbow-coloured fans that might have been Aztec headdresses from a Paris Opera production of Rameau’s Les Indes Galantes. In something that came as a shock, the strings had an uncharacteristic wobble in a remote-key region latterly in the opening movement of Bach’s 3rd Brandenburg Concerto, which the WSO played with the violins and violas standing up (or as BBC Radio 3 steadfastly and primly now always puts it: ‘brought to their feet’).

Perhaps following rehearsal protest from the five women on considerably high heels, they all sat for the rest of a concert notable also because Gibbons introduced us to the least heard, least exuberant, perhaps most sensuous of Handel’s three suites of Water Music.

Gibbons told us his theory was that this No 3, in G minor, was tailored to when the Royal Barge put in to a side jetty for a welcome break from keeping up ceremonial appearances. There were no giveaway bucolic signs in the music. Handel was keeping strict counsel.

Richard Amey

Next concerts

WSO, 6th March at Assembly Hall, 2.45pm: Classic British Film Scores (soloists on violin, Wurlitzer organ and harmonica).

Worthing Symphony Society Interview Concert, 9th May at The Denton, 6.45pm: Rabiga Dyussembayeva (2nd in the 2013 Sussex International Piano Competition) plays Schumann, Liszt, Scryabin, Medtner, and talks with Timothy J. Chick.

WSO, 25th May at Assembly Hall, 2.45pm: Nicola Benedetti (violin), Leonard Elschenbroich (cello) and Alexei Grynyuk (piano) play Beethoven’s great Triple Concerto.