John Gibbons (conductor), Kamila Bydlowska (violin) at Assembly Hall
Viennese Celebrations Concert – Worthing Symphony Orchestra, Music (not in playing order): Offenbach, Orpheus in the Underworld Overture. Johann Strauss II, Waltzes: The Voices of Springtime, Roses from the South, Artist’s Life, By the Beautiful Danube; Thunder and Lightning Polka, Perpetuum Mobile scherzo. Johann Strauss I, Radetzky March. Eduard Strauss, Bahn Frei. Josef Lanner, New Year Gallopp. Leon Jessel, Parade of the Tin Soldiers. Henryk Wieniawksi, Violin Concerto No 2 in D minor.
Had British tennis superstar Andy Murray been persuaded to visit his “dull” Worthing, all would have been ready at Sunday’s concert to serve him up his own words to eat. This seaside town cannot excite like a Grand Slam or Davis Cup Final, but following his BBC Sports Personality-winning speech, around the Press coverage, public reaction and general nationwide peering at Worthing, the town’s Symphony Orchestra received several first-response recommendations and honourable mentions.
Murray might have munched on those words, not only with chips on the seafront but in the company of one or two world-conquering music composers in the Assembly Hall. On stage, the 20 WSO men were in their white tuxedo jackets. First horn Dave Lee solely broke dress code, wittingly or otherwise, with a sumptuous bold-patterned shirt, worn outside his waistband as though bedraggled at match point in the fifth set.
The 14 ladies were in their non-Wimbledon colours. There was sapphire, turquoise, more than one strong red, a purple, a metallic blue, a wine; and blonde TV and pop star tour orchestra player Hayley Pomphrett was in a bright above-the-knee pink dress, plus some killer heels maybe chosen with the 6ft 4in Murray in mind.
All this nothing more than you’d normally find the WSO in their New Year concert. (Dull?)
John Gibbons was raising giggle after laugh after occasional cheer, with his regular repartee with the audience. Not only about the music, politics and his Wolverhampton Wanderers, but this time his hope for more WSO bequests in wills, and namedropping his media sporting contacts through which he has invited Murray here – but presumably not to narrate Peter and the Wolf.
Plenty enough to make the audience forget the foul week’s weather outside. But there was more. A piece of WSO history, even. An incident I cannot recall precedented during nearly three decades of covering WSO. Young Polish violin soloist Kamila Bidlowska suffered something a string player dreads. Having gathered up her long black dress, below its glittering top and the sparkly accessories in her long black hair, mounted the stage steps, tuned and composed herself in front of the audience for her compatriot Wieniawksi’s Violin Concerto No 2, just a few minutes into the music one of her violin strings snapped.
There is not much naffer than the feeble sound that makes. Or the sound of an orchestra gradually ceasing to play. “It’s the E string”, Gibbons confided to his audience with a grin, “but it could have been worse: could have been the G . . .” Bydlowska hastened back downstairs to her dressing room for the replacement and rewarming-up process. Violist Liz Lee (who presumably had no say in her husband’s attire) departed ominously through another door, later revealing it was to go to assure and assist Bydlowska.
Andy Murray would have sympathised and admired Kamila. Break a racket string and several others are bagged up ready for immediate action. No need to leave court, or regroup one’s thoughts. Just a few taps to check the tension and the match continues. Not normally the case with violins, so the concert looked set for at least 10 minutes of silence.
The show could go on, though. Gibbons looked at his second-half programme and announced he’d bring forward The Roses from the South: then he looked up to find both his percussionists missing. Unrequired until after the interval they’d disappeared for a break. “They’re probably down the pub,” he advised at the audience. Dave Lee bolted from the stage to go to find them. When did a self-respecting horn player ever blow the chance of having a swift half? (And are the Lees the WSO’s own Search & Rescue crew?)
Moments later, Chris Blunden’s face poked slowly round the upstage door at the people (“Did someone call?”) and he sat down at the side drum and glockenspiel. (“I was in out in the tea room,” he explained later). But no sign of Matt Turner, whose whereabouts at the time remain a matter for speculation. The piece began. Timpanist Rob Millett spotted on his section music part that bass drum and cymbal were required, so silently he changed places, played Turner’s bits and the WSO smelled and admired the Rose of the South.
Bydlowska then bounced back, fully-strung, to present a work few non-Poles in the audience will have known. The first movement contains some of the various effects concert virtuoso Wieniawki was famed for. She was plunged almost straight into these. She gave the second movement its romance, as billed, and the gypsy finale swept Bydlowska to towards her final matchwinning volley. Hers was a special triumph. All stress, practical and musical, seemed to be taken in her stride with a chuckle, a grin and a shrug. She’ll be one of the WSO’s favourite memories.
“Wieniawski got so fat he had to sit down to play concertos,” she laughed afterwards. “Yes, I’ve broken a string once before: in a recital in Sicily. How did I feel about it today? I thought, ‘I just can’t believe this is happening’. Liz came and told me I’d got time, so I was happy about that. Replacing the string, I realised the people would be hearing the beginning for a second time so I was thinking of ways in which I could play it differently. I used an old string as the replacement. A new one would have taken two or three days to become ready to play a concerto.”
It was an ordeal that came with its own comedy. Having breezed through it all, after the interval Gibbons and the WSO sauntered through the remaining seven Viennese items. The longest was The Blue Danube (which, to their unique lasting credit, Procol Harum arranged authentically, in full, and played live as a five-piece rock band in the 1970s) and the last, the Radetzki March (No, not the Greg Rusedsky March!) which Gibbons encored at increased tempo in final triumph.
One new delight Gibbons dug up for the first time, he said, in these New Year WSO concerts: non-Viennese German, Leon Jessel’s 1920s Parade of the Tin Soldiers – which in the end all fall down. Hitler probably didn’t like that, and definitely disliked and punished Jessel for his half-Jewish parentage. But then Hitler hadn’t in mind anything in future like BBC radio’s Children’s Hour, nor it’s Toytown story series the music introduced. Many in the audience delighted at their post-war childhood recalled and, I suspect, would vote for this to become a traditional WSO item.
Next WSO concerts (both Assembly Hall, always John Gibbons)
Friday, January 15 (7.30pm: with Nicola Benedetti (violin): Grieg, Peer Gynt Suite No 1; Tchaikovsky, Symphony No 4; Karol Szymanovsky Violin Concerto No 2. An intriguing second Polish concerto in consecutive WSO concerts. Benedetti won BBC Young Musician of the Year playing No 1. Many-mooded Tchaikovsky and multi-scened Grieg.
Sunday, February 14 (2.45pm with Leonard Elschenbroich (cello): Mendelssohn, A Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture; Elgar, Salut D’Amour; Walton, Cello Concerto; Puccini, Intermezzo from Manon Lescaut; Carwithen, Overture ODTAA; Stravinsky, Firebird Ballet Suite. A second young world-class soloist in consecutive WSO concerts. Three British pieces, Mendelssohn’s miraculous classic, something from steamy Manon, and Stravinsky’s own selection from his kaleidoscopic and fantastic Firebird music.
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