Wow factor for Worthing Symphony Orchestra - review

Arta Arnicane
Arta Arnicane

REVIEW BY Richard Amey

Worthing Symphony Orchestra concert – ‘Best of British’ with Arta Arnicane (Latvia, piano), John Gibbons (Hampshire, conductor) at The Assembly Hall, Sunday, April 7 (2.45pm).

Sir Hubert Parry (Hants), Jerusalem (1916 version, no choir); Sir Edward Elgar (Worcs), Elegy for Strings Op58; Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (Dublin) edited Gibbons, Symphony No 6 in Eb major ‘In honour of the life-work if a great artist: George Frederick Watts’ Op94; Frederick Delius (Yorks), The Walk to The Paradise Garden; Elgar, Salut D’Amour Op12; Edvard Grieg (Bergen, Norway), Piano Concert in A minor Op16.

“W” is for Worthing, Worthing Symphony Orchestra, and the common exclamation ‘Wow’. They often go together. This concert was a vibrant double triumph. Both victories deserve equal billing. First, the one least expected – the first live performance of Stanford’s 6th Symphony for 100 years.

John Gibbons convinced Newcastle University to release the closely-guarded sole score and parts for he and five colleagues at Northampton Symphony Orchestra to prepare. He explained the music’s genesis, intentions and character to the audience from the rostrum, as is his self-popularised concert-giving method, drawing the listeners into the excitement of the occasion. Then the music made its own direct impact to the huge enjoyment of all present.

WSO timpanist Robert Millett told me how the orchestra’s sole rehearsal that morning of music previously unseen meant the performance was only their second play-through. But this is a London-peopled professional orchestra and such challenges are their speciality.

The music is an easy listening encounter, rhythmically and melodically open and transparent, with detail awaiting exploration on second hearing. It’s in late Romantic European style but here seems the work’s special advantage: it’s by a musical Irishman. Can you remember a winning Irish song in the Eurovision Song Contest’s heyday that everyone on the British mainland did not instantly grasp and enjoy?

Yet again, Gibbons stole a march on his Sussex orchestral rivals. He had heard on his car radio one of only two existing recordings and spotted a winner. Maybe, given financial investment from somewhere, he could record this his own edited version of Stanford Six with WSO and stand it alongside the yardstick 1981 one by Vernon Handley with the Ulster Orchestra.

The second triumph was jointly Gibbons’ unconventional placing of the Grieg Concerto last of the afternoon (not something that would happen in an opposing camp), and the soloist’s artistry and popularity.

The Concerto’s tuneful strength, schematic magic and its both spontaneous and accumulative power meant its elated audience took their elation home instead of into the interval to be diluted by afternoon tea. The audience soon showed relish for the performance with applause after the first movement’s emphatic close.

But added to this programming quiver came an artiste’s trump card. Recalled onstage a third time – rare at WSO concerts these days – the soloist gave them an encore. Not a reflective ‘calm down, now, everyone, here’s something exquisite’ encore to deflate all the billowing sails in the name of sensitivity and contrast. No, Arta Arnicane has a sharper brain and artistic entertainment vision than that.

She sat down at the keyboard with yet another smile. And held down a double octave, with a grin to the crowd that said, ‘Aha, you don’t know what’s coming next, do you?” That impish presaged the music. The first tiptoe notes of Grieg’s own piano version from his Peer Gynt Suite of ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’ brought the tickled sounds of audience recognition. Grieg’s gradual acceleration and crescendo did the rest. Feelgood-factor endorphins filled the hall.

Arnicane, sparkling black full-length dress, perky head movements, endlessly long flowing arms, complete empathy for the score, imagination harnessed yet running free, she gave her Worthing fans existing or instantaneous a Grieg Concerto to remember. Power, tenderness, dancing fun, virtuosic security, strength and affection – none derived, all her own.

From the moment she took command of the semi-finals during her Sussex International Piano Competition victory here nine years ago, Arta Arnicane has been reiterating how special and connective she is. Sussex concert-goers love their Nicola Benedetti and Jess Gillam at Worthing. Both in media celebrity and unbound by the piano stool yet Arnicane, in terms of stage presence and gifts to the audience, now seems alongside them.

She said afterwards: “I have always felt welcome at Worthing but this was truly special. I must say that playing it was probably the [my] most enjoyable experience [of playing this concerto]. If the atmosphere is appreciative and positive, you can’t imagine how much it helps to feel free and open up musically. I wish to thank WSO and the Worthing audience from all my heart for this wonderful energy and inspiration at the Assembly Hall! But most of all I’d like to thank John Gibbons.”

It will probably be Worthing’s International Interview Concert audience who host Arnicane’s next Worthing visit. To read the full interview, go to interviewconcerts@gmail.com requesting AAI on the subject line.

Gibbons’ Elgar-conducting pedigree ensured that the composer’s love and grief at losing his career mentor from Novello’s publishers, A.J. Jaeger (aka ‘Nimrod’) rang poignantly true in his Elegy, and then allowed hearts to be warmed yet again by Elgar’s Love’s Greeting (Salut D’Amour) to his future wife Caroline Roberts. Alas, love-struck, the suitor naively signed away his royalty rights.

And hearing Gibbons’ and WSO’s Paradise Garden Walk in fullest dynamic range, after a hesitant rhythmical vagueness in the opening bars, was a Delius treat.

“W” is also for Wolverhampton Wanderers, the football team of Gibbons and Elgar.

Those who predicted Gibbons would mention his Wolves from the podium as soon as the fifth minute of the concert were correct. Straight after Parry’s arrestingly compact non-tickertape wartime orchestration of his own Jerusalem (which Elgar’s version colours and flags up at The Last Night of the Proms), we were informed the FA Cup semi-final of Wolves v Watford was set to start at Wembley roughly during the concert’s interval.

Later, the concert over, crowd happily heading home, Gibbons in the foyer tuned into the written live blow-by-blow internet report. He looked more gripped and grave than at any moment on the podium. “It’s 2-1 to Wolves with only minutes left . . . Penalty to Wolves”. Gibbons’ tension screwed up another notch. Could they grab the clincher? A minute later: “No . . . they got it wrong! . . . It’s penalty to Watford!” Two more notches up the tension stakes.

The screen remained unaltering. Gibbons now looked on the brink of needing medical attention. Double-bass player Eddie Hurcombe, breezing past the small knot of interested people, thought he’d relieve the tension, declaring: “It’s only football!”

It quite probably cost him his place in the orchestral line up for WSO’s next match on May 5.

Richard Amey

Watford converted the penalty and won 3-2 in extra-time. Gibbons pointed out that Elgar composed the first known football chant. Elgar would be on the Molyneux terraces among the turn-of-the century 60,000 crowds, accompanied sometimes by dancing, stammering Dorabella, (Enigma Variation No 10 – the one after Nimrod), who lived close to the ground.

In her fabulous and precious book ‘Edward Elgar, Memories of a Variation’, written later as Mrs Richard Powell, Dora recalls Elgar setting to music a journalist’s characteristic words ‘he banged the leather for goal’ from a Wolves newspaper match report.

Ba-BA ba bubba ba BAH! Ba-BA ba bubba ba BAH!! Another march. Slip it in the Cockaigne Overture and it’s Wolves fans arriving at Euston.

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Next WSO, May 5:‘Tales from the Arabian Nights’ concert at Assembly Hall (2.45pm), artistic director John Gibbons’ 21st anniversary season closer in celebratory costume and character:

Dvorak, Carnival Overture. Be ready. There’s a boisterous Slavonic Dance waiting to leap out at you straight away. Plenty of town-square festival ardour follows. Then an almosty delirious Dvorak wrap-up.

Saint-Saens, Piano Concerto No 5 ‘Egyptian’, soloist Yi-Yang Chen, the US-based Taiwanese outright winner of the Sussex International Piano Competition last May, after the Grand Final with WSO/Gibbons at the Assembly Hall. His prizes included this WSO Concerto engagement, and his Interview Concert to follow in due course. Scenes and animals painter Saint-Saens goes exotic east.

Rimsky-Korsakov, Scheherezade. The cause of this concert’s title. She stays her execution, night after night after night, by telling engaging bedtime stories with hanging endings – to the sultan, her would-be executioner. And she finally wins. So will WSO.

Rimsky composes his way into orchestral immortality with music so imaginative, so richly attractive – scored arguably better than images a film-maker could depict, and choreographed by Mikhail Fokine for Les Ballets Russes – that humankind can’t help wanting to hear it played. This will be the WSO’s first account of it under Gibbons in his 21 years here. Miss it and regret it. A substantial star violin solo role for leader Julian Leaper. He is Scheherezade herself (without needing to dress up).