Worthing Symphony Orchestra, Ian Fountain (piano), Laura Van Der Heijden (cello), John Gibbons (conductor), at Assembly Hall, Saturday, May 26.
WHAT an embarrassment of riches Worthing Symphony Orchestra fans find themselves possessing this season.
It closed on Saturday evening — a deviation from the normal Sunday afternoon slot — with a near-full house, an electrifying pianist already familiar to them in Ian Fountain, a cellist no less than the newly-crowned BBC Young Musician of the Year in Laura Van Der Heijden, and a conductor in John Gibbons who knows when to stand back and let great music speak.
After a clamorous and chaotic overture of film score dimensions by Anthony Collins and William Walton’s imposingly consummate coronation march Crown Imperial, Tchaikovsky hit us with his immense Piano Concerto No 1. Fountain, bespectacled, tall, still with his Winchester Cathedral Choirboy looks despite a thinning crown, gave us genuine maestoso, spirito, semplice and con fuoco.
From the word go, he and Gibbons went for it and some of the tempo were frighteningly fast, meaning sheer adrenaline surging through arms, hands and fingers had Fountain delivering from a precipice and perspiring in the heat of an unseasonally hot May night.
Fountain smiled as he listened to the quieter interludes while resting. Then both men saved the fastest for the end of the finale, by which time he had already genuinely caught fire, following the bliss of the flute-led melodiousness of the slow movement.
If ‘fountain’ means explosive beauty and shape with water, this was the genuine article and his solo performance goes down as one of the most exciting in modern WSO history. Ian Fountain has been here before with such contrasting concerti as Brahms’ No 1 and Mozart’s 24th.
And it’s no surprise to hear that he will be directing as well as soloing with Chichester Pro Camerata in a Chichester Festivities 2012 concert on June 27. It’s at Chichester University Chapel with Bruckner’s String Quintet Adagio, Mozart’s 12th Piano Concerto and Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings. No woodwind or horns in this concert.
Despite the blowing and hitting WSO members going shirt-sleeved, tympanist Robert “Troyte” Millet sporting red braces, the strings stayed in jackets and the interval arrived with drinks calling and two open-flung side doors having brought little or no relief.
Then we met Laura Van Der Heijden in Bruch’s Kol Nidrei, for Cello and Orchestra. Booked long before her BBC triumph, she had been tipped to Gibbons by Hove music man Tony Purkiss as potentially a Forest Row-based heir to Jacqueline du Pré. Immediately, her big sound hit us (could Perkiss be right?) and a musician ship subliminally beyond her 15 years was evident as she gave us a first professional performance of stunning accomplishment and authority.
This was surely enough for one night. But Gibbons and the WSO had their own crowning of the Jubilee celebrations still to come. Elgar’s Enigma Variations.
Gibbons’ empathy with the Worcestershire King of British Orchestration extends to he and the composer’s shared passion (and sorrow) for Wolverhampton Wanderers Football Club. Gibbons, in introducing the work claimed the latest and, to him, most convincing explanation of the underlying Enigma theme Elgar cunningly says runs through the work.
The tune for the Variations begins to the vocal rhythm of “Wol-ver-hamp-ton”. In his programme notes, Gibbons’ equally plausible theory points out “Ed-ward El-gar”.
We’ve heard Gibbons and WSO doing Enigma before. It’s already a tours de force for this band. Gibbons wisely tries nothing clever or beyond the already rich imagination or observation of Elgar himself, whose notes and directions place glory on a plate to an orchestra good enough to carry them out. The WSO are more than good enough and in partnership with Gibbons, glory was completely theirs.
Next season brings Nicola Benedetti in Bruch (before she plays it at The Proms), Laura Van Heijden in Dvorak, John Inverdale in Prokofiev, Jessica Wei Zhu in Schumann, Arta Arnicane in Dohnanyi. As if these aren’t riches and favourites enough, into the mix, too, comes a first: the great operatic bass and WSO supporter, Sir John Tomlinson as Wotan in a scene from Wagner’s Ring.
Toast Mr Gibbons, all ye, around your gardens and tables this summer — and realise that we are now surely, despite the recession double dip, in a golden age of WSO programming.
By Richard Amey