REVIEW: Valentine’s Concert – Worthing Symphony Orchestra

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John Gibbons (conductor), Olga Paliy (piano) at The Assembly Hall, Sunday February 12.

Mozart, ‘Haffner’ Symphony No 35 in D, K385; Mendelssohn, Piano Concerto No 1 in Gm, Op25; Saint-Saens, Wedding Cake Caprice-Valse, Op76; Beethoven, Symphony No 2 in D Op36.

The full, gauzy red-black dress with the neckline corsage, the beaming smile, the long girl-next-door hair, the chummy portraits on her profile page in the concert magazine, the Audience Prize she won for being the most popular finalist here in the 2013 Sussex International Piano Concerto (SIPC). But don’t be deceived by Olga Paliy. She’s a musical toughie.

The Ukrainian from East London came to morning rehearsal with two new pieces, yet both already so embedded in her memory that between the run-through and the performance, far from swotting up just to make sure, she was breezing around the building and snacking with her sister and niece, plus her mother over from their home town of Chernigov.

She gave her performances then revealed that her concerts back on her annual return to Kiev’s concert halls this summer will probably include Tchaikovsky’s 2nd Piano Concerto and the Ravel Concerto for the Left Hand. Both, like the Brahms 2nd she brought to the SIPC Final, are weighty loads. In the un-PC past, people might have suggested she leave such heavy lifting to the men. Paliy can handle the pallets, thank you.

Facing her in the first half on Sunday was Mendelssohn’s ‘Leipzig Inter-City 125 express train’ Concerto and something had put her in the perfect mood to play it. “I came to rehearsal,” she told me, “and when I was shown to the backroom warm-up piano, what did I find? The piano was a Cherny – in other words, made in Cernigov! Amazing! It was terribly out of tune but who cares?”

“I love the audience here, it’s really like a second home.” Heard that one before? Correct. Nicola Benedetti has said the same – furthermore, unlike Paily, without even having experienced the trademark warm local hospitality hosting homes of the SIPC, or the intimate, relaxing welcome of a Worthing Symphony Society Interview Concert. Perhaps in the fullness of time, these special young women will think about retiring to Worthing . . .

At breakneck speed, Paliy’s sea-spray virtuosity made Mendelssohn’s white-knuckle-ride outer movements cascade, tear, race and charge, with hints of scampering across hot coals in the first, and again in the third, but this time with a couple of interpretational pauses for breath - although barely lasting a second. The cross-accents in the tune were exhilarating and of course the double octaves. At the end of the first movement, her masterly use of the pedal made the transition into the second movement like a magical slide into a completely different heat-hazed world.

Amid it all, what strikes you is Paliy’s lack of self-indulgence or introspection as a soloist – nor exhibitionism. Just the same as in her Brahms performance three years ago, she is intent on being a team member, with frequent looks up towards her conductor John Gibbons. The more you put in the more you get out in music-making and she said, “I always find this so natural and easy with John.”

Gibbons asked her also to play a rarity by Saint-Saens, the 7-minute Wedding Cake Caprice-Valse, the story behind which he ensured we knew first, so we could listen out for the caricatures this Frenchman so skilfully sketches in some of his works. Paliy and the WSO had us playing at flies on the wall at the wedding reception, with the tipsy talk and totterings of amusing guests striving still to move in straight lines - all the images right there in Saint-Saens’ notes.

This concerts’ book-ending symphonies took us on a revisit to the Viennese classics, which sometimes test the WSO strings. A Mozart Symphony is a WSO rarity, so they had to be on top of their ensemble game from the off in the Haffner. The alertly elegant outlining of their Andante by Julian Leaper’s 1st violins was particularly attractive and evocative.

The horns, always crucial to success in orchestral Mozart, had this training run in preparation for the four tough laps waiting for them in Beethoven’s Second Symphony. With often so little time to ‘water out’ Richard Steggle and Jane Hanna were at full concentration and execution stretch, which only increased the exciting tensions as Gibbons steered the Symphony on.

I felt this performance could have flared up even more thrillingly at times, given a notch deeper in contrasting dynamic range at the quiet end. But there was still no doubting Gibbons’ sense of architectural shape and forward conviction. Weighting-wise, his relaxed slow movement seemed particularly fine, and the three quick movements thrived on the benefits of Robert Millet’s never overstated power on the timpani drums.

Gibbons informed us we have a composer in our midst. In the 2nd violins, second desk, is Philip Sawyers, whose own new 3rd Symphony comes up in London soon, at St John’s Smith Square. Speaking to co-leader of the cellos, Miriam Lowbury, I learned she guests regularly with BBC Concert Orchestra and is a member of English National Opera Orchestra at the London Coliseum. Such is the typical calibre of WSO players.

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