Great start to new Worthing Symphony Orchestra season

Isata
Isata

REVIEW BY Richard Amey

Worthing Symphony Orchestra season-opening concert at Assembly Hall, conductor John Gibbons, piano soloist Isata Kanneh-Mason.

Mozart, Don Giovanni Overture; Mendelssohn, Overture ‘The Hebrides’ (Fingal’s Cave); Clara Schumann, Piano Concerto in A minor; Chopin, Andante Spianato and Grand Polonaise in Eb; Beethoven, Symphony No 3 in Eb ‘Eroica’.

Her image is of a pale-eyed, middle-aged woman in dark clothes with Victoria-bunned hair. Her countenance understandably seems on the bleakly burdened side after, history tells us, eight children and widowed by a wonderfully sensitive and expressive husband with later a mental condition and suicide wish neither medicine nor rigid incarceration could cure.

He is Robert Schumann, she Clara. In that order.

The books tell of a Schumann household brimming over with music, her career compromised by family and matrimonial duties while composer-pianist Robert (nine years her elder), visiting violinist-composer Joseph Joachim, and younger pianist-composer Johannes Brahms swarmed feverishly around the piano and the library, creating the most prolific domestic hive of creativity music has known. A honeycomb stuffed with symphonies, songs, concertos, sextets, quintets, quartets, trios, duos, solos, and discarded or burnt sketches.

Clara, a virtuoso in her own right, played in their domestic piano ensembles, giving try-outs and premieres, and her compassionate concern and her compositional advice to Brahms, sometimes stern, sometimes ecstatically overwhelmed, and his unhesitating domestic help to her in Robert’s asylum absence, respectfully bonded he to her and for ever after Robert’s death when she was 37.

Clara had composed before then, as a teenager. Children came – despite which, although she continued to compose, her celebrated touring concert-pianist career made her a family breadwinning mainstay alongside Robert’s prophetic and insightful musical journalism and composition, and both their teaching.

He helped her early Piano Concerto into life with some orchestration and probably that act, adding to centuries-old patriarchal chauvinism in publishing selection, orchestral programming and societal taste, kept that Piano Concerto from the world public eye. Mendelssohn conducted its premier with her at the piano, aged only just 16, but no one championed it successfully afterwards.

We knew it was always there because of the household legend. But did even the 20th Century desire its performance? No. In my 1970 Oxford Companion to Music, Clara is not granted her own biography or assessment. She is mentioned only as his wife in its entry about Robert.

She was born 200 years ago this Friday (13th) and made her Worthing Symphony Orchestra debut with her own Piano Concerto on Sunday (8th).

Not as a pale-skinned, long-sleeved and skirted, plumping Victorian figure in a biopic, but onstage as a slender black 23-year-old in heels, a midnight blue jumpsuit, and flying chest-length multi-colour braided Afro hair.

Not as a past legendary leading female artiste but a star of the future with a Decca album out, entirely of her own works. As Isata Kanneh-Mason, of Nottingham, who made the piece in a cloudy key sparkle and shake, tremble and triumph.

Most of the near-800 audience were trying out the Concerto for the first time, confidently placing their faith in conductor John Gibbons’ selection judgment and in thrall to another emerging member of a famed and similarly teeming creative musical household – the nine-strong Kanneh-Masons. Of that audience, some may have thought they were listening to a Chopin concerto.

There are resemblances. Clara would have known Chopin’s music. Robert knew, played and loved much of Chopin’s music and (born in 1810, Chopin’s birth year) had already begun writing frequently about it when Clara, already giving concerts abroad, was yet only 12 – a year after they met, when Robert started piano lessons with Clara’s father.

Clara’s Concerto probably matches Chopin’s two in form and structure, although she is outgunned in melody. Few are not!

After a serious opening movement, her own original stroke is to cast the lyrical second movement solely for piano and cello – here, the WSO’s warmly empathetic Miriam Lowbury. The initiation this provided Brahms is evident in his own second Piano Concerto. The finale (composed first) dances in then storms away into quasi symphonic regions. Through and into the final straight, ‘ISA-ta’ took control and led the WSO home with not only authority but near-unbridled exhuberance.

Isata had asked Gibbons if, after that, she could play a piece by the 20-year-old Chopin, instead of the orchestral Habanera by Chabrier. Chopin’s solo Andante Spianato and orchestral-accompanied Grand Polonaise continued the mood and Isata’s flair, strength and authentic style poured through to launch, propel and bring it all to fruition.

She chose this for her father, Stuart, whose favourite Chopin this is, since its use in closing the movie ‘The Pianist’. He and her mother, Mariatu, were therein the audience to hear it, plus from London her aunt Rhonda, a former piano teacher.

Gibbons, these days a growing Mozart fan, opened the concert in daring and doomy Don Giovanni land, then in Mendelssohn’s unrivalled tone painting of the wild west Scottish coast we enjoyed the ever gorgeous clarinet duet in dual authenticity – from principal Ian Scott (yes, a Scot) and Alan Andrews (Scott’s saintly No 2).

Beethoven’s Erioca sealed this season opener in ultimate majesty. It was almost an autopilot job for these seasoned London musicians of the WSO and Gibbons gave them their head in a reading that came across not as a detailed, nuanced expose on its greatness but as a single emphatic statement spanning four different movements.

Nicola Benedetti will be here to play the Sibelius Violin Concerto with WSO next Tuesday (16th, 7.30pm) alongside the same composer’s sublime Swan of Tuonela, an extended Carmen Suite of Bizet, Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty Waltz, and William Alwyn’s Third Symphony. This concert is nearly sold out.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason will return here, bringing the Saint-Saens Cello Concerto on Sunday October 20 (2.45). And this concert is now sold out.

Richard Amey

Footnote: it was Isata Kanneh-Mason’s head of piano at the Royal Academy of Music, Joanna McGregor, who probably first brought long braided hair to female classical concert grooming. McGregor this summer, for the third year running as director of the prestigious Dartington Summer School, engaged Anna Szalucka to give more than one concert there. Anna was a 2015 finalist in Worthing’s Sussex International Piano Competition and subsequently won the strong Talinn Competition n Estonia.