Jess Gillam (saxophone), Anna Szalucka (piano), John Gibbons (conductor) at Assembly Hall, Sunday May 7 2017 (2.45pm).
John Williams, Star Wars Suite (Main Title; Princess Leia’s Theme; The Imperial March, Darth Vader’s Theme; Yoda’s Theme; Throne Room and End Title); Arnold Bax, Morning Song – Maytime in Sussex; Williams, Escapades from ‘Catch me If You Can’ (Closing In, Reflections, Joy Ride); Malcolm Arnold, A Sussex Overture; Richard Addinsell (orch. Roy Douglas), Warsaw Concerto; Doreen Carwithen, Bishop Rock Overture; Tchaikovsky, 1812 Festival Overture.
Two musical phenomena combined forces to thrust Worthing Symphony Orchestra through the final furlong of its 90th Season. The WSO itself and the 18-year-old Cumbrian saxophonist Jess Gillam came with their own uniqueness to pour the musical champagne and pianist Anna Szalucka added Polish punch to deliver a concert that hit deeper on the visceral Richter Scale than any I have experienced by WSO.
You needed six-pack to withstand the physical onslaught of the Star Wars Suite from an orchestra whose entire brass section has in at least one previous concert comprised that which originally recorded the very film score in London. Then at the winning post there waited the power and imperial extravagance of 1812 Festival Overture which I do not recall the WSO playing before.
The Star Wars Suite’s irrefutable musical substance makes it a thoroughly legitimate classical concert item and anyone disputing that, after the opening barrage of cross-rhythms, just needs to spot the overt reference to Holst’s Mars, from his Planets Suite, and then note and appreciate where the music travels and takes the listener after that. The WSO, nearly all of them London musicians, are just as much on home territory in this as in standard symphony concert, grand opera, West End musical or recording studio music.
There can’t be a more versatile or capable full orchestra in southern England outside London. One was left wondering if there is anything orchestral they and artistic director John Gibbons cannot play, each almost at the drop of a hat?
When BBC Young Musician finalist Gillam came on stage with her alto sax to play Williams’ Escapades score the gulping amazement of the Star Wars music experience presented became gasps of astonishment and sheer delight. Sprightly slim in a sheer black top, pencil mini-skirt in black grey and silver horizontal stripes, black tights, light grey flat lace-up shoes, long light-brown hair and horn-rimmed specs, she took us further into the all-embracing musical world of Gibbons’ WSO.
In ostensibly a small sax concerto in three movements with its 1960s progressive jazz fidgeting fizz, humour and rhythmical excitement, the WSO hit their own virtuoso heights alongside hers in spot-on synchronisation, with Richard Watson (principal bass), Chris Blundell (vibraphone) and Matt Turner (glockenspiel) grabbing extra plaudits for their forward roles. Blundell and Turner don’t just bash drum skins or cymbal metals for a living. Their tuned percussion parts here, Blundell told me, were hair-raising stuff to play – done in effect, he smiled, as on a piano with just two fingers.
Gillam will return in April to play with this ‘Gibbons WSO’ which continually renews and expands the enriched world it creates for its listeners. Between these two Williams tours de force, Gibbons slipped Arnold Bax’s now rarely-heard Maytime in Sussex of 1948, written for our Queen’s 21st birthday, when a princess. Bax lived latterly at Storrington and so this was Sussex music of Springtime, happy, relaxed, multi-coloured, sometimes as delicate as you’ll ever hear Bax, with Szalucka, 25, having learned the featured piano part for this very day’s sunny purpose.
After the interval, the WSO cameras switched to Brighton’s laughter, slapstick, traffic, rough, tumble and the power of the waves, in Malcolm Arnold’s flying seaweed and Max Miller music hall Sussex Overture of 1951.
Szalucka starred with characteristic power, passion and commitment in the deliberately overblown romanticism of Richard Addinsell’s Warsaw Concerto for the film Dangerous Moonlight. Addinsell is synonymous with the Warsaw Concerto but Roy Douglas was its unsung orchestrator, as he was for a lot of Vaughan Williams (VW: ‘Let me introduce you to Mr Douglas - the man who writes my music for me”).
I wonder this: Douglas out-Rachmaninov-ed the Russian composer himself so assuredly and made The Warsaw Concerto universally popular, but to the horror of the stiff upper-lipped, dictatorially modernist British musical establishment of the 1960s and 70s. So did Douglas singlehandedly create the millstone of stuck-up, anti-romantic taste the Russian composer’s music took another 30 years to shake off?
Next came a stirring Overture, Bishop Rock, composed by Doreen Carwithen with that diminutive Scilly Isle in mind. It deftly switched the ear away from salty-tear emotion to salt-spray sea and land pictures, before the cannon, mortar and cathedral bells effects joined the WSO instruments in the effortlessly cinematic 1812 Overture.
After the then Russian national anthem on six cellos, the WSO marched, swaggered and galloped away to the winning post. No refusals, no falls at the final fence, no unseating of rider. Gibbons, exultantly after another triumphant season artistically and musically, took the Napoleonic liberty of adding a final firework-display ‘boom’ to crown Tchaikovsky’s last chord.
Tchaikovsky did not write it, but after such an explosive start from Williams, the concert required a matching bookend. Gibbons grinned widely.
Nicola Benedetti’s appearance on July 10 (7.30pm) with WSO to play Shostakovich’s 1st Violin Concerto means an early start for the season 2017-18. Season tickets bring two of the eight concerts free of charge. Gibbons pointed out that if you have to miss one or two, tickets are transferable to friends. As well as Gillam starring (in a Barabara Thompson piece) so is the boy who beat her to the BBC Young Musician title, cellist Sheku Hanneh-Mason – playing the Elgar concerto.
The concert dates (2.45pm unless stated) are July 10, October 1, November 5, January 7, February 2 (7.30), March 4, April 8 and May 13 (the Sussex International Piano Competition Final). Look out for Idil Biret (piano) playing Mozart in C minor, Craig Ogden (guitar) in favourite Rodrigo, and the return of Poom Prommachart (piano) in a concert marking Bernstein’s centenary.
Elgar lived and composed near Fittleworth (Cello Concerto, Violin Sonata, String Quartet, Piano Quintet). ‘Elgar In Sussex: A Village Weekend of Chamber Music’, with also a talk, a walk and an evensong, from June 2-4 in Fittleworth, Petworth, Bedham, and Stopham, sounds irresistible.