REVIEW: Worthing Symphony Orchestra

Picture by Andrew Mardell: Yi-Yang Chen in rehearsal with WSO.
Picture by Andrew Mardell: Yi-Yang Chen in rehearsal with WSO.

Review by Richard Amey

‘Tales From The Arabian Nights’ concert – Worthing Symphony Orchestra, conductor John Gibbons, Yi-Yang Chen (piano). Assembly Hall, Sunday May 5 (2.45pm). Dvorak, Carnival Overture; Saint-Saens, Piano Concerto No 5 in F ‘Egyptian’ Op103; Rimsky-Korsakov, Scheherezade (leader/solo violin, Robert Atchison).

House chef John Gibbons laid a new concerto dish onto the WSO menu which left a taste to last the summer. And Yi-Yang Chen playing Saint-Saens’s 5th was a double-barrelled whammy to resonate until autumn when the next WSO concert explodes over the town with violinist Nicola Benedetti, cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason and his elder sister pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason in the first three concerts.

It’s 12 months since Chen ran away with all three prizes here in the Sussex International Piano Competition (SIPC). Now the Taiwanese from East Tennessee, USA, returned, subjecting himself to that peculiar concert-giver’s pressure of the world being tipped off about and been anticipating this appearance for the best part of a year – whereas five weeks before the performance, he had not even started to learn to play what was billed – Saint-Saens’ infrequently-heard ‘Egyptian’ Concerto.

The almost non-stop notes of the finale he did not begin committing to memory until the last fortnight. Yet with his flair for the unusual and his technical and artistic capacity to deliver, the result was his second conquest of Worthing – to the cheers of an extra-vocally responsive audience.

Few of those who experienced his Beethoven 4th Concerto in the SIPC Final will have heard his two enterprising solo programmes in the midweek daytime competition rounds. So, for most this was not only a first acquaintance with a captivating and colourful piece of music but a revelatory first encounter with the talent which last May unveiled Yi-Yang’s enticing breadth of musical choices and stylistic expertise.

The fascination of this French concerto is the intercontinental flavour and personality of the soloist’s piano part, which interests and engages the orchestra. The Paris Exhibition brought westwards eastern musical instruments which inquisitive composers went away to imitate. Saint-Saens was among them, late in a long career which began in the romantic 19th Century musical era and, dying in 1921, outlived Claude Debussy, the man who began music’s tonal and colourist emancipation which Saint-Saens seizes upon here.

Saint-Saens takes us on his own suave Nile cruise, complete with the sound of the boat engines, and the scenes and sounds the composer sees, hears, and points out to his listening passengers. Not a dream but the fruits of being an actual trip he made, when his table napkins inevitably became his notepad, recording first-hand the musical notes played or sung on water or land as the boat drifted past.

The eastern instruments uppermost in mind, Saint-Saens’ piano part is by turns percussive and descriptive, representative and evocative. And he serves it on an orchestral bed of leaves, less concerto-conventional, more deliberately echoing the Nile atmosphere on a craft happily free of murder, mystery or novel intrigue.

Chen’s musical and emotional intelligence, dexterity and virtuosity brought it all off, sometimes with eye-catching hand techniques beyond those needed for Beethoven’s 4th, and culminating in closing pages Chen confirmed to me are as difficult at Tchaikovsky’s barnstorming 1st. Chen rewarded the audience reception with an encore. After a long sequence of WSO concerts without one from its soloist, this followed Arta Arnicane’s in April: two successive encores from two SIPC winners arriving like a pair of London buses.

Marvellously cosmopolitan, Chen chose Caribbean composer Wim Muller’s Nostalgic Waltz, the effect as though a tender recollection of a night of moonlit dance on the Nile.

This season-closing concert began with the WSO in immediate festive mood – Dvorak’s no-costumes-spared Carnival Overture – and ended with the overtly sustained beguilement of Rimsky’s Scheherezade.

The orchestra’s own soloists voiced their spring farewell. In their seductive element were Ian Scott (clarinet), Chris O’Neal (oboe) and Monica McClarnon with Claire Jefferis (flutes), plus – perhaps most deserving of mention – Simon Chiswell, the No 2 deputising Gavin McNaughton’s chair as the scene-setting principal bassoon. But the horns, trombones, tuba and trumpets rose to their stylistic challenges, too.

I wish I’d been less underwhelmed by **guest leader Robert Atchison in the solo violin role of Scheherezade herself: the next princess-bride in line, doomed to morning-after execution, but who time, after time, after time, stays it (or cheats it?), thanks to her grace, guile and guts.

Here, she seemed under-characterised. She may well have hidden her nerves and fears with bluff. She may have been the land’s most accomplished actress. But, still breathing beyond her 20th Arabian tale, might she not have grown in confidence and resultant outward beauty, in becoming the true anti-patriarchal heroine who achieves and deserves culminating peace and triumph on the 1,001st night? I got little sense of journey or growth.

Rimsky’ scenario plan sets an artistic challenge. Listeners await the violinist’s own portrayal. It may reveal if the player is a reader, an opera fan, a theatre-goer, an attender of poetry readings, or is just content to play the notes.

Whatever they felt, the Assembly Hall at the end loudly and justly saluted the orchestra as a whole. And of course its Scheherezade-like conductor, Gibbons, whose shrewd and deceptively brave programming over the years is guiding WSO to artistic expansion and survival instead of play-safe predictability, anonymity and maybe extinction or collapse in this perilous world for provincial classical orchestras. His audience, Scheherezade’s sultan executioner, after Gibbons’ 21 WSO years (or however many nights and tales that is) now trust and admire him.

Notwithstanding the football club he adores.

Richard Amey

**WSO leader Julian Leaper’s string quartet, the Maggini, were performing in North Wales.

Next season’s concerts: http://www.worthingsymphony.co.uk/upcoming_concerts

Ticket prices (not displayed yet anywhere online): Balcony £32 (season £192, saving £64), Premium stalls £27 (season £162, saving £54), Standard Stalls £19 (season £114, saving £38), single ticket for Wheelchair user & escort £19 (season £114), 18s-25s £6 per concert; Student/U18s £1 per concert.

Available by phone 01903 206206, in person at Connaught Theatre (Mon-Sat 9.30am – 8.30pm), online at www.worthingtheatres.co.uk

Season tickets were on prolific sale during the interval at the above concert.

Next International Interview Concert at St Paul’s is on Sunday, July 7 (3.30pm doors, 4pm start): ‘Images in Sound’. Great Russian solo piano music in top performance with three painters painting simultaneously. Pianists: Anna Bulkina (Russia), Francesco Comito (Italy), painters to be announced, all five interviewed. Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition; Rachmaninov, Etudes Tableaux Op39 (trans. ‘picture studies’). Which pianist plays which work: to be revealed on the day.

Tickets: buy in person at St Paul’s cafe counter or at seetickets.com

Tickets go on sale at a date to be announced in May or June: see https://www.facebook.com/TheInterviewConcerts/posts/

or join information emailing list at interviewconcerts@gmail.com