CAN the world of Worthing Symphony Orchestra concert-going get any richer or more exciting than this entire concert? We already have the international-class music space of the Assembly Hall, a commensurate orchestra that repeatedly delivers under its congenial and constantly imaginative and resourceful programming director, plus world-acclaimed instrumental soloists.
Another deeply satisfying season ended on Sunday with yet another step onto the next level: the joining of these forces with one of the world’s most celebrated operatic bass-baritones, Sir John Tomlinson, on his Worthing debut in a world premiere made possible by the orchestration skills of the WSO conductor John Gibbons.
The result was a supreme moment in WSO’s long history, on the Saturday of the week BBC Radio 3 devoted to the bi-centenary of Wagner’s birth. And a moment which, presented in what Britain might distantly view as modest surroundings, was worthy of national broadcast for the courage of its conception and quality of its performance.
If not now, in due course the nation surely must hear for itself Wotan’s Journey, subtitled Music of Wotan and the Wanderer in the Ring. Sir John, a listener at several previous WSO concerts, 10 years ago conceived a 25-minute sequence music from of Wagner’s Ring cycle. It focus on key junctures shaping the progressive development of its central and pivotal character, the mythical chief god Wotan, through the epic four constituent music dramas (operas, if you will) — The Rhinegold, The Walkyrie, Siegfried, and Twilight of the Gods.
Wotan is one of the characters which has made Tomlinson’s name to the extent that he, and likewise since, Bryn Terfel after him, as a Briton singing a foreign language, has taken the German coals back to Newcastle by taking lead roles over numerous seasons at Bayreuth, the annual Wagner festival in Bavaria.
Sir John explained to me on Saturday that he took his idea to Royal Opera House head of music David Syrus who assembled the arrangement with him for voice and piano. Then recently John Gibbons seized on the idea of setting it himself for the full orchestra, to create an impressive concert-hall version of a kind of highlight film from the opera house.
With Syrus present, and Lady Tomlinson, the Worthing audience hailed Sir John’s massive physical and artistic contribution to the evening. The tumult at each call-back to the stage grew in a way it does not quite do for instrumental soloists. It’s an opera house and ballet phenomenon, in the dynamic way the audience salutes an artist who, in playing their role, has shown how human they are, and conveyed humanity back to their human audience.
It’s repeats of this that elevate celebrities into stars and here, this WSO season, was a true star. A massive figure strode onto the platform, commanded the entire stage, the ranks of instruments behind him at times in full cry, and filled every square centimetre of the hall with a combined sound its onlookers won’t forget. There was no hiding place for anyone there only for the other two pieces on the programme, and wishing they could bolt away from the thunder and lightning of Wagner writing for bass-baritone and orchestra.
They took us on that journey along the Rhine. Wotan greets the completed castle he built to house the gods. Its previous thief himself, he plans a son to steal the Ring back for him from a giant (Fafner). He berates his favourite daughter (Brunnhilde, the lead Valkyrie, and the Ring’s true hero) for trying to prevent his prescribed death of that beloved son (Siegmund) for his adultery and incest.
In a heartbreaking farewell, in reluctant punishment, he banishes her from immortality, caging her in a ring of fire penetrable only by a supremely fearless hero (Siegried). Finally, he hands the future on to the next generation when disarmed by Siegfried on his way to liberate Brunnhilde.
One oversight clouded the success of this premiere. The English translation of Sir John’s selected text was legible in black but the German alongside was in pale green. This meant under subdued light virtually none in the audience without a torch could read and follow it, spotting a German word enabling them to keep abreast. That will be put right next time, and it’s hard to imagining there not being another one.
Smetana’s Vltava opened the evening. Here a different river journey, down the Moldau, with WSO flautists Monica McCarron and Eliza Marshall eliciting the unforgettable opening textures of the two source rivulets, then with the strings the equally magical moonlit water nymphs’ dance. I sensed the emotional impact this music had on his first Bohemian audience as they heard Smetana defining for them their national voice in orchestra music.
Rackhmaninov’s 2nd Symphony closed out the season in a final ecstatic journey home, in what seemed like a river of sound and emotion. A work I know not, save for recognising its open-hearted second movement, featuring the clarinet, this time, of Ian Scott, I turned afterwards to the man sitting next to me who seemed to know it well. He replied that he had heard it in several places around the country, including a Prom at the Royal Albert Hall, and had never heard it better played.
The BBC Proms begin in July and last until September. The WSO’s own ‘proms’ resume in late September and go through until May 2014. What further continuing riches await?