REVIEW: Family Favourites Concert – Worthing Symphony Orchestra, Arta Arnicane (piano), John Inverdale (narrator), John Gibbons (conductor); Assembly Hall, Sunday January 6 2013

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JOHN GIBBONS and the Worthing Symphony Orchestra are moving from triumph to triumph this season. In their post-New Year concert they proved you can be more seasonal and rewarding with music other than the now standard fare of Viennese waltz, polka and gallop.

Instead of inviting an audience on the heels of the festive period to sit with restraint and simply hear Austrian high-society dance music, they asked them to listen to music from five different nations, to imagine they were children again, and to dream or visualise. And Gibbons’ choice of programme was unerringly accurate in hitting the mark.

The WSO director tipped onto the floor a sackload of gold-wrapped treasures from the exhilarating to the sheer ravishing. The opening thunderclap chord of the Star Wars main titles film theme by John Williams immediately cast Gibbons in a Nutcracker Drosselmeier role (the musical effect made one think of the Magician of Uranus in Holst’s The Planets) of the strange bringer of gifts exotic as well as familiar.

The afternoon, a substantial one in content and length, was indeed to culminate in Tchaikovsky’s aurally enrapturing and glittering Nutcracker Suite and its final Waltz of the Flowers, though minus the magical Miniature Overture because time was getting on. That omission was the sole regret of the afternoon and, on balance, it was a negligible one among an embarrassment of riches.

After the Americana of Star Wars (the original recording session of which included two members of the WSO)came British composer William Alwyn’s short Peter Pan Suite. This paints thumbnail portraits of Peter himself, Tinkerbell, The Lost Boys in Never-Never Land, and Captain Hook. Alwyn’s own instrument, the flute, pictured Pan, the celeste depicted the mischievous girl fairy, the various woodwinds and peaceful strings the Lost Boys, and the whole orchestra in fluctuating rhythm showed us Hook.

After Williams bounced back with the flying bicyle sequence from ET, Eric Coates, another Briton from the last century, appeared with his The Three Bears Suite. The Alwyn and Coates pieces were new to our ears, courtesy of Gibbons, the head champion of those bringing neglected British music back in front of their native audiences. Indeed the Alwyn, Gibbons suggested, was probably receiving its British concert premiere.

But now came another surprise. Radio and TV sports presenter John Inverdale popped out to talk us through the story of The Three Bears, with a bit of 21st century humour thrown in, suggesting that the Bears, deprived of their breakfast, suspected the thieving Goldilocks of being a blond Essex girl. Whether the scriptwriter was Drosselmeier Gibbons or Inverdale I will leave the official ‘Defenders of Essex Girls’ Reputation & Rights’ to investigate.

Far from an Essex girl is the blonde first Sussex International Piano Competition winner Arta Anicane. She’s from Riga, Latvia, and arrived in a scarlet, halter-neck dress with glittering collar. Back for her third solo appearance since her 2010 victory in Worthing, she had learned and memorised in a month to perform the first time Dohnanyi’s Variations on a Nursery Theme.

This is a humorous concerto making fun and laughter with Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and throwing the spotlight on the bassoon — WSO’s Gavin McNaughton — the instrument Arnicane’s father played in a Moscow orchestra under the great Russian conductor of the second half of the 20th century, Yevgeny Svetlanov.

Arnicane told me afterwards the piano part is as demanding as Dohnanyi’s Hungarian compatriot Liszt. Her professionalism in providing this special item, her completely natural command of delivery, long arms, fingers flashing and dancing all over the keyboard, and her captivating on-stage personality, demonstrated once again that the competition judges got their result spot-on.

Inverdale, who last year narrated Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, then did the same in Prokofiev’s Peter and The Wolf. This Russian children’s classic starred the woodwinds, with flautist Monica McCarron in fabulous flitting form as The Bird. No illustration, film, cartoon, video, DVD, or anything else, was necessary: Prokofiev’s near-perfect orchestration both pre-empted those and negated them.

As if all I’ve mentioned so far was enough for the after-dinner opening of presents and quaffing of chocolates and liquers, Ravel was, for many, Drosselmeier Gibbons’ trump card composer. Like Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev, the Frenchman was not a man afraid to release into his own music the child still in him. And here we heard, probably for the first time in Worthing, his audibly utterly enchanting and orchestrally miraculous Mother Goose Suite.

Drosselmeier Gibbons inserted Inverdale with some pre-movement tips for look-out that will have helped newcomers to this work, which Ravel also cast as a ballet with dreamy, mysterious and enchanting links — please let us hear it in this unforgettable form in a future concert, Mr DG. Mother Goose, suite or ballet, can only be performed on the occasion of having a full-sized orchestra and, to hear the WSO in this work, drove home yet again the proof that Gibbons has under his baton a band of international quality.

People are being sought to host overseas piano competitors for the 2nd Sussex International Piano Competition with the WSO in Worthing during the week of April 8-14. As Gibbons said, some will draw the lucky tickets of having the eventual finalists living and practising under their own roof. The small number of Judges will also need accommodation.

Contact Tim Chick at 30 Guildford Road, Worthing BN14 7LL or email t.chick@soton.ac.uk

Richard Amey

Next concerts —

February 10: Youth Prom with Gibbons and revered Russian violin soloist Boris Brovtsyn and BBC Young Musician Charlotte Barbour-Condini (recorder) in Vivaldi works including The Four Seasons.

March 10: WSO with Laura van der Heijden (cello) with a Rossini overture (Semiramide), Dvorak’s great concerto and Vaughan Williams’ most popular symphony (No 5).