Review: The Mid Sussex Sinfonia presents the Music of Howard Blake

REVIEW BY Rebecca Dowden

Friday, 20th December 2019, 9:16 am
Updated Friday, 20th December 2019, 9:16 am
Anthony Shuster, William Rees, Howard Blake, Jonathan Willcox, Martin Palmer

The Mid Sussex Sinfonia presents the Music of Howard Blake – Sunday, 8th December, 2019, Dolphin Leisure Centre, Haywards Heath

Congratulations to this enterprising orchestra who invited not only the composer himself but the highly respected and engaging conductor, Jonathan Willcocks to perform three engaging works. The programme began with Blake’s, “Sussex Prelude” followed by “All God’s Creatures” for children’s choir and orchestra. A short break was followed by the enduringly popular, award winning jewel of the composer’s repertoire, The Snowman. We heard the concert version of the piece for solo treble voice (William Rees), narrator (Andrew Shuster) and orchestra.

“Sussex Prelude”, introduced by the composer, began life as a musical project for “Let Music Live” in 1991. He told the story how the government of the time were proposing to cut back funding to music in schools. Blake was asked if he could compose a short piece that could be played by an enormous orchestra which would be assembled in the Royal Festival Hall, to make the public aware of the situation and to make an impressive protest to the government. The entire hall was filled with young musicians and there was no room left for music stands. Since the music only filled one page Blake suggested that they all pin or sellotape their music to the back of the player in front of them, and this worked very well. Blake played the Festival Hall organ himself for the performance and Sir Simon Rattle stood on top of the organ console to conduct, since there was no room left on the stage! The work Mid Sussex Sinfonia commissioned in 1996 was based in this children’s extravaganza. The orchestra was convincing in a piece that has charming pastoral echoes of the great English composers with sweeping phrases and also a cinematic quality. Who knew that the composer of the Snowman wrote for Ridley Scott, with Queen on Flash Gordon and the score of A Month in the Country?

It was for “All God’s Creatures” that choirs had been drawn from Burgess Hill Girls, Great Walstead, Handcross Park and Hurstpierpoint College Prep School to join forces with the Sinfonia. Under the clear and encouraging baton of Willcocks the charm and drama were brought forward in equal measure of this engaging piece. It is a collection of 10 classic children’s poems written by the likes of William Blake, Tennyson, Rossetti, Lewis Carol with a Prologue and Epilogue spoken over the orchestra. We are introduced to a menagerie of animals all brought to life within the orchestra. In The Tiger, the percussion section relishes descriptive hammer blows and anvils and we hear the harp, “When the stars threw down their spears” – all wonderful mechanisms to fire imaginations of the young singers, players and audience alike. The choir gained clarity in their unison and diction after the initial excitement in The Tiger and started to respond to the conductor in another William Blake poem, The Lamb. The Snail began with a beautiful solo from the orchestra’s leader, Martin Palmer in which the orchestra sensitively accompanied the young voices. After the children’s obvious enjoyment singing Rats, they brought a more lyrical quality to The Swan (previously famously set by Orlando Gibbons). The highlight of the work came when, off the copy, the children snapped into life, clapping their hands and gave their full attention to the conductor – the ensemble needed to be rhythmically on the ball and there was no going wrong in this one! Now fully engaged the choir projected well and the charming use of a vibraphone added still more orchestral colour to this effecting work.

The large audience was then treated to an uplifting and engaging performance of “The Snowman”. Shuster was a skilled interpreter with the not easy task of coordinating the text with the intricate story telling laid out in the score. His expectant tone led us to the introduction of the fine treble soloist. William Rees has a natural, unforced tone which truly found a range of expression as his particular story develops. His singing obviously delighted the appreciative audience. “The Snowman” does have challenges for solo instruments however the orchestra when playing tutti blossomed in the musical narrative. The sunny calypso when the fridge is opened for the Snowman to revel in, the magic of the musical box and the motor bike ride were all brought vividly to the listener’s imagination.

A highly successful concert, with much credit to the Sinfonia for such an inclusive event and also all the teachers for the preparation needed to impress as they did.

Rebecca Dowden