Nicola Benedetti delights Worthing audience

WSO - Nicola Benedetti in rehearsal by Stephen Goodger
WSO - Nicola Benedetti in rehearsal by Stephen Goodger

REVIEW BY Richard Amey

Nicola Benedetti (violin) with Worthing Symphony Orchestra, conductor John Gibbons, at Worthing Assembly Hall

Bizet, Carmen Suite (re-ordered: Gibbons); Sibelius, Violin Concerto; Tchaikovsky, Waltz from Sleeping Beauty ballet; Sibelius, The Swan of Tuonela; Alwyn, Symphony No 3.

There is an annual feast for WSO fans. It features a Stradivarius violin older than most of the buildings the 1960s left standing in Worthing, a now world-acknowledged new star of the instrument, and the orchestra she started to play with each year after becoming the best young musician the BBC discovered in its 2006 competition.

Why does she keep coming back? Because the WSO and its conductor have not only retained her admiration all this time, but over the developing years of their partnership will have undoubtedly increased their stock in her estimation. In her increasing world fame, she remains grounded in her career roots. She cares about music-making outside the globe’s greatest concert halls and wants to remain part of that parallel world.

And she is continuing to enjoy her Worthing seaside audience family affair. When she comes on stage, it’s all love, grins and audience cheers, as though she was showing up at a local pub, smiling in another long black, spaghetti-strapped dress, to join friends already sitting there awaiting her arrival. Some 771 of them this time, yet still felt like a personalised gathering.

She is now a woman with a frighteningly full diary of educational and concert commitments that mean now I am talking about Nicola Benedetti OBE MBE, Queens Medal for Music, so far eight honorary degrees, and an already unique and lauded ambassadorship for her genre of music, right down to schools. As well as being president of the WSO supporters group, Worthing Symphony Society.

The main feast guest was Sibelius. In his Finnish Violin Concerto, and all was rapt from the first bars, when Benedetti made the Strad sing out over tremulous strings, sounding around the Assembly Hall acoustic like a lone voice in the night. Benedetti’s involvement and stage presence drew in each observer when she wasn’t playing, so that when Sibelius used her again, and often alone for considerable periods, all the audience was ready.

The WSO and Gibbons brought the opening movement gradually into limited nordic daylight and applause saluted the first movement. By the second movement, night had returned, mysterious once again, Benedetti soothing the tension into a serenity which awoke next morning in folk dance mode and set off for the town square.

Sibelius in live performance invariably feels more immediate and complex in texture and detail. But although this performance was big on atmosphere, the WSO evocative and responsive to Gibbons and Benedetti, it seemed overall to be striving for momentum across the landscape in sapping ground conditions. Or perhaps it was deliberate, downplaying slow burn.

The need for a large orchestra brought the bonus treat of Sibelius’ unrivalled short depiction of nature set in mythical scenario – his never-less-than-haunting tone poem, the Swan of Tuonela. Not a flock of whooper swans as in Symphony No 5, but a gliding, single, mateless vocal gatekeeper of death, in its desolately brooding yet embracing lament, voiced by Olivia Fraser’s cor anglais.

We felt the shudder of distant thunder created on the bass drum, and the darkness deeper darkened by an A minor courtege tread on two tympany. WSO debutante Anneke Hodnett’s harp gave us but fleeting moonbeam glistenings on the black river. And cellist Miriam Lowbury’s rising solo arpeggio bore the soul from life upwards and beyond.

This colourful concert began with Spanish red and yellow around the black. The Carmen Suite of story highlights was reshaped by Gibbons into an entertaining sequence of six numbers. They progressed from the Toreadors’ entry igniting the action at the start, to the concluding placement of the Habanera with which Carmen seduces each man in the opera house, let alone Don Jose.

Tchaikovsky swept in the second half the concert with his arguably most emphatic ballet waltz, from the Sleeping Beauty – after which the Swan of Tuonela made an intensely dramatic contrast. Then Gibbons sprang us forward into the 1950s with a William Alwyn symphony of immediate and sustained impact, of conciseness, and its concentration of rhythm and motivic fundamentals into an urgently-paced, continuous illustrative drama.

Gibbons first from the podium carefully talked the audience to the music. He suggested interpretative possibilities, bearing in mind its composition during the Cold War, with that graduation into high technology communication and threat, and the foreboding of ultimate world destruction. All elements which became influential on the subsequent James Bond films.

In an auditorium now sweltering in September warmth, over its three movements Alwyn’s Third Symphony cut a unerring first-acquaintance swathe into the readied consciousness of an audience fully trusting of Gibbons and WSO. It was insistent, varied, direct, disturbing and dramatic music. The audience were impressed.

If Gibbons is an assured practitioner of Elgar, he is among many. As a growing expert in Alwyn, he is among few. The WSO could soon be subtitled The National Alwyn Orchestra. Some time ahead, might a record company recognise this? And act?

REVIEW BY Richard Amey

Next concerts – Sunday October 20 (Assembly Hall, 2.45): WSO/Gibbons with Royal Wedding cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason in Saint-Saens Concerto. Also Beethoven Symphony No 7 and Haydn Symphony No 96 (‘Miracle’), plus famous French flavourings of Satie’s Gymnopedie No 1 (orch Debussy?), Faure’s Pavane and Delibes’ Pizzicato from his ballet ‘Sylvia’.

This concert is SOLD OUT. Enquire at Worthing Theatres box office regarding returns (01903 206206)

Sunday October 13 (St Paul’s Worthing, 5.45pm for 6.15pm): The International Interview Concerts present ‘Unsung Heroine’, a concert-drama featuring London early music group The Telling in Clare Norburn’s story of Beatriz de Dia – the first recorded female troubadour songwriter.

Actress Anna Demetriou as Beatriz, in a setting of the plaintive ballads and romping dances of 12th Century Provence. Clare Norburn’s voice, the harp and percussion of Joy Smith, the medieval bagpipes and fiddle of Giles Lewin. Direction by (TV, movies) Nicholas Renton and lighting by Natalie Rowland. Tickets: £1-£13. Full concert details and tickets