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Elgar: The Dream of Gerontius
One of the great strengths of the Tonbridge Philharmonic Society is the relationship between the choral and orchestral divisions. Few such societies enjoy the privilege of having two equally-matched teams of amateur musicians which both perform so ably. It was this integrity of ensemble which conductor, Matthew Willis, was able to exploit so magically in tonight’s splendid performance of The Dream of Gerontius. Elgar’s 1900 setting of the religious poem by Cardinal Newman reveals a kaleidoscopic tapestry of inter-linked leitmotifs in the manner of Wagner. Indeed, the work is operatic in its unbroken flow of solo melody, interspersed with reflective or dramatic tableaux heard in the choir. The conductor’s direction of this score, with its ever-changing moods and colours, was masterly. He had an unerring grasp of structure, related tempi and just the right balance between rigour and freedom. Aided by three fine soloists, Daniel Norman (tenor), Linda Finnie (mezzo-soprano), and Dawid Kimberg (baritone), and the pure voices of the Senior Chamber Choir from Kent College, Matthew Willis was able to maintain pace in the development of the narrative, yet allow sufficient space for expressive interpretation.
There are, of course, familiar set-pieces for the choral voices – the demons, the angels singing Praise to the Holiest - and the climactic moment for orchestra and tenor where Gerontius is taken into the presence of God. What was special about this performance, was the sheer scariness of the demons; they often come over as comic characters out of a pantomime, but not here. The orchestral detail and the dark vocal tone with its relentless rhythm, created a truly threatening mood. In contrast, the angels’ hymn had powerful brightness and momentum, surging along on its forward-thrusting chains of dominant chords and harmonic sequences. The choir is to be congratulated on its focused tone, balance of parts and the vocal unanimity of its vowel sounds. All this contributed to a really exciting and vibrant choral sound, easily able to match the large orchestral forces.
There was much subtle and colourful playing from the orchestra, both in ensembles and in solo voices. There are many challenges in this work. Elgar was a master of orchestration, and Matthew Willis was able to conjure a panoply of sounds from his players, yet allow them freedom to use their own interpretative skills in solo passages. From taxing and exposed unison string passages to full-blooded orchestral tuttis, this was fine orchestral playing.
The performance was blessed with excellent soloists. The part of Gerontius is certainly demanding, yet Daniel Norman was able to appear relaxed enough to communicate this extraordinary scenario to us in a very personal way.
The vocal control over the pivotal phrase Take me away was truly spine-tingling. Linda Finnie as the Angel sang with an astonishing range of vocal colour, from the darkest low notes to the triumphant high of Alleluia. Dawid Kimberg’s performance, as the Priest/Angel of the Agony, was authoritative and tonally rich.
The text of Newman’s poem is hard for contemporary listeners to identify with, but the extraordinary integrity of this performance was such that, for a couple of hours, we were taken into Newman’s religious world and helped to feel, with his characters, the touch of a spiritual dimension which we, in our more materialist world, rarely have the privilege to experience.
Orchestral & Choral Concert - 25 Nov. 2017 Tonbridge School Chapel
Copland: Fanfare for the common man, - Barber: Adagio
Shostakovich: Symphony No 7
I do not recall ever attending a concert given by amateur performers that received a spontaneous standing ovation at the end. That this concert, given by the Tonbridge Philharmonic Orchestra in the sacred space of Tonbridge School Chapel, was so received is an indication of what a stupendous occasion it was. I was anticipating a great programme, comprising three hugely significant works of the twentieth century, two American and one Russian, written within a six-year period between 1936 and 1942. I did not expect such a completely immersive experience from first note to last.
Conductor Matthew Willis has a flair for imaginative programming and theatrical presentation so we should not have been surprised that Aaron Copland’s ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’ began with none of the usual concert preamble of leader, conductor, polite applause. We fair jumped out of our seats as the first thunderous crash of timpani, bass drum and tam-tam rang around the chapel. We were now gripped for two hours of powerful, spell-binding, exciting, moving, sumptuous…. the adjectives just kept flowing through my mind.
Equally surprising was the immediate transition from the final chord of the fanfare for augmented brass and percussion into the first tremulous violin Bb of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. Was this going to work? Oh yes, after the vibrant metallic A major ending of the fanfare, the next two gut-wrenching chords for full strings seemed even more plangent than usual. The string sound and sentiment achieved through ten minutes of very slow and sustained chording was breath-taking.
The third piece was the monumental Leningrad Symphony (No. 7) of Shostakovitch, which is well over 70 minutes long. His music is characterised by huge dynamic contrast and the layering of instruments from a solitary flute to the full might of nearly one hundred players. Then there is the back story of how the piece was written during the Siege of Leningrad, its first performance by starving musicians to the starving populace with German troops at the gates, and the composer’s ambiguous relationship with his own ‘side’ under the boot of Joseph Stalin. Our first sense of impending doom comes with the notoriously difficult tattoo beaten out on the snare drum, all 352 bars of it, from distant threat to cataclysmic onslaught. This was so well-controlled that the change then to the desolation of absolutely solo woodwinds was almost unbearable. The second movement narrative came through with lovely expressive soft solos and the first violins were superb throughout the concert. By the third movement, forget amateur! The augmented wind section achieved wonderful moments of clarity and the principals, especially clarinet and bassoon, produced sublime solo work. The fourth movement concluded our journey from despair and suffering to the triumph of the human spirit in the prolonged C major coda. No wonder we all stood up to applaud.
Orchestral Concert at Tonbridge School
18 February 2018