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Britten: War Requiem
One of the strongest musical memories from my teenage years is listening to the first two performances of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem on the radio, and then hearing it live at the Proms. Even then, I was very aware that this was a special experience and that a masterpiece had been created.
Like many choral societies around the nation, Tonbridge chose Britten’s War Requiem as the work which would appropriately mark the centenary commemoration of the end of the First World War. This work is not one to be chosen casually, because it is formidably challenging, both musically and emotionally. Matthew Willis and his musical forces took on this challenge and gave the capacity audience a memorable evening. This was Matthew’s last concert with the Society and we are deeply grateful to him for what he has achieved during his distinguished and inspiring tenure; we wish him well in his future professional life. As with all the concerts Matthew has directed, this was music that showed great interpretative insight and meticulous preparation of the choir and orchestra. That he chose to conduct both the large forces and the chamber ensemble and soloists was an added responsibility. The consequence of this was that we lost the clear separation that Britten intended between the universal feelings expressed by the large choir, singing in the more impersonal language of Latin, with its orchestra, and the raw humanity expressed by the soloists and their small orchestra. This group needs to be in closer contact with the audience. Spatial limitations in the chapel hinder such separation. Conversely, the young voices in the distant gallery benefited from the building’s layout.
The mood of the evening was established in an original and moving way. Following some reflections on the origins of the work by Barry Holden from Decca (who made the 1960s recording of the work), members of the Society read war poems by Wilfred Owen which we would hear later in the work itself. This was particularly well done, interspersed with the mournful tolling of the bells, which, again, Britten uses as the leitmotif for discord in the music.
The music itself is demanding for all the performers. The choir and orchestra were impressive, and the chamber orchestra outstanding in its flexibility, technique and tonal and expressive range. There were moments of great beauty (Recordare) and others, which were frankly terrifying in their intensity (Libera me¸ before the final duet).
Although Britten chose boys’ voices for his distant choir, which sings in a state of innocent purity, the girls from Tonbridge Grammar School Motet Choir (thoroughly trained and conducted by Adrian Pitts), were equal to the task, singing with focus and the required emotional detachment. Christopher Harris gave a suitably other-worldly organ accompaniment.
Much of the emotional weight of the work is devolved to the team of three soloists. Britten envisaged a symbolic gesture of reconciliation by choosing British, German and Russian soloists for the first performance. These are very demanding roles for young singers. And this is where one of the enduring problems inherent in performing the War Requiem arises; the power of those first performances directed by Britten, and their associated recording, has established a sort of aural urtext, to which all successive performances must aspire. Our soloists, Sofia Troncoso (soprano). Bradley Smith (tenor) and Tristan Hambleton (bass-baritone), quickly established their own interpretation of these demanding texts and demonstrated Britten’s infallible ability to capture the intellectual and emotional meaning of the words. This was a great credit to their musicianship and dramatic skill. The soprano voice was truly commanding and beautifully controlled, whilst the sensitivity shown by the tenor and baritone was remarkable. It was particularly moving when they left their high pulpit positions and stood next to each other in that final meeting of the two soldiers – I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
So, although I arrived in good time, the chapel was packed and I had to sit right at the back. Despite the discomfort of the pews, the dim lighting which precluded reading the texts in the excellent programme, the total inability to see the performers, the skewed sound balance, and the misjudgement of having the soloists walk distractingly through the audience during that inspired, hushed, final, tonal and emotional reconciliation of discord, the evening was a memorable and moving one. When joining with professionals, and given the opportunity by an inspiring composer and conductor, ordinary musical amateurs can both experience the intense satisfaction of taking part in such an occasion, and invite others to share that experience. That so many people performed and listened, and reflected on the message - My subject is War, and the pity of War, The poetry is in the pity, All a poet can do today is warn – confirms the importance of the artist’s voice in our still troubled world.
Orchestral & Choral Concert - 24 Nov. 2018 `Tonbridge School Chapel
Rachmaninov and Elgar:
I approached this orchestral concert with two thoughts on my mind; how would guest conductor Michael Waldron step into the immense shoes of Matthew Willis and how would an amateur orchestra, however good, pull off the Rachmaninov 2nd Symphony? The first question was quickly answered as this young man led the orchestra through Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 4 with a calm authority. Balancing the quick, rather nervous march section with the broad and lyrical trio section is never easy. One can sound too slow or the other too fast but Michael judged this very well to give a measured interpretation, which was never trite.
There followed one of the finest cello concertos ever written, that in E Minor Op.85 also by Elgar. It was his last orchestral work and a very different animal. This brooding and intense piece was first presented at the end of a devastating World War. It baffled and alarmed the audience at the time but has since been adopted as a very special creation. International, prize-winning cellist Pavlos Carvalho put his stamp on it from the very first solo declamation. His resonant sound rang around the church and the orchestral accompaniment was sensitive and precise. Concertos are always testing for orchestras given the need to balance the one against the many and to allow for the individual ebb and flow of tempi and dynamics. Michael’s clear and calm beat enabled the orchestra to meet the challenge with seeming effortlessness so that the audience could immerse itself fully in the narrative that the cello gave us.
So, why my concern that this orchestra might struggle with the mighty eloquence of Rachmaninov’s 2nd Symphony? It is long by any standards for a symphony. Although written at the same time as Elgar’s P & C Marches, it is firmly in a late Romantic style with long sweeping melodies and sections that feel like mountaineering. Each time you reach a summit you discover another one even higher beyond. The string writing is particularly sonorous and full-blooded. Phillip Huscher in his notes for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra described Rachmaninov aptly as having ‘command of extended paragraphs and ... mastery of carefully controlled suspense’. As far as I am concerned, Tonbridge Phil., you nailed it!
As the Society moves into its new period with Music Director Designate Mark Biggins, it is in good shape. The strings, brass and choir have all developed their sound and technique very impressively but I want to put in a word for the small but significant woodwind section. They are individually talented players, who can be relied upon to do the job. So leave well alone, right? In my view (and here I declare a bias as a flautist), a little time and effort to put them on staging and to coach for tighter ensemble and intonation will ensure that the icing on the cake is as spectacular as the cake within.
Review by Sara Kemsley
Orchestral Concert - 16 Feb. 2019
`St.Peter & St.Paul’s Church’
Choir & Orchestral Concert - 30 Mar. 2019
`Chapel of St.Augustine. Tonbridge School’
Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem:
The Tonbridge Philharmonic Society Orchestra and Chorus gave a moving performance of Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem - their second performance with guest conductor Michael Waldron. They were joined by thirty members of the Evangelische Kantorei from Heusenstamm, supported by the Friendship Circle. The Requiem was sung in the original German and the input from our German friends was particularly appreciated. The programme contained helpful notes on the work, written by L.R. Deacon, together with texts in both German and English to help the audience best appreciate what they were hearing.
This is a demanding work for both choir and orchestra, and Michael Waldron was evidently in full control, bringing out the best in both groups. Sadly this was his last appearance with the Society, and they are all deeply appreciative of the work that he has put in to create such a high standard. The large orchestra was ably led by Susan Skone James.
Following a brief orchestral introduction, the choir set the tone of comfort and solace which is at the heart of this work - this was interspersed with a slight leaning on “Selig sind, die da Leid tragen” (Blest are they that mourn), gently offering shades of tears and grief which were most effective. This was strikingly contrasted by “Denn alles Fleish es ist wie Gras” (For all flesh, it is like grass), with rather muted strings contributing to its chilling tone. Another marked contrast was achieved with a plea to wait for the coming of the Lord, followed by a real sense of exultant jubilation, a reminder of the “everlasting joy” that is to come.
In the first of the two solos for baritone Jonathan McGovern, who had an excellent command of the German language used his warm and very pleasing rounded tone, particularly in the rather pleading chromatic passages. The solo is interspersed by the choir repeating the soloist’s words; there was a sense of urgency about this, and the balance just right. We were then treated to the lilting passages of the ever popular and comforting “Wie lieblich sind seine Wohnungen” (How lovely is your dwelling).
Unfortunately the listed soprano soloist, Rhian Lois, was indisposed and the Society was extremely fortunate to find at the last moment the most wonderful replacement in Elin Pritchard. The audience was clearly spellbound by her beautiful rendition of “Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit” (You are sorrowful now), which had the power and clarity to reach the full and not inconsiderable length of the chapel - it was a moving and memorable experience. There was sensitive playing in the woodwind and in the singers in the accompanying chorus.
Following this comforting aria, the baritone soloist, choir and orchestra gave their all, working up to the climax of “Hölle, wo ist dein Sieg?” (Hell, where is your victory?). In the final movements, which were taken at a good tempo and relate to the opening of the work, there was some expressive orchestral playing, with lovely low strings, and harp played by Anna Wynne. At the conclusion one could have heard a pin drop, no hasty applause intruded to break the spell created by the performers, until it eventually came and clearly expressed the audience’s obvious appreciation. Tonbridge continues in its good fortune in having concerts of this calibre.