Brahms; Orff “Carmina Burana”; Rutter “Feel the Spirit”

Tonbridge Philharmonic Society broke with tradition in its hugely enjoyable March concert in presenting what conductor Robin Morrish rightly described as a Festival of Youth and Spring – an excellently chosen programme which linked Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture with Carl Orff’s spectacular Carmina Burana and John Rutter’s Feel the Spirit.

Youth was a major theme, not least in that the Philharmonic had invited local school choirs to join them for this exciting programme. Given the huge success of the evening and the evident enthusiasm of the young singers it was sad that in the event only two schools felt able to take part, the excellent choir of Hill View School and members of Judd School’s choir adding their refreshingly bright tone colours to the soprano sound.

The programme opened with Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture in which the composer weaves student songs into a typically tautly constructed whole, – and what a good idea it was to have the chorus join the orchestra for the final resounding Gaudeamus Igitur. This was a splendid start to the evening with the orchestra, excellently led by Penny Morrish, in fine fettle notably in the brass and wind sections.

Presenting Carl Orff’s exuberantly secular Carmina Burana, with its at times bawdy and satirical medieval text, in Tonbridge School Chapel, had clearly given the organisers some anxiety. They need not have worried. The work is above all a celebration of the good things of creation and new life, bursting with energy, and the assembled forces gave it their all. Nonetheless the Chapel as a venue for this work is less than ideal for several reasons. Orff saw the work as highly theatrical in nature – he intended it to be danced as well as sung – and it would have helped both performers and audience to have been face to face, as in a conventional concert hall. Even so some formidable electricity was engendered in this performance, so much so that Robin Morrish’s baton took wing at one point! Chorus and orchestra pounded out Orff’s manic rhythms with huge energy, the Latin text crisply clear, the medieval German forgivably less so. If the gentlemen of the chorus in the drunken frenzy of In taberna quando sumus were ultimately swamped by the overwhelming (and superb!) brass and percussion sections that too was forgivable given Orff’s wholly uncompromising scoring. Baritone soloist James Griggs has a lovely voice, not entirely suited to the operatic role of the drunken abbot, but he too gave his all. Soprano Pamela Wilcock added a stunning touch of glamour to the occasion, both vocally and visually, the flame red dress drawing every eye. Her melting singing of In trutina was a joy and we swooned in ecstasy with her in Dulcissime. Here too the string section came into its own with some luscious playing – needed but not always present in the Brahms. The young singers of the school choirs grasped their moment of opportunity as the Ragazzi and sang their solo sections with confidence and conviction.

On paper Carmina Burana appears deceptively simple, much of it being based on repetitive ostinato rhythms, but in performance, managing the rapid switches of mood and tempo are a major challenge for the conductor. As always Robin Morrish marshalled his forces with great skill although a more attacca approach to each new movement might have lent the performance more cumulative drive and intensity.

The second half of the programme, devoted to a performance of John Rutter’s cycle of spirituals Feel the Spirit was a delight in every way. Not perhaps Rutter’s most original work it nonetheless had all the composer’s distinctive trademarks – superb writing for singers, subtle and ingenious orchestration (no problems of balance here) and sheer flare for what will set performers and audience alight. And set alight we were: Margaret Bolt’s warm mezzo-soprano delivered the solo roles in the spirituals with moving simplicity, and the orchestra, with Robin Morrish in true Big Band style, swung its way through the jazzier numbers with more than a touch of razzmatazz (star playing here from Paul Ripley’s Cor Anglais and Shelley Phillips in the clarinet riffs). Here too the chorus had their moment of triumph – singing at last in English, every word brought vividly to life, they danced (literally at times!) through the swinging numbers, and with tensions and inhibitions finally banished produced a glorious sound as Robin Morrish brought the audience to its feet and the concert to a stomping conclusion in the final chorus of When the Saints Go Marching In.

Charles Vignoles