Weber ‘Euryanthe’; Sibelius ‘The Swan of Tuonela’; Vaughan-Williams ‘Sea Symphony’

A new season of concerts by the Tonbridge Philharmonic Society was celebrated with an impressive new format for the programme. The new-style booklet is both visually attractive and helpfully informative. The first part of the evening was devoted to two challenging orchestral pieces. Weber’s Overture to Euryanthe set the tone of the evening with accomplished orchestral playing and sensitive direction by the conductor, Robin Morrish. The mood became darker and more introspective with Sibelius’s evocative tone poem, The Swan of Tuonela. Whereas the Tonbridge School Chapel acoustic did not help the Weber, in the Sibelius the beautiful muted strings, the quietly disturbing bass drum and the extraordinary melancholy of the cor anglais were ideally placed in this large, resonant space. The solo was played with superb control and haunting tone by Paul Ripley. This was a wonderful performance by conductor, soloist and orchestra.

‘A Sea Symphony’

The major work of the evening was Vaughan Williams’s A Sea Symphony, featuring two highly accomplished soloists, Natalie Raybould (soprano) and Adrian Powter (baritone). This work sets tests by the American poet, Walt Whitman, presenting a metaphor of the spirit of mankind on its eternal quest for meaning venturing forth into the vast uncharted waters. Robin Morrish was able to shape the structure and draw out the colours of the work to emphasise the contrast between the extrovert, very physical world of life at sea with the introspective, philosophical restlessness of the soul. The constant shifting of focus between the large, impersonal forces of choir and orchestra and, nearer to the audience, the individual personalities of the soloists emphasised this relationship.

Balance between the large orchestra and the more distant, medium-sized choir would always be a problem. Nevertheless, the high standards achieved by the Tonbridge Philharmonic Choir and the obvious sense of friendly collegiality are a good advertisement for other singers in the area to join them. The clear, incisive singing and varied tone colours of this choir contributed much to reducing the problem of forces as much as possible. The climaxes of volume and tonal intensity were huge and overwhelming, but the quiet passages suffered a little from tonal insecurity when at the extremes of the pitch range because each individual singer had to work too hard. This is a challenging work to perform, both in terms of technique and resilience. Although the Scherzo was on the slow side and the broad, philosophical musings of the last movement needed more expansiveness, Robin Morrish was still able to capture the spirit and moods of these two original and evocative movements. His success was especially the result of his attention to details of articulation in the singing. Perhaps the highlight of the evening was the very palpable experience of ecstasy achieved by the two soloists as they gave physical expression to the life of the soul.

Congratulations to all for bringing to life and welding into a unity this vast sprawling musical edifice, and for giving the audience a taste of both the sensuality of musical sound and a vision of the numinous infinite.

Roger Evernden