An encouragingly large and enthusiastic audience supported this special concert of the Tonbridge Philharmonic society given in Tonbridge School Chapel on Saturday 24 March. A warm welcome was extended to the guest conductor, Sir David Willcocks, who directed with quiet authority, clarity and decisiveness. Sir David’s musical career has been both long and distinguished. The vast experience and insight he brought to the choir and orchestra built on the firm foundations laid down by resident director Robin Morrish, and were apparent in the subtle and sensitive ways in which he shaped the music and in the different tonal qualities he conjured up.
The two works by Brahms – the Tragic Overture and the German Requiem – were complementary in mood. Brahms differs from other nineteenth century composers in his understanding of the nature of a Requiem, avoiding the eschatological and promoting serenity and the comforting of the living. Sir David’s interpretation focused on this approach by adopting forward-moving tempi and encouraging a radiant blossoming of choral and string tone in the major sections. The beautiful flowing phrases and command of great arching spans in the music demonstrated a true feeling for the meaning of Brahms’ chosen tests. Both choir and orchestra rose to the challenge, giving of their best, playing with sensitivity and control and singing with attentiveness to detail and a sincere attempt to communicate with the audience and assure us of both their secure routine training and their ability to respond to a new leader.
The solo parts in the Requiem are relatively short, but Quentin Hayes (baritone) and Sally Harrison (soprano) immediately made their mark, singing with dignity, control and wonderful tone, filling the Chapel with moving sound; this was particularly effective when heard above the choir.
The generous and warm acoustics of the Chapel suited the mood and texture of both works, reinforcing the full string tone, colouring the wind yet still facilitating clarity of expression. The orchestra played throughout with tight, incisive rhythms and flexible, well-shaped melodic lines. Considering the choir is totally amateur and the orchestra mostly so, the standard achieved is commendably high. Balance would be helped by more men in the tenor and bass departments; but this is a widespread problem for amateur choirs. It was a pity that the end of part one of the Requiem was spoiled by confusion in the last pages of the tremendous fugue over its insistent pedal note. This aside, the performers communicated confidence, alertness and total commitment. They obviously felt sympathy with Sir David’s interpretation and every individual gave of their best to make this a memorable and spiritually uplifting experience.
The evening concluded with a reception in the Skinners’ Library of Tonbridge School at which the Society Chairman, Mike Tonge, and Robin Morrish paid tribute to the hard work of the Society’s officers, the highly-skilled, loyal and long-standing leader of the orchestra, Penelope Howard, and the great honour which Sir David had bestowed upon the Society by conducting this very successful concert.