The two speakers at the start of the concert made much of the orchestra’s amateur status and, with a programme of giants of classical music – of Schubert, Weber and Brahms – a slightly apologetic scene may have been set were it not for the obvious love for the humanising power of music from conductor, Robin Morrish.
The ‘Unfinished’ Symphony started with hushed reverence in the lower strings. The violent contrasts in dynamics were effectively judged, although the additional brass created a wall of sound, which sometimes overpowered the leaner woodwind lines. The delicious second movement was an oasis of calm and tender playing, with lovely dynamic shading across all the sections of the orchestra.
The Mozartian wit and charm of the Weber Bassoon Concerto, caught from Michael Haydn, Weber’s teacher in Salzburg, was evident from the opening chords. There was no sign of the mysterious world we had just left behind; now the Phil were spritely and sounded more homogenous altogether.
It was a welcome return to Tonbridge for soloist, Hannah Balcombe, who discovered the bassoon at local Tonbridge Grammar School for Girls before an illustrious career at Music College and lately in the music services of the Royal Air Force.
Balcombe’s lithe passagework and singing tone caught the classical grace and balance of this concerto well. She played with touching cantabile across the range of the instrument, particularly in the Adagio. Soloist and orchestra thrillingly captured the contrasts between dynamics. The rondo finale was a dramatic tour de force, with Balcombe showing a formidable technique, as well as the operatic nature of the music, not just through her instrument but her facial expressions as well. Characters appeared in the music. Witty then coquettish, the streams of notes never lost direction and purpose, and the orchestra judged their accompaniment well. At times ,I was struck by how much the music seemed like wordless Gilbert and Sullivan, and at others, high drama.
The main work of the second half was the mighty Brahms Fourth Symphony. This again was a labour of love for conductor Morrish who performed every nuance and twist of the music himself as he goaded his players to join him. The lovely rich string playing in the slow movement was beautifully controlled, and contrasted with the giocoso of the third movement. No traditional scherzo this, no jokey elements, with a confident interplay between the piccolo and flute. The orchestra was generally more suited to the Germanic textures of Brahms, playing the rhythms tautly, and with a real yearning at times. The passacaglia was an intellectual and emotional outpouring, straining the players but sustained by their genuine love for the music. The sustained applause after the thrilling coda was well earned.