21 May 2022 Nielsen, Rota and Sibelius
Tonbridge Philharmonic Orchestra
St Peter & St Paul Church, Tonbridge
Review by Sara Kemsley
My opportunities to review a concert by the always-impressive Tonbridge Philharmonic Society seem mostly to have coincided with the opening season of a new conductor. There have been a few in recent years through circumstance not carelessness on the part of the Society. How was life under its first female conductor, Naomi Butcher, going? I had taken some soundings from playing and singing friends and heard nothing but positives. What they particularly like is that this young woman is already a very good teacher. Amateur performers, however good, need encouragement and to be told how to improve and not – to quote a wonderful ‘Radio Active’ sketch – ‘just do it better’!
So how would this newly burgeoning relationship translate for the audience in this finely balanced and interesting programme?
Carl Nielsen’s Helios Overture Op 17 of 1903 is a slow arc of the sun rising, moving across the sky and sinking again in the evening. The opening will challenge anyone: very quiet horn calls, low string murmurings, disparate wind utterances. Naomi has an economy of movement but a calm authority. The steady build-up of forces was well done producing a fine full and sonorous sound at its peak before slowly falling back to the quietness of the opening when the large viola section was given its own space.
The young double bass soloist, Toby Hughes, was undoubtedly the highlight of the evening for many reasons. He looked great in his patterned shirt, tall and wrapping himself around his instrument like a courteous lover, caressing and protecting. The sounds that he coaxed from his bass were playful, spirited, mournful, lyrical…who knew that a double bass could be so exciting and sensuous? Clearly Nino Rota, the composer, did. He wrote Divertimento Concertante for a bassist friend and it is so well written. The balance between solo and orchestra is always perfect, and its four movements give every opportunity to show the instrument off in full. The rousing ovation from this audience said it all.
The Symphony No 5 Op 82 of Jean Sibelius, like Nielsen’s overture, is another enormous sweep from the opening tentative dawn chorus to the mighty horn theme of the last movement. The beginning, with its disparate wind statements, tremolo strings and threatening timpani rolls, was perhaps the one place where the players needed more moral support from the conductor’s gestures. This felt uncomfortable rather than artistically nervous. That said, the timpanist’s position here nearly on the altar provided excellent balance and menace. Though the orchestra was spread long and flat in the space, it never lost good ensemble from front to back.
Special praise must go to the violin sections. Throughout this programme they produced an excellent, homogeneous sound. Powerfully strong when needed and delicately controlled elsewhere. All the sections should aspire to this range and sophistication of articulations and tone. In Naomi’s hands, this will surely happen.