Review: Orchestral Concert 18th February – Holst The Planets

I am never disappointed by the superb output of Tonbridge Philharmonic Society and last Saturday’s concert was no exception. We were taken on a musical journey beginning on the wild tempestuous coast of Cornwall, to the country idyll of Norfolk, the bustling court of Elizabethan England, to the serene beauty of Bonnie Scotland, the crowded streets of London and finally up, up into very space itself to the hauntingly beautiful yet terrifying planets as brought to life by Gustav Holst’s sublime score.

As always, I commend Naomi Butcher for her clever pairing of these musical gems. I never cease to be entertained and educated by Tonbridge Philharmonic and must give my thanks to Joanna Mace for her extensive and enlightening programme notes. The orchestra and combined choirs of West Kent Youth Voices and the choir of female voices from TPS gave us a stunning and highly professional performance, leaving us, the audience, delighted and exhausted from our virtual travels. Bravo, bravo, bravo I say!!

The evening began with the “Overture to the Wreckers” by Dame Ethel Smyth and gave us a punchy yet jaunty start to the evening. Ominous brass notes immediately building the tension, while the romantic strings pulled at our hearts, expertly bringing to mind the beauty and drama of the Cornish coastline with its churning, thrashing seas, reminiscent of many a bracing walk along that rugged coast. I particularly enjoyed the contribution of the clarinets, whose lilting calls brought to mind the movement of gentler waves. A rousing crash of cymbals heralded the piece’s dramatic conclusion.

Our second offering: “Norfolk Rhapsody No 1 in E minor” by Ralph Vaughan Williams was a perfect contrast and immersed us in the gentle expansive fields of Norfolk. Timid strings began the rhapsody and painted an idyllic folksie world. I imagined birds soaring over a rural idyll with dancing milk maids, frolicking lambs and slow sturdy cattle making their way into the milking parlour. Yet throughout it all, the single note on the piano adding a questioning ominous tone to the music, predicting perhaps a future not so golden?

Next we were treated to the “Three Elizabeths Suite” by Eric Coates which opened with a horn fanfare for the first movement, illustrating the reign of Queen Elizabeth 1. Personally, I preferred the second movement dedicated to Elizabeth of Glamis, the late Queen Mother, which exquisitely captured in music the majestic Scottish highlands. Strings added a light romantic note while the oboe gave us depth and heart. I must particularly commend the skill of the oboe players Nancy Sargeant and Jo Briers for their outstanding contribution to this suite. The third movement gave us another dramatic contrast, for this was a jubilant youthful march celebrating the life of the future queen Elizabeth II with trumpets heralding a hopeful and energetic start to a new generation of English monarchy. Again, I single out praise for the wonderful brass section for their joyful fanfare.

Finally, we must come to my personal highlight of the evening, the glorious “The Planets” suite by Gustav Holst which truly showed off the prowess and skill of this wonderful orchestra. This began with the most famous of all his movements ”Mars: the bringer of war” a frightening yet exciting start. I learned with interest from the programme notes that this was written prior to the start of World War I and was not intended, as so often thought to be, a reference to the horrors of mechanised warfare. With this in mind I tried to imagine a red dusty planet instead of the iconic film footage so commonly associated with this music. This was a glorious amalgam of percussion, harp and strings brought to a conclusion with crashing cymbals and timpani. What a treat! All of the orchestra deserve our respect and praise.

The second movement “Venus: the bringer of peace” opened with a horn solo answered gently by flute and oboe before a second theme was taken up by the solo violin. Especial thanks to the orchestra’s leader, Susan Skone James, for her virtuoso performance. The violin melody was followed by oscillating chords on flute, harp and celeste, reminding one of the swirling yet deadly gases that blow continuously across the planet’s surface.

Our next treat was “Mercury: the winged messenger “ a lively, playful and mischievous movement with solo violin, flute, glockenspiel and harp which the programme notes informed us was the composer’s experiment with bitonality, where two keys appear in the music at the same time.

“Jupiter: the bringer of Jollity” was next, famous for the tune that became the hymn “I vow to thee my country “. This movement clearly demonstrated the conductor’s skill as it came deafeningly to its full throated conclusion using the full orchestra.

I particularly enjoyed the fifth movement “Saturn: the bringer of old age” which I found hypnotic, suggestive of a ticking clock or metronome. A gorgeous rendering on tubular bells, flutes, bassoon, harps and trombones.

“Uranus: the magical” saw the orchestra once again build to a quadruple forte (ffff), sending shivers of rapture down my spine!

The evening finally came to a perfect end with “Neptune: the mystic” where the composer used a swaying irregular rhythm and clashing sounds giving the piece a swirling, otherworldly quality until finally the orchestra was joined by an off stage choir of female voices reminiscent of wailing Sirens, discordant and eerie.

The orchestra, choir, soloists and conductor all deserve our praise and thanks for a stunning musical feast. I look forward with relish to their next concert.

Suzy Wilson