Review: TPS May Concert – Copland, Gershwin and Price

Review of Tonbridge Philharmonic Society Concert – 20th May 2023

It’s always an immense pleasure attending a ‘Tonbridge Phil’ concert, with or without the choir: tonight was no exception. They are always well rehearsed and deliver a polished and thrilling performance. Music from three turn-of-the-century American composers took us from the Great Plains and what could have been a John Wayne western to a New York prohibition speakeasy – all in one programme.

Outdoor Overture: Aaron Copland 
Recognisable straightaway as Copland, the wind, brass and percussion sections had a major role to bring this together and created a wonderful atmosphere with a vision of open plains and early pioneers. This was an excellent scene setter for the rest of the evening.

Rhapsody in Blue: George Gershwin
There was an audible hush of anticipation from the audience at the beginning of this well-loved piece. As expected, the clarinet (played by Amanda Curd) opened the piece with style and confidence, and the famous glissando was sensational. The trombones repeated the introduction and were full on ‘jazz hands’ with wah-wah mutes setting the tone.

The piano was breath-taking, an incredible performance from the talented local concert pianist Jong-Gyung Park, who played from memory – always impressive. It was an immensely powerful delivery played from the soul with both joy and sensitivity. Her face was a picture of delight – she didn’t take her eyes off Naomi Butcher, the conductor.  Jong-Gyung was so expressive in her playing that the audience were mesmerised. And she looked like she was loving every minute!

Naomi did a fine job keeping everyone together as speed gathered, which could have easily galloped away into the sunset. The tempo was pacy but brilliantly together.

It’s hard to shine anything but praise on this polished performance. Lovely to hear this popular piece and as a listener to find some little unexpected new corners in such well known music – something to listen out for next time it is on the radio.

A fabulous change of key brought the piece to a crashing conclusion. The huge applause and smile on Naomi’s face said it all. An incredible performance and such a privilege to be hearing it live – a totally unique experience. The audience got what they came for – clearly delighted.

As we went into the interval, one audience member let out a huge sigh of pleasure and said he had already had his money’s worth. Another said he had never been to a live concert with the Tonbridge Phil before – but would certainly be coming back.

Symphony No 1 in E Minor: Florence Price 
This could have been composed for a John Wayne movie! There were many times when you could feel a familiar Dvořák connection (he must certainly have influenced Florence Price), but what a great creative piece.

This was just another reminder of what a privilege it is to listen to live music. Having heard this on the radio (it seems popular with Classic FM), listening to it live – with every breath and bowing arm from a 65-strong orchestra – made this hugely enjoyable. I wondered how many accumulative hours of practice it took to bring this magic to Tonbridge School Chapel. Radio is flat in comparison.

The introduction bought the first movement to life – bassoon, oboe, clarinets and flute – and there was lots of magic. Percussion made its presence felt during the movement with a tremendous finish on cymbals and bass drum. It was so good that there were a few in the audience tempted to applaud at the end of the movement.

The second movement lead with a strong brass introduction – very impressive – and the tuba certainly made itself heard here. The strings join in once the scene is set, with a delightful oboe solo supported by plucked strings. Later, the clarinets were very busy and defiant timpani came in with a great thunder roll. Brass and percussion and finally the string section bought the second movement to a close with a final bow from solo cello.

In the Juba dance third movement, strings run in with a lively few bars and trumpets are back with the main tune. This movement had a sense of an excellent romp, and again Naomi kept all the sections together beautifully. The strings were an excellent support for the brass and percussion highlighted the dance melody with a feeling of a great gathering of people in hope and joy.

Again, in the presto Finale, the strings provided a solid support for the brass and wind instruments. The musicality of the string sections was very much in evidence, working together almost like a swarm of bees with a joyful determination. The last few bars had everyone playing their hearts out,  gathering pace for the big conclusion. Fabulous!

Well done to Naomi and the whole orchestra – they put their own stamp on this symphony, as they do so often in their performances.

Carole Jackson