Review: TPS July Concert – Treading the Boards

Review of Tonbridge Philharmonic Society Concert – 1st July 2023

The Tonbridge Phil concert on 1st July was entitled ‘Treading the Boards: Theatrical Music Across the ages from Shakespeare to Sondheim’. This included music from the 16th century to the 1980’s.

It was an evening combining real favourites and some less familiar music in a thoughtful programme. I was advised it would make us laugh and cry in equal measure – I did have a hankie handy. It was an excellent programme compiled with care and thought. The programme notes were produced by Joanna Mace and for me, were an educational highlight of the evening.

The venue made a lovely change and was possibly a more appropriate setting for music such as the murderous Demon Barber of Fleet Street. The audience sat in tiered seating at Unity Hall in Southborough, with all the orchestra and choir in full view. It was so enjoyable being able to see the talents rather than just hear them – just under 100 musicians and choir giving an evening that would rival most theatres. It was brilliant..

I had a birdseye view of Naomi and her colleagues giving it their all. I did miss the grandeur of the spacious (if tricky) acoustics of Tonbridge School Chapel, but this was still an excellent effort in a less imposing environment. The choir excelled throughout the evening, adapting to different styles and genres. There was a lot to learn for musicians and choir and I was very impressed, noting one gentleman singing by heart to some pieces… he will know who he is!

The evening was introduced and compèred by Master of Ceremonies, Peter Mace. This was an excellent idea. Delivered with humour and flair, he introduced the sections with no fuss – short and sweet. It would be lovely to have Peter present again in future concerts as it really helped set the scene.

The evening kick-started with the orchestra and the ever-popular overture to Bizet’s Carmen. The choir delivered an impressive a cappella rendition of It was a lover and his lass from Shakespeare and Thomas Morley. Pieces by Monteverdi, Purcell, Handel, Mozart and Weber followed in chronological sequence, taking us from the beginning of the 17th century to the middle of the 19th century.

The first act finished with a stirring performance of the popular Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves from Verdi’s Nabucco. I really enjoyed the eclectic mix and was looking forward to what was to come in Act 2. The highlight for me in this first half were all the string sections – they played as one, which is incredibly difficult, and it’s so hard to achieve a ‘unified sound’ (hours of practice!).

Second Act:

Peter introduced the second half (without the aid of a mic!) – a lighter programme, based on music you could have seen on stage in London’s West End, beginning at the end of the 19th century with the overture of Gilbert & Sullivan’s Gondoliers, followed by the lively chorus Dance a Cachuca. This was brilliantly accompanied by the trumpets, who, with a huge amount of breath, kept going right to the end!

We all enjoyed the Sound of Music medley – wonderfully reminiscent of the 1960s. There were a few teary eyes during this one.

I think the hardest part of the evening for the choir was the medley of songs from the popular 1950s musical Guys and Dolls. The choir sang their hearts out, and I think we were expecting them to break into dance at any moment. They managed tricky lyrics, timings and challenging harmonies very well. The gentlemen sounded like they had enjoyed the bar a little too much in the interval (in a good way) and the ladies were clearly enjoying some flirting. It is surprisingly tricky to sing with a swing but the choir showed it can be done. It is much harder than one realises to emulate the greats like Frank Sinatra. Pianist Ian Harby accompanied the choir securely and we all enjoyed the humour of the music and lyrics. And I think a few in the audience were tempted to join in with ‘Sit down, you’re rocking the boat’!

Everyone enjoyed the familiar Clog Dance from La Fille Mal Gardée, a ballet originally composed in 1789 by Ferdinand Hérold but reworked over the centuries, and which was actually written by John Lanchberry as a comedic insert for Frederick Ashton’s 1960 production for the Royal Ballet. There were some lovely mini solos from the wind, perfectly executed, plus surprising additional percussion with an impromptu tap dance to finish it off by Stephen Minton, principal cello.

A very moving and wistful rendition of Stephen Sondheim’s Send in the Clowns followed, with hardly a dry eye in the house (mine included!). The ladies sang beautifully and with great feeling. Then all hell broke loose with their chilling version of The Ballard of Sweeney Todd and the baker Mrs Lovett, murdering then mincing their victims to be baked in meat pies. Sondheim most certainly was a man of varying talents.

The evening concluded with another excellent medley from Claude-Michel Schönberg’s Les Misérables. This has become such a popular musical on both stage and screen that we were all familiar with the songs. We were invited to join in at the last by Naomi, who has to be congratulated for bringing everyone together and creating a fantastic evening… thank you!

It would be impossible to pick out just one highlight of the evening. All joined together to provide yet another unique performance and entertainment to a near packed house…We look forward to the next season.

CJ Jackson Bromelow