Special concert marks John Gibbons 21 years with Worthing Symphony Orchestra

John Gibbons addressing audience  - by Andrew Mardell
John Gibbons addressing audience - by Andrew Mardell

REVIEW by Richard Amey

‘John Gibbons 21st Celebration Concert’ – Worthing Assembly Hall, Thursday February 7 (7.30pm). Worthing Symphony Orchestra, conductor John Gibbons, violin soloist Jennifer Pike.

Malcolm Arnold, Suite from his film score ‘Heroes of Telemark’ (realised and arranged by John Gibbons); Erich Korngold, Violin Concerto in D; John Williams, ‘ET – Adventures on Earth’; Tchaikovsky, Symphony No 5 in E minor.

“I’ll carry on fighting for this orchestra until the day I die,” declared John Gibbons to his audience before conducting his Worthing Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth – not of just blazing, but searing heat and fierce assertiveness.

In its outer movements the composer defies fate from the first bars to the last and Gibbons I am certain chose this music to cap his anniversary concert and its ‘State of the Union address’ telegram to the town and its local authority about the community value of great art alongside its cost.

The final four chords, in the same rhythm of the famous ‘fate knocking at the door’ theme of Beethoven’s Fifth, was Gibbons and the WSO hammering on Town Hall office door.

As the years tot up in John Gibbons’ term at the artistic helm of WSO, so mount the doubts that the orchestra can survive into the next decade.

It has its back to a crumbling wall as the supply of allocated money is progressively turned off by the civic authority of Worthing who gave it birth as a municipal band 1927. The WSO now makes recordings with legendary international pianists – yet from 2020 the lifeblood may not even be a trickle.

The WSO cannot afford an administrator. All Gibbons’ 21 years it has astonishingly survived without even a part-time employed one. Outside investment could create the post that will convert Gibbons’ back-up operation from part-time amateur ‘make-do’, not even covering all the basics, to dynamic professional, finding and enabling opportunities to be generated and grasped to further its own future.

So an appeal fund ‘JG21’ was created in the autumn. Its fruits have yet to ripen. But unless serious money strides in, the WSO will limp from season to final season.

Gibbons has turned predecessor Jan Cervenka’s excellent provincial orchestra into his own outstanding one with its defining pattern of devotion to British composers and imaginative, innovative programming of all its concert music. WSO leads the other two Sussex orchestras (Brighton, Hastings) in authority, performance, presentation, in audience connection during its concerts, and in the respect it unbrokenly earns from top soloists.

Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra (bigger venue, bigger catchment area) were brought back from the brink of oblivion by an appeal only a short time ago, when the city’s moneyed arts-supporting community helped save them. Though now Brighton people attend WSO.

Thursday was a one of those occasional huge all-dayers for the WSO when they arrive from London to kick off the morning at 10am, rehearse for an 11.30 concert of an hour – provided free for children ages 7-11, attended by school parties with their teachers, and by home educators with their offspring. An audience of more than 800 fresh pairs of ears.

At 2.30pm they reconvene to rehearse for the evening public concert at 7.30. Thursday contained the Worthing debut of once the youngest BBC Young Musician of the Year (in 2002, aged 12), Jennifer Pike, a season after current winner Sheku Kanneh-Mason appeared here ahead of his Royal Wedding worldwide showcase). Pike and her 1708 Matteo Goffriller violin brought a rapt silvery atmosphere to the vintage cinematic romance of Korngold’s Concerto.

Also marking Gibbons’ 21st was his own realisation of Malcolm Arnold’s 1965 film score to the WW2 thriller ‘Heroes of Telemark’.

Film scores being relegated to landfill after use, with no demand for subsequent concert performance, Gibbons decided to sit down, listen to the music during the film, write down what he heard, orchestrate to his ear’s own best ability, and shape into a concert suite relaying the film’s almost unceasing drama and tension for the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to convey under his own baton. And now the WSO had their turn.

The Norwegian Resistance sabotage a Nazi supply of nuclear arms-making material. Of the Suite’s 559 bars, timpanist Chris Nall was hugely active in 252 of them, some with his hardest sticks.

Acts of sabotage include cutting off supplies of life-sustaining substances.

Also marking this 21st Anniversary, ET’s distinctive theme music warmed up the brass and strings for the Tchaikovsky. The WSO concert programme brochure notes included fascinating insight with interview quotes from its composer JohnWilliams. Director Steven Spielberg recognised and respected Williams’ own soul present in the theme’s emotional, irregular behaviour, and in concession he intelligently reversed the film-making process of fitting music to action.

With a mammoth day’s ending still not yet in sight, the Tchaikovsky first movement reached collapse from its immense first huge warring efforts. It was a performance I thought would have drawn spontaneous applause from a BBC Proms audience. Then one sensed the strain facing Dave Lee as this long-seasoned horn player started his glowing solo. This was no relaxation in romance by the log fire.

More a burning reminder that beauty must be treasured while there – or else lost.

The following waltz was as though Tchaikovsky/Gibbons was saying, ‘Dance now, everyone, because by tomorrow we may dance no more’.

The Tchaikovsky over, the exultant orchestral sections applauded each other in congratulation and WSO chairman/second double bass Eddie Hurcombe presented gardener Gibbons with a yellow rose to grow, named Molineaux, after the ground of his favourite team, Wolverhampton Wanderers FC.

It might outlast his orchestra.

Before signing off with the Symphony, Gibbons had said, “Some people say WSO concerts [still under £30 for the top seats] are prohibitively expensive. How much do you pay for a day or evening out in a London theatre? Or to go to Glyndebourne [Opera]? Or watch Brighton & Hove Albion? I can’t get the best seats at Molineaux, so I still pay £40 – and I get wet – because I am passionate about my football team.

“The greatest thing is to get other people telling other people about the orchestra.

“When a professional orchestra plays its heart out in a building with an acoustic as good as this one and among the best in Europe, it’s fantastic, isn’t it? But [to survive] we have to rely on you and everybody on our local area. We need help in things like admin and marketing.”

And afterwards the Lancing Schoolboy who longed to conduct his professional local orchestra – and achieved his ambition –assured me: “This is angry music.”

Next WSO concert – Sunday, March 10 (Assembly Hall, 2.45pm), ‘Byronic Inspirations’: Berlioz’ super-romantic Harold in Italy, featuring the Worthing debut of viola soloist Sarah-Jane Bradley, who has recorded the Arthur Benjamin concerto with Gibbons and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Also Chabrier’s Joyeuse March, Debussy’s Clair de Lune (for orchestra), William Alwyn’s Pastoral Fantasia, and Bizet’s L’Arlesienne Suite No 1.

Next International Interview Concert presentation – Thursday, March 21 (St Paul’s Worthing, 7.30pm), ‘Vision: the Imagined Testimony of Hildegard of Bingen’ with medieval group The Telling (2 voices, harp, actress): Clare Norburn’s concert-play about the life of the astonishing 11th century Rhineland polymath abbess, poet, mystic, visionary, natural scientist, natural healer – now Europe’s most popular woman composer. In intimate candlelit ambience featuring her spellweaving music of sensual song and chant. Plus Bewitched’s medieval-inspired gift stall, and interviews with The Telling.

Richard Amey

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