New Year delights from Worthing Symphony Orchestra

Dave Lee - lead horn with WSO (ex-Royal Opera House)
Dave Lee - lead horn with WSO (ex-Royal Opera House)

REVIEW BY Richard Amey

Viennese New Year’s Day Concert – Assembly Hall, Worthing Symphony Orchestra, conductor John Gibbons.



Worthing’s entertainment world has made a clumsy start to 2019. Crown Jewels have to be protected. Neglect their security, you lose them. Especially if the Worthing Theatres “Jewel In The Crown” – their own words a few years ago – is the regionally outstanding professional Worthing Symphony Orchestra.


Since Worthing Theatres launched that description, Worthing Symphony Orchestra have got even better. But on Sunday, WSO conductor John Gibbons shocked his audience during his podium repartee. “We’re 90 years old now,’ he said. “This is the West Sussex professional orchestra that keeps going – and keeps going – through the kicks it gets.”


Kicks? Are the gradual financial cuts by Worthing Borough Council’s own body, Worthing Theatres [WTs] to WSO a step-by-step eviction of their ‘Jewel’ onto the street to fend for itself? And did things at the weekend suggest Worthing Theatres have forgotten their orchestra, or ceased talking to them, or got out their bother boots?


WSO’s popular Viennese New Year Concert is a life-support day at their box office. Why then did WTs bring in on both days of this same past weekend, in direct competition to WSO, the screen streaming at the Connaught Theatre cinema of international celebrity violinist André Rieu’s recorded New Year concert in Australia?


While it all-but sold out the Connaught (capacity 520) on Saturday then Sunday, WSO’s single attendance on Sunday slumped to 574. A few years ago it regularly attracted 750-800 and there has been no decline in quality since.


A plain commercial move by WTs? Live screen streaming of Covent Garden’s Royal Ballet and Royal Opera House shows have become an income river. Or might WTs be using Rieu as a one-off to renew awareness of WSO’s live annual equivalent? If so, WSO were seemingly kept in the dark on the idea. Hence Gibbons’ and his orchestra’s bruised legs.


At least two civic figures were enjoying WSO on Sunday. Mayor Paul Baker, already a regular WSO audience attendee before he took office, and former mayor Sean McDonald, now a WSO Trustee. One wonders about their thoughts.


To the public, Viennese New Year concerts are about blanking political issues and enjoying something of life in its darkest month of the season. Around 1,000 saw Rieu, unwittingly lining his platinum-lined pockets and jeopardising top live orchestral music experience in the town.


John Gibbons does not let his baton do all his talking. His amusing hosting chats to the audience from the rostrum between the music, about the music, are highly informative and interspersed are his witty sharp comments about life and politics, plus teasing ongoing references to his (and Elgar’s team) Wolverhampton Wanderers. No ordinary concert experience. Never dull. Extra value for money over their rivals.


This year, WSO men were in relaxed tuxedo jackets, the women in their lush colours. And there were fewer dreamy, semi-soporific Waltzes. “I’ve included more marches today because they’re upbeat and make us feel better,” Gibbons told his listeners. Reznicek’s Donna Diana Overture, new to these concerts, unzipped the afternoon and there were welcome untraditional appearances by Schubert and Berlioz.


Childhood musical memories were re-lived to The Teddy Bears’ Picnic (which first surfaced on WSO music stands at their concert last year for children), The Parade of The Tin Soldiers (which children’s radio programme was that, long ago? The bell of toytown is ringing), and Entry of The Gladiators (the universal theme tune of circus clowns).


The two percussionists Robert Millett and Chris Blundell needed danger money. With Matt Turner missing, they did the work of three people and darted around to switch between shared instruments at sometimes only a beat’s space. Millett at the timpany also had to hit the bass drum and top cymbal, occasionally also to tinkle the glockenspiel or triangle. Blundell, in The Gold and Silver Waltz – no option – found himself playing a side-drum roll with his glockenspiel beaters.


The WSO become a dance band at the New Year Viennese and it’s always fun in the percussionists’ kitchen, however staffed. But it’s that also in the WSO clarinets. Ian Scott and Alan Andrews come as a package with clarinets in five different keys for the Viennese ball repertoire. It’s a specialist, musical colour-guaranteeing practice only they perform, bringing exclusivity to WSO on a day when generally the available orchestration arrangements of the music are habitually hybrid.


There was no Tim Hawes trumpet solo to close The Blue Danube. Maybe he was on holiday. His principal’s chair featured Kate Moore, who did that satisfying job, and her duet with No 2 Will O’Sullivan charmed touchingly in the parade of the Tin Soldiers Parade which, Gibbons warned us, eventually collapses in a heap.


Dave Lee and Jane Hanna were ever secure on the French horns – a WSO trademark. Gibbons’ introduction to Roses of the South mentioned his keen floral gardening and the music’s early bars suddenly sounded deliciously fragrant.


It was a rare WSO Viennese Concert with no soloist. But the popular Anna Szalucka was down from London signing and selling her debut CD on Naxos, ‘A Century of Polish Piano Miniatures’, which includes items by Bacevicz, Paderewski, Szymanovski, both Goreckis, and both Panufniks.


The Concert line-up: Donna Diana Overture (Reznicek), Tritsch-Tratsch (‘Chit-Chat’) Polka (Johann Strauss II), Roses From The South Waltz (JS II), Hungarian March (Berlioz), Acceleration Waltz (JS II), Parade of the Tin Soldiers (Jessel), Gold and Silver Waltz (Lehar).


Poet and Peasant Overture (von Suppe), Marche Militaire (Schubert), Voices of Spring Waltz (JS II), Entry of The Gladiators (Fucik), Thunder and Lightning Polka (JS II), The Blue Danube Waltz (JS II), The Teddy Bears’ Picnic (Bratton), Radetsky March (Johann Strauss I).


Next WSO – Thursday, February 7 (Assembly Hall, 7.30 – the 21st anniversary of Gibbons’ WSO conductorship): Hollywood-flavoured Korngold, his Violin Concerto, first played here by Nicola Benedetti, pre her new OBE. Soloist is fellow former (2002) BBC Young Musician of the Year, Jennifer Pike. Also, John Williams’ ET Theme, music from John Gibbons own reproduction of Malcolm Arnold’s lost film score to ‘Heroes of Telemark’, and Tchaikovsky’s beloved Symphony No 5. Tickets from Worthing Theatres.


Next Brighton international chamber music Coffee Concert – Sunday January 27 (Attenborough Centre at Sussex University, 11am): The Doric String Quartet with Haydn on Bb Op 33 No 4, Bartok No 5 and Mendelssohn in E minor Op 44 No 2. Tickets from The Dome, Brighton.


Next early music at St Pauls Worthing – The Telling in ‘Vision: the Imagined Testimony of Hildegard of Bingen’. Clare Norburn’s concert-play about medieval history’s woman of multitudinous human accomplishment, showcasing her mesmerising songs and chants. Two singers, harp, actor; interviews and audience Q&A, gift stalls. Tickets from St Paul’s cafe or www.seetickets.com