REVIEW: West Sussex Music Winter Concert 2017

Beethoven
Beethoven

Worthing Assembly Hall, Sunday December 3 (3pm) by their County Ensembles - Youth Wind Orchestra, conducted by WSM chief executive James Underwood; Youth Choir, conducted by Patrick Allies & Rose Martin (Helen Phillips, piano); Youth Orchestra, conducted by Adam Barker.

Beethoven was the inspiration and the technical expedition towering before West Sussex Youth Orchestra. He was their mountain on this occasion of this showcasing of the sterling work by West Sussex Music, the county’s music trust body, in placing musical opportunity before young people, providing enduring thrills for their parents, and drawing admiration from the world outside.

I would like to be in Belgium next summer. That’s when this orchestra of 9-year-olds to 19s will be on their fourth and final tour appearance and playing this ‘mountain piece’. Because after their first tackling of it, on Sunday, they are already above the foothills. I speak of nothing less than the opening movement of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony.

After not even a full school term together, here they were, almost 100 pairs of crampons fitted, ice picks sharpened, hitting back at a great composer who shows them no mercy. To see these young people, all heads in the block, in front of more than 500 people listening, giving it their all, under tougher pressure than Freddie Mercury and Queen could impose, and succeeding in conveying the music, was even thrilling for non-parents.

No bivouac respite. No concession. They had to play the optional opening repeated section, which meant the end was further way and the slippery slope maybe about 20 per cent still longer. How well will they remember experience! In the heat of live performance, their stamina and concentration grew to fresh depths as the size of the orchestra, the stage, the hall and the occasion all came enormously to bear in the immensely compressed and intensely challenging but life-affirming minutes they gave their listeners - and themselves.

Conductor-tutor Adam Barker’s courage and conviction was vindicated. His programme notes illuminated the extent of the orchestra’s obligation and undertaking. Annapurna’s peak awaits those in this orchestra who turn professional, but all glimpsed the snow at the top, beyond through the blizzard. Belgium are in for an astonishing nine minutes (I am including the likely applause).

Mr Barker’s orchestral slot in this WSM presentation was not about bravado. They began with the beguiling and mysterious ‘Ling Of The Village In The East’. This narrates a fantasy legend and was composed last year by Southampton University student Alga Mau, who, reckons Barker, has film music calling him. Then Arnold Foster’s strings-only arrangement of Vaughan Williams’ Rhosymedre showed just how good is this section of the West Sussex YO, 58-strong this time.

The afternoon bounced in with the 40 members of the WS Youth Wind Orchestra in Vaughan Williams’s English Folk Song Suite for military band. Then the Aussie Percy Grainger’s arrangement of The Londonderry Air. Girls slightly outnumbered boys, as they did in the Youth Orchestra.

Arrangements followed of Broadway/Disney musical and today’s pop (Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, then Ed Sheeran’s mega-hit this year, Shape of You, with tuned and struck percussion). And, to conclude, they played American Martin Ellerby’s Trevi Fountain from his Roman Trilogy, which the Youth Wind Orchestra will be taking to the Colosseum and Sistine Chapel next spring and summer terms. They will stop the tourists in their tracks.

Not just blown instruments, WSYWO have a four percussionists, frequently swapping places, and for this performance Worthing Symphony Orchestra’s versatile Eddie Hurcombe provided string double bass and WSM teacher Steve Barron added tuba.

The Ellerby called for piano which introduced, one item early, West Sussex Youth Choir’s accompanist Helen Phillips. The choir of two dozen, ages 9-19, includes just three boys - two in mid-voice change, said assistant conductor Rose Martin. They also played djembe drums when Bob Chilcott’s Where Riches Is Everlasting (of 2004) rounded off the set with a rhumba.

Unsurprisingly, theirs was a testing wide range of music: 1976 gospel (Walter Hawkins’ I’m Goin’ Up Yonder), Paul Simon in 1966 (Frank Metis’ a capella setting of Feeling Groovy), English traditional (Michael Neaum’s keyboard-liquid version of The Water On The Tyne).

Next, two carols - John Gardner’s own perky tune from 1964 for The Holly and The Ivy, with an harmonically restless version of Silent Night contrived by four arrangers two years ago in the unaccompanied vocal group Pentatonix (composition by committee, or collective co-operative?). And a third festive item: American, 1992, by the Sesame Street songsmith Stephen L. Lawrence - a skittish, diction examination called Bring A Little Jingle.

It wasn’t to be a mere jingle which ended this proudly revelatory concert after the Beethoven. But if Beethoven was the ultimate challenge to set, Leonard Cohen was the culminating warm relaxation. The Godfather of Gloom’s worldwide hit, Hallelujah, came unannounced in the programme. It invited audience singing and bonded all three ensembles - more than 130 in action with musicians cramming the stage, singers on the floor in front, and all directed by Mr Barker without wing mirrors.

The arranger? The Youth Wind Orchestra’s euphonium player Billy Crook, who volunteered to do it, then thoughtfully executed it, including a touching coda, and who decided this time to play bass trombone. He should have had a curtain call, although I daresay he seemed modest enough to have refused one.

West Sussex Music’s excellence has been undeniable and recently lauded. Their wind orchestra, choir and orchestra, have each singly been once to their National Youth Competition Final in the past three years. Don’t be surprised to see that record continuing next year.

The organisation has the skill. They just need the money. They seek an extra £25,000 to support this academic year and would welcome help in corporate fundraising. They know better than to ask the government.

Richard Amey