In concert – Alison Balsom & Anna Lapwood @ Chapel of St Augustine, Tonbridge School

Trad. arr. Oskar Lindberg Old Swedish Folk Song (unknown)
Kristina Arakelyan Modal Reeds (2021, world premiere)
Albinoni arr. Balsom / Lapwood Concerto in D Minor (1722)
Debussy arr. Lapwood Clair de Lune (1905); Syrinx (1913); The Girl with the Flaxen Hair (1910)
Britten arr. Lapwood Sunday Morning from Peter Grimes (1945)
Eben Okna (Windows): Green Window ‘Issachar’; Gold Window ‘Levi’ (1976)
J.S. Bach arr. Balsom / Lapwood Chorale Erbarm dich BWV 721 (unknown)
Owain Park Images (2018)
Alain arr. Balsom Litanies (1937)

Alison Balsom (trumpet), Anna Lapwood (organ), Sam Mendes (lighting director)

Chapel of St. Augustine, Tonbridge School, Tonbridge

15 October 2022

by Ben Hogwood

This was an inspirational evening of music, cleverly conceived and executed as the first in an impressive set of concerts to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Tonbridge Music Society. In its existence the society has attracted a stellar cast of classical and jazz artists to the Kent town, where they have a number of fine performing venues at their disposal. Even by their standards, however, this was an auspicious event.

Powered by a series of common musical denominators (and a shared love of Chelsea buns!), trumpeter Alison Balsom and organist Anna Lapwood created an immersive sequence of music for the striking Chapel of St Augustine in Tonbridge School. One of the many inspirations behind this was Alison’s teacher from the Guildhall School of Music, and her thank you gift took the form of an inspiring and memorable evening for many young performers, who in a ceremony afterwards were presented with a series of Diamond Music Awards given by TMS to support local musicians between the age of 5 and 18.

Both performers have a strong belief in giving back to their communities and passing on to the next generation of performers. The week leading up to the concert featured a master class given by Balsom for students of the school, and Lapwood’s continued personal and virtual encouragement for her many followers under the #playlikeagirl hashtag is bearing fruit if the young audience was anything to go by. Both showed why they can be lasting inspirations, their craft borne of a shared passion for the music they play.

Complementing the music was a lightshow, under the direction of Sam Mendes – Balsom’s husband, clearly relishing a more vocational night away from his film director profession. Running smoothly and logically, the music began with solo organ – and few would have been prepared for the immediate and bare emotion of the Old Swedish Folk Song arranged by Oskar Lindberg. We heard a counterpoint from Kristina Arakelyan, who was present for the world premiere of her similarly moving Modal Reeds. A cinematic piece led by Balsom, this had striking parallels to the film music of Thomas Newman in its rich harmonic palette and distinctive, bright textures. It made a strong impression.

The chapel was bathed in blue at this point, a subtle counterpoint to the music. Balsom then fell under the spotlight, moving to the organ loft for a spirited account of Albinoni’s Oboe Concerto in D minor, its natural arrangement for trumpet making much of the heartfelt second movement, proving there is more than one Adagio bearing the composer’s name! Lapwood’s choice of registrations on the organ throughout the evening was ideal, but here especially she found a rewarding balance and sensitive phrasing.

A Debussy triptych followed – a mellow-voiced Clair de Lune, in the organist’s own arrangement, segueing neatly into Balsom’s account of Syrinx, the solo flute piece taking flight in its arrangement for trumpet. Both instruments combined in a plaintive account of The Girl With The Flaxen Hair.

The evening’s centrepiece was to follow, prefaced by a fiendishly difficult arrangement of Sunday Morning, second of Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes. The longest stop on the organ came into play, rumbling beneath a vividly pictorial account where Balsom added a treble line. From here we moved to two substantial segments from Petr Eben’s Okna (Windows), a 1976 piece inspired by four of Marc Chagall’s stained glass windows. Coincidentally, only three miles down the road stands Tudeley parish church, the only site in England to feature original windows by the artist.

This piece is clearly special to Balsom, and the two gave a penetrating insight into Eben’s writing, taking two substantial excerpts. Lapwood exploited the organ’s colour, the mottled Green Window gathering intensity with some raucous interventions against Balsom’s fluid line. The steady build in the Gold Window was something special indeed, reaching an apex in what Balsom termed ‘the loudest B flat chord ever for non-amplified instruments’. It certainly left its mark here!

Great control was required for the floated melody of Bach’s chorale Erbarm dich before the evocative Images from Owain Park, to which the trumpet added a playful yet poignant treble line. Jehan Alain’s Litanies also benefited from this, the organ piece given an extra-ceremonial air to close proceedings. We were not fully done, however, as a softly played encore arrangement of Shenandoah held the audience rapt a little while longer.

Both artists should be applauded for their creativity and collaboration here, two words that sit towards the forefront of their thinking. The balance was ideal, a notable achievement given the familiar problems of tricky sightlines and the distance between the two performers. Mendes, too, should be credited for a sensitive response that cast a spell on those in the chapel, moving from cool blue hues to dramatic outlines in gold. A special evening indeed – how about reproducing it as a late-night Prom?

For more information on Anna Lapwood’s new Images album, featuring the piece from Owain Park, click here. Meanwhile for more on Alison Balsom’s recent release Quiet City, click here – and for more information on her debut album for EMI Classics (latterly Warner), containing a complete account of Petr Eben’s Okna, click here

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