Parry I Was Glad (1902, revised 1911)
Vivaldi Gloria in D major RV589 (c1715)
Eugene Butler Song of Mine, Depart (unknown)
Fanny Mendelssohn Overture in C major (c1830-32)
Felix Mendelssohn Symphony no.3 in A minor Op.56 (1831-42)
Rebecca Milford (soprano), Katie Macdonald (mezzo-soprano), Tonbridge Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra / Naomi Butcher
Chapel of St Augustine, Tonbridge School, Tonbridge
Saturday 20 November 2021
Written by Ben Hogwood
There was a keen air of expectation in the regal surroundings of the Chapel of St Augustine at Tonbridge School. The pandemic has wrought havoc with choral and orchestral plans over the last two years, and as such this was the first opportunity for the Tonbridge Philharmonic Society to celebrate their 75th anniversary. They did so with a new music director, Naomi Butcher (below) at the helm – and she delivered a typically enterprising programme.
There could hardly have been a more appropriate way to start than with Parry‘s jubilant anthem I Was Glad, the choir singing the opening line as one. This was a terrific performance, the audience in spatial stereo as the sound of the organ, commandingly played at the south end by Julian Thomas, and the choir, at the north end, met in the middle. That both forces were so closely aligned said much for Butcher’s musical instincts.
The new music director – the Philharmonic Society’s first woman conductor – introduced herself, in the process revealing the enthusiasm and passion at the heart of her conducting. There was great musicality, too, evident throughout a vibrant and magnificently sung account of Vivaldi’s Gloria. The daring choice of a fast tempo for the Gloria itself was a challenge met head on by the choir, while the fugue of Cum Sancto Spiritu was given impressive authority by the spirited bass section.
The two soloists, soprano Rebecca Milford and mezzo-soprano Katie Macdonald, found the ideal balance with a reduced orchestra to fill the chapel in the arias. The Et in terra pax section was suitably darker in colour, prompted by Vivaldi’s minor-key harmonies, before Macdonald’s fulsome mezzo came into its own for the Qui sedes section. Meanwhile Milford’s clear soprano was the ideal foil for the sensitively played continuo group in the Domine Deus, giving full voice to Vivaldi’s inspiration.
To finish the first half we heard Eugene Butler’s Song of Mine, Depart, a setting by the prolific American composer of verse by Paul Verlaine. This made an attractive encore piece, its lilting refrain nicely phrased by the choir with melodic keyboard accompaniment.
Tonbridge Philharmonic concerts are known for their original repertoire selections, and the inclusion of Fanny Mendelssohn’s Overture in C major – her only known orchestral piece and seemingly a recent discovery – made for a bracing beginning to the second half. The orchestral writing is surprisingly full for its time, to these ears even pointing the way towards Tchaikovsky and Sibelius, but there was still room for the attractive melodies to make themselves known, especially the balletic second theme.
The Overture led straight into the Scottish Symphony by Fanny’s brother, Felix Mendelssohn – the siblings closely linked throughout their personal and professional lives. The Scottish, third of five in Felix’s symphonic canon, is one of the jewels in his output. Its craft and wholesome melodic invention were brought to the fore here, with tempo choices from Butcher (above) that felt just right. These included the solemn opening – where the woodwind choir deserve great credit for their phrasing – to the open-air scherzo, where the violins and solo clarinet (Amanda Curd) were especially good. The Scottish outdoors was painted vividly here, its fresh air palpable – as was also the case in a heartfelt slow movement where Butcher cajoled some lovely phrasing from the orchestra. The finale was a darkness to light experience, thoughtful to begin with but blossoming as the music moved into the major key and an ultimately triumphant conclusion.
It is worth allowing for the fact that many musicians may have lost the ability or even motivation to practice during the pandemic – but there was no evidence of standards having changed here. Rather, with passionate performances from choir, orchestra and conductor alike, Naomi Butcher has brought a breath of fresh air to the Tonbridge Philharmonic Society. Her next few concerts include Prokofiev, Rachmaninov, Duruflé and Sibelius, and if they live up to the standards set by this enticing opener they will be well worth catching.
For further information on the Tonbridge Philharmonic Society click here