REVIEW: Gastronomique Gourmets’ concert, Worthing Symphony Orchestra

John Gibbons
John Gibbons

Richard Brooman (eater), Judd Launder (waiter), Indigo Restaurant (real food), Jess Gillam (alto saxophone), Martin James Bartlett (grand piano), John Gibbons (conductor). Assembly Hall.

George Gershwin, Girl Crazy overture; Malcolm Arnold, Saxophone Concerto; Dmitri Kabalevsky, Comedians’ Gallop from The Comedians Suite; Arnold, Grand Concerto Gastronomique; Eric Coates, London Suite (‘London Everyday’); William Alwyn, Scottish Dances; Gershwin, Rhapsody In Blue.

Check the above line-ups again, of artistes and music played. It’s all true. I’m not joking. Although some of the music is. And how welcome.

Stuffy traditional classical music concert programming so often undervalues and passes over the validity and value of humour in music. The result is sobersided audiences starved of laughter outside the opera house − unless Haydn has been allowed past the doorman with one of his most amusing symphonies, or Gerard Hoffnung was handed the stage, carte blanche.

Before Sunday, only twice before in the history of British concert giving has anything happened like the following. The orchestra, black-tied, are playing a spitting distance from a single restaurant table laid for dinner. The musicians are quaffing glasses of rosé. A waiter awaits by a distant table bearing food. Music strikes up, and it sounds less than sober.

Suddenly, in through an auditorium door strides a very tall, rotund and ostentatious gentleman, suited, hatted and walking-sticked, with waistcoat, bow tie and breast-pocket kerchief in the vibrant colours of Old Merchant Taylors’ School. To musical accompaniment, via obsequious waiter service, and with little ceremony, he stylishly demolishes most of a six-course meal.

After raw rock oysters, asparagus soup, and roast beef rump, the waiter (unbeknown to the audience) can provide only horseradish sauce instead of the scheduled peach melba. A red ball of Edam cheese explodes and, after brandy, the coffee is stiff Turkish.

It’s an improvised mime rehearsed only on the morning of the performance and with no previous discussion. Stand by for two contradictions in terms: Brunel University drama student Judd Launder is the doing waiting. And the eating ‘soloist’ is Richard Brooman, a chartered accountant and part-time operatic baritone, taking time off from doing tax returns, Turandot and The Mikado.

The dish melba being named after a star operatic soprano, percussionist Chris Blundell plays Ave Maria on the glockenspiel, then switches back to his busy drum kit where earlier, during the roast beef, he helped himself to another swig of wine.

This was Malcolm Arnold’s Grand Concert Gastronomique, composed for and premiered at the 1961 Hoffnung Festival. Brooman performed the role in the work’s second performance, only four years ago, in Arnold’s birthplace, Northampton. The composer died in 2006 but his daughter Catherine was now in the Worthing audience, and watching Brooman receive from the Worthing Symphony Society and chairman/bassist Eddie Hurcombe, instead of a gratitude bouquet or bottle, a giant box labelled ‘mints’.

Massive credit to John Gibbons for his daring and enterprise in programming this whole afternoon, which was another of his many triumphs in introducing and entertaining his audience with unexpected and sometimes virtually unknown music. It was his latest reward for his 17 years of developing this Worthing concert-going audience’s taste into surely one of the most receptively catholic in provincial Britain. They now know how to let their hair down.

Take another look at the rest of the seven-course programme menu above. Gone at the WSO are the days of bread-and-butter classical music excluding anything else.

Gone also are has-been soloists trotting out habitual manners and formal interpretation. Here were two recent BBC Young Musician of the Year products, one a brass finalist, one the latest winner, neither yet 19, both unreservedly starring in vintage Alfred Brendel /Hank Marvin-style horn-rimmed glasses and guesting with WSO a second time.

This audience now hangs on every note both of them play, just as with Nicola Benedetti (see below). Jess Gillam’s saxophone now seduces them just as much as Benedetti’s violin and Jess’ concerto was this time all-too brief, yet deeply fascinating. Martin James Bartlett had two absolute winners with which to clinch a continually entertaining programme.

His BBC Proms appearance at the Royal Albert Hall on August 9 was also with Rhapsody In Blue but Gibbons and the WSO co-soloists were not about to be downgraded by Eric Whitacre and the Royal Philharmonic. Ian Scott’s opening clarinet glissando slide was wonderfully and outrageously extravagant, not to mention technically brilliant. And later, the brass boys, already happy as pigs in you-know-what, got out their wah-wahing mutes and made it all a party.

Bartlett, meanwhile, was also completely at home, spinning off the astonishing classical pianistic bravura among all the jazz, blues and swing, and ready for whatever next Gershwin threw at him. And after it was over, and some audience members were up on their feet applauding their hands raw, he came back. Having accepted a box of chocolates masquerading as a vintage radio (which fooled me, for one), he dashed off one of Gershwin’s dazzling party-piece improvisations from his songbook.

It was I Got Rhythm. Which could now become the self-proclaiming signature tune for this versatile and enquiring WSO audience. They went home from this concert just amazed. And it had all taken place in their own back yard.

Richard Amey

Classical superstar Nicola Benedetti has been added to this season with Szymanowsky’s Violin Concerto No 2, along with the Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 4, on January 15 − a Friday − at 7.30pm.

The remarkable Poom Prommachart, makes two Worthing appearances in a week next month. The first reprises his winning Sussex International Piano Competition Grand Final display in Rakhmaninov’s Concerto No 3. That will be with WSO on Remembrance Day, November 9 (2.45pm). Then he brings his own intriguing programme of Chopin, Grünfeld and Medtner in his long-anticipated solo Worthing Symphony Society Interview Concert, given intimately in-the-round and creating a special audience experience at The Denton on Thursday, November 12 (7.15pm).

Revered actress Vanessa Redgrave brings national celebrity to the November 9 concert. She will narrate, and the handpicked renaissance-specialising local ensemble just born, Worthing Chamber Choir, will sing in Laura Rossi’s piece, Voices of Remembrance. Also that day, A Shropshire Lad and Le Jardin Suspendu, by George Butterworth and Jehan Alain − both composers counted among the war dead from the 1914-18 world conflict.

Worthing Chamber Choir debut in music by Byrd, Monteverdi, Purcell and Gesualdo at their home base of St Botolph’s Church, Heene, on October 24 (7pm).

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