On Sunday, 5 November, the Royal Tunbridge Wells Symphony Orchestra performed the second concert in a series of six in its 2023/24 season. On this occasion George Vass made a very welcome return as guest conductor in front of the town’s impressive Pro-Am orchestra.
It may have been 5 November with early firework parties starting as the audience left the Assembly Hall, but inside there was an atmosphere of comparative calm and softly smouldering awe; none more so than in the Richard Strauss Oboe Concerto, wonderfully played by Nicholas Daniel, OBE. How lucky were we to experience the sheer mastery that he displayed on this instrument? The Strauss concerto is not the easiest to play with long, continuous melodic lines leaving the audience wondering where on earth the performer is taking a breath! But fear not, Nicholas was employing circular breathing; the ability to breathe in through the nose whilst simultaneously pushing air out through the mouth and into the oboe by using air stored in the cheeks. What a masterclass in technique and musicality we witnessed. The orchestra, too, played its part providing excellent support. Especially nice to see at the end of the performance was Nicholas shaking the hand of the principal viola Nigel Goodwin who had a major solo part. As is well known, violas are often the butt of orchestral jokes, but not here!
The concert opened not with an overture but with Respighi’s pastiche work The Birds. This piece is a five-movement work, composed by Respighi in 1927 but redolent of music from the 17th and 18th centuries. Many in the audience would have recognised the opening Prelude as being the signature tune for the TV antiques programme Going for a Song with resident expert Arthur Negus. The other four movements are perhaps not so well-known, but are cleverly written to imitate bird song or the antics and behaviour of birds such as cooing doves and clucking hens scratching around. The cuckoo call is unmistakable. The work showcases the woodwind section and special mention must be made of the oboe and harp dialogue in the The Dove movement. Beautiful playing by Helen Pye and Lizzie Green respectively.
After the interval the concert closed with a symphonic favourite, Symphony No 2 by Brahms. He may have composed it in record time during the summer of 1877, as opposed to the twenty or so years he took to complete his first symphony, but there is nothing rushed about this work. It is measured with a pastoral feel at times, and has a magnificent ending.
In addition to the brilliance of oboist Nicholas Daniel, it would be fair to say that if, as a member of the orchestra you ‘blew’ an instrument in this concert, you would have had quite a busy afternoon. Woodwind and brass were certainly very involved throughout. From outstanding solos to cohesive ensemble playing, this concert demonstrated yet again how lucky Tunbridge Wells is to have such a very good orchestra in its midst.