‘Rapturous acclamation for Sir Stephen Hough’ Concert review by Maureen Greenhouse

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If any doubt existed as to whether or not it was a wise decision to purchase a ticket for an RTWSO concert, then this last outing for the orchestra in its 2023/24 season would surely have won over any waverers – even a Philistine would have been converted!

On 7 April, the orchestra, under its conductor and Music Director Roderick Dunk, was joined by Sir Stephen Hough in a performance of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3. Recognised as one of the most difficult to play, seen arguably as the most difficult in some quarters, the concerto requires not only a superb technique and musicianship but it also places huge physical demands upon the soloist as it lasts around 45 minutes. Such was the brilliance of Stephen’s performance, empathetically supported by the RTWSO, that the audience seemed mesmerised by what they were experiencing. There was hardly any discernible extraneous ‘noise’, such as coughing, in the auditorium, and at the end, after split seconds of awesome silence, the Assembly Hall erupted. The normally quite conservative audience were moved to loud applause, accompanied by cheering and stamping of feet. In over 30 years of attending RTWSO concerts, I can only recall a handful of such performances.

The concert opened with the rarely performed overture Polyeucte by Paul Dukas. It is a piece so far removed in style from his most popular work The Sorcerer’s Apprentice that you might be forgiven for thinking that they were not composed by same person. The subject matter is brutal – the execution and subsequent martyrdom of the Roman army officer Polyeuctus – but although the piece conjures up the tragic story quite graphically at times in the use of the crashing brass, it does also contain touching, calm interludes. Throughout the piece there are some lovely moments for the woodwind and brass, held together by the RTWSO’s strings, often playing long sweeping themes in unison. This is surely a work that needs to be heard more often.

After the interval, which allowed the audience much-needed respite after the Rachmaninoff concerto in the first half, the RTWSO closed the concert and its season, with the Concerto for Orchestra by Béla Bartók. If the piano concerto placed great demands upon the soloist, then this concerto certainly did the same for the orchestra. The RTWSO can be proud of the end product, but there must have been some very physically and mentally exhausted players afterwards. This is a piece where the conductor earns his spurs by what he does in rehearsal so that all comes together seamlessly in the actual performance. The augmented woodwind section was certainly worthy of Roderick Dunk’s acknowledged approval at the end.

Looking back over the season we can reminisce over concerts of extremely high-quality, outstanding soloists and brilliant direction from Roderick Dunk. The success of the RTWSO is also dependent upon a strong Management team and a faithful band of supporters working tirelessly behind the scenes. We owe them all a great deal when, collectively, they bring so much pleasure to the Royal Tunbridge Wells cultural scene.

We can look forward to the RTWSO’s 2024/25 season with much anticipation but the last concert of this year’s season certainly belonged to Sir Stephen Hough. What a privilege it was to have been in the audience.

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