It is a little known fact that in the early part of the twentieth century many seaside and spa towns employed full time professional municipal orchestras. As tastes in entertainment changed after the war these all began to disappear. Most people are aware that Bournemouth managed to retain its orchestra and from that seed the Bournemouth Symphony grew into what is now an orchestra of world renown. What is less well known is that one other south coast resort, Worthing in West Sussex, also managed to retain its professional orchestra which also survives to this day. The Worthing Symphony is a fully professional orchestra which performs on a monthly basis on Sunday afternoons in the Assembly Hall. This arrangement allows the orchestra to recruit players on an ad hoc basis most of whom play for top London orchestras and ensembles. So whilst this arrangement means that the Worthing Symphony will never become as established as Bournemouth, it does mean that when they do play they achieve a consistently high standard.
The orchestra’s home is the Assembly Hall in Worthing. This fine, purpose-built concert hall was a gifted to the town in 1934 by the mayor James Denton. It seats just under a thousand and, according to current Conductor of the WSO John Gibbons, has one of the best acoustics in Europe. Gibbons, who was educated at Lancing a little further east along the coast, is the driving force behind the orchestra’s current success. He is a champion of neglected British composers and manages always to construct programmes which combine essential crowd-pleasers with unusual and lesser-known works. He also has a knack for spotting and up-and-coming young artists and giving them opportunities to work with a professional orchestra. He has played a large part in the establishment of the biennial Sussex International Piano Competition which will be entering its third series this year. The orchestra provides accompaniment for the concerto final, a fact which gives the competition real credibility and attracts a high class entry from all over the world.
Both Martin James Bartlett and Laura van de Heijden were engaged by the orchestra before winning the BBC Young Musician Competition, as was Nicola Benedetti who describes Worthing as her second home. Nicola was in Worthing on Saturday to discharge a more recent debt. Due to play the Beethoven Triple Concerto with her partner the cellist Leonard Elschenbroich and pianist Alexei Grynnyuk last May, she was stranded by a delayed flight in Boston and had to cancel. Nicola was so distraught at letting the Worthing audience down that she offered to find a gap in her schedule to give a free concert for ticket holders. In the event, Leonard Elschenbroich agreed to play the Elgar cello concerto at short notice and produced an absolute pearl of a performance which had even the players in the orchestra applauding heartily. Nevertheless, eight months later, Nicola kept her promise and appeared on the platform with pianist Alexie Grynnyuk to give us three sonatas: Mozart No.21 in E minor (K.304), Elgar in the same key, and the mighty Kreutzer of Beethoven (No.9 in A major, Op. 47).
Grynnyuk eschews the adjustable piano stool in favour of a very ordinary-looking utilitarian chair. This places him very low in relation to the keyboard and puts one in mind of the late Glenn Gould. Whether, a la Gould, he takes his chair with him wherever he goes, I don’t know, but one has to suspect that he must do as the chances of finding a similar chair of a similar height at every venue must be slim. It certainly doesn’t seem to affect his playing which is masterful with a wonderful sheen and tonal brilliance. In the Beethoven, especially, and to a certain extent the Elgar, the piano is an equal partner not a mere accompaniment. The fact that he and Benedetti work regularly together makes all the difference. The interplay and dialogue between the two is fluent and natural, the dynamics and phrasing are perfectly matched.
The Kreutzer sonata was a full-on, no-holds-barred affair, delivered with a flourish that drew the audience in. There was that moment of stunned silence you sometimes get at the end of a piece before the applause starts. And that is where it should have ended. We should have left with the final Presto ringing in our ears.
Unfortunately the mood was destroyed by two rather tame encores which begs the question: whither encores at classical concerts? A vexed question which we shall return to in detail at a later date.