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Guernsey’s finest take on the big beasts

by Julia Meredith

Anyone at St James this Saturday night would have been struck by two things.  The buzz of anticipation beforehand, and then, when the St James Sinfonia took their seats, how young many of the players were.  Of the 44 musicians, 31 were products of the Schools Music Service, the youngest all of 12 years old.  Would they be up to such mature composers as Beethoven and Brahms?  Indeed, should they even be up this late?!

Both questions were settled once Roger Coull stepped onto the podium and the music began.  Symphony No.8 is a late work, which Beethoven considered one of his best.  Hard to imagine that he was nearly deaf when he wrote it: it’s a lively and joyous piece, the four movements each requiring a clear separation of character, magisterial, lyrical, mischievous – never less than demanding.  Roger Coull’s deft control of the framework – all the minute and varied parts – gave players and us an easeful confidence that we could trust Beethoven’s voice to come through sweet and true.  The ebb and flow of dynamics was beautifully managed, and notable was how the horn and clarinet wound through the denser strings in a graceful calligraphy of sound.

Post interval, with the big black Steinway now dominating the stage, the electricity had ramped up a notch.  One of Guernsey’s most illustrious Music Service Alumni was to play the ferociously difficult Brahms piano concerto, No.2, the Bb major.  Tom Hicks, young winner of a slew of prestigious piano competitions worldwide, was going to take on one of the big beasts of the classical repertoire and it felt almost gladiatorial as he faced the keyboard in the hush that preceded.

From the opening horn enticing us in, through woodwind and strings, the orchestra’s mounting excitement swelled to the crowning entry of the piano.  Tom launched his narrative with an authority and passion that was almost startling, given his youthful formality.  The horn lured the piano out into the rough seas, which the piano rode with brio and assurance, vaulting easily over the dense underpinnings of the orchestra.  His calm composure and lack of musical score made it seem entirely natural that a young man of just 26 should spearhead such a formidable musical force. The truth was, he made it look easy.  As if.  Spontaneous applause at the end of the first movement underlined the audience’s sense of wonder.

The hidden skill of the conductor is, I suspect, as a master-communicator.  Roger Coull kept this wide-ranging body of young performers rigorously together and sensitive to the needs of the soloist.  Without flamboyance he managed to guide, sharpen and inspire his musicians to produce the confident foundations that would lift the whole edifice to thrilling heights.

The next three movements felt like a coming of age.  Tom no longer as local boy wonder but fully mature concert professional:  sometimes managing jawdropping acrobatics with throwaway poise, other times providing the depth and lustre that gilded the whole creation, the emotional focal point that made you want to say ‘Oh that’s what it’s all about’.

Moving as this concert was, it had an additional poignancy.  It’s the last Sinfonia concert to be organized by Gill Freeman, after supporting and mentoring young Guernsey players for the past 40 years.  Her energy, optimism and air of calm will be much missed, and she deserves an enormous vote of thanks from many musical families whose lives she enhanced.

BWCI deserve particular credit for their invaluable sponsorship of the St James Youth Promotions Trust, and also their support of Tom Hicks’s further musical training.  As we witnessed, it’s been a worthwhile investment.

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