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Tom Hicks and friends (or, Guernsey Music Service does it again!)

a review by Julia Meredith

Writing about young musicians is challenging.  What they have achieved is already so remarkable – getting up on stage in front of scores of strangers, after years of practice, to do their best for the great composers – you don’t want to say anything which might discourage them.  On the other hand, they deserve to be taken seriously.

Happily, Thursday’s Youth Promotions Trust concert at St James made this less of a dilemma.  It offered a heartwarming, sometimes exhilarating insight into the healthy state of music, present and future, in Guernsey.

Some of these kids are just so damned good!  I’m not just talking about Tom Hicks, who was a child prodigy with the Music Service and has matured into a pianist of remarkable power, sensitivity and insight (with an international career to reflect this).

But the quartet ‘Vivace’, of thirteen and fourteen year olds, who opened the concert with such a spirited, playful and technically competent performance of Haydn’s Opus 76 (‘The Sunrise’) could have been mistaken for musicians 10 years older than that, had they been playing behind a screen.  What confidence! They flung the phrases between each other like boys with a ball, capturing Haydn’s good humour, in piquant contrast to their solemn young faces. Great direction from the first violin kept timing perfectly together, deft fingerwork all round and some wonderfully mellow passages from the cello stood out from an already outstanding group of young musicians.

EQ, the current ‘Electric Quartet’, a group of Sixth Form pupils from College and Grammar, have enjoyed ranging across a wide repertoire, from Baroque to Pop, from the Fermain Beach Café to performing remotely, for the Liberation Day celebrations. Their choice of Vivaldi’s A minor Concerto for two violins, charmingly played, continued the Classical theme.

Insieme String Quartet was the third to perform. Drawn from Ladies and Elizabeth sixth-formers, they have played for many high-profile events, and had a masterclass with the Maxwell Quartet. Their selection, Dvorak’s American Quartet, was the most recent composition and makes a lot of demands on young players. The melody sung out bravely, led with assurance by the first violin.

Tom Hicks is just over ten years older than the sixth-form contingent, but his quiet self-possession gives an idea of his trajectory beyond Guernsey, and the slew of accolades and prizes which have accompanied it.  He described the two works he was to perform as his ‘Lockdown project’:  he taught himself the lyrical John Field Piano Sonata Op.1 in Eb to prepare himself for the (by admission, scary) Beethoven late Piano Sonata Op 109 in E, via continuity of mindset as coming from a similar time frame.

The Field was for me an unfamiliar delight, full of delicious tunes – some, eg the Rondo, with its skittish rhythms suggesting a country dance, or possibly a precursor to Arthur Sullivan of G&S fame. Given a gentle sparkle (cider at the fair!) by Tom, it felt quintessentially English, a well-tended and verdant landscape of sound.  More reminiscent of Beethoven were the rapid changes of mood, where it moves into a minor key and takes on a more sober, weighty character. Tom handled these transitions with poise.

After interval the three string quartets came together to perform Purcell’s Chacony in G minor. Here, with some necessary sharing of music stands, the diversity of growth and height between these ages was very apparent.  This made the musical maturity on show all the more impressive.  The applause suggested that everyone in the audience – not just their parents – felt extremely proud of these talented young people, and Guernsey’s ability to launch them towards their chosen path.

It was now time for Tom to take on the big beast of the era, in Beethoven.  These late Sonatas are the full expression of Beethoven’s lifelong experimentation with the piano as his most potent vehicle for self-expression. For any pianist of imagination they are technically fearsome – but imagination is what’s required to fathom and express their emotional and spiritual intensity.

The rippling sweet-sour phrases and swift changes of tempo felt thoroughly autumnal – eddies of falling leaves, the creep of damp chill underground – but whereas Field gave us bucolic appeal (beautifully crafted), there is a readiness to confront and disturb in Beethoven that gives him far more passion, more weight.  Almost shocking after Field’s zephyrs, the mercurial change in the Prestissimo was like the onset of gale force winds stripping the branches … ruthless and irresistible, a force of Nature.

This driven quality made the solemn, almost ceremonial calm of the final movement so affecting.  It becomes increasingly introspective – the inward contemplations of a deeply private man – which Tom handled with great feeling.  Gradually he lets the lightness in, building gently till the sense is of a weight lifted, skipping though passages of technical ferocity with an ease and deftness which suggests many solitary hours at the keyboard.  In its patience, urgency, cajoling and moments of intelligent anguish it felt like a love song to the piano; or, building through the rippling pulse of the left hand, it could have been music for separated lovers … from melancholy recollection into immediate sensation, finally slowing, sinking back into acceptance.  The breath heaves, and steadies.

That slightly dazed silence before the applause began was witness to how far we had been transported.  For someone in their twenties, the ability to interpret so intelligently the creation of a man tormented by his  deafness and hence mortality, is rather magnificent.  That leap – youthful promise to mature reflection – sums up this remarkable concert and these exceptional young musicians.  What will they do next?

We can’t forget for a moment that without the goodwill and support of sponsor, BWCI, and Gill Freeman, organizer, none of this would have been possible.  Thank you, both.

Julia Meredith

27th September 2020


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