8 July 2023, St Paul’s Church, Chichester
St. Paul’s Church in Chichester was the location for the annual summer concert by Chichester Symphony Orchestra – founded in 1889 and still going strong over 130 years later. Over 150 people attended. This was a programme of music by Johannes Brahms acting as a sandwich with a Max Bruch Violin Concerto as the filling.
The concert opened with the Academic Festival Overture by Brahms. Brahms had never been to university but in 1876 he was offered an honorary directorate by Cambridge University (which he declined – he did not want to make the sea crossing to England from Germany) and later again two years later by Breslau – now Wroclaw – University (which he accepted). By way of tribute, he composed this overture incorporating some well-known student songs to demonstrate his (virtual) affection for the boisterousness of student life. Despite, or in spite of, the university authorities being taken aback by the apparent frivolity of the piece, it is now a regular feature of many concert programmes. The mysterious opening was carefully delivered by the orchestra before the orchestra confidently ramped up the student life descriptions in a series of grander symphonic passages.
Classic FM’s Hall of Fame chart of the top 300 most popular pieces, as favoured and selected by listeners, often features the Bruch Violin Concerto in G Minor. (Unlike Brahms, Bruch did accept an honorary doctorate from Cambridge University). In 2023 the violin concerto is in fact ranked at number 14. It did not come as much of a surprise then that this was the main draw for this concert, which featured Catherine Lawlor, a previous Leader of the orchestra. The rapport that she still has with the players and conductor, Simon Wilkins, was very obvious and both worked together to do full justice to the music. The second movement is often described as the soul of the work and it was played beautifully. One orchestra member commented to me in the interval that followed that she felt very emotional about Catherine’s performance and would have liked to put down her own instrument, stop playing, and just listen to Catherine’s playing instead. In fact that playing clearly took both the audience and the orchestra deep into the lyrical beauty of the music. Overall, it was a tremendous performance and it ranked amongst the best heard live in Chichester in many a year.
The concert concluded with Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 in D major, written in just four months during a summer holiday in 1876, the same year he had composed the Academic Festival Overture. It is a very summery symphony and yet has some melancholic passages, particularly those delivered by the cello in the slow second movement. The audience reacted with delight when the trombonists rose as one to their feet to deliver the final chord of the rousing final movement. Although an encore had been demanded at the symphony’s first ever performance following this final movement of the symphony, it was not to be on this occasion. How could Chichester Symphony Orchestra possibly play an encore in such circumstances? It was, nevertheless, a ‘superb concert’ as an audience member offered to me as we left the building…
Image credit: Jim Wakefield