Wednesday 25 October 2023

Pianist Piers Lane joins Norwich-based orchestra, the Academy of St Thomas for celebrations of their Golden Jubilee

Academy of St Thomas,  Benjamin Pope (Photo: Peter King)
Academy of St Thomas,  Benjamin Pope (Photo: Peter King)

Beethoven, Vaughan-Williams, Mozart; Academy of St Thomas, Piers Lane, conductor: Benjamin Pope; St Andrew’s Hall, Norwich
Reviewed 21 October 2023 by Tony Cooper

London-based Australian-born pianist, Piers Lane, went to town on Saturday night delivering a brilliant rendering of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto in celebration of the Golden Jubilee of Norwich-based orchestra, the Academy of St Thomas

Ralph Vaughan-Williams frequently visited Norwich attending meetings of the Norfolk & Norwich Triennial Festival at St Andrew’s Hall. The composer’s Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, performed by Academy of St Thomas (AST) at their first concert held in St Thomas’ Church, Norwich, has been included in every subsequent anniversary concert performed at St Andrew’s Hall. 

It was flag-waving time at St Andrew’s Hall, Norwich, on Saturday 21 October 2023 when Benjamin Pope, greeted by a big round of applause from a packed and excited house, took to the podium to conduct the Academy of St Thomas, led by Benjamin Lowe, in their Golden Jubilee concert generously sponsored by Hilary and Lewis Jarrett. Therefore, founded in 1973 by Ivan Cane, whose son, Andrew, leads the viola section, AST grew out of a handful of players who had roots in the old Norfolk County Youth Orchestra of the 1970s. For their Golden Jubilee programme included RVW's Tallis Fantasia and Mozart's Symphony No.40, and they were joined by pianist Piers Lane for Beethoven's Emperor Concerto.

The programme opened in a blaze of glory with Beethoven dominating the first half with the adventurous and world-travelling pianist, Piers Lane - flamboyantly sporting an aqua-marine, silk-made, loose-fitting jacket - offering a delighted audience a dazzling display at the keyboard delivering a brilliant rendering of the Emperor Piano Concerto, widely regarded as one of the most accomplished of all the piano concertos harbouring a striking opening movement and a glorious rondo finale.  

But the beauty and serenity of the hymn-like adagio makes this, perhaps, Beethoven’s most favoured piano concerto and Piers Lane, absolutely no stranger to this well-loved work - and, indeed, no stranger to Norwich and the AST - brought out Beethoven’s calm and sensitive writing of this glorious movement in a most appealing and rewarding way. 

In stark contrast to the spirited Beethovenian start of the first half of the programme, the second half opened in a quiet and tender way with a telling performance of Vaughan-Williams’ delicate and tranquil work, Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, based on a tune by the 16th-century English composer, Thomas Tallis, whom Vaughan Williams came across while editing the ‘English Hymnal’ published in 1906. One of the Academy’s most popular works, it was performed at their first concert held in St Thomas’ Church, Earlham Road, Norwich and has been included in every subsequent anniversary concert since. 

A lovely work scored for double string orchestra, the opening statement of the theme, Tallis’ original hymn melody broken up into its four constituent phrases and interspersed with a swaying chord motif, found the Academy on top form capturing the spirit of RVW’s emotional writing while the solo quartet taken from the orchestral ranks (Benjamin Lowe, Christine Rayfield, Andrew Cane, Philip Trzebiatowski) offered the work a wilderness of ethereal beauty and peacefulness that in so many ways stamps RVW’s symphonic writing. 

The final work, Mozart’s Symphony No.40 in G minor, sometimes referred to as the ‘Great G minor’ to distinguish it from the ‘Little G minor’, proved a perfect choice. Sweet and nice through and through, it’s widely regarded as the most popular of all the composer’s 41 symphonies with the opening movement gaining extra popularity as a ringtone in the mobile phone era of the Nineties while it was also used in the 1987 Bond movie, The Living Daylights, starring Timothy Dalton. 

Composed in 1788, it was probably quite popular in Mozart’s lifetime, too, and it’s one of only two symphonies he wrote in minor keys reflecting his interest in the artistic movement known as ‘Sturm und Drang’ (Storm and Stress) in which darker and stronger emotions are showcased. The work, however, has one of the catchiest opening movements of any symphony that brought it to the attention of Beethoven. Therefore, as well as paying homage to its composition by writing out passages in his own hand, it is widely thought that Beethoven was inspired by the last movement when writing his fifth symphony. 

And when one thought it was all over. It wasn’t. True and keeping to his professionalism, Piers Lane gave the audience what they wanted - an encore! What they got blew them apart with Piers delivering a brilliant rendering of Dudley Moore’s Colonel Bogey Theme in the style of Beethoven. And the same to you, matey! What the hell, more was to come. Boom! Boom! The Academy never does encores - until now. Turning to Johann Strauss, Benjamin Pope made an excellent arrangement of the Viennese waltz king’s Champagne Polka while fitting in a few bars of Happy Birthday for good measure which ended AST’s Golden Jubilee bash on a high with the conductor and leader saluting the night with a fluted glass of champagne. 

The audience roared, the players gleefully smiled and cellist Sally Wortley, AST’s general factotum and dogsbody all wrapped up in one big drum-roll, simply beamed. Fifty and not out. Many an England batsman would like to knock up such a tally. Stick at the wicket, Sally. Howzat!  

As an aside, past glories by the AST kept spinning in my head while I was sitting comfortably totally absorbed enjoying their Golden Jubilee affair. And one concert that kept springing to mind was the occasion when the renowned French horn player, Timothy Brown, brought the entire horn section of the BBC Symphony Orchestra to perform Schumann’s Konzertstück for Four Horns in 1999. An invigorating work noted for its expressive, lyrical quality and harmonic innovation, the performance stamped the credentials of AST as a trusted musical force to be reckoned with. Norwich is lucky to have them. Bravo! 

Reviewed by Tony Cooper

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