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John Gibbons and the Ealing Symphony - a Berlin Sound
Last uploaded : Saturday 26th Nov 2011 at 14:21
Contributed by : Carol Gould



Having spent many a disappointing evening at the Proms this past summer it was a revelation to discover a well-kept secret in London: the Ealing Symphony Orchestra conducted by John Gibbons. Performing on Saturday evening 19 November at St Barnabas Church Ealing W5 to a packed audience the ESO and organ soloist Christian Wilson delivered a level of musical proficiency that could match that of any international orchestra.

The programme opened with the Fuga Solemnis for Organ, Brass and Timpani written in 1937 for the inauguration of the new organ at Austrian Radio’s Vienna Broadcasting Station. Though lasting only fifteen minutes it is a piece that requires well-melded performances from the individual musicians whilst at the same time avoiding an assault on the senses at the climax of the composition. It is a tribute to John Gibbons that he was able to exploit the virtuosity of each player -- the piece was written for organ, six trumpets, six horns, three trombones, tuba, timpani and tam-tam -- avoiding what could have been a discordant cacophony.

The Schmidt provided a natural transition to the Third Orchestral Set by Charles Ives composed over a protracted period of time from 1911 to 1927. It is notable that John Gibbons provided a thorough explanation for the audience otherwise it would not have been apparent that the themes woven into the composition are those familiar to every American born in the past century. In fact those around me might have thought me a mad interloper as I swayed and grinned from ear to ear hearing one excerpt after another from the folk tunes of my American childhood. This is a complex piece to perform; each set could stand on its own because of vastly differing stylistic form; Ives was writing the three movements of the ‘Set’ at varying stages in his life and provided a ‘name’ for only one set: the second composition which he entitled ‘An Afternoon, or During Camp meetin’ Week- One Secular Afternoon (in Bethel.) Gibbons once again managed to generate from amateur symphony performers a sound to match that of. say, the Philadelphia Orchestra with each section of the orchestra brilliantly delineated to reflect the evocative nature of the Ives piece.

The second half of the concert opened with a short composition performed by the organist Christian Wilson: the final stages of Duruflé’s Prélude, Adagio and Choral varié sur le theme ‘Veni Creator’ (1930.) Written to exploit the virtuosity of a soloist the piece was a stirring reminder of the wealth of work written before darkness descended upon the world and, like the aforementioned Schmidt, written during the Great Depression and rise of the Third Reich. Veni Creator -- the irony of the title resonates because the era that followed embodied so much death and destruction…

The final part of the concert, the Organ Symphony (Symphony No 3 in C Minor) by Camille Saint-Saens was once again an opportunity for the highly gifted Christian Wilson to bring to our ears the magnificent sound of the newly-renovated St Barnabas organ built in the nineteenth century at St Judes Church Southsea. Here was the Gibbons touch transforming a little-known symphony orchestra into a Berlin Philharmonic sound. Closing one’s eyes during the final Presto-Maestoso-Allegro the richness of the brass and strings produced one of the best performances I have ever heard of the Organ Symphony.

The evening was a tribute to the great collective talent of the Ealing Symphony Orchestra and to the brilliance of John Gibbons. Would that he had the baton of one of the ‘great’ symphony ensembles somewhere in the world -- perhaps he could improve the sounds I heard at the Proms from supposedly acclaimed conductors.

Likewise these prodigiously gifted musicians ought to be at the receiving end of generous funding and deserve to be categorised as 'professional,' not amateur. The programme lists a wide and demanding repertoire for late 2011 into 2012 that connotes an organisation very far away from 'amateur' status.

A thoroughly memorable evening of which I believe all four composers would have approved.
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