Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra
Brighton Dome, 31 December 2023
I’m not sure when New Year’s Eve got inextricably bound up with Vienna and, by extension, the Strauss family but I’m happy that it happened. And Brighton Philharmonic in the Dome may not be quite the Vienna Philharmonic at the Musikverien, but they’re pretty damn good and it was a real pleasure to see the hall ninety per cent full.
The orchestra was slightly smaller than it sometimes has to be for big works – five desks of first violins and six of seconds with six violas, five cello and four double bases – and there were splashes of glitzy colour on stage among female players to stress the celebratory nature of the event.
Of course there was plenty of Strauss in the programme of short works but it was imaginatively programmed and we began with Suppe’s overture: Morning, Noon and Night, played with imaginative dramatic contrast, a delightful cello solo (Peter Adams) and some resounding piccolo chirps at the end.
I don’t normally care for jokey, or any other sort of “introductory”, link-chat at concerts but on this occasion conductor Stephen Bell had the tone about right for an event of this sort. He’s a relaxed speaker who never overdoes it and his cracker jokes “tweeted” in by the audience during the interval were genuinely funny.
He’s a witty conductor too. We really felt the third “hiccup” beat in Tales from Vienna Woods and I liked the way he gave the string octet space to sing out. Tritsch-Tratsch polka is a merry romp but you need to hold onto the reins firmly to carry it off and Bell did, nothwithstanding some amusing and unlikely hand gestures to signal the percussion interjections. He’s good at exaggerated rallentando moments too and used them to pack the Gold and Silver Waltz with nostalgia. He employed the same technique in Vilja from The Merry Widow, After all if you’ve got a melody as good as that to play with, it would be shame not to milk it. So that’s what Bell does.
Ellie Laugharne contributed several soprano numbers starting with Adele’s “Laughing Song” from Die Fledermaus. Bell let her lead all the rubato passages but sadly it wasn’t always quite together. The other problem with this, and the others she contributed later, is that the balance was wrong – at least from my regular E37 balcony seat which is meant to be acoustically the best in the house. In her lower registers the sound was overborne by the orchestra and never did her voice soar above it as, at high points it should. Laugharne is, however, a determined actor who really managed to convince the audience of the mood – flirtatiously throwing roses into the audience during Lehar’s Meine Lippen, for example.
Of course the concert ended with The Blue Danube Waltz (although we also got the inevitable Radetsky March and and a Laugharne encore from My Fair Lady after it) and it was a pretty resounding performance. Potboiler it may be, but it’s full of pitfalls – tempo changes, exposed horn solo, much vamping that can rush – which were mostly negotiated with stylish aplomb.