They are back. The London Philharmonic traditionally play six orchestral concerts at Eastbourne’s Congress Theatre. Since December 2016 the concert hall has been closed for a full internal renovation following the very sympathetic restoration of the façade from 2010. The Orchestra did not abandon Eastbourne during the closure, with many of their leading players taking part in a total of eleven chamber music concerts at the Devonshire Park Theatre. Excellent though these were there is little musically to match the sound of a leading orchestra on top form, so with a sense of considerable excitement that a packed house welcomed the Orchestra back for the re-opening concert. Overall the restoration of the Grade II* listed theatre opened in 1963 by Princess Margaret is most impressive. The light and airy foyer areas have 1960s style chairs and light fittings as well as new carpet in the original colours. The hall itself had the same seating plan as before but the new red tip up seats are much more roomy and the cork flooring aids the considerably improved acoustic. Many attractive original features remain including the refurbished teak cladding. Eastbourne now has a concert hall fit for the 21st Century.
It was fitting that the London Philharmonic should play the opening concert at this splendidly restored venue as they performed the inaugural concert on 13th June 1963. After short speeches by the Mayor of Eastbourne Gill Mattock and LPO Chief Executive Timothy Walker (who mentioned that the orchestra had recently played at the opening of other halls in Beijing and Singapore) the National Anthem was played, as it had been in that first concert in 1963.
Conductor Darrell Ang, who was born in Singapore, has had a glittering career, perhaps most notably with St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky orchestra. He directed the LPO with a precision reminiscent of the young Simon Rattle in Glinlka’s Ruslan and Ludmilla Overture getting the best from each section and individual player. The piece showed of the improved acoustics. I noted that it was “like going from an old record player to a state of the art hi-fi”.
From Russian frivolity we moved, suitably for an English concert hall on re-opening day, to one of the glories of twentieth century English orchestral music, albeit a piece known more for its melancholy grandeur, Elgar’s Cello Concerto. Sadly, for one who’s love of the piece was ignited by the wonderful Jacqueline du Pre/Barbirolli recording, the soloist Kian Soltani seemed nervous on what was his second performance with the orchestra (having played the same piece the night before under Edward Gardner at the Festival Hall) and his playing seemed somewhat too slow and muted, only beginning to play with the necessary sense of emotion and portent near the end of the piece.
After the interval Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony lightened the tone and ushered in a more celebratory mood, despite the composer describing it as “a complete resignation before fate”. The piece was written during one of the rare happy periods in Tchaikovsky’s life, at the same time as he was creating his most successful ballet, The Sleeping Beauty. There are tragic elements especially in the sombre initial theme of the first movement which has (gentler) similarities to the start of Beethoven’s 5th and these recur but the second movement has that glorious tune later used (apparently unknowingly) by John Denver in Annie’s Song , the third is in Walz time, and the fourth has a triumphant finish. The Tchaikovsky symphonies have become almost home territory for the LPO as their Russian principal conductor Vladimir Jurowski has a deep understanding of the works and has recorded all six with the orchestra. That is not to say that Darrell Ang (a protegee of another Russian maestro Valery Gergiev) did not put his own stamp on the 5th. That same precision that he displayed in the Glinka was here too and in particular he drew wonderful sounds out of the brass section. Overall a performance that promised much for Eastbourne’s lovers of orchestral music. We again have a venue to do justice to one of Britain’s greatest orchestras. It’s good to have them back. (****)