Using his iPad to conduct while expertly running through the cadenzas, Howard Shelley’s dual role of conductor and soloist in a performance of Mendelssohn’s first piano concerto might more readily be expected of a young upstart composer.

He wowed the audience of the Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra’s February performance by playing passages with one hand and conducting with the other, earning him a riotous applause from a floored audience in the Dome.  Perhaps this is unsurprising, given Shelley’s illustrious career: he has featured in an award-winning documentary on Maurice Ravel, conducted most major UK orchestras, and has to his name a discography of over 150 CDs.

On 4 March, the Brighton Philharmonic’s programme prominently featured Mussorgsky’s Night on a Bare Mountain, an explosive brass-heavy piece based on the composer’s impressions of a slavic summer solstice ritual. The macabre piece’s opening might remind unfamiliar viewers of quintessential ‘boss battle’ themes.  The published score, edited by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, contained a note describing the associated ritualism:

“Subterranean sounds of unearthly voices — appearances of the spirits of darkness, followed by Satan (Tchernobog) himself in glorification of the black gods and the celebration of the black mass – a witches’ sabbath interrupted from afar by the bells of a village church, hereupon the spirits of darkness disperse — dawn breaks.”

Gareth Small expertly played Alexander Arutunian’s one movement trumpet concerto, which alternates between slow and fast sections, occasionally wading into almost jazzy chromaticisms. Bell’s improvisations in the latter half of the piece bolstered this.

Even more impressive is that for all of its wonderful performances, the BPO is funded entirely by donations and remains one of the few orchestras of its kind in England. Students get a 50% discount and would do well to attend the last performance of this season this Saturday 25 March.

Of particular note is the second piece in Saturday’s programme, Malcolm Arnold’s Concerto for Two Pianos (Three Hands), written for husband and wife duo Cyril Smith and Phyllis Sellick.  The former had lost use of his left hand to a stroke in Ukraine, and the pair took to arranging famous pieces for three hands. In 1969, the BBC commissioned a piece to be written for the pair and performed at Proms.

Excitingly, one of Phyllis’ classmates at the Royal College of Music, Steven Worbey, is one of two pianists playing the piece this Saturday. It is equal parts ragtime and Ravel, oscillating between graceful, dreamy themes and blaring brass glissandos, followed by a floaty carnivalesque section with a playful rumba beat.

Camille Saint-Saens’ zoological fantasia, The Carnival of the Animals, and music from the first act of Leo Delibes’ Coppelia arranged by conductor Barry Wordsworth, will also feature in what promises to be an extraordinarily accessible and fitting finale to the orchestra’s 2017-18 concert season. Tickets are available from the Dome.

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