Celebrating 50 years


AST Celebrates 50th Anniversary in style

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 50 years of this Norwich-based orchestra, the Academy of St Thomas.

It was flag-waving time at St Andrew’s Hall, Norwich, 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 this 50th anniversary 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 Norfolk Music Service and Norfolk County Youth Orchestra of the 1970s.

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. 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.

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!

by Tony Cooper