It is often claimed that the best UK concert hall south of Birmingham is The Anvil at Basingstoke. Many at the first performance there in 1994 said “London needs a hall like this.” Twenty-five years on, London is still waiting, but a great London orchestra, the Philharmonia, was happy to celebrate that 25th anniversary. It was styled “The Anvil 25th Birthday Gala”. Not quite a heavy duty gala maybe; no unannounced appearance of Netrebko and Kaufmann to sing a duet, no reception with free wine for the critics. But there was a rising star of the classical music world, two world premieres (albeit lasting less than 15 minutes between them), and two favourite works of a supreme British composer. And a couple of introductory speeches at the start of each half from the night’s conductor, Martyn Brabbins, which said all the right things and in the right tone, with a few witty quips. He performed very well when he turned his back on us too.

The Philharmonia celebrates The Anvil's 25th anniversary © Belinda Lawley
The Philharmonia celebrates The Anvil's 25th anniversary
© Belinda Lawley

The first of the new works was from a local young composer – Samantha Fernando used to sing at The Anvil in her school choir and attend concerts there. Her title Breathing Space refers to the need to find such time in the bustle of modern life and constant communications, and deployed a large orchestra with some skill. It opened with a captivating hubbub of strings and wind, which yielded to a high sustained note on violins and then low brass, and its alternations between scurrying and stasis neatly illustrated the elusive search for points of repose. It featured rhythm, harmony and textural colour more strongly than melody, and it left me with the main impression I look for in a new piece – that it would be well worth hearing again.

The other new work was by Brabbins himself, whose spoken introduction began with his declaration “I’m not a composer.” But thirty years ago he thought he might become one, and wrote this piece for brass band, and put it in his attic. Many years on, composer James MacMillan asked him to conduct a brass band concert, to which Brabbins said yes (“mainly because I’d had three pints of beer”) and the piece got resurrected. In this version for symphonic winds, brass and percussion – “Don’t worry it’s not very long or very dissonant” – it made quite an impression. The mood was one of joyous fanfare, but there were were some tricky rhythms to keep the players alert. Its brass origins were only occasionally still evident, the added percussion especially having plenty to contribute. If I felt “Please Maestro, don’t give up the day job,” that is to do with his excellence as a conductor, not because his piece was anything less than enjoyable.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason, Martyn Brabbins and the Philharmonia © Belinda Lawley
Sheku Kanneh-Mason, Martyn Brabbins and the Philharmonia
© Belinda Lawley

This concert was sold-out, doubtless mainly because cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason was on the bill. He is five years younger than the hall he was celebrating, and of course is well known for playing at a certain wedding, and for being the first black musician to win the BBC Young Musician award. He just might also be one of the best to win it. He played the Cello Concerto Elgar began in 1918 as if the music was all that mattered to him. Kanneh-Mason's tone was luminous, his accuracy formidable, his commitment complete. From the opening solo flourish he commanded attention, and never let up in his concentration. The slow movement was deeply poignant and the finale, which starts out so jauntily only to be dragged into some pit of despair, was a keening lamentation.

Hearing such a young musician play this so well is rather disconcerting. This weary ageing composer, his creative fires and health declining, many friends destroyed in the Great War, summons up one last great piece but can’t disguise the pain it costs him. Its popularity is a little bewildering, and it’s about the last piece for a celebratory gala. But despite all that, Kanneh-Mason found a way to do it full justice.

Elgar’s Enigma Variations maybe wasn’t ideal for this occasion either, but for a minor reason related to the hall, which has no organ. Elgar’s expanded finale put in an ad. libitum organ part, and I always miss it when it’s not there! But this was an exemplary account, beautifully played by the Philharmonia, and as with the concerto, The Anvil let us hear everything in ideal balance. Martyn Brabbins caught the right mood for each of these very varied variations, yet maintained flow and continuity. After a stirringly noble Nimrod, Brabbins' longish pause – needed to let the emotion dissipate before the delicate dance of the ensuing Dorabella – allowed some to clap, but great applause was very fitting indeed at the end. Here's to the Anvil's 50th!

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