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Last Saturday week, 21st January, the Isle of Wight Symphony Orchestra took to the stage at the Medina Theatre with a concert specifically designed to give a platform to up-and-coming musical talent. Both guest conductor James Thomas, and piano soloist Thomas Luke are at the very beginning of what will inevitably become exciting careers.

The venue had a very noticeable buzz prior to the concert, much more than the usual bustle as concertgoers settle in their seats – everyone must have felt that something special was about to happen. Just a little behind the scheduled 7.15pm start, conductor James Thomas entered the auditorium. Dressed in a very stylish dress coat, he marched to the podium with great purpose, made the customary bow to the audience then turned to the orchestra. With the air full of electricity in anticipation, the baton came down to start the Overture to Humperdinck’s fairy tale opera Hänsel and Gretel. There was not an explosive opening but a beautiful gentle chorale introduced by the horns, which certainly created the most enchanting atmosphere. A rich and warm string sound followed with a sympathetic woodwind continuing this most gorgeous of melodies before a pair of trumpets, with fanfare motifs, heralded a faster section. This quicker music started serenely enough but the music grew with significant tension with such evocative swirling musical patterns, dramatic rises and falls in volume and yet hints of serenity as the opening chorale tried to reassert itself, all expertly directed from the podium. The overture finished with a beautifully sustained and well-controlled note and, upon its conclusion, a silence throughout the venue – broken by the first tentative handclaps before developing into the most enthusiastic applause.

After the shortest break after the piano was wheeled on and the violins repositioned themselves the very young, and highly talented Thomas Luke then took the stage to play Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto in C minor. There is a contradictory confidence and shyness about this young man; shyness in that he gave the briefest of nods to the audience before taking his seat, but then immediately replaced with a confidence as his hands lay poised over the keyboard ready to begin. There was a momentary glance between conductor and soloist before Thomas Luke played the recognisable chords that grow in to the first of many well-known and celebrated tunes. Without a doubt this concerto is a combination of brute force and lush romanticism all of which the young pianist pulled off with the greatest aplomb. At just over thirty minutes it’s a concerto of symphonic proportions and was played with skill and a maturity that belies Mr Luke’s age. The performance demanded a standing ovation and the audience duly obliged. The star soloist rewarded the audience with the beautiful Wedding Day at Troldhugen by Grieg as an encore.

The second half gave us just one work, the magnificent Second Symphony by Jean Sibelius. Sibelius is most known for his hearty diet of patriotic compositions, most notably Finlandia, and this symphony was originally intended as more of the same before it morphed into a symphony. The young conductor took the stage, this time with dress coat unbuttoned. Was he hot or was this an indication of how much effort would be needed for the fort-five minutes ahead? Well, as it turned out, a bit of both! There is a great deal of intensity in the music and James Thomas brought a freshness and quality to it. He knew instinctively when to let the music simply evolve and when to make it taut and angular. The first movement was extremely well paced and the second, with its walking bass line, full of grandeur and passion. The third was vivacious, even though it was marginally under tempo, and he gave the finale gravitas allowing the brass to come to the fore at the appropriate moments. The IWSO was on great form, as they were throughout the evening, and it was obvious that there was a great deal of respect shown towards this young, talented conductor. They must be looking forward to working with him again in the not too distant future.

The IWSO’s sponsorship from Wightlink is invaluable in helping the orchestra maintain the high quality of their performances. The next concert will be on Saturday 18th March at Medina Theatre, 7.15pm. The programme includes Brahms’ Variations on a Theme of Haydn, the Strauss Oboe Concerto, played by Fergus McCready, and Tchaikovsky’s Third Symphony. Tickets are available: here