By John Rushby-Smith

Continuing the Festival’s maritime theme, Monday’s concert began with Mendelssohn’s overture Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage. Unfortunately the introductory calm sea bit was so slow one wondered if the tide had forgotten to come in, and when the hawsers were eventually cast off it was only to show how little this youthful overture has of the brilliance of its Midsummer Night’s Dream precursor. Fortunately matters were redeemed by what followed.

Commissioned by the Philharmonia, Joseph Phibbs’s Rivers to the Sea is a symphonic work of great power and beauty. In it harmonic textures and orchestral colour are deftly interwoven as images pastoral and urban spread across the musical landscape towards a broad oceanic horizon. There are acknowledged reflections of Sibelius and Mahler, but the work remains firmly of its age, and the fact that it proved able to captivate a large audience speaks not just of Phibb’s mastery of his medium, but also of great hope for the future.

After the interval came the evening’s titular event when the ever-excellent Philharmonia was joined by the impressive Festival Chorus and two excellent soloists for A Sea Symphony by Vaughan Williams. This titanic choral work sets words by Walt Whitman, and evokes images of ships and sailors, of wind and weather, as it leads us to a destiny beyond the horizon in a vast metaphor for man’s voyage through life. Conductor Adrian Partington was clearly in his element here. Both his stance and his style relaxed as he drew some impressively fulsome singing from the Festival Chorus and navigated the work’s complex changes of pace and mood with skill. Soloists Ailish Tynan and Owen Gilhooly rode the waves of this massive seascape with imposing confidence.