Review – Sixth Annual Malcolm Arnold Festival, Gala Concert, Derngate, Northampton, 23rd October 2011

Malcolm Arnold Festival Gala ConcertThis was the first of our annual subscription classical concerts at the Derngate for this season – we had to miss the opening Beethoven concert as we were in South America. Usually it’s the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra performing here, but as this concert was the culmination of the Sixth Annual Malcolm Arnold Festival that had taken place over the entire weekend, this time we were treated to the joys of the Malcolm Arnold Festival Orchestra. Or to give them their real name, the Worthing Symphony Orchestra.

If you like your Malcolm Arnold, the whole weekend must be a rare treat. All nine symphonies were performed, as well as some other wonderful classical nuggets. Looking at this from a Eurovision fan perspective, you could call it an Arnoldbash. Don’t worry if you don’t understand that reference.

John Gibbons In a quirkily effective piece of structuring, the programme started with a big symphony and ended with an overture. So first up was Arnold’s 9th Symphony, to which the conductor, John Gibbons, told us to listen with fresh ears – if we were familiar with it – and if it was new to us, just to relax in its delicious musical lines. The only Arnold I know is the Cornish Dances and the St Trinian’s theme, so I was prepared to let it wallow over me.

And it is indeed a beautiful symphony, discordantly tuneful in its opening movements, and slowly majestic at its conclusion. I particularly loved the use of the brass section, with mellifluous horns and a soothing tuba, if that isn’t a contradiction in terms. It’s also notable for the way the harp is used to pluck highlight chords that accompany other instruments – it’s a very impressive orchestration. Much is made of the positive use of the final D major chord, which certainly does make for an optimistic ending.

Nicola BenedettiAfter the interval, it was Brahms’ Concerto for Violin and Cello in A Minor (Op 102). Again this was a piece with which I was unfamiliar, but it’s packed to the rafters with attack and attitude. All this was second nature to the superb soloists. Nicola Benedetti, stunning in a long green figure-hugging dress,Leonard Elschenbroich played the Earl Spencer Stradivarius (c 1712) with serious drive and flair. Leonard Elschenbroich, on the wayward side of bohemian, attacked his 1693 Goffriller cello to vivid effect, pom-pom-pomming along to the orchestra as he went, loving every minute of it. They dovetailed perfectly, and it was a really exhilarating performance.

Ending up with an overture was not as bizarre as it sounds, as Tchaikovsky’s Fantasy Overture from Romeo and Juliet contains a famously lush romantic tune and a satisfyingly thumping climax to send you off at the end of the evening on a Russian high. Considering it was the concert I was least looking forward to in the season, I found it a very entertaining night, and the Worthing Symphony Orchestra proved themselves to be top quality. There are some tantalising concerts coming up between now and next summer – it’s going to be great!

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