Review – Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Last Night of the Derngate Proms, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 15th July 2012

Last Night of the Derngate PromsWhilst the Royal Albert Hall is enjoying the opening week of its Proms season, here in Northampton we’re ahead of the game, with Sunday’s Last Night of the Proms concert marking the end of the 2011-2012 Subscription Season. The Derngate was packed. Whilst I was ordering the drinkies, Mrs Chrisparkle had to text me from the far side of the foyer where she was attempting to purchase a programme to say it was so busy it would be some time before we would be reunited. When the theatre is this packed it’s good news for everyone!

The avuncular Owain Arwel Hughes was in command of a feisty Royal Philharmonic, and it was to be an evening of bite sized chunks of classical fireworks. We started off with O Fortuna from Carmina Burana – always a great wake-up call. The orchestra were clearly in fine form, and the Northampton Bach Choir gave it all they had. From our vantage point, Mrs Chrisparkle and I had an excellent clear view of the percussion section – on the far left side of the orchestra instead of their normal position at the back. It was fascinating to watch the skill and concentration required to manage the wide range of percussion instruments from the huge gong to the little triangle. It’s a full second between banging the gong and the rich sound emanating from it, something I certainly hadn’t realised before. Anyway O Fortuna was a cracking start, although inside I did feel a little sorry that they weren’t going to play the entire Carmina Burana. Maybe next season?

Northampton Bach ChoirNext we had Va Pensiero from Verdi’s Nabucco, an opera, not a manufacturer of biscuits as I had once erroneously believed. Again a great rendition from the choir and a charming gentle contrast with the crisp oomph of the Orff. Tchaikovsky’s Polonaise from Eugene Onegin followed, a great tune and the RPO gave it full colour and dynamism – a really enjoyable performance. It was at this point that I started to watch the interaction between an older violinist in the front row and the young pretender sitting next to him. The younger man was very courteous in his dealings with the older – it was as though by sharing the same music stand he was gaining wisdom and experience from the older man. It was quite intriguing and I feel it helped both of their performances. It was just one of a number of interactions we observed within members of the orchestra that evening.

Then we had Fauré’s Cantique de Jean Racine, a new piece for me. I loved the beauty of the cello playing, delightfully highlighted by Suzy Willison-Kawalec on the harp. But I did think the choir was a bit off on this one. It all started to sound a bit muddy somehow. By the time we had moved on to Vaughan Williams’ O Clap Your Hands, another première to my eardrums, I felt the choir had got distinctly ragged. T sounds ricocheted all over the place and there were enough loose sibilants to suggest the Reptile House at Regent’s Park. Maybe they needed an interval break.

Viv McLeanBefore the interval though, came the definite highlight of the night – Viv McLean as the soloist for a performance of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. The orchestra gave a great rendition of the seedier sounds of Manhattan that the piece is meant to represent – the introduction, for example, sent tingles up my spine. I loved the percussion giving it the Cuba rhythms, and the brass sounded tough and industrial. But Viv McLean’s performance was just superb. He really expressed what Gershwin described as the “Metropolitan Madness” of the piece, and you could hear the sound of carriages over steely train tracks that were Gershwin’s inspiration. A great performance that sent us in for our interval Chenin Blanc on a happy high. I did however observe another rather odd interaction, this time between the two cellists at the front. One was rolling her eyes in a “forchrissake” sort of way, and the other one was trying not to laugh at her. Not sure what it was that warranted this slightly unprofessional behaviour but it didn’t look terribly respectful.

After the interval we were welcomed back with Rossini’s William Tell Overture and what was possibly the orchestra’s best performance of the night. The cellists were back on best behaviour and the sound they produced for the first part of the overture was pure and stunning. The whole orchestra brought out the tunefulness of the piece – particularly that first three quarters that you don’t always hear. And when it came to the famous Lone Ranger finale, they played with such gusto and verve that it was a sheer delight.

Next we had the third and last piece of music that was new to me, Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus. It was quietly elegant and charming but made such a huge contrast to the Rossini that I barely noticed it before it was over. Moving on to Elgar’s Nimrod from the Enigma Variations; always a stirring theme and played beautifully. It’s just one of those pieces that you can never tire of hearing. Whilst I was beaming reflectively at the music, Mrs C had started to get irked by the apparent grumpiness of the lady violinist at the front. Mrs C had commented “Crack a smile, can’t you?” under her breath a couple of times when the orchestra members had stood to receive applause. After the Elgar, or maybe the Parry following it, this lady and the violinist next to her started having a very sulky looking chat about something that was obviously disturbing them both. “Why do they do it when it looks so awful?” asked Mrs C. Why indeed?

Owain Arwel HughesAnyway, the Parry; “I was Glad” was the piece, and it’s one I can never remember until I hear it and then I remember how much I like it. A complex work and the choir gave it a brave stab – and it did come over as a very joyous experience, so job done. More Elgar, with Pomp and Circumstance March No 4; very smartly done, and definitely getting the increasingly jingoistic Northampton audience to prepare for some interaction. Large flags were beginning to get unfurled over boxes. The rustle of mini flags being waved in time with the music was starting to get louder. Sir Henry Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea Songs kicked in with a beautiful and emotional Tom Bowling, followed by the Hornpipe, which Mr Hughes encouraged us to clap along with – softly at first, then going the Full Monty. Rule Britannia had us all in patriotic voice, especially the second time when, again at Mr Hughes’ behest, we all stood up to let rip. Finally came Jerusalem, one of my favourite pieces of music of all time, and you will be pleased to know that, without needing to refer to the words, I gave a splendid performance. For an encore they performed the racy Can-Can from Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld, adding a French and German touch to our otherwise very British finale.

So thanks to the RPO for another year’s superb concerts which we have really enjoyed – and it’s full steam ahead for some very juicy classical prospects in next year’s season, which will be starting in September with inter alia Jack Liebeck as soloist in Sibelius’ Violin Concerto. Can’t wait!

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