Whoever it is at the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra who has the job of planning the content for their concerts must have an enjoyable but challenging task on their hands. To create an evening purely of ballet works – with such a range to choose from – must have been more endearment than endurance. Their latest concert, A Night at the Ballet, was jam-packed with punchy tunes and glorious melodies; all from the hands of four 19th century men who put ballet music centre stage (or should that be centre stave).
Unusually, we had no soloist to offer us a virtuoso performance of some great dramatic musical landmark; but I guess that’s typical of ballet music. If it’s designed to accompany a stage performance, it needs to be performed by no more people than you can fit into your average theatre orchestra pit; all hands on deck, and no room for a specialist as you might expect in a symphony or a concerto. Instead, we had the Royal Philharmonic on top form, this time under the baton of Nathan Fifield, a conductor new to us; he’s currently the principal conductor with Nashville Ballet and this is his debut performance with the RPO.
Mr Fifield is a smart, dashing, clean-cut young gentleman (is it me, or are conductors getting younger nowadays) but with a genuine sense of the beauty of the ballet and delivering some well-chosen and thoughtful observations on the pieces that the orchestra were to play. He doesn’t seem to be one of those authoritarian conductors who impose themselves on the orchestra; he seems much more to be one of the lads, albeit with the extra task of being in charge.
Our first piece was the vivacious Dance of the Comedians from Smetana’s Bartered Bride. A fantastic way of getting the evening underway, with its triumphantly upbeat rhythms giving the orchestra a perfect opportunity to show their mettle. As well as the swirling violins, the brass and percussion also made a huge impact. It’s one of those pieces of music that, when you read the title on some paper, you’re not sure if you’ve heard it before; and when you do hear it, you’re full of the satisfied comfort of recognition and wonder why you don’t play it more often.
Next up, Mr Fifield introduced us to Delibes’ Sylvia Suite and Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake Suite. He told the story of how Tchaikovsky was so impressed at Delibes’ work (and so unimpressed with his own) that if he’d heard the Delibes before sitting down to write Swan Lake, he’d never have bothered. Fortunately for the rest of mankind, that didn’t happen. I didn’t think I knew any of the Sylvia Suite, but of course I was wrong – this is an evening of Ballet’s Greatest Hits, after all – and the celebrated Pizzicato has been a mainstay of TV and radio adverts since the introduction of Independent Broadcasting. I know where Tchaikovsky is coming from, mind; that Sylvia Suite is a thing of true beauty. The grandeur of its opening and closing movements was stunningly performed by the RPO and the lightness of the Pizzicato is simply impossible not to smile at. But I was most impressed by the almost cumbersome and definitely eccentric Valse Lente, with what seems to have too many notes for its bars; I thought that was really engaging and enjoyable. Again, a fantastic job by the strings.
Mr Fifield said we should compare the Delibes and the Tchaikovsky. Hard to do, because (to me at least) Swan Lake is such a familiar piece of music – possibly one of the most engrossing and gripping works in the musical catalogue of all time. Mr Fifield conducted some parts of it – most notably the Valse and the Scene: Pas d’action – a little more slowly than I am used to hearing it – possibly the pace at which it is most frequently danced. I felt that whilst this enhanced the simple beauty of the melodies and the richness of the orchestra’s performance, it lost a little of the drama. But that’s just me. Daniel de Fry’s harp work was just sensational throughout and I particularly loved the Hungarian dance and the final Mazurka – which I was humming to myself all through the interval.
The second half started with some more Delibes – this time the Prelude and Mazurka from Coppelia, and again, you are reminded just how famous some of these stonking great tunes are. Another really rousing performance from the RPO; I could imagine the lavishly dressed dancers in my mind’s eye. Next came the item that I had been looking forward to most: Saint-Saens’ Danse Macabre. This has been a favourite of mine since I was a very small child and in fact I even learned to play it on the piano when I was about 16 – I just about managed to scrape through it. Duncan Riddell’s magnificent violin playing brought out both the harsh eeriness and the light playfulness of the piece; I also loved the strident xylophone playing. A sheer joy throughout.
For a finale Mr Fifield brought us his own personal favourite ballet music – Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty Suite. It sure contains some stunning tunes but I have to say I still prefer Swan Lake! Again Mr de Fry’s golden touch on the harp was magnificent, and the performance by the whole orchestra of the Adagio was absolutely first class. So much so, that it outweighed the rest of the suite’s content, and the audience weren’t really sure that the concert had finished after the performance of the final waltz. Once they were absolutely convinced now was the right time to applaud, they certainly let rip.
It was definitely one of our favourite concerts from the Royal Philharmonic from all the years we’ve been coming to see them. It was just tutu good. Next month – the Last Night of the Derngate Proms, an excuse to get out your nationalist flags. It will also be the same day as the World Cup Final, so if England are still in the tournament…. I just hope no one mentions the B word.