The annual Gala Concert of the Malcolm Arnold Festival is always a thing of beauty and a delight to the ear. Northampton’s famous son turned his hand to so many different styles of music, that it’s great to cherish this festival. It’s inevitably a source of great fascination to hear some pieces you haven’t heard before, and to admire his mix of quirkiness and solemnity. For this concert by the BBC Concert Orchestra, our conductor was Keith Lockhart, a dapper chap with a spring in his step who let the music do the talking. He spent most of his time perched atop a rather battered wooden podium that looked as though it had just come out of a shed, which didn’t really suit the glamour of the rest of the evening. When Mr Lockhart becomes engrossed in his music, his left foot starts to twitch and bounces around in appreciation of the music. When he gets really carried away, he does a series of jumps. Performance clearly oozes through every pore of him.
Our first item was Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances – West Side Story, and, as far as I’m concerned, definitely the best way to hear these uplifting tunes. Somewhere, Maria and I Have a Love dominate these symphonic dances, and the percussion and harp demand to be heard in addition to the usual string and brass instruments. The BCO were clearly in the mood for a lively evening of energetic playing and this piece brought out their showbizzy side; the performance went down a treat with the audience.
Next, we met our soloist for the evening, the brilliant clarinettist, Julian Bliss. We’ve seen Mr Bliss perform at the Royal and Derngate three times before, once with the Royal Philharmonic, and twice with the Worthing Symphony Orchestra as part of the Malcolm Arnold Festival in 2013 and 2014. For this concert, once again he played us something different. First up was a Scherzetto for Clarinet and Orchestra by Arnold, taken from his film score for the 1953 movie You Know What Sailors Are. The film is probably best forgotten, but the scherzetto is a brilliant little musical joke; a tune that cocks its head to one side, pokes its tongue out and saucily lifts its leg up. Mr Bliss played it with all the panache you’d expect.
Then he played the more thoughtful and introspective Clarinet Concerto by Aaron Copland – appropriate for this concert because Copland and Arnold were great friends. Two movements are joined by a cadenza, which Mr Bliss attacked with gusto. How he remembers all the nuances of the music – let alone the notes – without any sheet music beats me. It’s an engrossing piece and sometimes you wonder how the clarinet part and the orchestra part mesh together, but they always manage it. A very moving and rewarding way to guide us to the interval.
After the interval, we had a short speech from Paul Harris, the Festival Director, giving us a little extra insight into the pieces and the reasons why they were chosen for this concert. After a brief hiatus where the leader of the orchestra forgot to tune his colleagues up until he got a nudge from the violins behind (I have to say, orchestra leaders are getting younger every year) we welcomed back Mr Lockhart and went straight into our final piece, Malcolm Arnold’s 4th Symphony. In 1958, Britain saw race riots which affected Arnold deeply; he was dismayed and upset that such a thing could happen. So when he was commissioned to write a symphony the following year, he decided to involve instruments and rhythms that would have been more associated with African and Caribbean music, but integrating them into the formality of a “western” symphony, to show how the two can happily co-exist.
The result is a lively and wide-ranging symphony, given additional depths by the African and Caribbean elements. Mr Harris told us to watch out for Puerto Rican influences too, which is why the West Side Story piece fitted into the evening’s entertainment. I must say, I couldn’t really discern much of a West Side Story vibe, but I’m sure that’s my ears not working properly. Of its four movements, I much preferred the second (vivace ma non troppo) and the fourth (con fuoco – a lot of fuoco in fact.) There was a disturbing calm about the second movement – expressed beautifully by the orchestra– which reminded me of one of Arnold’s English Dances, but as though it had been fragmented, and half the notes removed to leave a ghostly hint of the original. The fourth was full of power and amazingly lush arrangements on which the orchestra truly went to town.
As always, the Malcolm Arnold Festival Gala Concert was a complete treat, and an essential part of the Royal and Derngate’s classical offerings of the year.