Our wonderful local theatre, the Royal and Derngate, has this subscription season for a bunch of concerts by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. We’ve subscribed to four of them. One was last November, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and Bruch’s Violin Concerto No 1. The Bruch was good but with the Beethoven, though enjoyable, the chorus was a bit ropey, the conductor (Nicolae Moldoveanu) way over the top and the whole performance so fast and frenzied that I thought some of the subtleties might have been overlooked.
Fast forward then to Sunday and “Natalie Clein plays Dvořák”. This actually misrepresents the evening as it was but one part thereof. We started off with the Ruslan and Ludmila Overture by Glinka, a piece of music described in the programme as “fizzy”. An apt description, with violins seething like a disturbed wasps’ nest, and the kind of tune to get you into a party mood. Albeit a classical party.
Then on came Natalie Clein, winner of the BBC Young Musician of the Year in 1994, Classical Brit Award for Young British Performer of 2005, and the first ever British winner of the Eurovision Competition for Young Musicians. I know all this to be true, because it is taken from her biography in the programme. And that must be true too, as it has been lifted from Wikipedia.
We were to hear Dvořák’s Cello Concerto. From the moment the orchestra strikes up, you are in instant Dvořák territory, somewhere between the New World and a Slavonic Dance or two. I had a fantastic eyeline to Natalie Clein’s most expressive face. She suffered every moment of Dvořák’s angst. She fought with a dramatically wispy bit of hair that kept flinging itself over her eyes as if to enhance that Bohemian gloom. I know that she looked at me too. She saw me appreciating her angst and her eyes said, “Enjoy the angst – it’s good angst, I’m doing it for you”. It wasn’t a perfect performance; she clattered the bow across the edges of the cello a few times in the first movement (I’m no cellist but I’m sure it wasn’t intentional) and kept on fiddling with her tailpin as if she wasn’t comfortable with its stability. But by the time we had reached the Adagio it was fluid and searing and telling and moving. We were part of a well-behaved audience so you could hear every bit without coughing fits. I had that feeling of “great privilege to witness it”.
After the interval it was Beethoven’s 7th Symphony. I confess I have never really got to grips with Beethoven. I think it’s something to do with the fact that, as a child, the second classical album I was ever bought was Beethoven’s 9th (and 8th) Symphonies – a double album, with Beethoven’s 9th stretching over the first three sides, and the 8th on the fourth. Something about this offended my sense of sequence. I was annoyed that the 9th came before the 8th. So, like the big-headed little git I was, I insisted on hearing the 8th before the 9th. And I don’t think it impressed me much (I was probably 7 at the time.) Thus I went off Beethoven.
But the bits of Beethoven I have encountered since then I have largely enjoyed, and few as much as the 7th Symphony. But this number-blindness with Beethoven also means I can never remember which tunes are in which number symphony. So I settled down for this performance without knowing what to expect. The programme notes referred to the extremely popular second movement, the Allegretto, and I tried hard to recollect it.
At this point some horrible sound emanated from the stage, and Mrs Chrisparkle and I caught each other’s eyes in agreement that one of the trumpets had suffered an unfortunate slip of the lips. However, then, like good children, they settled down and played nicely. But it wasn’t until the Allegretto started that I remembered it. It’s one of my absolute favourite pieces – I let out what I think was a far too audible sigh of pleasure as it got going and the tears welled up. It’s just one of those tunes.
And from then on, they didn’t put a bow wrong. They were really tight, really together, made a glorious stirring noise throughout and we loved it. Never before have I noticed Mrs Chrisparkle beating out a rhythmic tattoo with her hands at a concert like she was last night. And I have to commend the conductor, Garry Walker. Dressed in a short velvet jacket and black trousers (the lady on my right let out an “Ooh he’s been to Oxfam” when he first appeared), he let the orchestra be the star. He had this admirable ability to keep total control of the orchestra with minimal movement. He was so undistracting. Only occasionally, when really excited, he did a rather endearing little dance on his podium. The other star was Beethoven, who I think was the recipient of most of my applause at the end. At the end of the first half, Natalie Clein had given a short encore which she said was dedicated to Garry Walker’s new daughter, born approximately ten hours before the concert. Wow. So, he must have been knackered too.
My only slight criticism of the programme was that there was nothing really to challenge the listener – nothing cerebral, brave, ambitious and ultimately disappointing. It was just scrumptiousness followed by bliss and ending up with sheer delight. But I wouldn’t hold that against them. As Mrs Chrisparkle reminded me, “we are in The Provinces”.
And so it was that we didn’t sleep much last night, as sensory overload wouldn’t let go of our brains. I trust an evening in front of the TV tonight will put paid to that.