Review – The Thirteenth Malcolm Arnold Festival Gala Concert – The Consummate Communicator; BBC Concert Orchestra, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 14th October 2018

Thirteenth Malcolm Arnold FestivalThe 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.

Keith LockhartOur 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.

Julian BlissNext, 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.

BBC Concert OrchestraThen 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.

malcolm-arnoldAfter 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.

BBC COThe 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.

Review – The Ninth Annual Malcolm Arnold Festival, A Night With The Stars Gala Concert, Worthing Symphony Orchestra, Julian Bliss, Martin James Bartlett, Derngate, Northampton, 19th October 2014

9th Malcolm Arnold FestivalOnce again the Royal and Derngate Northampton played host to the annual Malcolm Arnold Festival with a weekend of concerts, talks, films and readings; and once again, Mrs Chrisparkle and I just attended the Gala Concert on the Sunday night. Maybe one year we will immerse ourselves more deeply in the whole Malcolm Arnold Thing; I’m sure it’s all highly entertaining. But for this year, we were happy to limit ourselves to the Main Show.

All hail the return of the Worthing Symphony Orchestra under its nom de baton of the Malcolm Arnold Festival Orchestra, ably conducted as always by John Gibbons. It’s the fourth year in a row that Mr Gibbons has fronted the WSO for this concert, and they always do a sterling job. The programme for the evening is always varied and exciting; this year was no different, with an overture, a premiere, two soloists, two concertos, some old favourites, a speed challenge and Finlandia. That’s a lot to pack in to around two hours.

John GibbonsWe started off with the first of three Malcolm Arnold pieces of the evening, A Sussex Overture, Op 31 – not inappropriate for a Sussex based orchestra. It’s a very cheeky and brash nine minutes or so, giving plenty of opportunities for the percussion to shine. John Gibbons said that, having discovered this overture, it’s going to become a mainstay of many WSO concerts to come – amen to that.

Next came Malcolm Arnold’s Clarinet Concerto no 1, Op 20, and the first of the evening’s three encounters with the excellent Julian Bliss. Like the Sussex Overture, I hadn’t heard this before but it’s a very imaginative and lively piece of music. John Gibbons described it as “dark jazz” and “not an easy listen” at times. To be honest, I felt he over-emphasised its difficulties as we both found it rewarding and entertaining. I loved the chirrupy tune in the first movement, and the “dark” second movement was like being massaged by woodwind. Mr Bliss has a wonderfully infectious personality in front of an orchestra and you can only marvel at his musicality and skill.

Julian BlissAs an antidote to the challenges of the Arnold Clarinet Concerto, we next had “Morning” and “In the hall of the Mountain King” from Grieg’s Peer Gynt. A couple of much loved old favourites that everyone knows. Of course, every time someone plays an old favourite that everyone knows, it’s always someone’s first time of hearing it – as Mr Gibbons said, “Mountain King” is one of the BBC’s Ten Pieces to Inspire Children, and it really is a rumbustious torrent of excitement once it gets going. To be honest, whilst we both really loved the rendition of “Morning” – great flute and oboe work by Monica McCarron and Chris O’Neal – we both felt that the “Mountain King” sounded a bit ragged when in full pelt. Still, what do we know?

From the familiar to the unknown, and our world premiere, Fantasy on a Theme by Malcolm Arnold for Clarinet and Strings, by Toby Young. Composed especially for this concert and for Julian Bliss (who told us how it developed from some Facebook messaging and several pints in pubs), this short, dynamic piece is full of entertainment. It obviously allows the soloist to extemporise, enhance, embellish, and basically fool around with the original notes and Mr Bliss does this with supreme elegance and panache. Bright, lively and fun – an excellent addition to the programme, and it was a pleasure to see Mr Young there to share in the applause.

Toby YoungLast piece of the first half was Finlandia, Sibelius’ nationalistic symphonic poem; a very stirring experience with great warmth and power coming from the brass instruments, but given great support by the entire orchestra. It gives you a Ready Brek glow to take you into the interval and your fifteen minute Merlot.

When we returned after the interval the two TV screens either side of the stage that had previously just shown an image of Malcolm Arnold had changed to showing a stopwatch face. The first item of the second half was entitled the Malcolm Arnold Minute Waltz challenge – and I correctly put two and two together. Apparently Sir Malcolm had always quibbled that Chopin’s Minute Waltz bore that name, because it’s actually impossible to play it in a minute. Step up to the podium Julian Bliss, to see if his fluttery fingers could whack through the waltz in under sixty seconds. Not only was it a feat of musical dexterity, it was also a success! The stopwatch stopped at 55 seconds; we reckoned it might have been about 1.5 seconds late getting started, but even so Mr Bliss passed the finishing post within 57 seconds. A box of Guylian choccies was his rightful reward.

Martin James BartlettOur penultimate piece was another not-so-well-known tone poem, Malcolm Arnold’s Larch Trees, Op 3, dating from 1943. Very tuneful and relaxed, perhaps with a hint of mystery and bleakness, it gave the orchestra an opportunity to play with delicate expression and gentle contemplation.

Our final item of the evening was a change to the advertised programme. It was to be Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No 2 in C minor played by soloist Martin James Bartlett. Instead, due to a tendon injury, it became Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, still performed by the aforementioned Mr Bartlett. Well, if this is how he plays with an injury, heaven knows what he’s like when he’s match fit. I was astounded at how movingly he played – a really beautiful performance. From where we sit, you can clearly see the reflection of the pianist’s hands in the black panel above the keyboard, and it’s always fascinating to see how deftly they move up and down the instrument. Mr Bartlett threw his entire body into the expression, lunging backwards and forwards, almost standing at one point, twisting and contorting himself to get just the right oomph behind each note. No wonder he gets injured.WSO It was a highly entertaining, skilful and moving performance. At the grand old age of 18, Mr Bartlett is the current BBC Young Musician of the Year. We sat two rows behind his parents – not difficult to see how proud they are of him; and indeed if he continues to develop his skills he has a most amazing future ahead of him.

As always, a highly enjoyable evening of music from the Worthing Symphony Orchestra, with a Malcolm Arnoldesque slant. Pretty good turnout in the Derngate auditorium too. Looking forward to next year!

Review – The Eighth Annual Malcolm Arnold Festival Gala Concert; Movie Classics with Julian Bliss, Derngate, Northampton, 20th October 2013

Eighth Annual Malcolm Arnold FestivalEvery year in Northampton the Royal and Derngate plays host to the annual Malcolm Arnold Festival, celebrating the life and works of one of the town’s most famous sons. The two day event involves concerts and talks and always culminates in a gala concert given by the Malcolm Arnold Festival Orchestra – the Worthing Symphony Orchestra by any other name – and this year the theme was Movie Classics.

John GibbonsFestival Director Paul Harris welcomed regular conductor John Gibbons to the stage and we were all set to go. First was Klaus Bedelt’s “Pirates of the Caribbean”, a very enjoyable, attacking piece of dramatic music that got all sections of the orchestra pulling together; it served as an excellent overture. Next was the first of three Malcolm Arnold pieces – his suite of music to the film “Inn of the Sixth Happiness”. I can barely remember the film from my dim and distant past, but I was really bowled over by Arnold’s fantastic music, especially the beautiful moody second movement – great work from cellist David Burrowes – and the delightfully escalating Knick Knack Paddiwack-based third movement. Structured a bit like Ravel’s Bolero, which would close the evening’s concert, its constantly building energy and arrangement was a real joy.

Malcolm ArnoldThen we had another of Northampton’s sons, William Alwyn, and his finale music to the film “Odd Man Out”. John Gibbons told us it was written before the film was shot – an unusual way round of doing it – and that the scene depicted by the music would be the suspenseful denouement when the lead character would finally get his come-uppance. It was suitably dark and eerie, and the strings gave it real strength and character – an excellent performance. Next was the main theme from “Schindler’s List”, by John Williams; a beautiful, haunting tune played clearly and sweetly by the leader of the orchestra, Julian Leaper. One of those pieces that can help you drift away after a hard day at work.

Julian BlissThen it was time for the return of Julian Bliss to the Derngate stage. We had very fond memories of his performance with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra last November. Now he was back to play Malcolm Arnold’s Clarinet Concerto No 2, which gave him maximum opportunity to show off his incredible style and range. The first movement ends with a cadenza, Arnold’s instruction being to make it “as jazzy and way out as you please”. Mr Bliss filled that space with some inventive phrases and comic echoes that I found a sheer delight – they were technical fireworks. The second movement was extremely strange, with some very plaintive, meditative harmonies coming from the strings; and the final movement an over-exuberant, maniacally upbeat sequence of ragtime influences which certainly made you smile, even if largely out of incredulity. Mr Bliss sure knows how to perform a rollicking good concerto, which took us in to the interval. Interestingly, he read his music off an iPad, rather than the traditional paper sheet music. Mrs Chrisparkle and I differed as to whether we found this more, or less, distracting than the traditional method. Suffice to say, what it lacks in rustling paper turning, it makes up for in positioning and hardware issues.

Poom PrommachartWe returned to the auditorium to hear Alwyn’s march from “The True Glory”, another short but satisfying upbeat piece, which took us into the perennial favourite, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. On the piano, Poom Prommachart, the young Thai pianist who won this year’s Sussex International Piano Competition, and who is definitely a rising star. Although he plays with great feeling and movement, and his performance is enjoyable to watch, I felt it lacked a little light and shade – he seemed to play the whole piece with the same firmness and loudness throughout, without allowing any softer elements in. Similarly, I found the orchestra, at times, became a little muddy with this piece. There were a few sequences where it seemed to lack clarity and organisation. I remember listening to a recording of the Rhapsody, played by George Gershwin himself, and there is no disputing that he absolutely communicated the heart of what he had tried to write – the steely rhythms of a train, America’s national melting pot, New York’s metropolitan madness. I don’t think either our orchestra or soloist really conveyed those messages. It was followed though by John Barry’s “Out of Africa”, a very serene and relaxing piece that can wash all over you like a Radox bath; beautifully played.

Julian Bliss returned for two more short pieces – Malcolm Arnold’s “You know what sailors are”, which is a lark-a-minute sketch of musical eye-tiddly-eye-tie which ends with its foot in the air and a dimple in its cheek; then on to the more familiar “Flight of the Bumble-Bee”, Rimsky-Korsakov at his most show-off, with the usual violin being replaced by the clarinet in a fast and furious whirlwind of woodwind. For someone so talented, Julian Bliss comes across as remarkably unstarry and grounded, and nicely self-deprecating in his couple of short speeches – how refreshing that is.

Worthing Symphony OrchestraThe final number of the night was Ravel’s Bolero, that extraordinary exercise in repetition that grows from the softest hint of a tune to an enormous theatre-exploding frenzy of orchestration. We’ve seen the RPO perform it twice before, in 2010 and 2012, and it’s always a thrilling finale. Again for me, this performance of the Bolero didn’t work quite as well. I felt when it began that it simply started too loudly, and that if they were going to keep the progression up, by the time it finished it would have to be deafening. And so it was, with the result that it lacked a certain subtlety; any opportunities for quirky interpretation were traded in for all-out attack. It must be such hard work to keep that snare drum going, unwaveringly, throughout the entire performance, and our timpanist just about carried it off. The part involving the celeste came over as rather harsh and jangly too. But nevertheless it was still an enjoyable performance, and sent us all home stirred and uplifted. Not long to go now before the Royal Philharmonic’s 2013-14 season starts. We’ll be attending four of their concerts. Always a privilege!

Review – Julian Bliss Plays Mozart, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Derngate, Northampton, 4th November 2012

Julian Bliss plays MozartThe RPO goes Chamber! For this visit of the Royal Philharmonic, when we took our seats in the auditorium it was noticeable how many fewer musicians would be seated in that usual semi-circle round the podium. There was no provision for percussion, and apparently neither woodwind nor brass – for the first piece at least. And also no podium, as for this chamber recital Lead Violinist Clio Gould would direct the orchestra from the rather uncomfortable looking bar stool at the front of the stage. We liked her rather funky black outfit – what Mrs Chrisparkle would call “Edgy Boho”.

Clio GouldThe first piece was Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, without which title Stephen Sondheim would have been stumped. For something so famous, I think I’ve probably only heard it very occasionally all the way through. The RPO became a sea of strings and it was crisp, elegant and charming. I noted all the movements in the programme and I was expecting at some point to hear the original version of the Wombles’ Minuetto Allegretto, but that must come from some other moment of Mozart magic. Eine Kleine Nachtmusik has a rather sudden ending, which, unsurprisingly, I wasn’t expecting, so whilst everyone else had started applauding I was still precariously balancing a plastic beaker of Sauvignon Blanc and rapidly flipping programme pages, which didn’t feel like I gave it the response it deserved. Despite that, I appreciated it as a very beautiful warm-up.

A few extra musicians joined the stage in advance of the appearance of Julian Bliss as the clarinet soloist in Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. When Mr Bliss arrives he looks scarcely fourteen years old, all boyish enthusiasm and shiny grey suit and shirt unbuttoned at the neck, standing out against the relative formality of the rest of the orchestra. The Clarinet Concerto itself is new to me, and is another entertaining and smile-inducing piece of Mozart and Mr Bliss played it immaculately. He just stood in a gap between Clio Gould and the cellos, with no music or music stand to shelter behind, and played the whole thing from memory. The mixture of clarinet and strings is a really warm, soft sound and I loved the way the clarinet integrated perfectly into the rest of the orchestra.

Julian BlissMr Bliss can make it sing too. He can make it velvety and treacly like a musical version of feather down; or give it full zip so that the instrument blazes a trail like a torch and the strings follow in its wake. It was a really enjoyable performance and I didn’t want it to end. Nor did the audience by the sound of it, with prolonged applause bringing him back to centre stage three times. He gets a great rapport with the other musicians – you can see in his eyes how he appreciates their performance too, which encourages both the soloist and orchestra to put in a great show. Afterwards, during the interval, we saw him talking to some people in the foyer, glass in hand. Is he old enough to consume alcohol in a public place?

On our return to the auditorium, the violinists’ chairs had been removed and all that was visible was some seating for the cellos and a centrally wheeled-on harpsichord. The final piece was Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, and I guess they got the violinists to perform standing up to give it more energy. I love the Four Seasons, and I am very fond of Nigel Kennedy’s blockbuster CD recording of it from the late 80s, which for me is the definitive performance. So I was very interested to see what kind of spin Clio Gould and the rest of the RPO would put on it. It was classy, even stately at times, and brought out the romantic where Mr Kennedy brought out the quirky. I loved the way Ms Gould took complete control of the proceedings. Pausing after each movement, pulling dead strings from her bow, carefully putting her hair that had been tossed in rhythmic abandon during the previous movement back into its coiffured place, repositioning the sheet music, deep breathing and regaining focus, checking everyone was poised to continue; she didn’t mind how long it took, she wasn’t going to carry on until she was good and ready. I absolutely admired her assertiveness.

Royal Philharmonic OrchestraAnd it paid dividends. The animation that the whole orchestra put into some of the sections was astonishing. The vivid violence of the fast strings during the Summer sequence was breathtaking. It was so exciting to hear – Mrs C and I looked at each other with “wow” expressions on our faces. Winter was also, I felt, a particularly stunning performance, with a chilling clarity and fantastic attack. Superb support came from the cellos, with Jessica Borroughs leading the team in a great performance; and Christopher Bucknall on the harpsichord was like a voice of reason treading his poised way through maniacal strings.

The final applause was amusing; the gentleman with the bouquet mistimed his appearance so that he almost bumped into Ms Gould in the offstage area; so the flowers (very nice by the way) were never going to be a surprise. When she returned to the stage and he followed her to present them to her, she did a wonderful “Really? For me? What a lovely surprise!” gesture worthy of the Trocks. A super evening of entertainment from the RPO and we walked home beaming with satisfaction.