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 Twelfth Malcolm Arnold Festival, Gala Concert, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Derngate, Northampton, 15th October 2017

Twelfth Malcolm Arnold FestivalOnce again the Royal and Derngate played host to the annual Malcolm Arnold Festival, celebrating the work, life and influence of one of Northampton’s finest Local Boys Done Good. This year’s title was “His Music Abounds in Singable Tunes”, and I can’t imagine a more fitting tribute. A dozen events – concerts, talks, even the re-enactment of a radio programme – all took place over the weekend, culminating in the usual pizazz of the Gala Concert in the Derngate auditorium. Again, we had the pleasure to welcome the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, under the baton of John Gibbons who’s been conducting these Malcolm Arnold concerts since he was about five years old, by my reckoning.

For reasons that he explained later, Mr Gibbons had decided to shuffle the order in which the pieces of music would be played. We started off with Arnold’s arresting River Kwai March from Bridge on the River Kwai; a perfect starter with its rousing atmosphere and cheerful arrangement. Military brass and smashing cymbals at the ready, the Royal Philharmonic gave it a great rendition and put a smile on everyone’s faces.

John GibbonsNext we had Malcolm Arnold’s Fifth Symphony. John Gibbons forewarned us that, if we weren’t already familiar with it – I wasn’t – we might find it challenging; but it’s also exuberant, cerebral, and full of singable tunes (as we had been promised.) It impressed me as a work of great variety. Premiered in 1961, Arnold included several musical references in memory of friends whom he had lost, including humourist and tuba-thumper Gerard Hoffnung, Frederick Thurston the clarinettist, and Arnold’s own brother Aubrey, who had taken his own life a few months earlier. So you can tell it’s a piece of work that demands to be taken seriously.

The first movement isn’t described as Tempestuoso for nothing. It’s full of attack, at times almost aggressive; but I did love the way the harp and celeste played together, creating the sound equivalent of fat golden droplets of rain – well that’s how it felt to me. The second movement is much more lush and warm, with the violins buzzing away together like a deep lullaby – it did actually send Mrs Chrisparkle off to sleep for a short while. The third movement (con fuoco) was one of those instant hits when you really love a classical tune, even if, afterwards, it’s really hard to recollect it. I loved that quirky rhythm and part-played, part-omitted melody. Everything gets brought together in the final movement, and I was really impressed with it. I’ll have to buy a recording of it! Again, the RPO gave it everything.

Arta ArnicaneAfter the interval, the Steinway had been wheeled into place for our only non-Arnold segment of the evening, a performance of Grieg’s Piano Concerto, with soloist Arta Arnicane. Always a favourite piece of music, I knew I had to steel myself not to sing along to the words of the Song of Norway – and I succeeded, much to everyone’s relief. Ms Arnicane looked stunning in a glistening steely grey dress – I couldn’t help but think that the long hem would have got in the way of the piano pedals, but I guess she knew what she was doing. There are so many fantastic sequences in the piano concerto but what most impressed me – and amused me – was how Ms Arnicane’s personal deportment changed with the mood of the music. For the strong, passionate parts she’d sit upright and authoritatively; for those languid phrases she’d almost flop over the keys. When Grieg got playful she’d wiggle from side to side as if preparing for a game of keyboard hopscotch. She really expressed the music so beautifully not only through the sound coming out of the piano but also through her own physical presence. I also loved her delicacy of touch, sometimes coaxing the music out with what appeared to be just the minimum of pressure. It was stunning.

Royal Philharmonic OrchestraOur final piece was Malcolm Arnold’s Heroes of Telemark. This was the first time that this piece had received a concert performance; having languished in film companies’ files for several decades after the film was made in 1965. The piece was re-shuffled to the end of the concert because, when the listing was originally produced, John Gibbons, who was creating the suite from the separate, individual passages of film, hadn’t yet finalised the work (reading between the lines, it was a much bigger job than he was expecting!)

As expected, it’s full of ravishing Arnoldesque moments, with stirring tunes, thumping orchestrations and a few delightful surprises. Mr Gibbons had told us that we would easily be able to identify the German marching songs (correct) and the big moment when the Allies exploded the plant where the Germans were making Heavy Water – also correct. I must be honest though and say that on the whole I didn’t think it really gelled as an orchestral suite. No question it was fascinating to listen to, and for Arnold enthusiasts (of whom there were plenty in the audience) a unique opportunity to hear something that’s been largely lost for fifty years; but for me, I won’t need to hear it again for a good while.

Nevertheless, a great night of classical entertainment, with a fantastic soloist and some amazing performances. Now to hunt down that third movement to the Fifth Symphony!

Review – The Eleventh Annual Malcolm Arnold Festival, The Voice of the People, Gala Concert, BBC Concert Orchestra, Craig Ogden, Derngate, Northampton, 16th October 2016

11th Arnold FestivalAn interesting change of personnel for this year’s Malcolm Arnold Festival Gala Concert; in previous years we have enjoyed the performances of the Worthing Symphony Orchestra, operating as its alter ego, the Malcolm Arnold Festival Orchestra. But whilst we still had John Gibbons as our conductor, this year he was wielding his baton over the BBC Concert Orchestra. The concert was being recorded for Radio 3 so I don’t know whether that was a reason for the change – after all, other orchestras are available, as the phrase goes. They were on great form though. I’m not sure we’ve seen this excellent body of musicians before but they filled the Derngate auditorium with their stunning virtuosity and created brilliant musical pictures from the works they played.

malcolm-arnoldWe could tell this was going to be a fantastic concert from the first item – Arnold’s Tam O’Shanter Overture, Op 61. Mr Gibbons gave us a brief introduction as to what to expect, but nothing could really prepare you to appreciate what an exciting and uplifting piece of music it is. It boasted a fantastic use of percussion (actually the drums and percussion were a big hit for me throughout the entire evening) but the whole orchestra gave it their all and it was a superb way to start the concert.

John GibbonsAs a contrast, the next piece was William Walton’s Funeral Music from Hamlet. I hadn’t heard it before and as it started, it seemed to be taking on an interesting and complex shape. And then, once I had settled down to appreciate it in full, it finished. And not with a bang, but a whimper. I felt slightly short-changed by Mr Walton!

craigogdenHowever, my reward was to follow next in what would be my favourite item of the evening – Malcolm Arnold’s Guitar Concerto Op 67. Our soloist was Craig Ogden, a relaxed kind of guy, the essence of smart casual in comparison to the BBCCO’s formal attire; I liked his straightforward approach to the whole event, not too showy, there simply to make music. He really made his guitar sing – each pluck creates a full, earthy, reverberant sound; the kind of playing where you appreciate each note. Again, I hadn’t heard the piece before, but the Guitar Concerto is a terrific piece of music. Forgive me if I show my (lack of) class, but I felt the Allegro first movement could have been written by Mike Oldfield – it would have fitted perfectly into something like Hergest Ridge. This was followed by the Lento, which brought to mind the melody of Jupiter from Holst’s Planets suite. I thought both movements were absolutely stunning. The concerto finishes with a Con Brio – which for me was a slight disappointment in terms of the creativity of the composing, but Mr Ogden gave it all the brio it required and rounded off a superb and musically eloquent performance.

william-waltonAfter the interval we returned for Walton’s Spitfire Prelude and Fugue from The First of the Few. An excellent piece to get us back into the mood – the prelude was full of stately dignity and the fugue really took off, like its eponymous aircraft, with a mixture of cheeky pride and lamentation. A fantastic performance. Next, we welcomed back Craig Ogden for Arnold’s short but sweet Serenade for Guitar and Strings, Op 13; another simply beautiful work where the juxtaposition of the lush orchestra strings against the resonant guitar chords really stands out.

bbccoOur final piece was Arnold’s Sixth Symphony. Mr Gibbons introduced it by way of comparison with other notable composers’ sixth symphonies – they often get overlooked. Arnold’s sixth gives you an almost complete impression of everything that he could achieve in an orchestral piece. Pageantry, jokiness, suspense, terror, peace and anger. The second movement in particular – Lento allegretto lento – was especially unnerving and spooky. But the whole piece was really invigorating and rewarding – and, as I said earlier, I really loved the drums!

A very enjoyable yet also challenging concert, bringing out the best of both Malcolm Arnold and the BBC Concert Orchestra. Be there for next year’s festival!

Review – The Tenth Malcolm Arnold Festival, Reaching Across The Globe Gala Concert, Worthing Symphony Orchestra, Jess Gillam, Martin James Bartlett, Derngate, Northampton, 18th October 2015

Tenth Malcolm Arnold FestivalOnce again last weekend the Royal and Derngate Theatres played host to the annual Malcolm Arnold Festival, celebrating the life and works of one of Northampton’s most famous sons. As usual, it culminated in a gala concert performed by the Malcolm Arnold Festival Orchestra, better known by their real name, the Worthing Symphony Orchestra. We welcomed back John Gibbons as conductor, who’s been in charge ever since we started attending this annual Arnoldfest. Mr Gibbons is a great host, because not only does he get maximum oomph out of the orchestra, he also introduces each item on the musical menu in an informative and entertaining way. Even when he’s discussing an unfamiliar, maybe difficult piece, he always gives you aspects and ideas to look out for during the performance – and you certainly feel as though you understand each piece of music much more after you hear them.

As befits the Malcolm Arnold Festival, we started with some of the Great Man’s work – and one of my particular favourites in all orchestral music – his Four Scottish Dances, Opus 59. They’re so full of quirky musical observations as well as really great tunes – one of the few pieces of classical music that can actually make you laugh out loud. I particularly enjoyed the performances of the first dance, with the orchestra giving it the full welly of grandeur, and the third, which is so wistfully romantic, you can almost smell the heather coming off the woodwind.

Jess GillamNext featured a performance by our first soloist, BBC Walter Todds Bursary recipient and saxophonist extraordinaire, 17 year old Jess Gillam. We listened, enthralled, to her performance of Malcolm Arnold’s Saxophone Concerto, a relatively short but amazingly expressive piece of music, which I’d never heard before. Mr Gibbons had previously told us we might find it a challenging piece but I thought it was superbly tuneful and Miss Gillam gave it a really funky feel. There’s one passage where it upgrades from a minor to a major key which was the cue for Miss G to make the notes glide all over the place like they were dipped in velvet chocolate. It all came fantastically alive. Mrs Chrisparkle played the saxophone in her youth; I don’t think Miss Gillam has to worry about the competition.

The next piece was – for me at least – definitely a challenge. Doreen Carwithen’s Overture ODTAA (which stands for One Damn Thing After Another). I knew nothing of Ms Carwithen, but Mr Gibbons’ account of her life was fascinating, as she was born near where I used to live in Haddenham, in Buckinghamshire, and used to play at the church in Monks Risborough, where Mrs C and I used to go dog-walking (many years ago when we had a dog, that is.) The orchestra gave it a very good performance but for some reason it just didn’t speak to me, and I found my mind wandering. I think Mrs C enjoyed it more than me, recognising something of the Thunderbirds theme in there somewhere.

Martin James BartlettOur last piece before the interval was a perennial crowd pleaser – Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, with piano soloist Martin James Bartlett. We’d seen young Mr Bartlett last year perform Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. There’s obviously nothing Mr Bartlett likes more than a good old rhapsody. John Gibbons told us that there are several arrangements of the Rhapsody in Blue out there, and that they were trying to recreate the sound that was closest to Gershwin’s own performance. I used to have a recording off the radio of Gershwin playing the Rhapsody, and my memory is that he really invested in the jazzy nature of the piece, and I felt that Mr Bartlett tended more to the romantic expression. Not that that was in any way a disappointment, far from it. Mr Bartlett plays the piano with his entire body, squeezing out musical meaning every bar along the way. Whilst his fingers are caressing or pummelling the keyboard, his back will arch in and out and his right foot will be waggling about in ecstasy. Stunningly mature playing for one so young, and also incredibly accurate too. We thought Mr Bartlett was ace last year. What a difference a year makes – now at the grand old age of 19 he is simply amazing.

After our interval Shiraz it was time for a quick march from another local boy William Alwyn entitled True Glory. I hadn’t heard it before and I was struck by its great rhythm and military bearing – perhaps unsurprisingly as Alwyn wrote it for a documentary film showing real footage of the Second World War. Then we quickly went into Malcolm Arnold’s Commonwealth Christmas Overture, written to celebrate the 25th anniversary of a Christmas Broadcast by a British monarch. I loved Arnold’s cheeky description of it that appeared in the programme: “I have purposely designed it so that the piece will be easily grasped by people listening after a large Christmas dinner”. It’s a wonderful hotch-potch of tunes suggesting the different parts of the Commonwealth who might be listening in, including a really entertaining samba. Enormous fun, and the orchestra played it beautifully.

John GibbonsTalking of which, we come to the final piece of the night, Dvořák’s New World Symphony. It had been a while since we had heard this wonderful symphony, and it’s easy to think of it as just the Hovis advert and not give it the full credit it’s due. The first movement is particularly stunning, and the orchestra gave it so much warmth and passion. But it was the poignant second movement that was played with such emotion and pathos that, as Mrs C and I confessed to each other later, it brought a tear to both our eyes (i.e. all four of them). It was just so beautiful. Whatever it was that the orchestra did to achieve this heightened level of emotion, they got it spot on. An absolutely remarkable performance. And, for good measure, there’s no doubt in my mind that the fourth movement was the inspiration for the music behind the Fry’s Turkish Delight advert.

Worthing Symphony OrchestraOne of the best classical concerts we’ve ever attended – congratulations to everyone involved. A friendly suggestion to Northampton concertgoers: for some reason the Malcolm Arnold Gala concert usually gets fewer people attending than the usual Royal Philharmonic performances that are all available within the same Subscription Season. I hope you don’t think that the Worthing Symphony Orchestra is in any way an inferior provider of classical music? Because they’re great! If you normally miss this one out, next year give it a go – you won’t regret it!

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 – Seventh Annual Malcolm Arnold Festival – A Night at the Ballet Gala Concert, Worthing Symphony Orchestra, Julian Lloyd Webber, Derngate, Northampton, 21st October 2012

Seventh Malcolm Arnold FestivalLast weekend was the seventh annual Malcolm Arnold Festival at the Royal and Derngate in Northampton, celebrating one of the town’s most famous sons. If you’re into the works of Arnold, this weekend is definitely for you. Concerts and talks abound, and this year they mounted a concert performance of Malcolm Arnold’s opera The Dancing Master, its first ever public performance because way back in 1952 it was considered too bawdy for the TV screen for which it was originally written. And all this entertainment for a ridiculous knock-down price too.

John Gibbons in rehearsalWe usually just go to the final concert of the weekend, which this year was A Night at the Ballet with the Worthing Symphony Orchestra under the baton of John Gibbons. Mr Gibbons is an enthusiastic supporter of the festival, and conducted Arnold’s 9th Symphony last year. I didn’t think that as many people attended the concert this year as last – possibly a sign of the recessionary times in which we live. If it’s because the Northamptonians are insisting on only the best – we are used to the Royal Philharmonic after all – then let me assure you, in no way are the Worthing Symphony Orchestra inferior. They were all on fine form, and indeed we recognised the formidable presence of Mr Russell Gilbert amongst the violins, who also appears with the RPO.

At the beginning of the concert, Mr Gibbons’ arrival onstage started inauspiciously. As he walked down the stairs and the orchestra rose, like you did when the Headmaster walked in on a lesson, the musician playing the – is it the celeste? – for the first piece shifted his seat away with a flick from the back of his knees and thus his chair thereby obstructed the conductor’s path to the podium. Thwarted, Mr Gibbons had to double back and wend his way through the violins. We reckon Mr Celeste did it on purpose.

Malcolm ArnoldIt was an evening of well-known pieces and (for us) a number of pieces we hadn’t heard before. We started with Arnold’s Homage to the Queen Suite. This is an absolutely charming, warm, lusciously tuneful piece, like a musical equivalent of comfort eating. I suppose you could call it the “greatest hits” version of the full ballet, which made it a little lop-sided structurally; quite long movements interspersed with some very short ones made it hard to tell when the piece had reached its natural conclusion. I cheated and watched till the musicians came to the last page of their sheet music so that I knew it had ended. Highly enjoyable though, and a recording of it will definitely go on my classical wishlist.

Next was the Adagio from Spartacus by Khachaturian. Old Khachaturian knew how to write a tune, didn’t he? John Gibbons said people aged 50+ will recognise it as the theme to the Onedin Line. Well, Mrs Chrisparkle, who certainly wouldn’t thank you for erroneously including her in that age bracket, was taken back to childhood reveries as she remembered watching the programme back on the old Cattle Station in the New South Wales bush of her youth. She was positively beaming throughout. The orchestra did play it stunningly beautifully. Never having liked the Onedin Line as a kid I was always a bit prejudiced against this piece of music; I may have to reappraise that unnecessarily deep-seated reaction.

Julian Lloyd WebberOn to Delius’ Cello Concerto, with soloist Julian Lloyd Webber. We saw Mr Lloyd Webber about the same time last year with the Royal Philharmonic playing Elgar’s Cello Concerto, and there’s no doubt that he’s a total star. The Delius Cello Concerto was new to me, and I thought it was stunning. Moody and tuneful, romantic but also quite violent at times I felt, you run the full gamut of emotions in less than half an hour. From a clothes point of view, which is perhaps not the best way to appraise Mr Lloyd Webber, he was in an oversized rustic white shirt, having borrowed Olivia Newton John’s headband from the “Let’s Get Physical” video. An incredibly expressive performance, and so generous to the input of the rest of the orchestra as well. For his encore, he fittingly played the first movement of Arnold’s Cello Fantasy, written for him in 1986. That sounded stunning too. During the interval, Mr Lloyd Webber signed CDs and photos in the foyer, just like he did last year. He is clearly the Tom Conti of the classical music world.

Worthing Symphony OrchestraThe second half was due to start with another Arnold piece, his Sweeney Todd Op.68, but Mr Gibbons announced, in the style of London Midland (his description), that owing to earlier delays the Sweeney Todd departure had been cancelled. It’s true, if they had played it as scheduled, the concert would have gone on long past 10.00. However, the sigh of disappointment from the audience was tangible. I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen an item removed from a running order simply because of earlier delays.

Instead we moved straight on to Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker suite and then Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours. The Nutcracker is always such a crowd-pleaser. But for me I felt there was just something held back from the orchestra; I couldn’t put my finger on it, it just sounded a little safe, a little reserved somehow. One forgets how delightful the Dance of the Hours is, and that was another beautiful performance; and I promise that I did not sing to myself either “Everyone’s a fruit and nut case” or “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh” to either of these fine classical oeuvres.

John GibbonsWe were promised some fireworks with Malcolm Arnold’s Electra, and we certainly got them. An extraordinary piece, wild and fiery, full of clashes and attack, making the orchestra work hard to do justice to Arnold’s demanding score. Short – stunning – breathtaking. Then to round the evening off in a more genteel way, we had Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty suite; utterly charming, totally elegant, returning us to serenity for the journey home. Fantastic work by Julia Thornton on the harp, by the way.

Mrs C felt the programme was like a dream version of Hooked on Classics, which I’m pretty sure she meant as a sign of appreciation. It was indeed a very enjoyable evening and the orchestra gave us a great performance. For those who didn’t come, in future get those bums on those seats – you missed a treat!

Review – Sixth Annual Malcolm Arnold Festival, Gala Concert, Derngate, Northampton, 23rd October 2011

Malcolm Arnold Festival Gala ConcertThis was the first of our annual subscription classical concerts at the Derngate for this season – we had to miss the opening Beethoven concert as we were in South America. Usually it’s the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra performing here, but as this concert was the culmination of the Sixth Annual Malcolm Arnold Festival that had taken place over the entire weekend, this time we were treated to the joys of the Malcolm Arnold Festival Orchestra. Or to give them their real name, the Worthing Symphony Orchestra.

If you like your Malcolm Arnold, the whole weekend must be a rare treat. All nine symphonies were performed, as well as some other wonderful classical nuggets. Looking at this from a Eurovision fan perspective, you could call it an Arnoldbash. Don’t worry if you don’t understand that reference.

John Gibbons In a quirkily effective piece of structuring, the programme started with a big symphony and ended with an overture. So first up was Arnold’s 9th Symphony, to which the conductor, John Gibbons, told us to listen with fresh ears – if we were familiar with it – and if it was new to us, just to relax in its delicious musical lines. The only Arnold I know is the Cornish Dances and the St Trinian’s theme, so I was prepared to let it wallow over me.

And it is indeed a beautiful symphony, discordantly tuneful in its opening movements, and slowly majestic at its conclusion. I particularly loved the use of the brass section, with mellifluous horns and a soothing tuba, if that isn’t a contradiction in terms. It’s also notable for the way the harp is used to pluck highlight chords that accompany other instruments – it’s a very impressive orchestration. Much is made of the positive use of the final D major chord, which certainly does make for an optimistic ending.

Nicola BenedettiAfter the interval, it was Brahms’ Concerto for Violin and Cello in A Minor (Op 102). Again this was a piece with which I was unfamiliar, but it’s packed to the rafters with attack and attitude. All this was second nature to the superb soloists. Nicola Benedetti, stunning in a long green figure-hugging dress,Leonard Elschenbroich played the Earl Spencer Stradivarius (c 1712) with serious drive and flair. Leonard Elschenbroich, on the wayward side of bohemian, attacked his 1693 Goffriller cello to vivid effect, pom-pom-pomming along to the orchestra as he went, loving every minute of it. They dovetailed perfectly, and it was a really exhilarating performance.

Ending up with an overture was not as bizarre as it sounds, as Tchaikovsky’s Fantasy Overture from Romeo and Juliet contains a famously lush romantic tune and a satisfyingly thumping climax to send you off at the end of the evening on a Russian high. Considering it was the concert I was least looking forward to in the season, I found it a very entertaining night, and the Worthing Symphony Orchestra proved themselves to be top quality. There are some tantalising concerts coming up between now and next summer – it’s going to be great!