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!