This is the first time that I’ve seen precisely the same concert twice. Three years ago, the Royal Philharmonic brought their Planets/Odyssey show to the Royal and Derngate and I didn’t realise at the time that it’s obviously constructed as an off-the-peg package. Watching it a second time, not only was the film accompaniment to the performance of the Planets identical, but also the other short classical works in the first half of the concert were exactly the same, played in exactly the same order, and, I think, with exactly the same expression. Even the audience’s reaction was the same, including the embarrassed chuckles at the words “Saturn – the bringer of old age”.
Therefore, gentle reader, there’s not a lot of point my re-writing my comments of three years ago because they still apply, so can I point you towards my review of their performance on 26th June 2016, and please just ignore my bitter post-referendum ramblings at the time (unless you still feel the same way that I do about that subject – that’s up to you).
We did, however, have a different conductor for this performance: Nick Davies, a dapper little chap, resplendent in his shiny black suit, revelling in his work, and generously giving the members of the orchestra all the attention and respect that they deserve. Funny how Mr Davies and John Torode of Masterchef fame are never seen in the same room together…. I think we should be told. We’d enjoyed watching Mr Davies conduct the orchestra here twice before, for two of the regular Last Night of the Derngate Proms concerts. He must be more at ease with the jolly/gala kind of nights than the seriously cerebral classical concerts.
Two extra observations in addition to my three-year-old review; this time round, I enjoyed all the film sequences much more. Yes, they can get a little repetitive, but you have to admire the artistry and the technological knowhow that got those images to that screen; pretty mind-blowing if you think about it. However, the screen itself is, frankly, a nuisance in the first half. Its constantly scrolling through messages with details of the RPO’s social media pages and an advert that you can buy the CD in the interval is unnecessarily distracting from the performance. Mrs Chrisparkle thought they should have somehow lessened its impact. A conversation in the Gents toilet I overheard in the interval was more blunt: “I wish they’d get rid of that ****ing screen!”
I’m sure this concert will continue to tour and turn up every few years in all the usual places. And there’s no reason not to go again, as it’s a very enjoyable treat for both ears and eyes.
After a year’s break, it’s a welcome return to the Last Night of the Derngate Proms, which, as our noble conductor Nick Davies pointed out, is also the First Night, but we shouldn’t let that bother us. We had the pleasure of Mr Davies’ company for the same gig back in 2013, so it’s obviously a job he enjoys. He has a warm, welcoming style and is happy to exchange a bit of banter with the audience, both informative and informal. As if this splendid evening of shameless patriotism couldn’t get any better, Mrs Chrisparkle and I were joined by Lord and Lady Prosecco, who need no lessons in how to enjoy themselves. The ladies of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra were all decked out in their colourful finery, to give a gala feel to the concert; and of course there were plenty of Union Jacks scattered throughout the auditorium to wave during the familiar exciting bits. And if the orchestra seemed a little hasty to get on and off the stage – as Mr Davies confided in us – orchestra leader Duncan Riddell was going on holiday immediately afterwards, and he clearly had a train to catch.
These concerts are always fashioned as a pot-pourri of Classic’s Greatest Hits, so it was particularly rewarding to see the thought and variety that had been considered for the running order this year. We started off with Vaughan Williams’ Wasps Overture, a lively, buzzy piece of music that immediately challenges the orchestra with its various themes and moods. Then we had the Intermezzo from Sibelius’ Karelia Suite, which the older members of the audience would remember as the theme to ITV’s This Week. Even if the music doesn’t give you that extra nostalgia boost, it’s a superb little piece that builds nicely to its triumphant theme. Great work from the strings and a big shout out to M. Nicolas Fleury, leading the French Horns and celebrating his country’s win in the World Cup earlier that afternoon.
Next up was the Polonaise from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, a rousing, swirling dance that cries out for ballerinas and men in tights. Again, the orchestra members threw themselves into all its majestic jollity, transporting us all into the glamorous ballrooms tucked away in our imaginations. Great stuff. Then a big change of mood – George Butterworth’s A Shropshire Lad, an elegant and pastoral piece that I’d certainly never heard before. Fitting for the Last Night of the Proms as it’s a big slice of Englishness, but with a contemplative nature that appeals to the mind as well as the heart.
Next we were introduced to our soloist for the evening, Soprano Katerina Mina. In a stunning blue evening dress she coquetted through Franz Lehar’s Meine Lippen from his operetta Giuditta, which was also new to me – it only had a few performances in the theatres of Vienna and Budapest in the mid-1930s and never reached London or New York. It’s a great little tune and Ms Mina was delightfully knowing and cheeky all the way through. The final piece before the interval was the Prelude to Act 1 of Wagner’s Meistersinger, which you might consider to be the German equivalent of the Pomp and Circumstance of Elgar; a Teutonic pageant of musical masterfulness. A fantastic way to lead you into your half-time Chardonnay.
After the interval we started off with Glinka’s Overture to Ruslan and Ludmilla, another fizzy crowd pleaser. There’s an art to composing the perfect overture, and in this concert we had two of them. Then we welcomed Katerina Mina back to sing Vissi d’Arte from Puccini’s Tosca. I know it gets trundled out all the time but I think this is one of the most moving pieces of classical music ever written, and Ms Mina sang it with beautiful eloquence infused with tragedy. Absolutely stunning. Then we had Elgar’s Chanson de Nuit, a rather French title for a rather English composition; a lovely, stately ode to romance with just a tinge of Stiff Upper Lip, again beautifully played by the string section. We ended this sequence of music with a lively Slavonic Dance by Dvorak – No 8 in the first set; impossible not to be both shaken and stirred with this smile-inducing, fast paced dance that constantly switches from major to minor and back again.
That’s when Mr Davies gave us our cue that we could start to “join in”. Henry Wood’s heartfelt but introverted Tom Bowling and the always chirpy Hornpipe from his Fantasia on British Sea Songs got us started with the rhythmic clapping – but the audience started too loudly, as usual; then two verses from Rule Britannia, sung by Katerina Mina in a Sgt Pepper jacket and Napoleonic hat, following straight into Jerusalem (my favourite) and then ending up with Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance No 1 and a rousing double portion of Land of Hope and Glory. We’re here for the music, said Mr Davies, and what’s not to like about that? A very happy crowd went home having wallowed in some of the best classical tunes there are. Huge congratulations to everyone involved!
P. S. I didn’t much enjoy the Last Night of the Derngate Proms two years ago. It followed hard on the heels of the Brexit vote and the jingoistic fervour in the audience was overpoweringly abhorrent. Two years on, things have calmed down a bit and the patriotic fun in this year’s show was just about perfect.
P. P. S. Lord Prosecco says he was “just passing” the stage door when he bumped into the beautiful and charming Ms Katerina Mina, still dressed like an extra from Waterloo (the historical movie, not the Abba song). A Facebook selfie was taken to prove it. Not remotely jealous at all. No sirree.
A month before the BBC Proms season starts, it’s always time for the Royal Philharmonic’s traditional Last Night to mark the end of their season. A packed Derngate Auditorium looked forward to a night of music and festivities, and there seemed to be considerably more flags and a lot more general audience cheekiness than in previous years.
Our conductor was Nick Davies, whom we have not seen on the podium before, but he seems like a laid-back and relaxed sort of chap from his programme photograph. His experience at conducting for musical theatre in West End productions like Mary Poppins and Evita no doubt stands him in good stead for taking charge of the evening of Classic’s Greatest Hits that is the RPO’s Last Night.
We started off with the sheer brilliance of Bizet’s Carmen – Prelude, Aragonaise and March of the Toreadors. That’s a fantastic way to get your classic juices flowing. Wasn’t it Stephen Sondheim who described Carmen as the greatest musical ever written? Or was it me, I can’t remember. Anyway, it was a superb, sunny, exhilarating opening, and it gave the orchestra the chance to shine right from the start.
Nick Davies then introduced our guest tenor, John Hudson, who has a string of accomplishments to his CV including all the decent opera roles in many of the decent opera companies. He has a jolly, avuncular appearance; if he wasn’t wearing the traditional operatic dinner jacket he would look just right in a mucky white apron behind a butcher’s counter. He started off with La donna è mobile from Rigoletto which he sang with wonderful warmth and expression.
Then it was time to introduce the home contingent on stage, the Northampton Bach Choir. We’ve heard them a few times before and they’re nearly always superb. Their first contribution to the evening was Bach’s Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring and, if I’m honest, they were a bit ragged. It was a performance that seemed to lack certainty, with sibilants flying all over the place and a range of final “t”s that ricocheted around the stage like a staccato stutter. However, when Mrs Chrisparkle and I were walking home after the concert we overheard one chorister-looking lady saying to her friend, “well, he never told us when to come in”, so maybe there was a little lack of understanding between Bach and Baton.
All rectified splendidly, however, with the next piece, Sibelius’ Finlandia, where the orchestra gave a superbly gutsy performance and the choir were strong and powerful with their Finnish call for independence sung in the original Finnish. It was very rousing, loud and entertaining. Then came more power from the choir in the Hallelujah Chorus that followed, which was beautifully sung and had great support from the orchestra.
John Hudson returned to perform Che gelida manina from La Bohème. “Your tiny hand is frozen, come thrust it in the fire, aah – aah…” as I was once prone inappropriately to sing. I’ve always loved this piece as it was one of the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle’s favourite pieces of classical music and it always reminds me of her. Mr Hudson gave it a very tender rendition, which obviously channelled the emotion of it successfully, as little springs of moisture began to appear behind my specs. There was a slight problem though – when the orchestra really took flight they rather dominated our tenor and it was hard to hear him at times. Nevertheless, musically it was still a delight.
Then it was time for Antiphon (Let all the world) from Vaughan Williams’ Five Mystical Songs, which was new to me – a very different version of “Let all the world in every corner sing” that I intoned at junior school. Challenging and difficult, I felt the Northampton Bach Choir gave it a very good stab.
The last number before the interval – and with a concert like this you can consider them “musical numbers” – was the Waltz of the Flowers from the Nutcracker. It’s a beautiful tune and the orchestra played it magnificently. It has a long, self-indulgent, decadent harp element, which sounded stunning. From where I was sitting, the harpist was hidden by three violinists but I checked my programme and saw that it was Suzy Willison-Kawalec whom we have seen many times before. I thought she was on top form. It was only during the applause afterwards when Nick Davies invited the harpist to stand that I saw it was a young man! A little subsequent investigation has revealed that it was Daniel de Fry, who I guess must have been a last minute stand-in and he is definitely a star of the future.
After a nice glass of Cabernet Sauvignon we returned for the second half, and the starter piece, Walton’s Orb and Sceptre. I had noticed the appearance of a large speaker in the corner of the stage, four rows from where we were sitting and I wondered if it might affect us. I was right to wonder. A keyboard instrument had appeared during the interval – again from where I was sitting I couldn’t really see it properly – but certainly when it was played I couldn’t half hear it! It augmented the Orb and Sceptre very dramatically and, because the organ (I guess that’s what it was) didn’t have a huge part to play in the piece, it didn’t dominate it, but just helped give it power, emotion and a lot of oomph. However, there were moments later on in the concert when the organ was just too loud, to the detriment of the other instruments. I expect we were simply unfortunate to be as close to the speaker as we were.
The Northampton Bach Choir returned for more drama with Parry’s “I was glad” which is always a crowd pleaser and they performed it brilliantly; very musical, delightfully regal and full of joy. It was a superb contrast with the reflective beauty of Elgar’s Nimrod, which followed; serene on the strings, blossoming with emotion, conveying all those aspects of a deep friendship just as Elgar must have originally hoped; a lovely performance.
John Hudson returned for the choral version of Nessun dorma from Turandot. Mrs C and I have never really heard it this way before. Mr Hudson sang the aria beautifully and with great clarity, and just as you thought it was going to end, the choir came in sang that famous “chorus” again. Mrs C had hairs stand up on the back of her neck. It was thrilling; we loved it. The choir absolutely nailed it; it was indeed the individual performance of the night.
On the home straight now, as we were taken through our paces with Tom Bowling (cellist Tim Gill on super form) and the Hornpipe from Henry Wood’s Fantasia on Sea Songs. Once the hornpipe had started the audience participation wasn’t going to hold back. Often conductors like to encourage the audience to keep quiet through the first part of the hornpipe at least so that we can hear the beautiful music once; Mr Davies didn’t do that, and taps, claps and thumps started up pretty much from the word go. Someone in the boxes stage right started to give Mr Davies a mild heckling, to the enormous amusement of the orchestra. John Hudson led us through Rule Britannia (lovely but the organ was too loud) and Jerusalem (always my favourite) and we ended up with Pomp and Circumstance and Land of Hope and Glory; all rousing, wonderful stuff that got everyone in the patriotic mood. As an encore, the orchestra gave us their Can-Can from Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld, which also resulted in lots of clapping and stomping, and a very respectable looking elderly man in a box stage left, who had enjoyed the concert up to that point in a reserved and dignified way, went manic and started doing his own version of the Can-Can. He looked like Statler from the Muppet Show on speed.
It was a very enjoyable concert and a wonderful end to the RPO’s 2012-13 season. We’ve already booked our seats for next year! On the way back we walked past some of the choir and orchestra members spilling out of the stage door and heading for home, including Mr de Fry manfully propelling his (comparatively) giant harp up the street, peeking either side of it like a meerkat in attempt to navigate the road safely. Although he nearly ran us over crossing the road it did give us an opportunity to thank him for his great performance. Hi, ho, the glamorous life!