Review – Last Night of the Derngate Proms, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 13th July 2014

Last Night of the Derngate PromsWith the BBC Proms just around the corner – first night is Friday – what better way to wrap up this year’s classical season with the RPO than by having Northampton’s very own Last Night of the Proms. This is always a fun occasion, with a packed audience, lots of flag waving, and a programme full of old favourites so that there’ll always be something for everyone.

Our conductor this year was the jovial Owain Arwel Hughes, who conducted our Last Night of the Proms concert two years ago, and who we also saw take command of Fauré’s Requiem in 2011. He’s a very warm and friendly figure on the podium, enthusiastically communicating with his musicians, and with his shock of white hair and glasses perched on the end of his nose occasionally has something of a mad professor about him.

Owain Arwel HughesYou can’t get much more of a lively start than Rossini’s William Tell overture. It galvanised the orchestra into a buzzing frenzy for its famous last section, and from my seat I could clearly see our First Violin Favourite Mr Russell Gilbert’s bow deftly darting over the waist of his violin whilst those of his colleagues doubtless did the same. Before all that, there was, however, a beautiful cello introduction to this piece, superbly played as always by Tim Gill.

Next, we were to enjoy the first contribution to the evening by the Northampton Bach Choir – a terrific performance of Zadok the Priest, full of power, crispness and joy. We could already tell the choir were going to be on great form. Then it was time for Fauré’s Pavane, beautifully and delicately played by the orchestra, expressing all its 19th century French elegance. One aspect of the Last Night programme is that it has many more individual pieces than normal, on average much shorter in length, which adds to the variety of the evening. It can also sometimes be a little frustrating though, when you hear a short piece that by rights should be part of a larger one – as in the next piece, the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah. Again the choir gave it a really good performance, but you felt a slight twinge of disappointment that there wasn’t more from the Messiah for our entertainment.

Danny DriverThe last item before the interval, which certainly wasn’t an abridgement of anything else, was Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. With “Hallelujah” still ringing in our ears, it was time for that laborious moving aside of all the chairs and then lugging the Steinway onto the centre of the stage. “Why can’t it be there from the start?” asked Mrs Chrisparkle with more than a little petulance. “Well there would be no room for the conductor” I suggested. “But the conductor will still be there during the piano playing” she replied. I had no answer to that. The First Violins had all huddled by the entrance stairs, as if they’d nipped out for a quick fag break. Once everything was in place, Mr Hughes returned with our soloist for the evening, Danny Driver. What an incredible performer he is. Mr Driver played with such precision and attack that it took your breath away. Amongst all the keyboard gymnastics of the Rhapsody, there’s one stand-out variation that’s extremely lush and romantic, and feels very different from the rest of the piece. Mr Driver put his heart and soul into it – and it was just sumptuous to listen to. Mrs C and I were overwhelmed by how good he was; and the orchestra also gave him superb support in what was overall a stunning performance.

After a very pleasing Cab Sav break in the interval we returned for one of my favourite pieces of classical music, Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor. The female voices from the choir stood out particularly well, and whatever it was they were singing, it wasn’t Stranger in Paradise. I did have to stop myself – only partly successfully – from singing along to all the Kismet tunes. I’m only human, after all. It was a really stirring performance, and a great way to start the second half.

RPOThen we had yet another of my favourite pieces, Nimrod from the Enigma Variations. No other piece of classical music captures that warm, safe, noble feeling of deep friendship that you get in Nimrod; but like the Hallelujah Chorus earlier on, it definitely lost something by not being part of a full Enigma performance. Normally it has me choking back the tears, but not this time. A change of mood next for Parry’s I Was Glad, with the choir in full voice, and the orchestra nicely augmented by Alistair Young on the keyboard providing a full organ effect as if we were in a massive cathedral. Visually odd, aurally wonderful.

Into the home straight with the classic final sequence. Starting off with Sir Henry Wood, we had two movements from the British Sea Songs: Tom Bowling, with Tim Gill exquisitely teasing out the melody on his cello, and the Hornpipe, which, despite Mr Hughes’ plea to allow the instrumentalists to have “first go” before we all joined in, was instantly drowned out by a few noisy people in the boxes, one of whom may well have been the manic man from last year. Being an incorrigibly obedient person, I waited with my claps and stomps until Mr Hughes cued me in. Then it was straight into Rule Britannia, with just the chorus being sung by the choir – and by us of course. I couldn’t help notice that the man with the clear voice singing behind me made two classic errors – he sang “Britannia rules the waves” (shocking) and “Britain never never never shall be slaves” (dreadful). I’m afraid the Last Night of the Proms brings out all my pomp and circumstance. Next Jerusalem, favourite classical singalong song of mine since my English teacher used to love to play it on the organ at school assembly over forty years ago. Have you noticed, at Last Nights generally, you might get an encore of Rule Britannia, Land of Hope and Glory, or the Hornpipe, or all three – but never Jerusalem. I’d be happy to start a campaign for the inclusion of Jerusalem in the repeats.

Northampton Bach ChoirThe final scheduled piece was Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No 1, the aforementioned Land of Hope and Glory, where we impressed Mr Hughes with our magnificent lungs. Well not perhaps the manic man in the side stalls, whose voice clattered over everyone else’s; at first I thought we’d been joined by Zippy from Rainbow. But it wasn’t the end – they’d kept back a very appropriate encore for Northampton with a fantastic rendition of When The Saints Go Marching In, with the choir giving it everything and the orchestra loving every minute of it. A superb way to round off the evening.

Looking ahead to next year’s season, there’s some great highlights but I note that there isn’t a Last Night planned for next summer; the final concert then will be an evening of John Williams’ film music. Hmmm. Not quite the same I feel. Bring back the Last Night for 2016!

Review – Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Last Night of the Derngate Proms, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 15th July 2012

Last Night of the Derngate PromsWhilst the Royal Albert Hall is enjoying the opening week of its Proms season, here in Northampton we’re ahead of the game, with Sunday’s Last Night of the Proms concert marking the end of the 2011-2012 Subscription Season. The Derngate was packed. Whilst I was ordering the drinkies, Mrs Chrisparkle had to text me from the far side of the foyer where she was attempting to purchase a programme to say it was so busy it would be some time before we would be reunited. When the theatre is this packed it’s good news for everyone!

The avuncular Owain Arwel Hughes was in command of a feisty Royal Philharmonic, and it was to be an evening of bite sized chunks of classical fireworks. We started off with O Fortuna from Carmina Burana – always a great wake-up call. The orchestra were clearly in fine form, and the Northampton Bach Choir gave it all they had. From our vantage point, Mrs Chrisparkle and I had an excellent clear view of the percussion section – on the far left side of the orchestra instead of their normal position at the back. It was fascinating to watch the skill and concentration required to manage the wide range of percussion instruments from the huge gong to the little triangle. It’s a full second between banging the gong and the rich sound emanating from it, something I certainly hadn’t realised before. Anyway O Fortuna was a cracking start, although inside I did feel a little sorry that they weren’t going to play the entire Carmina Burana. Maybe next season?

Northampton Bach ChoirNext we had Va Pensiero from Verdi’s Nabucco, an opera, not a manufacturer of biscuits as I had once erroneously believed. Again a great rendition from the choir and a charming gentle contrast with the crisp oomph of the Orff. Tchaikovsky’s Polonaise from Eugene Onegin followed, a great tune and the RPO gave it full colour and dynamism – a really enjoyable performance. It was at this point that I started to watch the interaction between an older violinist in the front row and the young pretender sitting next to him. The younger man was very courteous in his dealings with the older – it was as though by sharing the same music stand he was gaining wisdom and experience from the older man. It was quite intriguing and I feel it helped both of their performances. It was just one of a number of interactions we observed within members of the orchestra that evening.

Then we had Fauré’s Cantique de Jean Racine, a new piece for me. I loved the beauty of the cello playing, delightfully highlighted by Suzy Willison-Kawalec on the harp. But I did think the choir was a bit off on this one. It all started to sound a bit muddy somehow. By the time we had moved on to Vaughan Williams’ O Clap Your Hands, another première to my eardrums, I felt the choir had got distinctly ragged. T sounds ricocheted all over the place and there were enough loose sibilants to suggest the Reptile House at Regent’s Park. Maybe they needed an interval break.

Viv McLeanBefore the interval though, came the definite highlight of the night – Viv McLean as the soloist for a performance of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. The orchestra gave a great rendition of the seedier sounds of Manhattan that the piece is meant to represent – the introduction, for example, sent tingles up my spine. I loved the percussion giving it the Cuba rhythms, and the brass sounded tough and industrial. But Viv McLean’s performance was just superb. He really expressed what Gershwin described as the “Metropolitan Madness” of the piece, and you could hear the sound of carriages over steely train tracks that were Gershwin’s inspiration. A great performance that sent us in for our interval Chenin Blanc on a happy high. I did however observe another rather odd interaction, this time between the two cellists at the front. One was rolling her eyes in a “forchrissake” sort of way, and the other one was trying not to laugh at her. Not sure what it was that warranted this slightly unprofessional behaviour but it didn’t look terribly respectful.

After the interval we were welcomed back with Rossini’s William Tell Overture and what was possibly the orchestra’s best performance of the night. The cellists were back on best behaviour and the sound they produced for the first part of the overture was pure and stunning. The whole orchestra brought out the tunefulness of the piece – particularly that first three quarters that you don’t always hear. And when it came to the famous Lone Ranger finale, they played with such gusto and verve that it was a sheer delight.

Next we had the third and last piece of music that was new to me, Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus. It was quietly elegant and charming but made such a huge contrast to the Rossini that I barely noticed it before it was over. Moving on to Elgar’s Nimrod from the Enigma Variations; always a stirring theme and played beautifully. It’s just one of those pieces that you can never tire of hearing. Whilst I was beaming reflectively at the music, Mrs C had started to get irked by the apparent grumpiness of the lady violinist at the front. Mrs C had commented “Crack a smile, can’t you?” under her breath a couple of times when the orchestra members had stood to receive applause. After the Elgar, or maybe the Parry following it, this lady and the violinist next to her started having a very sulky looking chat about something that was obviously disturbing them both. “Why do they do it when it looks so awful?” asked Mrs C. Why indeed?

Owain Arwel HughesAnyway, the Parry; “I was Glad” was the piece, and it’s one I can never remember until I hear it and then I remember how much I like it. A complex work and the choir gave it a brave stab – and it did come over as a very joyous experience, so job done. More Elgar, with Pomp and Circumstance March No 4; very smartly done, and definitely getting the increasingly jingoistic Northampton audience to prepare for some interaction. Large flags were beginning to get unfurled over boxes. The rustle of mini flags being waved in time with the music was starting to get louder. Sir Henry Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea Songs kicked in with a beautiful and emotional Tom Bowling, followed by the Hornpipe, which Mr Hughes encouraged us to clap along with – softly at first, then going the Full Monty. Rule Britannia had us all in patriotic voice, especially the second time when, again at Mr Hughes’ behest, we all stood up to let rip. Finally came Jerusalem, one of my favourite pieces of music of all time, and you will be pleased to know that, without needing to refer to the words, I gave a splendid performance. For an encore they performed the racy Can-Can from Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld, adding a French and German touch to our otherwise very British finale.

So thanks to the RPO for another year’s superb concerts which we have really enjoyed – and it’s full steam ahead for some very juicy classical prospects in next year’s season, which will be starting in September with inter alia Jack Liebeck as soloist in Sibelius’ Violin Concerto. Can’t wait!

Review – Fauré’s Requiem Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Derngate, Northampton, January 30th

Faure's RequiemThe Royal Philharmonic returned to the Derngate this week with a concert culminating with Fauré’s Requiem. Very pleasing to see that there was hardly a spare seat, as quite rightly these concerts attract many happy music lovers.

Owain Arwel HughesOur conductor for the evening was Owain Arwel Hughes. He has an avuncular presence on the podium, letting the music be the star, smiling encouragingly in all the right places, keeping his orchestra perfectly together and sounding sweet. Sweetness was very much the order of the day, as the central work was Chopin’s Piano Concerto No 1 with Andrew Zolinsky as the soloist. I was new to this work, and if ever a piece was delicate this is it. Andrew Zolinsky I don’t mean to sound patronising about it, but it is a thoroughly pretty piece of music. It conjures up images of waterfalls and pixies and jewels and fairy dust. Andrew Zolinsky sat tense and tetchy on his stool as the long orchestral introduction ensued, but once he started playing he relaxed into this marvellous escapist dreamlike piece. It was a very luxurious experience. Not particularly demanding for the audience. More like bathing in honey.

Northampton Bach Choir There was more oomph in the other pieces though. The evening started with Handel’s Zadok the Priest, a piece I can never recall until I hear the first couple of notes. It was full of the regality and splendour you would expect and the choirs – the Northampton Bach Choir and the Boys and Men of All Saints Church – were in fine voice. Really stirring stuff.

Boys and Men of All Saints Church After the interval we had Fauré’s requiem and again the choirs gave a super performance, strong and subtle in turn. For our soloists we had Elin Manahan Thomas for the Pie Jesu and Giles Underwood for the baritone parts. It seems slightly unbalanced that you have a singer of the quality of Elin Manahan Thomas Elin Manahan Thomas come and perform for barely three minutes, but they were exquisite ones, so I’m not complaining. I love Fauré’s Requiem and it was excellent throughout. The strings hit a forceful and portentous note from the start, the singing was haunting and beautiful and you just felt like it was a privilege to be there.

Giles Underwood There was an amusing end to the evening when after the Choirmaster had come down to take a bow to richly deserved enthusiastic applause, two bouquets were brought out for the soloists; the first went to Ms Thomas, but the second one bypassed Mr Underwood and was given to the Choirmaster by mistake, so that we had a bereft baritone! Another splendid concert by the RPO, we’re very lucky to have this season here in Northampton.