Fantastic as always to welcome the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra back to the Derngate Auditorium for this first of this season’s concerts, with The Beauty of Tchaikovsky, a (dare I say it) slightly limp title for a full-force evening of music. What next, The Loveliness of Liszt? The Marvellousness of Mozart? Come on, RPO Marketing department, make the titles a bit snappier!
Not that the title put anyone off attending this concert because empty seats were few and far between for this programme of four exciting and occasionally challenging Tchaikovsky pieces. Our conductor for the evening was Gianluca Marciano, whom we haven’t seen before, and who is attached to a number of orchestras in exotic and mysterious places like Belarus and Lebanon. Who knew he would be attracted to the glamour of Northampton? Mr Marciano is a smart, theatrical, bouncy chap in a shiny tail suit who really feels the rhythm surging through his bendy knees, as he reaches on tippytoes to get the attention of the furthest-away musicians. They respond very well to him too, as the RPO were on terrific form throughout the evening.
Our first piece was the Polonaise from Eugene Onegin, Op.24, an instantly recognisable, stately extravaganza with all strings ablaze, and a perfect way to start the show. Then it was time for our soloist, soprano Gemma Summerfield, who sang the Letter Scene from the same opera. Ms Summerfield looked fantastic in her stunning blue evening dress and – cliché time – has the voice of an angel. Her elocution is crystal clear (even if you don’t understand the Russian) and she sings with a full, rich warmth, oozing expression and attitude. This was her debut with the RPO but it’s a match made in heaven, so I hope they have a long and happy career together!
Next Mr Marciano took the orchestra through the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture. My first thoughts were if this is an overture, how long is the entire ballet? But I was mistaken. There is no ballet, or opera, for which this is its overture. It is a stand-alone work, a kind of sonata that musically represents the entire Romeo and Juliet story. Although it’s one of Tchaikovsky’s best-known works, I hadn’t heard it before and I found it quite chewy in parts – not the performance, but the piece itself. It’s very in-your-face, highly expressive and the tragedy of the story really comes across in the toughness of the music, which the RPO conveyed superbly well.
After the interval we returned for a performance of the Fifth Symphony in E Minor, Op.64, a masterful sequence of tunes and moods which really brings the strength out of the strings and provides a very haunting horn solo. But the whole orchestra gave it all incredible commitment, and the robustness of the piece and the performance was a wonderful way to end the evening. Look forward to enjoying some more of the concerts throughout the season!
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.
Whoever it is at the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra who has the job of planning the content for their concerts must have an enjoyable but challenging task on their hands. To create an evening purely of ballet works – with such a range to choose from – must have been more endearment than endurance. Their latest concert, A Night at the Ballet, was jam-packed with punchy tunes and glorious melodies; all from the hands of four 19th century men who put ballet music centre stage (or should that be centre stave).
Unusually, we had no soloist to offer us a virtuoso performance of some great dramatic musical landmark; but I guess that’s typical of ballet music. If it’s designed to accompany a stage performance, it needs to be performed by no more people than you can fit into your average theatre orchestra pit; all hands on deck, and no room for a specialist as you might expect in a symphony or a concerto. Instead, we had the Royal Philharmonic on top form, this time under the baton of Nathan Fifield, a conductor new to us; he’s currently the principal conductor with Nashville Ballet and this is his debut performance with the RPO.
Mr Fifield is a smart, dashing, clean-cut young gentleman (is it me, or are conductors getting younger nowadays) but with a genuine sense of the beauty of the ballet and delivering some well-chosen and thoughtful observations on the pieces that the orchestra were to play. He doesn’t seem to be one of those authoritarian conductors who impose themselves on the orchestra; he seems much more to be one of the lads, albeit with the extra task of being in charge.
Our first piece was the vivacious Dance of the Comedians from Smetana’s Bartered Bride. A fantastic way of getting the evening underway, with its triumphantly upbeat rhythms giving the orchestra a perfect opportunity to show their mettle. As well as the swirling violins, the brass and percussion also made a huge impact. It’s one of those pieces of music that, when you read the title on some paper, you’re not sure if you’ve heard it before; and when you do hear it, you’re full of the satisfied comfort of recognition and wonder why you don’t play it more often.
Next up, Mr Fifield introduced us to Delibes’ Sylvia Suite and Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake Suite. He told the story of how Tchaikovsky was so impressed at Delibes’ work (and so unimpressed with his own) that if he’d heard the Delibes before sitting down to write Swan Lake, he’d never have bothered. Fortunately for the rest of mankind, that didn’t happen. I didn’t think I knew any of the Sylvia Suite, but of course I was wrong – this is an evening of Ballet’s Greatest Hits, after all – and the celebrated Pizzicato has been a mainstay of TV and radio adverts since the introduction of Independent Broadcasting. I know where Tchaikovsky is coming from, mind; that Sylvia Suite is a thing of true beauty. The grandeur of its opening and closing movements was stunningly performed by the RPO and the lightness of the Pizzicato is simply impossible not to smile at. But I was most impressed by the almost cumbersome and definitely eccentric Valse Lente, with what seems to have too many notes for its bars; I thought that was really engaging and enjoyable. Again, a fantastic job by the strings.
Mr Fifield said we should compare the Delibes and the Tchaikovsky. Hard to do, because (to me at least) Swan Lake is such a familiar piece of music – possibly one of the most engrossing and gripping works in the musical catalogue of all time. Mr Fifield conducted some parts of it – most notably the Valse and the Scene: Pas d’action – a little more slowly than I am used to hearing it – possibly the pace at which it is most frequently danced. I felt that whilst this enhanced the simple beauty of the melodies and the richness of the orchestra’s performance, it lost a little of the drama. But that’s just me. Daniel de Fry’s harp work was just sensational throughout and I particularly loved the Hungarian dance and the final Mazurka – which I was humming to myself all through the interval.
The second half started with some more Delibes – this time the Prelude and Mazurka from Coppelia, and again, you are reminded just how famous some of these stonking great tunes are. Another really rousing performance from the RPO; I could imagine the lavishly dressed dancers in my mind’s eye. Next came the item that I had been looking forward to most: Saint-Saens’ Danse Macabre. This has been a favourite of mine since I was a very small child and in fact I even learned to play it on the piano when I was about 16 – I just about managed to scrape through it. Duncan Riddell’s magnificent violin playing brought out both the harsh eeriness and the light playfulness of the piece; I also loved the strident xylophone playing. A sheer joy throughout.
For a finale Mr Fifield brought us his own personal favourite ballet music – Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty Suite. It sure contains some stunning tunes but I have to say I still prefer Swan Lake! Again Mr de Fry’s golden touch on the harp was magnificent, and the performance by the whole orchestra of the Adagio was absolutely first class. So much so, that it outweighed the rest of the suite’s content, and the audience weren’t really sure that the concert had finished after the performance of the final waltz. Once they were absolutely convinced now was the right time to applaud, they certainly let rip.
It was definitely one of our favourite concerts from the Royal Philharmonic from all the years we’ve been coming to see them. It was just tutu good. Next month – the Last Night of the Derngate Proms, an excuse to get out your nationalist flags. It will also be the same day as the World Cup Final, so if England are still in the tournament…. I just hope no one mentions the B word.
Hey there! Have a read of a blog post I’ve written about attending classical concerts at the Royal and Derngate! You can find the original here!
When Mrs Chrisparkle and I moved to Northampton in 2008, she’d never been to a classical concert at all, and I’d only been once, as a teenager, trying to impress a very arty girl I was trying to go out with at the time; I was definitely boxing above my weight. We went to the elegant Wigmore Hall in London; a very grand location, where the music was appreciated reverentially and the less accessible it was, the better. I remember a programme of tedious heavy strings, sombre percussion and plodding piano. It was dismal, tuneless, pretentious nonsense. It didn’t even impress the girl, who later confessed she would sooner have seen Abba The Movie.
It was only when we first read about the full range of delights on offer at the Royal and Derngate, that it occurred to us this was a great opportunity to discover what live classical concerts were all about. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra visit about five times a year, each time with a varied programme, which probably consists of a rousing overture, a concerto that calls for an expert soloist, and a stonking good symphony to round the concert off. The theatre also hosts the annual Malcolm Arnold Festival, celebrating the brilliance of our famous local composer. This culminates with a gala concert, which has been performed in the past by the likes of the Worthing Symphony Orchestra and the BBC Concert Orchestra; in 2017 the Royal Philharmonic are taking up this challenge. You don’t have to get on a train down to London and pay London prices for a classical concert experience when world class orchestras come up to Northampton; you can get tickets for as little as £15 – even less if you subscribe to three or more concerts in the season.
The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra: what does that say to you? Three random words, which, when you put them together, make beautiful, must-see music? Or do you think “it’s far too posh for the likes of me, I wouldn’t dare go to a classical concert”. Maybe you might think it would attract an audience full of stuffy old people, all twin-sets and war medals, so you wouldn’t fit in. Maybe you’re worried about concert etiquette and think you will make a fool of yourself by applauding at the wrong time? Maybe you already enjoy going to see the terrific plays that are regularly produced at the Royal and Derngate, but don’t know much about classical music – and think you’d find it boring? Well, if you’ve not been to a classical concert at the R&D before, and are wondering if you should try it – fear not, I’m here with some advice for you!
First off – is it a posh occasion? Definitely not. Classical music attracts equally the rich man in his castle and the poor man at his gate. Old, young, families, couples; groups of friends and relatives; singles wanting to concentrate on the music or indeed find another single person also interested in the classics! All are welcome. Wear what you like – you can be as smart or as casual as you wish, you don’t have to dress any differently from how you would normally for the theatre or the cinema. Everyone fits in – to be honest, the audience are concentrating on the orchestra and are not at all concerned about whether the other audience members are musically trained, public school educated or look smart!
Etiquette – when should I applaud? Traditionally, you applaud at the very end of each complete piece. So, whether you’re listening to a three-minute overture or an hour-long symphony, you would still applaud when it’s finished – i.e. after three minutes or after an hour. Sometimes it’s hard to work out whether a longer piece, like a symphony or concerto, has finished or not. But there are always clues to watch out for. Take your cue from the conductor. If he’s still facing the orchestra, baton poised in his hand, looking serious, it may well not have finished yet. If he’s relaxed, baton down, and he turns to face the audience – it’s over.
I like to play a game with myself, trying to identify the individual movements within a larger piece. If you buy the programme – which is a really good idea, because it’s crammed with information not only about the performers and the composers, but also about the individual pieces that are played – you can find out how many movements there are and try to spot where each one ends and the next one begins. If you know your scherzo from your andante, that helps; but even if not, the programme notes will assist you identify the livelier sections from the quieter sections – and that way you can follow the music as it progresses. It’s really rewarding when you say to yourself, “there’s a change of mood coming up” or “it’s just about to finish” – and you’re right!
That also goes to show that you don’t need to know the music in advance in order to enjoy it. It is amazing how many familiar tunes though are lifted from classical works, and it’s fun to suddenly realise “I know this! It’s from that carpet advert!” Many of the pieces that the RPO include in their programmes are very well-known, and you can hear an audible sigh of pleasure when the audience suddenly recognises a tune. Recently they played Rossini’s William Tell overture and not a soul wasn’t thinking about the Lone Ranger.
And it’s not just about the music – live performance always has a theatricality all of its own. When you’ve got maybe forty or more musicians on stage, there are always mini-dramas to enjoy. See what kind of a relationship the conductor has with the musicians, whether they’re jokey or serious. See how the soloist reacts to the rest of the orchestra – are they aloof or one of the lads? Watch out for sneaky chatting between the violinists, or the percussionist dashing over to the celeste just in time to play a few notes before dashing back to the triangle, or the tuba or double-bass player making themselves giggle by how low a note they can get their instrument to play. I love watching the interaction between everyone – their mutual admiration for each other’s skills, how they turn each other’s sheet music pages, how they might even look at each other with amusement or horror if something doesn’t go quite right. All sorts of things can happen on that stage, and it’s all part of the live entertainment!
There’s often a pre-concert talk which gives you a further opportunity to understand a little bit more about the pieces and what to listen for – I don’t normally get around to seeing the talk, but I have a friend who wouldn’t miss them for the world. I’m more likely to get to the theatre half an hour before the concert starts, order a couple of glasses of Merlot for the interval, study the programme to see exactly what’s in store, make my way to our favourite seats, and then just let it all wash over me.
Over the years we’ve seen some extraordinary concerts – including great soloists like Julian Lloyd-Webber, Nigel Kennedy, Natalie Clein, John Williams and Jack Liebeck; we’ve heard Ravel’s Bolero, Holst’s Planets, Elgar’s Enigma Variations, the 1812 Overture, Dvorak’s New World Symphony and all the fun of the Last Night of the Proms, RPO-style.
The next concert, on 16th July, is a Film Music Gala and would be the perfect introduction to the Royal Philharmonic concerts for anyone who feels they might enjoy them and wants to dip their toe in the water. We can expect loads of memorable and recognisable tunes, from Star Wars to Titanic; and the vocalist is Alison Jiear, who not only won the nation’s hearts on Britain’s Got Talent, but she also sang like a dream in the R&D’s Cinderella in 2015. She will be singing some of John Barry’s best loved film tunes and I’m sure she’ll make them her own. And of course, it will be a chance for the Royal Philharmonic to show off their livelier and more informal side. I can’t wait, it’s going to be brilliant. Why don’t you book too?
Time for us to welcome back the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra once again for an evening of Italian, German and Russian music. Our conductor for this concert was the exuberant Christian Kluxen, one of those guys who really gets behind the music and cajoles every nuance out of the orchestra with every flex of his body. We’d not had the pleasure of Mr Kluxen’s company before, so I can only assume the photo on the programme is a little out of date; since then he has grown a full hipster beard so that he now resembles the Fred Sirieix of the Classical Scene.
They weren’t accepting interval orders at the bar (sigh) which can only mean one thing – a short first half. Our first piece of music was the famous William Tell overture by Rossini, with its irredeemably nostalgic final movement that reminds patrons of a certain age of the Lone Ranger. It’s easy though to forget the three other sequences that lead up to the finale, with its beautiful dawn opening – fantastic work by the cellos, the dazzling thunderstorm that follows, and the pastoral calm of the third part. But the final section must break through and does so almost before the pastoral has finished, and from there on it’s guns-ablazin’ and horses at the gallop. A delightful way to open the concert and the orchestra absolutely had it nailed.
Next was Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No 1 in G Minor, Op. 25. A piano soloist on the programme always causes a hiatus as the violins have to scatter to make way for the Steinway to be wheeled on. Meanwhile, the displaced musicians huddle round the back of the stage like they’re sneaking a fag break. It’s a very bizarre sight, but I guess there is no alternative. Enter Martin Roscoe on stage, an unshowy, quiet looking man with a sensible attitude to sheet music (i.e. he has it on display and continually looks at it) but who nevertheless unleashes passion at the keyboard when it’s required. The concerto is full of stunning tunes that Mr Roscoe hones and cares for as he coaxes them off the keys, and he is a true master of his instrument.
Because it is a short piece (and that is why we couldn’t pre-order interval drinks) Mr Roscoe took pity on the assembled crowd and gave us an encore: June, from Tchaikovsky’s Seasons, to whet our appetite for the second half symphony. I’d never heard this before and thought it was absolutely sublime. A simple, haunting barcarolle, I’m going to have to add it to my collection of classical CDs.
After the interval (yes we did get our drinks) we returned for Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 6 (Pathétique). It’s a bold, exciting work with a number of themes that everyone recognises, that build to a dramatic climax. Most people thought the end of the third movement heralded the end of the symphony and started some rapturous applause; but no, the twist in the tale is that there’s a fourth and final movement that disconcertingly trades down from the triumph of the previous movement and ends not with a bang but a whimper. Such a mournful end will always be associated with the fact that Tchaikovsky himself died only nine days after conducting its debut performance. Those last few notes of the symphony were played so movingly by the RPO that the audience was stunned into silence, not wishing to break the moment by applauding. I think we were in a shared state of shock. A fantastic performance by the Royal Philharmonic that has made me go back to my recordings to listen again to some of these pieces and to want to explore anew – and I don’t think there can be any finer recommendation to a concert than that!
The RPO will be back in June with some more Mendelssohn and Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony – should be a blinder!
Mrs Chrisparkle and I have always enjoyed our visits to the Last Night of the Proms – Derngate style, that is – although we did once get to see the real thing in the Albert Hall which was indeed a privilege. As usual, I booked for this show as part of our subscription package with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. The Last Night is always a very entertaining – if essentially shallow – flick through some of Classic’s Greatest Hits in the lead up to the usual flag-waving extravaganza of Rule Britannia, Jerusalem and Land of Hope and Glory.
The Derngate Auditorium was packed to the rafters for this final concert in the RPO’s annual season. Our conductor was Gareth Hudson, new to us, and as Mr Hudson himself explained, he was new to Northampton. But I think both Mr Hudson and Northampton got on very well with each other. He’s a charming host, with a reassuring voice of honey, providing an entertaining and informative running commentary on all the pieces we were going to hear. As a conductor, he’s not one of those who over-exerts himself but manages to get the best from the orchestra whilst retaining a simple air of dignity and authority. In honour of the gala occasion, the word had gone out to the ladies of the RPO to wear strikingly coloured gowns, so the stage was awash with beautiful reds, greens, and blues. Mrs C pointed out that if I mentioned what the ladies were wearing, I should, for the sake of equality, also pass comment on the gentlemen’s appearance. They were in their stock penguin suits. They obviously didn’t get the same memo. However, if we are concentrating on appearances, I must congratulate harpist Mr Hugh Webb on his spectacular moustache. His harpistry was pretty spectacular too.
There were eighteen pieces to listen to. Eighteen! Seventeen in the programme and one encore. Given that the concert lasted about 2 hours and 20 minutes, and including 20 minutes for the interval and say 20 minutes for chat and applause, I estimate the average time per musical item to be about 5 and a half minutes. It’s not really long enough to get fully engrossed in any particular piece; but on the plus side, if you don’t like any particular item, it won’t be long before it’s over and the next one has started!
The programme began with the overture to Rossini’s Thieving Magpie – probably one of the longer pieces of the evening as it happens – lively, fun, and full of the joys of orchestration. The RPO were obviously going to be on great form. Then came the Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana, one of my favourite pieces of music, played with lush exquisiteness by the strings. When I was a kid I wanted to write an opera (I know, always had grand plans, me); I often used to think how chuffed Mascagni must have been to win that opera-writing competition, and what a brass neck he had to write the Intermezzo so that his two-act opera became a one-act opera, and therefore eligible for the prize. Clever chap.
So that was two Italians – now for a Czech: Dvořák’s Song to the Moon, from his opera Rusalka. We welcomed soprano Deborah Norman to the stage for the first of four appearances to sing this famous aria, although it’s not one with which I’m that attuned. Miss Norman certainly transported us to a lunar scenario, with her engaging interpretation and glittery voice. Then we had the famous Onedin Line theme from Khachaturian’s Spartacus suite – I know he didn’t strictly write it for the BBC but it’s what every one of my generation associates with it. I thought this was performed absolutely terrifically; incredibly stirring, a full tidal wave of emotion. Khachaturian was to be the first of two Russians – next was Tchaikovsky with the Sleeping Beauty Waltz, a timeless piece of sheer delight, again played beautifully by the orchestra.
Anyone who knows me, understands that I don’t do Gilbert and Sullivan. Yes, I know, it’s a failing on my part; and I have tried, believe me. But, as the old song in Liza of Lambeth goes, nothing is duller than Gilbert and Sullivan, in the British tradition they’re palpably rooted, the music is trivial and far from convivial, the words are appallingly convoluted. (Don’t worry, I won’t quote the whole song.) So I confess I wasn’t looking forward to Deborah Norman’s performance of The Sun Whose Rays Are All Ablaze (even the title is so trite in its need to rhyme) by Sir Arthur Sullivan, an aria (if you can call it that) from The Mikado. But, guess what? I really enjoyed it! I think it was the first time I’ve ever enjoyed any one song from G&S. Don’t get me wrong – I’m never going to be a convert. But I was most surprised to hear its delicacy and sweetness.
After the atrocity in Nice on Friday, Gareth Hudson simply said in his introduction to the next piece that he would like to dedicate it to the people of France. André Caplet’s orchestral arrangement of Debussy’s Clair de Lune received a stunning performance from the orchestra and it was a very moving moment. The first half of the concert wound up with another blistering performance, this time of Bizet’s L’Arlésienne Suite, No 2: Farandole, a piece I can never remember until I hear it, which is when I instantly remember how much I love it.
It was after the interval that things just started to get a little weird. Not musically – by any means; the RPO continued to give a fantastic performance. Mrs C and I just got the sense that this year’s flag-waving jingoism had taken on a little more… shall we say, sinister aspect. It all started in the first piece after the interval, the splendid overture to the operetta Light Cavalry by Franz von Suppé. The orchestra really got into its military stride with this, creating a fantastic rhythm; but the elderly lady sitting further along the row from us got totally carried away and started to pretend that she was on a horse, bobbing up and down with the rhythm, swaying the reins, and basically giving us all the giddy-ups. That’s fine. Good music well performed can do this to a person.
We welcomed back Deborah Norman to give us a tender rendition of Je veux vivre, from Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette. This piece was new to me and I found it very touching and full of that youthful enthusiasm we would associate with the young tragic heroine. Then it was time for the Polonaise from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. We saw this performed in Bratislava a few years ago and absolutely loved it – but I regret I couldn’t particularly remember the Polonaise. The RPO gave it a full-on rumbustious run for its money and the audience responded really warmly to it. Then came – for me, at least – perhaps the most rewarding performance of the evening – Two Songs Without Words (Country Song and Marching Song) by Gustav Holst. As Mr Hudson mentioned in his introduction, Holst’s back catalogue became completely eclipsed (pardon the pun) by the success of his Planets Suite, reducing the rest of his output to virtual insignificance. So here were two earlier pieces that rarely get performed, and I thought they were sensational. This is the English Folk Music-inspired Holst, rather than the astronomically-inspired version, although I definitely heard a music prequel of Jupiter somewhere in there. A fantastic performance of (for me) an exciting find. This section of the concert wrapped up with (as the RPO often do) those few minutes of intense emotion that constitute Nimrod, from Elgar’s Enigma Variations. Nimrod never does quite give you that same tingle when it’s played outside of the context of a full performance of the Variations, but nevertheless, it’s still a magnificent piece and gives you a few moments to cherish those you love and remember those you’ve lost.
It was Gareth Hudson’s introduction to the final sequence of patriotic numbers that encapsulated whatever it was that had been bothering us. He said (and I paraphrase) that no matter how we all voted in a certain referendum recently, we should take the opportunity to allow the evening’s music to unite us. Now forgive me, gentle reader, for going off piste here, and I know this may alienate many of you to bring politics into music, but Mrs C and I are still very much coming to terms with (what we feel is) the (disastrous) result of the referendum. The wounds have gone very deep; it’s going to be a long time before the healing takes place (indeed, if it ever does). Surrounded by an audience made up of almost entirely white, middle-aged to elderly, middle-class Northamptonians (our town voted 59-41 in favour of Brexit) we suddenly realised the extent to which we were in the minority in that room. The patriotism of our neighbours all waving the flags and standing, Nuremberg rally-like, to Land of Hope and Glory, felt very, very uncomfortable. I can’t help it – at the moment I’m not proud of our country, so I couldn’t permit myself to get up and join the others. I was happy to sing it, as I always am. But there was a swelling of nationalistic pride going on in that hall on Sunday night with which I really did not want to associate myself.
Back on piste. Our final sequence of music was as unchanging as the waning moon, starting with Tom Bowling and the Hornpipe from Sir Henry Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea Songs. Mr Hudson introduced lead cellist Tim Gill for the Tom Bowling and he was exceptional as usual, bringing out all that deep-seated sadness and searing emotion from its lamentation-like theme. The Hornpipe, of course, couldn’t be a greater juxtaposition, with Mr Hudson already encouraging us to clap along, even if, (of course), we all did it too loudly, too enthusiastically, and too early. Ms Norman returned for the final time (a little early in fact, as Mr Hudson was still humiliating us with My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean, making us stand, then sit, each time a word beginning with a B comes along – think about it, it gets exhausting) for Rule, Britannia! And I really appreciate it when all three verses are sung in full. Jerusalem, which followed, has much claim to be my own personal favourite song of all time, and nothing’s going to stop me from bellowing each syllable as if I were still in Morning Assembly in 1973. And finally, a lively and fun performance of the Pomp and Circumstance March No 1, which got our Cavalry overture lady up on her feet at the first whiff of a land of Hope and Glory. All credit to her, when no one else got up so early she didn’t budge but held her ground. Classic rule – if you ovate and no one else does, it looks appalling if you sit down again. Have the courage of your convictions! Reservations (as per the previous paragraph) aside, it was a wonderful performance.
And it was also with great pleasure that I realised it wasn’t to be quite the final number of the night. As an encore, and once again with a respectful nod to France and maybe something to assuage the Bremainers, Mr Hudson returned to the podium to crack out a fun and frolicsome performance of Offenbach’s Infernal Galop from Orpheus in the Underworld – the Can Can. Now that did deserve an ovation.
No more Royal Philharmonic Orchestra here in Northampton until much later in the year – and unfortunately we can’t make that concert! Still we’ll look forward to re-acquainting ourselves with the RPO next February.
Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast. Mrs Chrisparkle’s and my combined breasts were feeling particularly savage after the slings and arrows of outrageous referendum results, so we were really looking forward to an evening in the company of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra who have so many times in the past coddled us, cushioned us, and sent us on our way home with a warm Ready-Brek glow. We also had friends up from Leatherhead joining us for the concert and we met Mr Smallmind there too, now such a permanent fixture at the R&D that an orchestra member asked his help in shifting his instrument up the cordoned-off Royal stairs post-concert.
Sometimes theatre or concert programming taps into the Zeitgeist and it wasn’t long before there were very few tickets left for this concert; and indeed it was a sell-out on the night. It was great to see so many families going out to enjoy this special space-themed selection of classical hits. The main attraction was to be the performance of Holst’s Planets Suite accompanied by a film created in collaboration with NASA and award-winning producer/director Duncan Copp, and featuring the latest high definition planetary images of NASA’s exploration of the solar system. I wondered to what extent the multimedia accompaniment would enhance or maybe diminish Holst’s commanding music. But more of that later…
Our conductor for the evening was Robert Ziegler. It was the first time we had seen Mr Ziegler on the podium. He comes out onto the stage, enthusiastic and with an air of kind-hearted wisdom, like a good-tempered History teacher, if one of those ever existed. With his jazzy shirt and black velour jacket, you sense he could be a man of many surprises. He certainly got the best out of the RPO, who gave us an evening of sparkle and chic, with really crisp playing and fantastic timing.
The first half was a fascinating mix of little classical jewels, all with an eye to the celestial. We started with the opening of Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra – giving the concert the equivalent of a musical lift-off – and I’d forgotten what a thrilling little piece it is; for an overture-in-miniature, it sure packs a punch! This was followed by Strauss’s (different Strauss) Blue Danube Waltz; also known, in the programme, as On the Beautiful Blue Danube; I’m not sure if the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle’s lyrics to it “The Danube is blue, it’s blue, it’s blue, I tell you it’s blue, it’s blue, it’s blue…” are entirely pure Strauss. Anyway the orchestra played it with swaying delight, hitting that first phrase of the chorus with wonderful as slow as you dare characterisation. You could almost feel the fairground merry-go-round whipping up to speed as the waltz gained traction. Really enjoyable.
An interesting third item: Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, but not played on the organ, but as a full orchestral piece as arranged by Leopold Stokowski. It’s a composition I love; and what I most enjoyed about this performance was the way in which the orchestra played some of it slow and stately, and other parts quick and quirky. It really lent itself to this different arrangement. (But I do prefer it done on the organ!) Next was the Allegretto from Beethoven’s 7th symphony; always moving, a strange mixture of the sombre and the triumphant. Again, beautifully played by the orchestra, that thick pizzicato tattoo that runs throughout the piece like a stick of rock creating a strong sense of unease and drama. It’s better when played in the context of the full symphony I feel, but nevertheless it was a super example of one of Classics’ Greatest Hits. Finally, we came much more up to date with the Main Theme to John Williams’ Star Wars: dynamic, exciting, irreverent; the violins could have been light-sabres and we could have become enmeshed in full intergalactic battle.
After the interval, we came back for the Main Event – The Planets. The orchestra took their places. Mr Ziegler returned to his podium. Unusually, the lights dimmed, like we were in a cinema, apart from the bright lamps illuminating the orchestra members’ music stands. And just as you thought Mr Z was about to cue in Mars… the movie started. NASA scientists giving their opinions on whether or not Holst characterised the planets correctly. OK…I’ll go with it, I thought to myself, but I hope they don’t push it… Eventually the movie announced Mars, The Bringer of War. This worked so, so well. Really fascinating and beautifully photographed footage of the red planet combined by an absolutely riveting performance of seven of the finest minutes in classical music. Not only a first class performance but absolute timing precision so that the footage on the screen changed at exactly the same instant as the first beat of the next bar in the music. A fantastic combination – I was pretty much gobsmacked.
Sadly, visually, for me at least, that was the most exciting footage by a long baton. The subsequent cinematographic accompaniments for each planet were attractive and nicely realised I guess, but as it went on, I felt like the visual effect created a laziness in one’s head; it served to limit one’s imagination and emotional response to each piece of music rather than enhancing it; and by the time we’d got to Jupiter – which has so many memories for me of my teenage years and all absolutely nothing to do with astronomy – I decided to shift my concentration from the screen to the musicians. Jupiter was performed with a freshness and vitality that I think you could simply describe as awesome. Whether the I Vow To Thee My Country section had an extra post-referendum resonance I could not tell; for me it had an interesting lack of sentimentality which I actually found quite refreshing.
Moving on; the words on the screen: Saturn The Bringer of Old Age created a few chuckles from around the auditorium as grandparents wrestled with cheeky grandchildren; and, no doubt about it, in the movie accompaniment – nice rings. Uranus always reminds me more of a sea shanty than a magician, so it was back to concentrating on the instruments for me. We ended with a stunningly eerie performance of Neptune, The Mystic; when the disembodied choral voices joined in, it was a moment of sheer dramatic magic. The programme promised us the Northampton Bach Choir, but they were nowhere to be seen, which caused a little post-show controversy amongst our party. Were the voices recorded? Or were the Northampton Bach Choir lurking backstage, as reticent to come forward as a politician to invoke Article 50?
An unusual structure for a classical concert but by and large it worked really well. Certainly the RPO were on top form and played some of Classic’s Greatest Hits with dynamism and éclat. Next up it’s the Last Night of the Derngate Proms next month – make sure you’re there!
A welcome return to the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra visiting the hallowed halls of the Royal and Derngate, for this intense concert featuring Beethoven’s Third Symphony – the Eroica – and Elgar’s Violin Concerto with soloist Pinchas Zukerman. I say “intense” because they’re two meaty pieces, and without any side dishes like a light overture for starters or a quick entr’acte as a palate-cleanser, they took a lot of concentration and attention on the part of the audience in order to appreciate them at their fullest. They were also completely new to Mrs Chrisparkle and me vis-à-vis a concert experience. I have recordings of both somewhere in the old CD collection, but I have to say neither has ever really surfaced as a particular favourite.
Our conductor was Christoph Koenig, whom we have also never seen before, but he has a CV as a long as a baton, and he obviously inspires both confidence and respect from the orchestra. He’s quite a debonair chap, bounding on to the stage in a swish black Chairman Mao suit; and once he’s on the podium – for the opening Beethoven at least – he never stands still again. He’s the kind of conductor who throws his body heart and soul into the whole performance to encourage the very last iota of energy out of the orchestra. Cajoling here with the palm of his hand, triumphantly punching there with an upraised fist, nodding furiously as if to say “yes! yes!” to any section he might feel is being a little backward with coming forward. When he wants the orchestra to deliver the next part quietly he almost crouches down on his knees with a “shush!” before raising himself up again when it he wants it louder. He’s very entertaining to watch!
Talking of shush, there were a couple of guys a few rows in front of us who were really quite annoying. They whispered and fidgeted occasionally, which is ok in the noisy sequences but it’s nice to observe restraint during the quieter parts wherever possible. During one quiet moment in the Beethoven, one of them decided it was time to fumble with a rustly crinkly bag in order to extricate some difficult-to-find, bottom-of-the-bag sucky sweets. It completely drowned out one of Beethoven’s more delicate moments (and, let’s face it, there aren’t that many of them). They seemed totally ignorant of the fact they were in spitting distance of the back row of the first violins. You should have seen the daggers look the nearest violinist gave him. Mrs C expected him to pluck the catgut off his bow and strangle him with it. To no avail, he obviously didn’t notice, as later on, during the Elgar, he decided to start some kind of running commentary to his mate (or so it seemed to me) and once again the violinist gave him the death glare. So, please, dear classical music fans of Northampton, next time you go to see one of these concerts, would you mind shutting the ***k up? Thanks awfully.
So what of the Beethoven? According to the programme, the Eroica was inspired by his hero-worship of Napoleon; indeed it was originally to have been called the Bonaparte. But, as is often the case, your heroes have a tendency to let you down, and when Napoleon proclaimed himself Emperor, Beethoven declared he would now be no more than a simple tyrant and ripped up the dedication page of his original manuscript in a hissy fit. It is a vast, stirring, strong and moving symphony, with extensive sequences given over to buzzing violins, but also room for a funeral march, a scherzo, and an electric final movement that started within a split second of the scherzo ending; no hanging around here, as if Mr Koenig had a bus to catch. I’d noticed that the usual layout of the orchestra had been changed slightly, with the violas and the cellos having swapped places. Mrs C wondered if that was because the first violin and the violas seem to have almost a duel between themselves at times, and by facing each other they could really act out their battle of the strings. If so, it worked well, because it was a highly dramatic performance. We also appreciated the warm and rousing contribution made by the French Horns – Congratulations to Laurence Davies, Samuel Jacobs and the rest of your squad.
After spending the interval observing how long the queue for the healthy frozen yogurts are, and appreciating how much more efficient it is to pre-order one’s Shiraz, we headed back inside for the performance of Elgar’s Violin Concerto. I was particularly looking forward to hearing Pinchas Zukerman because I had read a lot about him and wanted to hear him live for myself. Mr Zukerman is definitely somebody who lets the music do the talking. He only briefly acknowledges the audience before the performance; not, one feels, out of any sense of self-importance – far from it – more out of embarrassment at being on show – don’t look at me, please could you look at my antique violin instead. When he performs he is deadly serious, concentrating hard on what he is doing, observing his fellow musicians and Mr Koenig, who incidentally stepped back into a much less flamboyant role, conducting simply and effectively from the side but with no bravura antics to distract you from Mr Zukerman’s quiet determination.
Of course, it goes without saying that technically he’s extraordinary; it was a very strong and vibrant performance. He seems to have a way of jabbing deep into the violin to scour the instrument for maximum sound and effect. Watching and listening to him was a very satisfying experience, but a challenging one. Neither of us found it an “easy” piece of music; it was demanding, serious, and without any “laughs”, if you get my drift. Despite Elgar’s own opinion that it was a highly emotional piece, for me it appealed more to the cerebral than the emotional. Maybe that is due to Mr Zukerman’s intense interpretation. But there was no doubting the audience’s appreciation, and when it was over Mr Zukerman received three “curtain calls”, much to his unassuming discomfort.
So, overall an intense and challenging evening of appreciating musical excellence. As always, you come away with a sense of privilege to be able to witness such mastery. It’s good to be confronted by something different every so often, simply to see how you react to new experiences. Rest assured, the Royal Philharmonic never let you down. Looking forward to our next concert in May!
We welcomed back the Royal Philharmonic to Northampton this week, under the baton of Alexander Shelley and with Clio Gould leading. I always enjoy the RPO when Mr Shelley is conducting. They seem to have such a good mutual relationship, and he always brings the best out of them. Maybe it’s because Mr Shelley is obviously a man of the people, picking out individual members or sections of the orchestra for their own applause whilst standing in their midst, rather than loftily from the podium.
The RPO had lined up an evening of Russian greats for us to enjoy at last Sunday’s concert. They’re always lively and dynamic works. Such a programme was to be an encouraging start point for Lady Duncansby’s first foray into the world of classical concerts, encouraged to dip her toe in the musical pool (so to speak) by her butler William. She wasn’t too sure that she would enjoy the experience so we softened her up with a trip to Pizza Express before the concert. By the time we got to the theatre, we were all already quite mellow, having spent an entertaining two hours dipping dough balls in garlic butter, attacking Diavolo Romana pizzas, and spending ages desperately trying to catch the eye of the waitress so that we could order dessert. I expect the two bottles of house Trebbiano contributed to our state of mellowness.
My favourite Russian composer is Prokofiev, but he didn’t get a look-in. Instead, the orchestra started us off with a rousing overture, Glinka’s Ruslan and Ludmila. It’s a perfect start to this kind of concert as it gives the orchestra an early opportunity to show their mettle with all its lively and fast moving tunes and attacking style. It’s also relatively brief, so it wasn’t long to wait for the main event of the evening, Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 2, with our soloist Alessio Bax. It’s fascinating to watch the different styles of different soloists. Some pianists absolutely hurl their bodies at the Steinway, writhing with the passionate expression of each note. Others, like Mr Bax, sit there dignified, controlled, like a proper grown-up person, simply allowing the emotion and passion to come from his piano hands. I’m unsure if one is a better style than the other, but there’s no denying Mr Bax coaxes a huge amount of beauty out of the keyboard. But it wasn’t only our soloist who gave a great performance. Rachmaninov Piano 2 calls on the orchestra to produce some fireworks and they did not disappoint, with some vivid stabbing interjections from the strings, and massively hefty percussive drums. However, I’m going to be controversial here and say that in my opinion Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto is an excellent example of style over substance. It all feels very lush and romantic and stirring, but when you take away the frilly bits I don’t think there’s much left. Sometimes when the wrappings fall there’s nothing underneath at all. However I’ve no wish to detract from the sheer bravado of the performance. In the interval Lady D could not contain her excitement at what she had witnessed. It’s always nice when you discover an art form that you didn’t think you were going to like. I bet she becomes a timpanist in the next life.
After a half-time Pinot we were back for Shostakovich’s Symphony No 5. Nothing sounds scarier than the name Shostakovich – to me it suggests all sorts of harsh clashing, uncomplimentary sounds, enough to batter the most distinguished of eardrums. But given that he had to make his 5th symphony something of a Politburo Pleaser – if he wanted to continue his music career at least (or indeed, keep on living, as old Stalin definitely had it in for him) – then it should come as no surprise that this symphony is a box of tricks with more melodies than the Pied Piper, that apparently had its first Leningrad audience weeping in the aisles. I could achieve that when playing the recorder as a child. A good three-quarters of an hour of pure Soviet panache that again encourages the orchestra to give as good as they can, with amazing string work, lovely harp highlights, effective decorations by the celesta and some good old banging of the drums. A really enjoyable performance; enough to send you out into the cold winter air protected by a veritable Cossack hat of musical warmth. The next RPO concert is on Valentine’s night. It’s a lovely looking programme but to be honest I’d sooner be wining and dining on February 14th.
PS. I don’t think everybody enjoyed the concert. About halfway through the Shostakovich, the first violins all turned over their next page of sheet music to reveal several more intensely inscribed staves with a helluva lot of notes on them. The gentleman two seats to Mrs Chrisparkle’s left let out a sigh and said something to the effect of oh no there’s another ten pages at least, to which his companions either side of him retorted with a simple and curt shut up. They’d obviously been practising. Clearly someone who would have preferred to stay in and watch the Super Bowl!