And here are the last lot of old theatre and dance memories! September to December 2009

  1. Separate Tables – Festival Theatre, Chichester, 26th September 2009

Rattigan’s masterpiece double bill of Table by the Window and Table Number Seven were brought to life by Philip Franks’ excellent production, starring Iain Glen as John Malcolm/Major Pollock and Gina McKee as Anne Shankland/Sybil Railton-Bell. The superb cast also included Stephanie Cole, Deborah Findlay, Josephine Tewson and John Nettleton. Traditional English theatre doesn’t get much more traditional or English!

  1. Mixed up North – Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 1st October 2009

Out of Joint presented Robin Soans’ entertaining play: from the back of the playscript, “Trish leads a youth theatre group designed to bring Asian and white teenagers together. As the harassed and heavily pregnant director Bella struggles to share her artistic vision with a cast who thing acting is “gay”, the compelling stories of the young stars unfold.” I remember this as being an extremely good play and a great production.

 

 

  1. Mark Morris Dance Group – Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 21st October 2009

It was always a delight to see the Mark Morris Dance Group, here with a UK tour that comprised of Italian Concerto, Going Away Party, Three Preludes, and Grand Duo; all dances choreographed by Mark Morris. Fantastic entertainment.

 

 

 

 

  1. Talent – Menier Chocolate Factory, London, 1st November 2009

Moving over two evenings of excellent stand-up on the Derngate stage, with Alistair McGowan on 26th and Julian Clary on 28th October, our next play was Victoria Wood’s Talent at the Menier. This was the play that Wood originally wrote for herself and Julie Walters set in the 70s. When I booked it, it hadn’t occurred to me that the production would have actors pretending to be Victoria Wood and Julie Walters playing the roles of Julie and Maureen. The result was a ghastly mix up that I absolutely hated! I’m still surprised that it was directed by Victoria Wood; the characters should have taken on a new life rather than simply being re-enactments of Wood and Walters. Awful!

  1. Spring Storm – Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 3rd November 2009

Artistic Director of the Royal and Derngate, Laurie Sansom, launched a Young America season with two early plays by established and revered American dramatists, both performed by the same cast in repertory. First was Spring Storm, an early Tennessee Williams play, and it was magnificent.

 

 

 

  1. Prick Up Your Ears – Comedy Theatre, London, 8th November 2009

Simon Bent’s play about the relationship – fatal as it happens – between playwright Joe Orton and wannabe writer Kenneth Halliwell was based on John Lahr’s excellent biography of Orton (of the same name), and was brought to amazing life by most convincing performances by Chris New as Orton and Con O’Neill as Halliwell. Riveting throughout.

  1. Beyond the Horizon – Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 13th November 2009

The second part of Laurie Sansom’s Young America season was Beyond the Horizon, an early play by one of my playwright heroes, Eugene O’Neill. Fascinating to get a chance to see a relatively lost play – I loved it.

 

 

  1. Royal Philharmonic Orchestra – Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 30th November 2009

Three more comedy nights followed, with Stephen K Amos on 16th November, Rob Brydon on 28th November and another Screaming Blue Murder on  26th November. After that, our next show was our first time seeing the RPO on one of their regular visits to Northampton, and this is another something that has become a regular feature of our theatre entertainment over the subsequent years. The RPO, under the baton of Nicolae Moldoveanu, and accompanied by the Northampton Bach Choir and the Daventry Choral Society, performed Bruch’s Violin Concerto No 1 and Beethoven’s Symphony No 9. Fantastic – and we were hooked.

  1. Rambert Dance Company, Comedy of Change Tour – Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 3rd December 2009

Rambert’s 2009 tour comprised Henri Oguike’s Tread Softly, Mark Baldwin’s Comedy of Change and Siobhan Davies’ Carnival of the Animals. A wonderful selection of challenging dance and crowd pleasers.

  1. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs – Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 26th December 2009

We took our nieces, their parents and the inlaws to see Northampton’s big family panto which starred Linda Lusardi as Queen Lucrietia and Sam Kane as Prince Michael. Pete Hillier was Muddles, and Emily Shaw Snow White. A very enjoyable and glamorous panto. Great fun.

And from 1st January 2010 I started my blog, so if you want to catch up on any more old shows, simply go to the date index on the blog and read at your leisure!

Review – Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Jamie Phillips conducts Elgar’s Enigma Variations, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 15th October 2021

RPO Enigma VariationsThis isn’t the first concert by the Royal Philharmonic at the Royal and Derngate since we started to emerge tentatively out of our lockdown cocoons, but conductor Jamie Phillips’ warm welcome to us all made it feel like it. Unlike the last concert, Spotlight on Strings, which had a reduced sized and socially distanced orchestra and audience, this time the Derngate stage took the full whack of the complete cast of musicians and there’s no denying it’s a complete thrill to listen to that number of people playing together again.

The aforementioned Jamie Phillips is a trendy sort of chap, with matching red glasses and socks, whose appearance put me in mind of Trevor Horn during his Buggles phase. He cajoles the orchestra to feel their way into the music with encouraging facial expressions and has (literally) a spring in his step for every new movement. You can see him a little like a young father who’s incredibly proud of his musical progenies, making sure each member of the orchestra gets their chance to shine.

Jamie PhillipsThe programme for the concert of English, Norwegian and German music was an entertaining mix of the familiar and not-so-familiar. We started with Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite No 1 Opus 46,  opening with its glorious Morning Mood, then the sombre Death of Ase, the exotically beguiling Anitra’s Dance and finally the sinister and ultimately threatening In The Hall of the Mountain King. You got the feeling that each member of the orchestra knew this piece like the back of their hand, but even so the goosebumps began to rise with that last section, when the violins truly went into a frenzy of bowing. A perfect choice to start the evening’s entertainment.

Next, we had Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor, Opus 64, with our soloist Irène Duval. Mlle Duval wears a serious demeanour in preparation for a piece, and it wasn’t long before she was treating Mendelssohn’s notes and phrases with admirable assertiveness. Her playing was – it goes without saying – astounding, but I would say she treated the first two movements with respect and determination, but let fly with the emotions in the final movement, where she made the vivacious and infectious tune truly swing. It was almost as though she had left the concert hall and we were now present at a huge celebration party. It was superbly enjoyable. It ended with an unexpected false coda; orchestra leader Tamas Andras got up to Irene Duvallead the orchestra off into the interval only to come face to face with Mlle Duval returning to perform an encore. “Oh you’ve come back!” he said in surprise, as his face grew redder and redder over the next five minutes, whilst she performed a piece I didn’t recognise. The admiration on the faces of some of the violinists at the quality of her performance was a joy to behold.

After the interval, we started with another piece that was not familiar to me – the Prelude from Delius’ Irmelin, his first opera. Not only had I not heard this piece, I hadn’t even heard of it. It’s delightful, wistful, fresh, and Spring-like, and the RPO’s performance was instantly appealing and beautiful.

RPOThen came the main event, Elgar’s Enigma Variations, always a thrilling, stirring and emotional piece. However, I have to say, I felt that the pace of the performance was enormously fast. There are movements in Enigma that can withstand a super speedy performance, but there are others where you really need to relax to let the piece breathe, like a fine wine. There was also a pause after Nimrod that made it feel as though it had been split into a two movement concerto. It emphatically isn’t that; it’s a theme followed by 13 variations each of which is a portrait of a character, and by definition, I think each portrait should carry equal weight. For me, the performance lacked a little in the emotional department, the attention being focused on power and pizzazz. The performance came in at just about 30 minutes; that’s just my little quibble.

The RPO return on 6th February 2022 for another concert. We’ll be there – will you?

P. S. I’d really love it if we could go back to having the old-style programmes. Digital downloads put the onus on us to use lots of printer ink and the paper gets so crumpled during the performance that you can’t really use it as a souvenir! Please can we go back to the old programmes? Please??

Review – From the New World, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 9th February 2020

85163339_812146899283763_4803852892588998656_nMrs Chrisparkle and I, together with Lord and Lady Prosecco, were fervently looking forward to last Sunday’s concert with the RPO, because it had such a fantastic programme of musical delights. Clearly half the town had the same idea, as I’ve rarely seen the Derngate auditorium so packed for a classical concert.

Whilst the pieces were old favourites, there were some new faces to meet. Our conductor was Kerem Hasan, new to us, and almost new to the entire world as he’s only 28 years old, Lord bless us all. He’s a warm, engaging and encouraging presence on the podium, deep into his music, generous to his musicians, and enthusiastic about giving us the best musical show he can. Another new face to us was the Leader of the Orchestra, Sulki Yu, although she has been with the RPO for a few years now. Despite her name, she’s bright and expressive and clearly sets a good example to her troops.

Kerem HasanThe first piece on the programme was the stunning Vltava sequence from Smetana’s Ma Vlast. This always reminds Mrs C and I of our first visit to Prague back in 1997, where it was a favourite of our host, a young Czech guy who clearly valued his homeland just as much as Smetana did. Those surging strings cascade through you like a hot massage, and you feel appropriately reinvigorated as a result. It would be great to hear the RPO perform the whole suite some time, but this was a beautiful and stirring start to our concert.

After the usual shenanigans of wheeling the Steinway into place, and the violins all going into a little huddle at the back of the stage (I’d love to know what they gossip about whilst they’re waiting), it was time for yet another new face – our soloist for this concert, Romanian pianist Daniel Ciobanu. Another 28-year-old; things have reached a pretty pass when you’re older than the combined age of both the conductor and the soloist. He’s a smart and trendy chap; fully in control of his surroundings and supremely confident in his technical ability. Along with the orchestra, of course, he played for us Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, and it was simply fantastic. A faultless performance, full of passion and expression, revelling in all the delicate, fun bits, and majestically triumphing through the majestically triumphant bits. All from memory, of course; and you’re simply wowed by his incredible talent.

Daniel CiobanuAfter an interval Chardonnay, we returned for the main event of the evening, a performance of Dvorák’s 9th Symphony, From the New World. Written by the travelling Czech in New York in 1893, and inspired by a combination of Native American folk music, the freedoms of a young country, and the legacy of Longfellow’s Hiawatha, it is in fact as far away from a Yorkshire Hovis advert as you can get. But the fact that it adapts itself to so many different moods and motives, and remains a favourite throughout the ages, shows its true excellence. From that hope-filled dawn of the first movement, through the luxurious softness of the second, and the spiky defiance of the third, to the powerful resolution of the fourth, this was a performance of immaculate strength and fluidity. It took your mind off all our current problems and made you feel glad to be alive. Absolutely superb from start to finish – we all loved it.

That was the last of the 2019/2020 concerts – and it was great to end it with a bang! Hopefully we will hear news of the next season of concerts very soon.

Five alive, let music thrive!

Review – The Beauty of Tchaikovsky, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 22nd September 2019

Beauty of TchaikovskyFantastic 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!

Gianluca MarcianoNot 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.

Gemma SummerfieldOur 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!

RPONext 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.

RPO1-300x200After 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!

Review – Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Film Music Gala, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 5th July 2019

Film Music GalaThis is the second time that we have seen the Royal Philharmonic perform a Film Music Gala at the Royal and Derngate; the first, in 2017, featured soloist Alison Jiear to sing some Bond themes and I Will Always Love You from The Bodyguard. No soloist this time, which was perhaps a shame, as some vocals add variety to a gala night, when the orchestra is performing a number of short pieces; eighteen this time, plus an encore.

Nevertheless, it was still a very enjoyable show, with the Royal Philharmonic on excellent form. This time they were under the baton of Pete Harrison, who was new to us; he’s used to conducting West End Show orchestras and Pop/Classic crossover concerts – and we were really impressed to learn that he conducted the Russian State Symphony Orchestra in Moscow playing the music of Pink Floyd. Now that’s eclectic.

Pete HarrisonMr Harrison is a warm and friendly chap, clearly with a great rapport with the orchestra which also conveys itself into the auditorium. The nature of this concert meant that he spent a lot of time with the microphone introducing the various pieces to us and/or commenting about them afterwards and he obviously really enjoys bringing this kind of music to a large audience; and, I must say, the Derngate was pretty packed, with concertgoers of all ages.

Some of the pieces they had played before in the previous concert, some were new to the repertoire. We started with the Main Theme to The Big Country, with its broad, bright suggestion of wide open spaces and heroic cowboys. Next was the end reworking of the Main Theme from Jurassic Park, more melodic than brash, but very welcome. After that came the theme from Legends of the Fall, bookended by some beautiful, reflective piano playing by Roderick Elms. Back to the bold and brash with Where Eagles Dare, but then much more reflective and evocative with Out of Africa.

Duncan RiddellThe concert continued with John Williams’ theme to Schindler’s List, then The Fellowship of the Ring, Gabriel’s Oboe (from The Mission), going into the interval with the triumphant 633 Squadron. After the break, we went back in history somewhat to Sir Arthur Bliss’ Things to Come march from 1936; then the bold and contemporary fun of Apollo 13 – the Last Frontier, and The Da Vinci Code – Chevaliers de Sangreal. Two much more well-known pieces followed – Lara’s Theme from Doctor Zhivago (no 1960s easy listening album was complete without a version of this) and the famous Born Free, from the film of the same name. Then something very different – Ashokan Farewell from The Civil War, with leader of the orchestra Duncan Riddell showing his mastery of the folk violin style.

The last pieces of the concert were the famous Raiders March from Raiders of the Lost Ark – which I thought sounded especially tremendous – then Jack Sparrow’s theme from Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, and finally the main theme from Star Wars – a true crowdpleaser (and one we heard only a month ago in the RPO’s Planets show). For an encore they performed the Flying Theme from E.T. – and a very warm finish to the concert it was too.

Royal Philharmonic OrchestraMaybe not the most cerebrally demanding evening of orchestral music but this show’s prime purpose is to entertain with some great pieces of modern composition – and it certainly does that! The Royal Philharmonic will be back in Northampton on 22nd September with a programme of Tchaikovsky music. I’m expecting something very lively!

Review – The Planets: An HD Odyssey, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 7th June 2019

The Planets: An HD OdysseyThis 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”.

RPOgroupTherefore, 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).

Nick DaviesWe 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.

Review – Last Night of the Derngate Proms, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 15th July 2018

Last Night of the Derngate PromsAfter 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.

Nick DaviesNext 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.

Katerina MinaAfter 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!

RPOP. 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.

P. P. P. S. Hope Duncan got his train.

Review – Alan Buribayev Conducts Chopin, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Derngate, Northampton, 8th April 2018

Alan Buribayev Conducts ChopinOnce again we welcome back the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to one of their satellite venues around the UK here at the Royal and Derngate in Northampton, for an exciting programme of Czech, Polish and Finnish music. Our conductor was the ebullient and hard-working Alan Buribayev, whom we saw here two years ago in a fantastic concert that was the winner of the 2016 Annual Chrisparkle Award for Best Classical Concert. So we knew we were going to be in for a treat. This was also our first chance to see Alexandra Wood as First Violinist for the orchestra.

Alan BuribayevWe started with the overture to Smetana’s The Bartered Bride, his 1866 opera that remains one of his best-known works. The overture was written separately, before the rest of the opera, which possibly explains why it’s such an arresting stand-alone piece of music. The strings of the Royal Philharmonic could not resist the opportunity to launch into a full-scale attack on Smetana’s buzzy, vibrant, compelling arrangement, which gripped the audience instantly like a hundred angry bumble bees and did not let go for six brilliant minutes. A great way to start the concert.

Then it was time for the orchestra to disperse whilst the heavy mob brought in the Grand Steinway for our soloist for the afternoon, Alexander Romanovsky, a (fairly) last minute replacement for the original billing of Mark Bebbington, so we’d hoped he’d had long enough to practice Chopin’s Piano Concerto No 2 in F Minor, Op 21. We needn’t have worried. Mr Romanovsky takes to the stage like a snazzy younger version of Will Self, serious and controlled, seated business-like at the piano awaiting his cues. Whilst he’s not playing he simply looks straight ahead, relaxed but unemotional, almost like a non-participatory observer – but looks clearly can be deceptive.

Alexander RomanovskyIf he gives off an unemotional air, that doesn’t translate to his playing. He has the most exquisite lightness of touch, delicately coaxing the fullest and most resounding note from each deliberately pressed piano key. He’s the perfect exponent for Chopin at his most fluttery, his fingers going nineteen-to-the-dozen up and down the keyboard whilst his expression remains one of swan-like calm. It was an incredible performance; and really drew out all Chopin’s superb melodies that are packed into this vivacious concerto, especially the final movement, which I found particularly exciting. When it was all over, Mr Romanovsky allowed himself to crack a smile, so I guess he was pleased at the result. He certainly should have been.

After the interval we returned for a performance of Sibelius’ Symphony No 2 in D Major, Op 43. I’d not heard this symphony before and, I must confess gentle reader, I found it a real challenge. Whilst some of Sibelius’ music has an instant appeal, there’s also quite a lot that sounds to me rather murky and hard to appreciate on first hearing. The excellent programme notes discuss how the first movement of this piece is like a mosaic, with small fragments of music appearing disparately at first but finally coming together to create a whole. Well, I have to confess I found that rather obscure whole hard to recognise! Of course, the RPO were on great form, and individual moments sounded terrific. But I couldn’t grasp it somehow.

RPOgroupThe second movement felt easier: tempo andante, ma rubato – so, at a moderate pace but not rigidly; flexible, to bring out the emotion, and I thought the orchestra (and Mr Buribayev) achieved this brilliantly. The third and fourth movements seemed so crammed with all sorts of musical ideas, that it came across as a difficult and challenging piece to listen to, exhausting even; but also incredibly rewarding. There were some truly superb passages that really sang out, and I think I need to give the symphony another listen before long to try to appreciate what I missed!

Another superb performance by the Royal Philharmonic; when the audience’s sustained applause brought Mr Buribayev back to the podium for a fourth time, no one was in any doubt the extent to which the whole programme had been appreciated. This was another matinee performance by the RPO; it’s great if that encourages a wider age range of concertgoers, although I still, personally, prefer my classical concerts in the evening. I look forward to their evening of Ballet music coming up in June!

Review – Michael Petrov Performs Tchaikovsky, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 18th February 2018

Michael Petrov Performs TchaikovskyI reckon that attending live performances is habit-forming and after a while, if you see enough, you can end up on auto-pilot. That’s the reason that Mrs Chrisparkle and I kept checking our tickets on Sunday to ensure that this visit of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra really was scheduled for 3pm and not the usual 7.30pm. It just didn’t quite feel right to be there in the afternoon! There’s no doubt, however, that the matinee performance enabled several more children to attend the concert which is a great thing, especially as this was by no means a children’s programme – there were four, perfectly meaty, substantial and adult pieces of classical music to enjoy, and I hope any new youthful concertgoers found it as exciting and rewarding as we did.

Rory MacdonaldOur conductor for this concert was Rory Macdonald, whom we’ve seen just once before, when Natalie Clein performed Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in B Minor three years ago. He still doesn’t seem to have aged at all, and I’m more than ever sure that he has a grand selfie mouldering in his attic somewhere. He’s an exuberant conductor, one who likes to reach out on tippytoes to get the maximum out of his musicians. With his sleek black hair and formal attire, I couldn’t get the vision of Mary Poppins’ cartoon penguins out of my head. But he does a great job, so far be it from me to take the mickey.

Our first piece was Beethoven’s Egmont Overture. What a grand way to start a concert, with its compelling tunes and robust orchestration. It’s a superbly muscular and self-confident piece of music – everything an overture should be – and the orchestra rose to the challenge magnificently. I also appreciated the slightly pacier tempo which made its strength and power stand out. A great start.

Next we had two pieces of music that were new to me. Two Elegiac Melodies, Op. 34 by Edvard Grieg. I love Grieg’s music and it was a treat to discover something new by him. All the woodwind and percussion left the stage so that we only had the string players – I say “only”, but the lush sound they produced was sensational for these two pure and sincere reflective pieces. There’s nothing comfortable about the Elegiac Melodies, and I found them strangely disconcerting; but I really loved the performance.

After this, there was some general reorganisation as the rest of the orchestra returned and a platform was provided, centre stage, for our soloist, the cellist Michael Petrov. Amongst all the black evening dresses of the ladies of the orchestra and the formal suits of the men, Mr Petrov strode on to the stage in a white shirt not tucked in at the waist, no collar, no jacket, no tie, but with a calm and creative aura about him. He looked like a benign dentist – the sort who doesn’t complain at you if he suspects you haven’t been cleaning your teeth properly.

Michael PetrovMr Petrov was there to play Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme, Op 33. This was another piece I’d never heard before and I was instantly taken by it. Tchaikovsky takes a relatively simple theme and wraps it around his little finger with seven variations and an astonishing cadenza from Mr Petrov where you could hear a pin drop, so alert were the audience to the passionate tones he produced from his 1846 J B Vuillaume cello – proving that old is often best. The Variations are a great vehicle to show off a bravura performance and Mr Petrov did that with apparently effortless ease. He brought out the humour of some of the cheekier variations and the solemnity of the andante sections. No sheet music, no grand gestures; just a thoughtful and disciplined performance that held the audience spellbound. We absolutely loved it – and now I need to find a decent recording of this piece for my own music library.

This performance was of the Fitzenhagen arrangement of the Variations; Fitzenhagen was the principal cellist with the Orchestra of the Imperial Russian Music Society in Moscow, to whom Tchaikovsky had dedicated the work, but then who chopped and changed the Variations around, much to the annoyance of Tchaikovsky. But maybe Fitzenhagen knew what he was doing, because it’s such an enjoyable mini-concerto, and it’s usually his version that gets performed.

RPO3-300x200After the interval we returned for a performance of Mendelssohn’s Symphony No 4 in A Major, Op 40, better known as the Italian Symphony. As soon as its happy and playful major theme strikes up in the first movement, you’re transported away to sunny climates and a lovely Mediterranean lifestyle. Under Mr Macdonald’s enthusiastic direction, the orchestra brought us all the joy of the first movement, then to change dramatically to the crestfallen sound of the second movement, with its connotations of funereal respect, the stately minuet of the third movement and the raucous scampering of the saltarello dance of the fourth. It was all performed with amazing vigour and energy and had the audience on the edge of its seat with excitement at the end.

A fantastic concert that introduced me to some riveting new pieces and a super soloist. And it was all over by teatime! The next classical offering from the Royal Philharmonic will be in April, with a varied programme of Czech, Polish and Finnish music. Can’t wait!

Review – Francesca Dego Performs Bruch, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 26th November 2017

Francesca Dego Performs BruchAnother opportunity to welcome back the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to their spiritual East Midlands home, for a stirring concert of Beethoven, Brahms and Bruch. Our conductor was Mathieu Herzog, whom we haven’t seen before, but he’s a lively and charismatic presence on the podium. All decked out in a trendy, shiny frock coat with yellow beading, he’s one of those conductors who likes to throw himself into the music, arms reaching out in all directions to encourage every individual member of the orchestra to give their best. I think you can divide conductors into two kinds: those who never stand on tiptoe, and those who rarely don’t. M. Herzog definitely belongs in the latter category!

Mathieu HerzogFirst on the agenda was Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture. This has nothing to do with Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, but was written in 1807 for Heinrich Joseph von Collin’s 1804 tragedy Coriolan; not that it matters to today’s concertgoer. It’s a great start to a recital as it instantly arrests you with its bold and attacking style. You can really imagine old Ludwig van stabbing his baton at a petrified orchestra coaxing all those staccato beats out of the violins. Full of stops and starts, it’s impossible to listen to it without your head nodding up and down, furiously, in time to the rhythm. It showed off the orchestra’s fantastic strings to their best.

Next, we had the first of our two Brahms’ pieces, the Hungarian Dance No 6 in D Major. From stabbing, dramatic strings to gypsy swing strings in one fell swoop, you could almost smell the goulash. It was played with a great sense of fun and briefly transported you to some Czardas club in Budapest where your mind’s eye lingered on imaginary ladies in swirling skirts and gentlemen in knee-high boots. Pure escapism in three minutes, fifty seconds.

Francesca DegoTaking us into the interval was the performance of Bruch’s Violin Concerto No 1 in G Minor. This is quite a favourite of the Royal Philharmonic, as we have seen them perform it in both 2009 and 2014, when Chloe Hanslip turned in an amazing performance. Our soloist this time was Francesca Dego, a statuesque vision in lemon, brandishing an antique violin; according to the programme, she uses two violins, a Francesco Ruggeri, dated 1697, and a Guarneri del Gesu from 1734 – which she presumably refers to as “the new one”. Her dramatic appearance reflects her dramatic performance, as she produced the most glorious tone from the instrument, both blending perfectly with the rest of the orchestra and also standing out with its own enhanced clarity. I’m always impressed when someone plays as complex a piece as this without any sheet music to hand. I loved how the three movements all blended seamlessly together, and it was an exciting, moving, and authoritative performance which the appreciative audience in the Derngate auditorium absolutely loved.

Sir Peter EllwoodWhen we came back from the interval, there was a little surprise before the final piece. Managing Director of the RPO, James Williams, introduced us to Sir Peter Ellwood, who was given the orchestra’s highest accolade, that of Honorary Membership, in recognition of his support and work with the orchestra over the past twenty years. James presented the membership together with trumpeter Adam Wright. Sir Peter also happens to be Vice Lord-Lieutenant of Northamptonshire, so we wondered if he played a role in establishing the great connection between the orchestra and the Royal and Derngate. If so, well played sir!

The second part of the concert consisted of a performance of Brahms’ Symphony No 4. I love a Brahms Symphony. In fact, I remember, as a student, treating myself to a recording of each of the four symphonies, one a week, over the first part of a very difficult term – I’d buy one as a treat and a self-congratulation for getting through yet another tutorial. Being a (relatively) penniless student, I could only afford the Music For Pleasure recordings (remember them?) and they were by the Hallé Orchestra, under the baton of James Loughran. I thought they were fantastic. I confess that the first symphony is my ultimate favourite, but who’s going to turn up an opportunity to hear the fourth symphony performed live?

It was superb. I loved how the first movement shows off like a musical version of a question and answer session. Then when the second movement got going the pizzicato sequence was so impressive. It felt almost mournful but with a great resilience. And then the final two movements, which are a) lively and b) even livelier, were played with such gusto that it was hard for your brain to keep up with the music. The violinists were playing so vigorously that their arms were literally a blur. A wonderful performance, and a fitting end to a very exciting concert. The composers may have been Beethoven, Brahms and Bruch – three B’s – but it was an A+ evening. The RPO are next back in town on February 18th 2018 for an afternoon of Beethoven, Grieg, Tchaikovsky and Mendelssohn. Already looking forward to it!