Review – Spotlight on Strings, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 16th June 2021

Spotlight on StringsIt’s heart-warming to welcome the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra – or at least the string section – back to the Royal and Derngate for their first concert here in over 16 months; yes, who would have known that Dvorak’s New World Symphony on 9th February last year would have marked the last of the RPO’s classical treats for us all this time until it’s just about safe enough to put our (fully-masked) heads above the parapet?

In these uncertain times, it’s impractical (and potentially dangerous) for too many musicians to rehearse and perform together, let alone have a full audience in to enjoy their show. So this programme of three pieces of string music, performed by a group of 25 musicians, is the perfect way to try to reintroduce classical performance to our wounded live entertainment industry.

RPO StringsFor this socially-distanced performance we couldn’t take our usual seats in row H of the stalls but decided to plonk ourselves right down at the front – in any event, an interesting experiment to gauge the difference of sound (if any). Verdict: it’s not quite as rich a sound that you get further back but you do feel like one of the orchestra! Duncan Riddell, the RPO’s regular Leader, was in charge of letting the strings swing in a 75 minute, no interval, programme of music from all over Europe.

In the absence of a proper programme – presumably a Covid Cutback – it fell to Duncan to introduce the first piece. He started to welcome us, but not using the microphone stand on the middle of the stage. “Can’t hear you – use the mic” said someone from behind. So he did, but reluctantly as he said that now that he has used the mic no one else can – one of those Covid rules – and he had intended someone else to use it later. The performing arts are just full of Covid problems!

Duncan RiddellOur first piece was Edvard Grieg’s Holberg Suite, written in 1884 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the famous Danish-Norwegian playwright Ludvig Holberg (err…who??) Originally composed for piano, Grieg adapted it for strings the following year. I confess it was new to me, but it’s a delightful composition in five movements. For the Rigaudon final section, I was expecting something akin to the Norwegian Dance No 2 – or as I know it, Freddy and his Fiddle from the Song of Norway. But no, it was much more like the hornpipe in Pomp and Circumstance. Beautifully done though, with Duncan turning forwards into full performance mode for his virtuoso bits.

Next up was Mendelssohn’s String Symphony No 10, introduced by Principal Second Violin Andrew Storey;  a short, lively piece written in B minor, and all in one movement. Felix Mendelssohn was a bright kid and wrote this String Symphony in the 1820s when he was aged just 14. I thought the guys on the double bass added significantly to this performance, great stuff sirs!

RPO1-300x200Our last piece – the Headline Act if you like – was Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, introduced by (I think) Jonathan Ayling, Co-Principal Cello. It’s a wonderful 1880 composition, in four movements. It starts with a Sonatina style piece in homage to Mozart; then a well-known waltz is the second movement, an Elegie follows, and finally an ending that borrows from some Russian folk tunes. Allegedly Tchaikovsky liked this to be played by as large a group of string musicians as possible, but I’m sure he would have been thrilled to have these 25 players giving it their all as they did. It was absorbing, luscious and exquisite.

As a thank you for coming, they generously gave us an encore – the slow movement from Elgar’s Serenade for Strings. Hugely entertaining and a great return, the audience were thrilled to have the orchestra back, and the orchestra seemed to be thrilled to have the audience back. Win, win! It felt safe, comfortable, friendly and intimate – the personal chats from the individual musicians were a really nice touch that more than made up for the lack of programme! Above all, it was a great privilege to witness the return of the Royal Philharmonic to the Royal and Derngate. They are back again next Wednesday with The Music of Bond. We can’t be there, sadly, but that shouldn’t stop you!

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 – Grand Tchaikovsky Gala, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Derngate, Northampton, May 8th 2011

Grand Tchaikovsky GalaAn almost full house to see another concert by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Derngate in Northampton – a Grand Tchaikovsky Gala. So you knew in advance it was going to be a musically bumptious night and as usual the Royal Philharmonic were well up for the job. Our conductor for the evening was Grzegorz Nowak, whose biography in the programme virtually filled up two pages. He’s a commanding figure on the podium – sometimes looking avuncular, sometimes stern; imposingly broad-shouldered he sways stiffly with his baton and clearly goes to the same hairdresser as Boris Johnson.

First on offer was Marche Slave, which I don’t think I’d heard before. It’s kind of Tchaikovsky by numbers, and almost every style of music of which you think he’d be capable is crammed into this piece. So it makes for a stimulating introduction, but it’s not something you’d go out of your way to check back on.

Alessandro Taverna Much more rewarding was the Piano Concerto No 1, with soloist Alessandro Taverna (I’m sure that’s a bistro in Corfu). When he walks on to the stage he looks slight and unassuming; he reminded me of the young Roger Rees in Nicholas Nickleby when he’s all earnest and insecure. He took a while to get comfortable on the piano stool too, with his jacket tails getting stuck in an out-of-focus position. But once he started, he was genius! His playing was really superb. He captured the drama and romanticism of the piece, and provided the necessary light and shade to break up the otherwise relentless Tchiakovskiness of the evening. I didn’t get past Grade IV piano so I’m no judge but I don’t think he put a foot or indeed a hand wrong in the entire piece. The audience loved it and gave him possibly the warmest reception I’ve heard at one of these concerts. As a treat afterwards he encored with a short jazzy piece from Friedrich Gulda’s “Play Piano Play” which really showed his skill and bravura.

After the interval we got the Capriccio Italien (which is not, as I had originally thought, an antipasto) which seemed to be a lot of introductory fanfare but then turning out a bit insubstantial as a piece. Fantastic sound from the brass section though. Then there were some extracts from the Nutcracker, and you realise as you hear them what terrific short tunes they are. Putting them together like that is like having a plate of five sweet cakes which you eat one after another. Gorgeous whilst you’re munching, but quickly over, and providing a slight feeling of sickliness afterwards. Mrs Chrisparkle and I also observed that it is impossible to hear “Dance of the Mirlitons” without singing to oneself “everyone’s a fruit and nutcase” a la Frank Muir.

Grzegorz Nowak The final piece was (surprise surprise) the 1812 Overture. Chance for the percussion to rule, and they took the opportunity magnificently. I particularly liked the incessantly clanging chimes and of course the cannon sounds made by what sounded like the most intimidatingly large drum imaginable. It was all very enthralling and enjoyable. Again the audience responded most warmly and with great respect. Shame the two violinists furthest stage right at the front couldn’t have suspended their conversation during the applause. There’s no greater way of dissing the audience! Anyway, small cavil. We had a great time, and look forward to the RPO’s return next month!