Every year in Northampton the Royal and Derngate plays host to the annual Malcolm Arnold Festival, celebrating the life and works of one of the town’s most famous sons. The two day event involves concerts and talks and always culminates in a gala concert given by the Malcolm Arnold Festival Orchestra – the Worthing Symphony Orchestra by any other name – and this year the theme was Movie Classics.
Festival Director Paul Harris welcomed regular conductor John Gibbons to the stage and we were all set to go. First was Klaus Bedelt’s “Pirates of the Caribbean”, a very enjoyable, attacking piece of dramatic music that got all sections of the orchestra pulling together; it served as an excellent overture. Next was the first of three Malcolm Arnold pieces – his suite of music to the film “Inn of the Sixth Happiness”. I can barely remember the film from my dim and distant past, but I was really bowled over by Arnold’s fantastic music, especially the beautiful moody second movement – great work from cellist David Burrowes – and the delightfully escalating Knick Knack Paddiwack-based third movement. Structured a bit like Ravel’s Bolero, which would close the evening’s concert, its constantly building energy and arrangement was a real joy.
Then we had another of Northampton’s sons, William Alwyn, and his finale music to the film “Odd Man Out”. John Gibbons told us it was written before the film was shot – an unusual way round of doing it – and that the scene depicted by the music would be the suspenseful denouement when the lead character would finally get his come-uppance. It was suitably dark and eerie, and the strings gave it real strength and character – an excellent performance. Next was the main theme from “Schindler’s List”, by John Williams; a beautiful, haunting tune played clearly and sweetly by the leader of the orchestra, Julian Leaper. One of those pieces that can help you drift away after a hard day at work.
Then it was time for the return of Julian Bliss to the Derngate stage. We had very fond memories of his performance with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra last November. Now he was back to play Malcolm Arnold’s Clarinet Concerto No 2, which gave him maximum opportunity to show off his incredible style and range. The first movement ends with a cadenza, Arnold’s instruction being to make it “as jazzy and way out as you please”. Mr Bliss filled that space with some inventive phrases and comic echoes that I found a sheer delight – they were technical fireworks. The second movement was extremely strange, with some very plaintive, meditative harmonies coming from the strings; and the final movement an over-exuberant, maniacally upbeat sequence of ragtime influences which certainly made you smile, even if largely out of incredulity. Mr Bliss sure knows how to perform a rollicking good concerto, which took us in to the interval. Interestingly, he read his music off an iPad, rather than the traditional paper sheet music. Mrs Chrisparkle and I differed as to whether we found this more, or less, distracting than the traditional method. Suffice to say, what it lacks in rustling paper turning, it makes up for in positioning and hardware issues.
We returned to the auditorium to hear Alwyn’s march from “The True Glory”, another short but satisfying upbeat piece, which took us into the perennial favourite, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. On the piano, Poom Prommachart, the young Thai pianist who won this year’s Sussex International Piano Competition, and who is definitely a rising star. Although he plays with great feeling and movement, and his performance is enjoyable to watch, I felt it lacked a little light and shade – he seemed to play the whole piece with the same firmness and loudness throughout, without allowing any softer elements in. Similarly, I found the orchestra, at times, became a little muddy with this piece. There were a few sequences where it seemed to lack clarity and organisation. I remember listening to a recording of the Rhapsody, played by George Gershwin himself, and there is no disputing that he absolutely communicated the heart of what he had tried to write – the steely rhythms of a train, America’s national melting pot, New York’s metropolitan madness. I don’t think either our orchestra or soloist really conveyed those messages. It was followed though by John Barry’s “Out of Africa”, a very serene and relaxing piece that can wash all over you like a Radox bath; beautifully played.
Julian Bliss returned for two more short pieces – Malcolm Arnold’s “You know what sailors are”, which is a lark-a-minute sketch of musical eye-tiddly-eye-tie which ends with its foot in the air and a dimple in its cheek; then on to the more familiar “Flight of the Bumble-Bee”, Rimsky-Korsakov at his most show-off, with the usual violin being replaced by the clarinet in a fast and furious whirlwind of woodwind. For someone so talented, Julian Bliss comes across as remarkably unstarry and grounded, and nicely self-deprecating in his couple of short speeches – how refreshing that is.
The final number of the night was Ravel’s Bolero, that extraordinary exercise in repetition that grows from the softest hint of a tune to an enormous theatre-exploding frenzy of orchestration. We’ve seen the RPO perform it twice before, in 2010 and 2012, and it’s always a thrilling finale. Again for me, this performance of the Bolero didn’t work quite as well. I felt when it began that it simply started too loudly, and that if they were going to keep the progression up, by the time it finished it would have to be deafening. And so it was, with the result that it lacked a certain subtlety; any opportunities for quirky interpretation were traded in for all-out attack. It must be such hard work to keep that snare drum going, unwaveringly, throughout the entire performance, and our timpanist just about carried it off. The part involving the celeste came over as rather harsh and jangly too. But nevertheless it was still an enjoyable performance, and sent us all home stirred and uplifted. Not long to go now before the Royal Philharmonic’s 2013-14 season starts. We’ll be attending four of their concerts. Always a privilege!