Review – John Williams performs Rodrigo’s Guitar Concerto de Aranjuez, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Derngate, Northampton, 8th June 2014

Rodrigo's Guitar ConcertoPut a big name on the bill, playing a show stopping piece of music, and the crowds come a-flocking. There was barely room for a standing piccolo in the Derngate, so many bums on seats were there, which is great news for everyone. I’m not surprised. I love Spanish guitar music – and Rodrigo’s Guitar Concerto is up there with the best. During the concert, I was reminded of the time when Mrs Chrisparkle and I were strolling through the late night alleyways of Madrid back in 1999, when we stumbled upon the Plaza Major at around midnight, to discover a guitarring busker sat in a corner playing Rodrigo’s Guitar Concerto with great feeling and charm. He beckoned us over to listen closer. For a few minutes we were in awe of his wonderful playing in a magical setting. It was just one of those perfect moments that will stay with us all our lives.

Royal Philharmonic OrchestraIt’s always a pleasure to greet the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to our beloved local theatre, and they were on cracking form as usual. Our conductor was Alexander Shelley, who we first saw last year, and he’s an enthusiastic and benign influence, as he mounts the podium (so to speak) beaming with pleasure at the prospect of the performance, and very carefully communicating with the orchestra, indicating clearly what he wants from each musician as he proceeds.

First up was Elgar’s In The South. “Two harps!” Mrs C had exclaimed as we entered the auditorium. There were indeed two harps for this piece, which seems a little excessive in these days of austerity. They were whisked away at the end of the Elgar and never seen again, so I hope everyone involved thought it worth the effort. I’m sure it was, as it was a superb rendition of this elegant and beautiful piece, renowned for its solo viola theme which was movingly performed by Abigail Fenna. A very rewarding to start to the evening’s programme.

John WilliamsIn preparation for the Rodrigo, all the violinists moved back a yard or so to make way for our soloist, whose appearance was presaged by an orchestra gofer, carefully placing a short microphone stand and a footrest in front of John Williams’ chair. Enter Mr Williams, a very serene looking man, delighted by his welcoming applause and greeting individual orchestra members like old friends (which I’m sure they are). He took one look at the microphone stand and footrest and, with a miniscule snort, repositioned them as far as possible from their original location, much to the amusement of Mr Shelley. Once Mr Williams’ props were sorted, he then performed a lengthy tuning up session, to which he added little horrified glances every time a string was out of key, or a thankful look of relief every time the tuning was spot on. These things are important, of course; but that tiny procedure really added to the occasion’s sense of theatre, a building up of expectation and tension.

Alexander ShelleyThe Guitar Concerto is a stunning piece of music and Mr Williams played it with a classic, clean interpretation, gently nudging all the beauty out of its structure. That first allegro movement, that strikes me as the epitome of Spanishness – pure sunshine on a Seville orange, got a round of applause by itself (much to Mrs C’s approval, see earlier); further retuning after that movement slightly broke the spell, but then took us into the romantic yet melancholic adagio – no hint of a bland Manuel and the Music of the Mountains in this performance, it was sheer emotion – and then straight into the triumphantly jolly final allegro. It was all fantastic, supported beautifully by the orchestra, and I thought Tim Gill’s cello in the first movement was sensational.

Stephen GossBut that wasn’t to be our entire John Williams fix for the night. After our interval Cab Sav, we returned to see Mr Williams again as the soloist in Stephen Goss’ Guitar Concerto, which we’d seen at its debut performance two years ago. I think it’s fair to say that on that first performance we were a little underwhelmed by it, but this time round I warmed to it much more – although I still don’t think Mrs C quite gets its appeal. Last time I found the “Homage to Elgar” second movement rather derivative of the Great Man, but this time it felt to me much more individual. Full of drama and light and shade, the concerto gives the soloist a real chance to shine – not that Mr Williams needs any assistance. It received very generous applause in the hall, and it was a delight to see Mr Goss modestly taking the plaudits as well. John Williams has now recorded this piece with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, so I expect it will become a regular feature in their repertoire.

J WilliamsA considerable change to the evening’s Spanish guitar theme for the last treat, Gershwin’s An American in Paris. We were suddenly transported into the jazz age, with a colourful hotch-potch of tunes and sound effects blended together perfectly by the woodwind, and of course it’s a riot of fun for the percussionists who can quirk it up to their hearts’ content. Where Rhapsody in Blue is pure New York from start to finish, American in Paris gave Gershwin the chance to mix and match his influences which really adds to its natural energy. It was played with real gusto and entertainment, and I continually realised I was breaking into uncontrollable smiles throughout the performance, which is always a good sign. Just as I hadn’t realised that Rodrigo lived to the grand old age of 97 (thank you, programme notes), Gershwin only got as far as 38. One wonders what fabulous pieces of music lurked in the recesses of his brain that he never got to write.

A highly enjoyable programme of mixed styles and virtuosity, which delighted the packed audience, and the Royal Philharmonic did us proud. One more concert this season – the Last Night of the Proms next month – which will no doubt be a bundle of fun as usual!

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