Once again the Royal and Derngate Northampton played host to the annual Malcolm Arnold Festival with a weekend of concerts, talks, films and readings; and once again, Mrs Chrisparkle and I just attended the Gala Concert on the Sunday night. Maybe one year we will immerse ourselves more deeply in the whole Malcolm Arnold Thing; I’m sure it’s all highly entertaining. But for this year, we were happy to limit ourselves to the Main Show.
All hail the return of the Worthing Symphony Orchestra under its nom de baton of the Malcolm Arnold Festival Orchestra, ably conducted as always by John Gibbons. It’s the fourth year in a row that Mr Gibbons has fronted the WSO for this concert, and they always do a sterling job. The programme for the evening is always varied and exciting; this year was no different, with an overture, a premiere, two soloists, two concertos, some old favourites, a speed challenge and Finlandia. That’s a lot to pack in to around two hours.
We started off with the first of three Malcolm Arnold pieces of the evening, A Sussex Overture, Op 31 – not inappropriate for a Sussex based orchestra. It’s a very cheeky and brash nine minutes or so, giving plenty of opportunities for the percussion to shine. John Gibbons said that, having discovered this overture, it’s going to become a mainstay of many WSO concerts to come – amen to that.
Next came Malcolm Arnold’s Clarinet Concerto no 1, Op 20, and the first of the evening’s three encounters with the excellent Julian Bliss. Like the Sussex Overture, I hadn’t heard this before but it’s a very imaginative and lively piece of music. John Gibbons described it as “dark jazz” and “not an easy listen” at times. To be honest, I felt he over-emphasised its difficulties as we both found it rewarding and entertaining. I loved the chirrupy tune in the first movement, and the “dark” second movement was like being massaged by woodwind. Mr Bliss has a wonderfully infectious personality in front of an orchestra and you can only marvel at his musicality and skill.
As an antidote to the challenges of the Arnold Clarinet Concerto, we next had “Morning” and “In the hall of the Mountain King” from Grieg’s Peer Gynt. A couple of much loved old favourites that everyone knows. Of course, every time someone plays an old favourite that everyone knows, it’s always someone’s first time of hearing it – as Mr Gibbons said, “Mountain King” is one of the BBC’s Ten Pieces to Inspire Children, and it really is a rumbustious torrent of excitement once it gets going. To be honest, whilst we both really loved the rendition of “Morning” – great flute and oboe work by Monica McCarron and Chris O’Neal – we both felt that the “Mountain King” sounded a bit ragged when in full pelt. Still, what do we know?
From the familiar to the unknown, and our world premiere, Fantasy on a Theme by Malcolm Arnold for Clarinet and Strings, by Toby Young. Composed especially for this concert and for Julian Bliss (who told us how it developed from some Facebook messaging and several pints in pubs), this short, dynamic piece is full of entertainment. It obviously allows the soloist to extemporise, enhance, embellish, and basically fool around with the original notes and Mr Bliss does this with supreme elegance and panache. Bright, lively and fun – an excellent addition to the programme, and it was a pleasure to see Mr Young there to share in the applause.
Last piece of the first half was Finlandia, Sibelius’ nationalistic symphonic poem; a very stirring experience with great warmth and power coming from the brass instruments, but given great support by the entire orchestra. It gives you a Ready Brek glow to take you into the interval and your fifteen minute Merlot.
When we returned after the interval the two TV screens either side of the stage that had previously just shown an image of Malcolm Arnold had changed to showing a stopwatch face. The first item of the second half was entitled the Malcolm Arnold Minute Waltz challenge – and I correctly put two and two together. Apparently Sir Malcolm had always quibbled that Chopin’s Minute Waltz bore that name, because it’s actually impossible to play it in a minute. Step up to the podium Julian Bliss, to see if his fluttery fingers could whack through the waltz in under sixty seconds. Not only was it a feat of musical dexterity, it was also a success! The stopwatch stopped at 55 seconds; we reckoned it might have been about 1.5 seconds late getting started, but even so Mr Bliss passed the finishing post within 57 seconds. A box of Guylian choccies was his rightful reward.
Our penultimate piece was another not-so-well-known tone poem, Malcolm Arnold’s Larch Trees, Op 3, dating from 1943. Very tuneful and relaxed, perhaps with a hint of mystery and bleakness, it gave the orchestra an opportunity to play with delicate expression and gentle contemplation.
Our final item of the evening was a change to the advertised programme. It was to be Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No 2 in C minor played by soloist Martin James Bartlett. Instead, due to a tendon injury, it became Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, still performed by the aforementioned Mr Bartlett. Well, if this is how he plays with an injury, heaven knows what he’s like when he’s match fit. I was astounded at how movingly he played – a really beautiful performance. From where we sit, you can clearly see the reflection of the pianist’s hands in the black panel above the keyboard, and it’s always fascinating to see how deftly they move up and down the instrument. Mr Bartlett threw his entire body into the expression, lunging backwards and forwards, almost standing at one point, twisting and contorting himself to get just the right oomph behind each note. No wonder he gets injured. It was a highly entertaining, skilful and moving performance. At the grand old age of 18, Mr Bartlett is the current BBC Young Musician of the Year. We sat two rows behind his parents – not difficult to see how proud they are of him; and indeed if he continues to develop his skills he has a most amazing future ahead of him.
As always, a highly enjoyable evening of music from the Worthing Symphony Orchestra, with a Malcolm Arnoldesque slant. Pretty good turnout in the Derngate auditorium too. Looking forward to next year!