Once again last weekend the Royal and Derngate Theatres played host to the annual Malcolm Arnold Festival, celebrating the life and works of one of Northampton’s most famous sons. As usual, it culminated in a gala concert performed by the Malcolm Arnold Festival Orchestra, better known by their real name, the Worthing Symphony Orchestra. We welcomed back John Gibbons as conductor, who’s been in charge ever since we started attending this annual Arnoldfest. Mr Gibbons is a great host, because not only does he get maximum oomph out of the orchestra, he also introduces each item on the musical menu in an informative and entertaining way. Even when he’s discussing an unfamiliar, maybe difficult piece, he always gives you aspects and ideas to look out for during the performance – and you certainly feel as though you understand each piece of music much more after you hear them.
As befits the Malcolm Arnold Festival, we started with some of the Great Man’s work – and one of my particular favourites in all orchestral music – his Four Scottish Dances, Opus 59. They’re so full of quirky musical observations as well as really great tunes – one of the few pieces of classical music that can actually make you laugh out loud. I particularly enjoyed the performances of the first dance, with the orchestra giving it the full welly of grandeur, and the third, which is so wistfully romantic, you can almost smell the heather coming off the woodwind.
Next featured a performance by our first soloist, BBC Walter Todds Bursary recipient and saxophonist extraordinaire, 17 year old Jess Gillam. We listened, enthralled, to her performance of Malcolm Arnold’s Saxophone Concerto, a relatively short but amazingly expressive piece of music, which I’d never heard before. Mr Gibbons had previously told us we might find it a challenging piece but I thought it was superbly tuneful and Miss Gillam gave it a really funky feel. There’s one passage where it upgrades from a minor to a major key which was the cue for Miss G to make the notes glide all over the place like they were dipped in velvet chocolate. It all came fantastically alive. Mrs Chrisparkle played the saxophone in her youth; I don’t think Miss Gillam has to worry about the competition.
The next piece was – for me at least – definitely a challenge. Doreen Carwithen’s Overture ODTAA (which stands for One Damn Thing After Another). I knew nothing of Ms Carwithen, but Mr Gibbons’ account of her life was fascinating, as she was born near where I used to live in Haddenham, in Buckinghamshire, and used to play at the church in Monks Risborough, where Mrs C and I used to go dog-walking (many years ago when we had a dog, that is.) The orchestra gave it a very good performance but for some reason it just didn’t speak to me, and I found my mind wandering. I think Mrs C enjoyed it more than me, recognising something of the Thunderbirds theme in there somewhere.
Our last piece before the interval was a perennial crowd pleaser – Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, with piano soloist Martin James Bartlett. We’d seen young Mr Bartlett last year perform Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. There’s obviously nothing Mr Bartlett likes more than a good old rhapsody. John Gibbons told us that there are several arrangements of the Rhapsody in Blue out there, and that they were trying to recreate the sound that was closest to Gershwin’s own performance. I used to have a recording off the radio of Gershwin playing the Rhapsody, and my memory is that he really invested in the jazzy nature of the piece, and I felt that Mr Bartlett tended more to the romantic expression. Not that that was in any way a disappointment, far from it. Mr Bartlett plays the piano with his entire body, squeezing out musical meaning every bar along the way. Whilst his fingers are caressing or pummelling the keyboard, his back will arch in and out and his right foot will be waggling about in ecstasy. Stunningly mature playing for one so young, and also incredibly accurate too. We thought Mr Bartlett was ace last year. What a difference a year makes – now at the grand old age of 19 he is simply amazing.
After our interval Shiraz it was time for a quick march from another local boy William Alwyn entitled True Glory. I hadn’t heard it before and I was struck by its great rhythm and military bearing – perhaps unsurprisingly as Alwyn wrote it for a documentary film showing real footage of the Second World War. Then we quickly went into Malcolm Arnold’s Commonwealth Christmas Overture, written to celebrate the 25th anniversary of a Christmas Broadcast by a British monarch. I loved Arnold’s cheeky description of it that appeared in the programme: “I have purposely designed it so that the piece will be easily grasped by people listening after a large Christmas dinner”. It’s a wonderful hotch-potch of tunes suggesting the different parts of the Commonwealth who might be listening in, including a really entertaining samba. Enormous fun, and the orchestra played it beautifully.
Talking of which, we come to the final piece of the night, Dvořák’s New World Symphony. It had been a while since we had heard this wonderful symphony, and it’s easy to think of it as just the Hovis advert and not give it the full credit it’s due. The first movement is particularly stunning, and the orchestra gave it so much warmth and passion. But it was the poignant second movement that was played with such emotion and pathos that, as Mrs C and I confessed to each other later, it brought a tear to both our eyes (i.e. all four of them). It was just so beautiful. Whatever it was that the orchestra did to achieve this heightened level of emotion, they got it spot on. An absolutely remarkable performance. And, for good measure, there’s no doubt in my mind that the fourth movement was the inspiration for the music behind the Fry’s Turkish Delight advert.
One of the best classical concerts we’ve ever attended – congratulations to everyone involved. A friendly suggestion to Northampton concertgoers: for some reason the Malcolm Arnold Gala concert usually gets fewer people attending than the usual Royal Philharmonic performances that are all available within the same Subscription Season. I hope you don’t think that the Worthing Symphony Orchestra is in any way an inferior provider of classical music? Because they’re great! If you normally miss this one out, next year give it a go – you won’t regret it!