Review – The Thirteenth Malcolm Arnold Festival Gala Concert – The Consummate Communicator; BBC Concert Orchestra, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 14th October 2018

Thirteenth Malcolm Arnold FestivalThe annual Gala Concert of the Malcolm Arnold Festival is always a thing of beauty and a delight to the ear. Northampton’s famous son turned his hand to so many different styles of music, that it’s great to cherish this festival. It’s inevitably a source of great fascination to hear some pieces you haven’t heard before, and to admire his mix of quirkiness and solemnity. For this concert by the BBC Concert Orchestra, our conductor was Keith Lockhart, a dapper chap with a spring in his step who let the music do the talking. He spent most of his time perched atop a rather battered wooden podium that looked as though it had just come out of a shed, which didn’t really suit the glamour of the rest of the evening. When Mr Lockhart becomes engrossed in his music, his left foot starts to twitch and bounces around in appreciation of the music. When he gets really carried away, he does a series of jumps. Performance clearly oozes through every pore of him.

Keith LockhartOur first item was Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances – West Side Story, and, as far as I’m concerned, definitely the best way to hear these uplifting tunes. Somewhere, Maria and I Have a Love dominate these symphonic dances, and the percussion and harp demand to be heard in addition to the usual string and brass instruments. The BCO were clearly in the mood for a lively evening of energetic playing and this piece brought out their showbizzy side; the performance went down a treat with the audience.

Julian BlissNext, we met our soloist for the evening, the brilliant clarinettist, Julian Bliss. We’ve seen Mr Bliss perform at the Royal and Derngate three times before, once with the Royal Philharmonic, and twice with the Worthing Symphony Orchestra as part of the Malcolm Arnold Festival in 2013 and 2014. For this concert, once again he played us something different. First up was a Scherzetto for Clarinet and Orchestra by Arnold, taken from his film score for the 1953 movie You Know What Sailors Are. The film is probably best forgotten, but the scherzetto is a brilliant little musical joke; a tune that cocks its head to one side, pokes its tongue out and saucily lifts its leg up. Mr Bliss played it with all the panache you’d expect.

BBC Concert OrchestraThen he played the more thoughtful and introspective Clarinet Concerto by Aaron Copland – appropriate for this concert because Copland and Arnold were great friends. Two movements are joined by a cadenza, which Mr Bliss attacked with gusto. How he remembers all the nuances of the music – let alone the notes – without any sheet music beats me. It’s an engrossing piece and sometimes you wonder how the clarinet part and the orchestra part mesh together, but they always manage it. A very moving and rewarding way to guide us to the interval.

malcolm-arnoldAfter the interval, we had a short speech from Paul Harris, the Festival Director, giving us a little extra insight into the pieces and the reasons why they were chosen for this concert. After a brief hiatus where the leader of the orchestra forgot to tune his colleagues up until he got a nudge from the violins behind (I have to say, orchestra leaders are getting younger every year) we welcomed back Mr Lockhart and went straight into our final piece, Malcolm Arnold’s 4th Symphony. In 1958, Britain saw race riots which affected Arnold deeply; he was dismayed and upset that such a thing could happen. So when he was commissioned to write a symphony the following year, he decided to involve instruments and rhythms that would have been more associated with African and Caribbean music, but integrating them into the formality of a “western” symphony, to show how the two can happily co-exist.

BBC COThe result is a lively and wide-ranging symphony, given additional depths by the African and Caribbean elements. Mr Harris told us to watch out for Puerto Rican influences too, which is why the West Side Story piece fitted into the evening’s entertainment. I must say, I couldn’t really discern much of a West Side Story vibe, but I’m sure that’s my ears not working properly. Of its four movements, I much preferred the second (vivace ma non troppo) and the fourth (con fuoco – a lot of fuoco in fact.) There was a disturbing calm about the second movement – expressed beautifully by the orchestra– which reminded me of one of Arnold’s English Dances, but as though it had been fragmented, and half the notes removed to leave a ghostly hint of the original. The fourth was full of power and amazingly lush arrangements on which the orchestra truly went to town.

As always, the Malcolm Arnold Festival Gala Concert was a complete treat, and an essential part of the Royal and Derngate’s classical offerings of the year.

Review – Last Night of the Derngate Proms, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 15th July 2018

Last Night of the Derngate PromsAfter a year’s break, it’s a welcome return to the Last Night of the Derngate Proms, which, as our noble conductor Nick Davies pointed out, is also the First Night, but we shouldn’t let that bother us. We had the pleasure of Mr Davies’ company for the same gig back in 2013, so it’s obviously a job he enjoys. He has a warm, welcoming style and is happy to exchange a bit of banter with the audience, both informative and informal. As if this splendid evening of shameless patriotism couldn’t get any better, Mrs Chrisparkle and I were joined by Lord and Lady Prosecco, who need no lessons in how to enjoy themselves. The ladies of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra were all decked out in their colourful finery, to give a gala feel to the concert; and of course there were plenty of Union Jacks scattered throughout the auditorium to wave during the familiar exciting bits. And if the orchestra seemed a little hasty to get on and off the stage – as Mr Davies confided in us – orchestra leader Duncan Riddell was going on holiday immediately afterwards, and he clearly had a train to catch.

These concerts are always fashioned as a pot-pourri of Classic’s Greatest Hits, so it was particularly rewarding to see the thought and variety that had been considered for the running order this year. We started off with Vaughan Williams’ Wasps Overture, a lively, buzzy piece of music that immediately challenges the orchestra with its various themes and moods. Then we had the Intermezzo from Sibelius’ Karelia Suite, which the older members of the audience would remember as the theme to ITV’s This Week. Even if the music doesn’t give you that extra nostalgia boost, it’s a superb little piece that builds nicely to its triumphant theme. Great work from the strings and a big shout out to M. Nicolas Fleury, leading the French Horns and celebrating his country’s win in the World Cup earlier that afternoon.

Nick DaviesNext up was the Polonaise from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, a rousing, swirling dance that cries out for ballerinas and men in tights. Again, the orchestra members threw themselves into all its majestic jollity, transporting us all into the glamorous ballrooms tucked away in our imaginations. Great stuff. Then a big change of mood – George Butterworth’s A Shropshire Lad, an elegant and pastoral piece that I’d certainly never heard before. Fitting for the Last Night of the Proms as it’s a big slice of Englishness, but with a contemplative nature that appeals to the mind as well as the heart.

Next we were introduced to our soloist for the evening, Soprano Katerina Mina. In a stunning blue evening dress she coquetted through Franz Lehar’s Meine Lippen from his operetta Giuditta, which was also new to me – it only had a few performances in the theatres of Vienna and Budapest in the mid-1930s and never reached London or New York. It’s a great little tune and Ms Mina was delightfully knowing and cheeky all the way through. The final piece before the interval was the Prelude to Act 1 of Wagner’s Meistersinger, which you might consider to be the German equivalent of the Pomp and Circumstance of Elgar; a Teutonic pageant of musical masterfulness. A fantastic way to lead you into your half-time Chardonnay.

Katerina MinaAfter the interval we started off with Glinka’s Overture to Ruslan and Ludmilla, another fizzy crowd pleaser. There’s an art to composing the perfect overture, and in this concert we had two of them. Then we welcomed Katerina Mina back to sing Vissi d’Arte from Puccini’s Tosca. I know it gets trundled out all the time but I think this is one of the most moving pieces of classical music ever written, and Ms Mina sang it with beautiful eloquence infused with tragedy. Absolutely stunning. Then we had Elgar’s Chanson de Nuit, a rather French title for a rather English composition; a lovely, stately ode to romance with just a tinge of Stiff Upper Lip, again beautifully played by the string section. We ended this sequence of music with a lively Slavonic Dance by Dvorak – No 8 in the first set; impossible not to be both shaken and stirred with this smile-inducing, fast paced dance that constantly switches from major to minor and back again.

That’s when Mr Davies gave us our cue that we could start to “join in”. Henry Wood’s heartfelt but introverted Tom Bowling and the always chirpy Hornpipe from his Fantasia on British Sea Songs got us started with the rhythmic clapping – but the audience started too loudly, as usual; then two verses from Rule Britannia, sung by Katerina Mina in a Sgt Pepper jacket and Napoleonic hat, following straight into Jerusalem (my favourite) and then ending up with Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance No 1 and a rousing double portion of Land of Hope and Glory. We’re here for the music, said Mr Davies, and what’s not to like about that? A very happy crowd went home having wallowed in some of the best classical tunes there are. Huge congratulations to everyone involved!

RPOP. S. I didn’t much enjoy the Last Night of the Derngate Proms two years ago. It followed hard on the heels of the Brexit vote and the jingoistic fervour in the audience was overpoweringly abhorrent. Two years on, things have calmed down a bit and the patriotic fun in this year’s show was just about perfect.

P. P. S. Lord Prosecco says he was “just passing” the stage door when he bumped into the beautiful and charming Ms Katerina Mina, still dressed like an extra from Waterloo (the historical movie, not the Abba song). A Facebook selfie was taken to prove it. Not remotely jealous at all. No sirree.

P. P. P. S. Hope Duncan got his train.

Review – A Night at the Ballet, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 24th June 2018

A Night at the BalletWhoever it is at the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra who has the job of planning the content for their concerts must have an enjoyable but challenging task on their hands. To create an evening purely of ballet works – with such a range to choose from – must have been more endearment than endurance. Their latest concert, A Night at the Ballet, was jam-packed with punchy tunes and glorious melodies; all from the hands of four 19th century men who put ballet music centre stage (or should that be centre stave).

Unusually, we had no soloist to offer us a virtuoso performance of some great dramatic musical landmark; but I guess that’s typical of ballet music. If it’s designed to accompany a stage performance, it needs to be performed by no more people than you can fit into your average theatre orchestra pit; all hands on deck, and no room for a specialist as you might expect in a symphony or a concerto. Instead, we had the Royal Philharmonic on top form, this time under the baton of Nathan Fifield, a conductor new to us; he’s currently the principal conductor with Nashville Ballet and this is his debut performance with the RPO.

Nathan FifieldMr Fifield is a smart, dashing, clean-cut young gentleman (is it me, or are conductors getting younger nowadays) but with a genuine sense of the beauty of the ballet and delivering some well-chosen and thoughtful observations on the pieces that the orchestra were to play. He doesn’t seem to be one of those authoritarian conductors who impose themselves on the orchestra; he seems much more to be one of the lads, albeit with the extra task of being in charge.

Our first piece was the vivacious Dance of the Comedians from Smetana’s Bartered Bride. A fantastic way of getting the evening underway, with its triumphantly upbeat rhythms giving the orchestra a perfect opportunity to show their mettle. As well as the swirling violins, the brass and percussion also made a huge impact. It’s one of those pieces of music that, when you read the title on some paper, you’re not sure if you’ve heard it before; and when you do hear it, you’re full of the satisfied comfort of recognition and wonder why you don’t play it more often.

Next up, Mr Fifield introduced us to Delibes’ Sylvia Suite and Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake Suite. He told the story of how Tchaikovsky was so impressed at Delibes’ work (and so unimpressed with his own) that if he’d heard the Delibes before sitting down to write Swan Lake, he’d never have bothered. Fortunately for the rest of mankind, that didn’t happen. I didn’t think I knew any of the Sylvia Suite, but of course I was wrong – this is an evening of Ballet’s Greatest Hits, after all – and the celebrated Pizzicato has been a mainstay of TV and radio adverts since the introduction of Independent Broadcasting. I know where Tchaikovsky is coming from, mind; that Sylvia Suite is a thing of true beauty. The grandeur of its opening and closing movements was stunningly performed by the RPO and the lightness of the Pizzicato is simply impossible not to smile at. But I was most impressed by the almost cumbersome and definitely eccentric Valse Lente, with what seems to have too many notes for its bars; I thought that was really engaging and enjoyable. Again, a fantastic job by the strings.

Mr Fifield said we should compare the Delibes and the Tchaikovsky. Hard to do, because (to me at least) Swan Lake is such a familiar piece of music – possibly one of the most engrossing and gripping works in the musical catalogue of all time. Mr Fifield conducted some parts of it – most notably the Valse and the Scene: Pas d’action – a little more slowly than I am used to hearing it – possibly the pace at which it is most frequently danced. I felt that whilst this enhanced the simple beauty of the melodies and the richness of the orchestra’s performance, it lost a little of the drama. But that’s just me. Daniel de Fry’s harp work was just sensational throughout and I particularly loved the Hungarian dance and the final Mazurka – which I was humming to myself all through the interval.

RPOgroupThe second half started with some more Delibes – this time the Prelude and Mazurka from Coppelia, and again, you are reminded just how famous some of these stonking great tunes are. Another really rousing performance from the RPO; I could imagine the lavishly dressed dancers in my mind’s eye. Next came the item that I had been looking forward to most: Saint-Saens’ Danse Macabre. This has been a favourite of mine since I was a very small child and in fact I even learned to play it on the piano when I was about 16 – I just about managed to scrape through it. Duncan Riddell’s magnificent violin playing brought out both the harsh eeriness and the light playfulness of the piece; I also loved the strident xylophone playing. A sheer joy throughout.

For a finale Mr Fifield brought us his own personal favourite ballet music – Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty Suite. It sure contains some stunning tunes but I have to say I still prefer Swan Lake! Again Mr de Fry’s golden touch on the harp was magnificent, and the performance by the whole orchestra of the Adagio was absolutely first class. So much so, that it outweighed the rest of the suite’s content, and the audience weren’t really sure that the concert had finished after the performance of the final waltz. Once they were absolutely convinced now was the right time to applaud, they certainly let rip.

It was definitely one of our favourite concerts from the Royal Philharmonic from all the years we’ve been coming to see them. It was just tutu good. Next month – the Last Night of the Derngate Proms, an excuse to get out your nationalist flags. It will also be the same day as the World Cup Final, so if England are still in the tournament…. I just hope no one mentions the B word.

Review – Alan Buribayev Conducts Chopin, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Derngate, Northampton, 8th April 2018

Alan Buribayev Conducts ChopinOnce again we welcome back the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to one of their satellite venues around the UK here at the Royal and Derngate in Northampton, for an exciting programme of Czech, Polish and Finnish music. Our conductor was the ebullient and hard-working Alan Buribayev, whom we saw here two years ago in a fantastic concert that was the winner of the 2016 Annual Chrisparkle Award for Best Classical Concert. So we knew we were going to be in for a treat. This was also our first chance to see Alexandra Wood as First Violinist for the orchestra.

Alan BuribayevWe started with the overture to Smetana’s The Bartered Bride, his 1866 opera that remains one of his best-known works. The overture was written separately, before the rest of the opera, which possibly explains why it’s such an arresting stand-alone piece of music. The strings of the Royal Philharmonic could not resist the opportunity to launch into a full-scale attack on Smetana’s buzzy, vibrant, compelling arrangement, which gripped the audience instantly like a hundred angry bumble bees and did not let go for six brilliant minutes. A great way to start the concert.

Then it was time for the orchestra to disperse whilst the heavy mob brought in the Grand Steinway for our soloist for the afternoon, Alexander Romanovsky, a (fairly) last minute replacement for the original billing of Mark Bebbington, so we’d hoped he’d had long enough to practice Chopin’s Piano Concerto No 2 in F Minor, Op 21. We needn’t have worried. Mr Romanovsky takes to the stage like a snazzy younger version of Will Self, serious and controlled, seated business-like at the piano awaiting his cues. Whilst he’s not playing he simply looks straight ahead, relaxed but unemotional, almost like a non-participatory observer – but looks clearly can be deceptive.

Alexander RomanovskyIf he gives off an unemotional air, that doesn’t translate to his playing. He has the most exquisite lightness of touch, delicately coaxing the fullest and most resounding note from each deliberately pressed piano key. He’s the perfect exponent for Chopin at his most fluttery, his fingers going nineteen-to-the-dozen up and down the keyboard whilst his expression remains one of swan-like calm. It was an incredible performance; and really drew out all Chopin’s superb melodies that are packed into this vivacious concerto, especially the final movement, which I found particularly exciting. When it was all over, Mr Romanovsky allowed himself to crack a smile, so I guess he was pleased at the result. He certainly should have been.

After the interval we returned for a performance of Sibelius’ Symphony No 2 in D Major, Op 43. I’d not heard this symphony before and, I must confess gentle reader, I found it a real challenge. Whilst some of Sibelius’ music has an instant appeal, there’s also quite a lot that sounds to me rather murky and hard to appreciate on first hearing. The excellent programme notes discuss how the first movement of this piece is like a mosaic, with small fragments of music appearing disparately at first but finally coming together to create a whole. Well, I have to confess I found that rather obscure whole hard to recognise! Of course, the RPO were on great form, and individual moments sounded terrific. But I couldn’t grasp it somehow.

RPOgroupThe second movement felt easier: tempo andante, ma rubato – so, at a moderate pace but not rigidly; flexible, to bring out the emotion, and I thought the orchestra (and Mr Buribayev) achieved this brilliantly. The third and fourth movements seemed so crammed with all sorts of musical ideas, that it came across as a difficult and challenging piece to listen to, exhausting even; but also incredibly rewarding. There were some truly superb passages that really sang out, and I think I need to give the symphony another listen before long to try to appreciate what I missed!

Another superb performance by the Royal Philharmonic; when the audience’s sustained applause brought Mr Buribayev back to the podium for a fourth time, no one was in any doubt the extent to which the whole programme had been appreciated. This was another matinee performance by the RPO; it’s great if that encourages a wider age range of concertgoers, although I still, personally, prefer my classical concerts in the evening. I look forward to their evening of Ballet music coming up in June!

Review – Michael Petrov Performs Tchaikovsky, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 18th February 2018

Michael Petrov Performs TchaikovskyI reckon that attending live performances is habit-forming and after a while, if you see enough, you can end up on auto-pilot. That’s the reason that Mrs Chrisparkle and I kept checking our tickets on Sunday to ensure that this visit of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra really was scheduled for 3pm and not the usual 7.30pm. It just didn’t quite feel right to be there in the afternoon! There’s no doubt, however, that the matinee performance enabled several more children to attend the concert which is a great thing, especially as this was by no means a children’s programme – there were four, perfectly meaty, substantial and adult pieces of classical music to enjoy, and I hope any new youthful concertgoers found it as exciting and rewarding as we did.

Rory MacdonaldOur conductor for this concert was Rory Macdonald, whom we’ve seen just once before, when Natalie Clein performed Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in B Minor three years ago. He still doesn’t seem to have aged at all, and I’m more than ever sure that he has a grand selfie mouldering in his attic somewhere. He’s an exuberant conductor, one who likes to reach out on tippytoes to get the maximum out of his musicians. With his sleek black hair and formal attire, I couldn’t get the vision of Mary Poppins’ cartoon penguins out of my head. But he does a great job, so far be it from me to take the mickey.

Our first piece was Beethoven’s Egmont Overture. What a grand way to start a concert, with its compelling tunes and robust orchestration. It’s a superbly muscular and self-confident piece of music – everything an overture should be – and the orchestra rose to the challenge magnificently. I also appreciated the slightly pacier tempo which made its strength and power stand out. A great start.

Next we had two pieces of music that were new to me. Two Elegiac Melodies, Op. 34 by Edvard Grieg. I love Grieg’s music and it was a treat to discover something new by him. All the woodwind and percussion left the stage so that we only had the string players – I say “only”, but the lush sound they produced was sensational for these two pure and sincere reflective pieces. There’s nothing comfortable about the Elegiac Melodies, and I found them strangely disconcerting; but I really loved the performance.

After this, there was some general reorganisation as the rest of the orchestra returned and a platform was provided, centre stage, for our soloist, the cellist Michael Petrov. Amongst all the black evening dresses of the ladies of the orchestra and the formal suits of the men, Mr Petrov strode on to the stage in a white shirt not tucked in at the waist, no collar, no jacket, no tie, but with a calm and creative aura about him. He looked like a benign dentist – the sort who doesn’t complain at you if he suspects you haven’t been cleaning your teeth properly.

Michael PetrovMr Petrov was there to play Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme, Op 33. This was another piece I’d never heard before and I was instantly taken by it. Tchaikovsky takes a relatively simple theme and wraps it around his little finger with seven variations and an astonishing cadenza from Mr Petrov where you could hear a pin drop, so alert were the audience to the passionate tones he produced from his 1846 J B Vuillaume cello – proving that old is often best. The Variations are a great vehicle to show off a bravura performance and Mr Petrov did that with apparently effortless ease. He brought out the humour of some of the cheekier variations and the solemnity of the andante sections. No sheet music, no grand gestures; just a thoughtful and disciplined performance that held the audience spellbound. We absolutely loved it – and now I need to find a decent recording of this piece for my own music library.

This performance was of the Fitzenhagen arrangement of the Variations; Fitzenhagen was the principal cellist with the Orchestra of the Imperial Russian Music Society in Moscow, to whom Tchaikovsky had dedicated the work, but then who chopped and changed the Variations around, much to the annoyance of Tchaikovsky. But maybe Fitzenhagen knew what he was doing, because it’s such an enjoyable mini-concerto, and it’s usually his version that gets performed.

RPO3-300x200After the interval we returned for a performance of Mendelssohn’s Symphony No 4 in A Major, Op 40, better known as the Italian Symphony. As soon as its happy and playful major theme strikes up in the first movement, you’re transported away to sunny climates and a lovely Mediterranean lifestyle. Under Mr Macdonald’s enthusiastic direction, the orchestra brought us all the joy of the first movement, then to change dramatically to the crestfallen sound of the second movement, with its connotations of funereal respect, the stately minuet of the third movement and the raucous scampering of the saltarello dance of the fourth. It was all performed with amazing vigour and energy and had the audience on the edge of its seat with excitement at the end.

A fantastic concert that introduced me to some riveting new pieces and a super soloist. And it was all over by teatime! The next classical offering from the Royal Philharmonic will be in April, with a varied programme of Czech, Polish and Finnish music. Can’t wait!

Review – An Evening of Music and Dance with the Birmingham Royal Ballet and the Royal Ballet Sinfonia, Derngate, Northampton, 20th January 2018

An Evening of Music and DanceHaving an affinity for a particular theatre company, or dance company, or orchestra, is a matter of habit. For four years from 2003 to 2007 Mrs Chrisparkle and I were regulars at the Birmingham Royal Ballet. We would take our little nieces, or our Godchildren, plonk them down in the middle of the Birmingham Hippodrome stalls and they would be overwhelmed with the excitement, the colour, the beauty and the artistry of the dancers. We used to love it too. Then for some reason, we stopped. Mentally I still admired them from afar, but it’s taken ten full years since then to re-establish our proper and much missed acquaintance.

David Bintley

David Bintley

David Bintley, who compered this evening of Music and Dance, told us these shows were a regular phenomenon in Birmingham and have gone down a storm at the Symphony Hall for many years. For the first time they were stretching their wings and taking the show out of town – first stop (and indeed, only stop) Northampton. Thank you so much for thinking of us, BRB, because this was an evening of unmitigated delight that transported the audience from a wet January Saturday to a land of magic and escapism. Everything was beautiful at the ballet, sang the girls from A Chorus Line and if you ever needed proof of that, look no further.

Paul Murphy

Paul Murphy

When you enter the auditorium, the Royal Ballet Sinfonia are all in place on the stage and there’s a large empty area in front of them where the dancers can perform. Will the orchestra distract from the dancers? Will the dancers distract from the orchestra? Neither, somehow the staging seems to complement each other perfectly. Our conductor was Paul Murphy, an enthusiastic chap who’s not above encouraging the orchestra with a bit of jazz hands when a mere baton isn’t enough. He reminded me of a clean-shaven, smartened up and sober version of Father Jack. His utter delight in his work clearly transmits itself to the orchestra who in turn convey it to us. When you see an orchestral performance with a soloist on the violin or the piano, you know that the conductor has to split his attention 50:50 between orchestra and soloist. Similarly, it was fascinating to see how Mr Murphy had to keep one eye on the dancers as well as his musicians in order to keep perfect time with their moves. I’m sure that’s a particular skill that takes many years to achieve and he did it brilliantly.

SinfoniaThe structure of the show is that the Sinfonia performs one orchestral piece, then dancers come on stage and the Sinfonia play the accompaniment; then another piece, then another dance, alternating throughout the evening so that we enjoy twelve items in all – six orchestral pieces and six dances. To be honest, the balletomane in me would have been happy for each of the twelve pieces to have featured dance – I guess that’s what I was expecting – but I appreciate that the alternating pattern sustained the variety of the entertainment, which was probably wise. You can have too much of a good thing, after all.

Celine Gittens and Tyrone Singleton

Celine Gittens and Tyrone Singleton

We started with the cute confection that is the prelude to Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel – Mrs C was a little disappointed that this wasn’t an orchestral version of The Last Waltz – and then our first dance was the Act III pas de deux from Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty. Can’t beat a spot of Petipa, and Principal Dancers Céline Gittens and Tyrone Singleton danced it magnificently, decked out in stunning white brocaded costumes. It wasn’t until this first dance that I realised our third row seat gave us an unusually close view of classical ballet – normally with an orchestra in the pit in a large theatre even front stalls seats can feel quite distant from the dancers. Not so this time; and our proximity to the stage gave me an opportunity to concentrate on the technical achievements of the dancers – the balance, the strength, the accuracy, which I find irresistibly rewarding to observe.

Jenna Roberts as Juliet

Jenna Roberts as Juliet

Elgar’s Wand of Youth Suite no 2, The Wild Bears, followed; I’d never heard it before and I was impressed by the way the orchestra threw themselves into its frenzied excitement – one of those pieces that is just great fun. Then our next dance was the pas de deux from After the Rain, by Arvo Pärt, choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon. The poignant, elegant music is played by just the solo violin – Sinfonia leader Robert Gibbs – and solo piano, played by Jonathan Higgins, which made a solemn contrast with the liveliness of what had gone before. It was danced by Principals Jenna Roberts and Iain Mackay on his very final show with the company; he’s been 19 years with the Birmingham Royal Ballet (I’m sure we saw him in Carmina Burana many years ago) and it turned out to be quite an emotional night. The dancers simply immersed themselves in the elegant choreography which managed to be both acrobatic and stately, and the power of the performance was literally breathtaking.

James Barton

James Barton

The next musical item was Korngold’s Adventures of Robin Hood Suite, another piece new to me that had something of a military march to it – I have to say it’s nothing like as evocative of Robin Hood as Carl Sigman’s TV theme, but then what do I know? I was more looking forward to the last dance before the interval, the famous and funny clog dance from La Fille mal gardée choreographed by Frederick Ashton. James Barton, fresh from his year dancing in An American in Paris, danced the role of the Widow, with a cheekily sprightly step and a scarcely suppressed titter. Four soloists, Yvette Knight, Laura Purkiss, Yaoqian Shang and Yijing Zhang completed the coquettishly clogging quintet. Enormous fun, and of course such a catchy piece of music played by the Sinfonia.

Cesar Morales

Cesar Morales

After the interval, we returned to hear Dvorak’s Slavonic Dance Op 46, No 8; the Slavonic Dances are among my favourite pieces of classical music and they gave it a blistering performance. Next up was Weber’s Spectre de la Rose, choreographed by Fokine and danced by Arancha Baselga and Cesar Morales. A very stylised piece, it features Ms Baselga languishing in a posh chair whilst Mr Morales leaps in through the (imaginary) window and cavorts around her. Despite occupying all the available dance space it still comes over as a remarkably intimate piece; and Mr Morales’ Nijinskyesque leaps were pretty phenomenal. A perfect balletic blend of the pure and fragile with the powerful and muscular – a superb performance.

 Iain Mackay in Taming of the Shrew

Iain Mackay in Taming of the Shrew

The Sinfonia then played Sibelius’ Valse Triste, a delicate and moving little piece that sways along; perhaps a little faster than it is normally played, and I think all the better for it. Compere David Bintley returned to introduce Jenna Roberts and Iain Mackay in what was to be his very final dance on stage in his career, Bintley’s own choreography to the much-loved Adagio from Spartacus by Khachaturian, a personal parting gift to the dancer from the director. Mr Mackay danced Spartacus and Ms Roberts his wife Phrygia, in a piece where she informs him she would be giving birth to his son. It was a truly wonderful piece of choreography; very moving, very joyous, and absolutely jam-packed with all different sorts of emotions. Fokine marvellous, in fact.

Momoko Hirata

Momoko Hirata

Before the final dance fireworks (Mr Bintley’s words – and so right he was), the Sinfonia performed two dances from Manuel de Falla’s The Three-Cornered Hat, the instruments positively buzzing with Falla’s fiery orchestrations. Our last item was the pas de deux and solos from Don Quixote; Petipa at his extravagant best. The dancers were Principals Momoko Hirata, performing those crowd-pleasing pirouettes with total joy, and Mathias Dingman who attacked those solo show-off sequences like there’s no tomorrow – his brisés in particular were immaculately executed.

Matthias Dingman

Matthias Dingman

The final standing ovation went for a very long time, with of course special hugs and appreciation for Iain Mackay’s two decades of duty with the company. What a hugely entertaining show; every orchestral piece brimmed with excitement, and every dance was in-your-face fantastic. It was a real privilege to be there. Birmingham Royal Ballet, I apologise for ignoring you over the last ten years. It’s been too long. Hope you’ll make this a regular date and even bring one of your full-length ballets our way some time soon.

The production photos are from a variety of online sources, and from different ballets from those performed in the concert; if they are yours, please let me know if you would like me to remove them.

Review of the Year 2017 – The Eighth Annual Chrisparkle Awards

Once again the world of the arts is holding its bated breath to hear the results of who has won this year’s annual Chrisparkle Awards. The whole team has scurried away to a dark place (my study) to determine the identities of the chosen few. Eligibility for the awards means a) they were performed in the UK and b) I have to have seen the shows and blogged about them in the period 14th January 2017 to 11th January 2018.

Are you all sitting comfortably?

The first award is for Best Dance Production (Contemporary and Classical)

So we start off with a slight problem. Apart from at the Edinburgh Fringe, we only saw one dance production all year. One measly production! Not that it was a measly production but only seeing one is definitely measly. For a time the Committee wondered if, for this year, the award should be temporarily withdrawn, but that didn’t seem fair. So we have compromised, and included the two dance shows we saw in Edinburgh as well as the one, non-Fringe show we saw elsewhere. At least that gives us three shows to consider, and this is how they place:

In 3rd place, the honest and daring piece for two, Together Alone, from the Taiwan Season at Dance Base at the Edinburgh Fringe in August.

In 2nd place, Really Nice Theatre Company’s funny and acrobatic production of Two Little Boxes at Greenside at Nicolson Square, at the Edinburgh Fringe in August.

In 1st place, for the fifth time in six years, the skilful creativity of the impeccable Richard Alston Dance Company that we saw at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton in October.

Classical Music Concert of the Year.

We saw six classical concerts in 2017 and they were all excellent, so it was extremely difficult to whittle it down to a top three. Nevertheless, the impossible has been achieved, so they are:

In 3rd place, Christian Kluxen Conducts Tchaikovsky, with a brilliant programme of Italian, German and Russian music including Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 6 and Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No 1 played by Martin Roscoe, and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in May.

In 2nd place, Francesca Dego Performs Bruch, including wonderful performances of Brahms’ Symphony No 4 and Bruch’s Violin Concerto No 1 with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Mathieu Herzog, at the Royal and Derngate, in November.

In 1st place, Jan Mráček Performs Mendelssohn, a stunning performance of the Violin Concerto together with a great rendition of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony with Martyn Brabbins conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, at the Royal and Derngate, in June.

Best Entertainment Show of the Year.

This means anything that doesn’t fall into any other categories – for example pantos, circuses, revues and anything else hard to classify. Not so many contenders this year so we’ll stick with a top three:

In 3rd place, the inimitable Damian Williams starring as Mother Goose in the panto of the same name at the Lyceum Theatre in Sheffield in January 2018.

In 2nd place, the beautiful and hilarious combination of acts that make up the Burlesque Show at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton in January 2017.

In 1st place, the start to finish riot of near-knuckle hilarity that was Dick Whittington the panto at the London Palladium in December.

Best Star Standup of the Year.

We saw ten big-name stand-up comics this year, and I think it’s fair to say they were a varied bunch with a few disappointments. I listed a top five last year but this time a top three will suffice:

In 3rd place, the extraordinary experience of spending a late night 90 minutes in the company of the one and only Miss Whoopi Goldberg, at the London Palladium in February.

In 2nd place, the irrepressible silliness of Jimeoin in his Renonsense Man Tour, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in February.

In 1st place, by a whisker – or maybe two, a shared award; Tez Ilyas’ Made in Britain Tour, together with his fantastic support act Guz Khan, Underground at the Royal and Derngate in May.

Best Stand-up at the Screaming Blue Murder nights in Northampton.

Lots of great acts with a fighting chance of winning this award, but the winner was never in doubt. From a very, very long shortlist, here are the top five:

In 5th place, the parody musical magic of Christian Reilly (12th May)

In 4th place, for his amazing ability to make so much off the cuff humour from an audience member throwing up, Paul Thorne (3rd November)

In 3rd place, the mischievous intelligence of Markus Birdman (3rd February)

In 2nd place, seen many times but on this occasion absolutely on fire, Robert White (3rd March)

In 1st place, a new star is born, and receiving possibly the best reception in eight years of watching Screaming Blue Murders, Daliso Chaponda (28th April)

And now, a new category; as we have seen so many stand-up comedy acts in other clubs, such as the Leicester Comedy Festival, Bluelight Comedy, Upfront Comedy Shows and Edinburgh Try-outs in various locations, here’s the Best of the Rest Stand-up Award.

In 5th place, the larger than life unpredictability of Aurie Styla (Upfront Comedy – Comedy Summerslam), at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in June.

In 4th place, the thought-provoking, hard-hitting material in the Edinburgh Try-out of his show Your Wrong, Phil Nichol (Comedy Crate Festival) at the Black Prince, Northampton, in July.

In 3rd place, the challenging, calculating material and presence of Mickey Sharma (Upfront Comedy – Comedy Summerslam), at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in June.

In 2nd place, a hit from the previous year’s Edinburgh Fringe, the extraordinarily personal and moving show by Richard Gadd – Monkey See, Monkey Do (Leicester Comedy Festival at The Cookie, Leicester) in February.

In 1st place, for getting on for four hours of solid hilarity, Just The Tonic Comedy Club with Johnny Vegas, and guests Kevin Dewsbury, Guz Khan and Paul McCaffrey (Leicester Comedy Festival, Hansom Hall, Leicester) in February.

Best Musical.

Here’s where it gets really difficult. I saw fourteen musicals this year, mainly revivals but a few new shows as well. Competition is very fierce and some superb shows don’t get a mention. Here are the top five:

In 5th place, so good I saw it twice on consecutive days, the touring revival of the Kinks Musical Sunny Afternoon at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in January.

In 4th place, the breath of fresh air with its heart absolutely in the right place, the feelgood Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, at the Apollo Theatre, London, in December.

In 3rd place, the beautiful and emotional revival of Fiddler on the Roof, at the Festival Theatre, Chichester, that we saw in July.

In 2nd place, one of my favourite shows of all time, in a dynamic and exciting revival, Stephen Sondheim’s Follies at the National Theatre Olivier, in September.

In 1st place, with incredible impact and maybe because I’ve never seen it before, and it really took my breath away, the revival of Miss Saigon at the Curve Theatre Leicester in July.

Best New Play.

Just to clarify, this is my definition of a new play, which is something that’s new to me and to most of its audience – so it might have been around before but on its first UK tour, or a new adaptation of a work originally in another format. I’ve seen 21 new plays this year, and only a handful of them disappointed. So this is an extremely difficult decision, as you have to compare such different genres; but somehow I chose a top five from a shortlist of ten:

In 5th place, the funny and sad life laundry drama, The House They Grew Up In, at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester, in July.

In 4th place, how to make a riveting play out of dry subject matter, Oslo at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London, in December.

In 3rd place, the gripping and exciting thriller based in 1980s Northern Ireland, The Ferryman at the Gielgud Theatre, London, in December.

In 2nd place, the emotional turmoil of The Kite Runner, at Wyndham’s Theatre, London, in February.

In 1st place, the extraordinary combination of political intrigue and carefree humour that forms both parts of the RSC’s Imperium, at the Swan Theatre, Stratford, in December.

Best Revival of a Play.

Saw twenty revivals, almost all of which were worthy of consideration. Nine made the shortlist; here’s the top five:

In 5th place, the high energy testosterone-fest that is Glengarry Glen Ross at the Playhouse Theatre, in November.

In 4th place, a feat of great stamina and a beautiful revival, The Norman Conquests at the Festival Theatre, Chichester, in October.

In 3rd place, the vividly re-imagined and exciting new production of Julius Caesar at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, in May.

In 2nd place, the spellbinding new production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London in April.

In 1st place, the production I’d been looking forward to all year and it was every bit as remarkable as one would have hoped, King Lear at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester, in October.

As always, in the post-Christmas season, time to consider the turkey of the year – the one that missed the mark the most was the Royal and Derngate’s confused production of The Grapes of Wrath in May.

Now we come on to our four categories specifically for the Edinburgh Fringe. The first is:

Best play – Edinburgh

We saw 17 plays in Edinburgh, and here are the top 5:

In 5th place, the eerie and suspenseful psychological thriller Black Mountain produced by Paines Plough (Roundabout @ Summerhall)

In 4th place, the totally convincing portrayal of a relationship irreconcilably broken down with the snappy title The Delights of Dogs and the Problems of People, written by Rosalind Blessed (Studio @ Space Triplex)

In 3rd place, the thought-provoking and opinion changing Bin Laden: The One Man Show produced by Knaive Theatre (C venues – C, Chambers Street)

In 2nd place, the riveting Gypsy Queen, written by Rob Ward (Front Room @ Assembly Rooms)

In 1st place, the play that taps into the Zeitgeist and doesn’t feel like a play, the horrifying, hilarious and brain-teasing Losers, produced by Tit4Twat Theatre (Underbelly, Cowgate)

Best Individual Performance in a Play – Edinburgh

One of the hardest categories to decide as so many Edinburgh plays are true ensemble efforts. Nevertheless, here are the top three:

In 3rd place, Rosalind Blessed for The Delights of Dogs and the Problems of People (Studio @ Space Triplex)
In 2nd place, Rob Ward for Gypsy Queen (Front Room @ Assembly Rooms)
In 1st place, Sam Redway for Bin Laden: The One Man Show (C venues – C, Chambers Street)

Best stand-up comedy show – Edinburgh

Eleven shows and a shortlist of five gives this top three (which is very similar to last year’s!):

In 3rd place, for his intelligent observations and creative thinking, Dane Baptiste’s G. O. D. show (Pleasance Courtyard)
In 2nd place, for getting the political climate fully understood, with I Hope I Die Before I Start Voting Conservative, Joe Wells (Sneaky Pete’s)
In 1st place, yet again, the unmissable late night laughter line-up that is Spank! (Underbelly Cowgate)

Best of the rest – Edinburgh

Yet another really hard choice but I’ve managed to come up with a top five:

In 5th place, the superbly constructed and brilliantly characterised Bitchelors with Anna Morris (Voodoo Rooms)
In 4th place, dropping down a place from last year but still incredibly funny and audience members really have to be alert to stay safe! Foil Arms and Hog – Oink! (Underbelly George Square)
In 3rd place, the very racey acts – including the unforgettable Betty Grumble – that made up the burlesque extravaganza, Sweatshop (Assembly George Square Gardens)
In 2nd place, as last year, worth getting up early for a bizarre version of Macbeth with Shakespeare for Breakfast (C Venues, Chambers Street)
In 1st place, the brilliant material and voices of Jan Ravens in her Difficult Woman show (Gilded Balloon Teviot)

This year’s Edinburgh turkey, which was so clever-clever and up itself that you could hardly see it, was the pretentious immersive show about throwing a surprise party, Party Game.

Best Local Production

This includes the productions by the University of Northampton students, the Royal and Derngate Actors’ Company, the Youth Companies, local theatre groups and the National Theatre Connections.

In 5th place, from the Flash Festival, Can’t Stop Theatre’s untitled one-man play with Ben Sullivan
In 4th place, the Royal and Derngate’s Actors’ Company’s production of Great Expectations at the Royal Theatre
In 3rd place, Milton Keynes College’s National Theatre Connections production of Extremism
In 2nd place, the University’s production of Vinegar Tom at the Royal Theatre.
In 1st place, again from the Flash Festival, Out of Mind Theatre Company’s production of Broken

Best film

I saw seven films last year, which must be some kind of record! Two films that have received great general acclaim I really didn’t like at all – Manchester By The Sea and Blade Runner 2049. The Snowman just about limped home, both La La Land and Victoria and Abdul were entertaining and beautifully made, and Call Me By Your Name really ought to get the award for being outstanding in so many ways. However, the film I enjoyed the most and have no hesitation in naming as the recipient of this year’s award is – Paddington 2!

Best Performance by an Actress in a Musical.

Time to get personal. Fifteen contenders in the shortlist, so here are the top five:

In 5th place, Lyn Paul as Mrs Johnstone in Blood Brothers at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in November.
In 4th place, Lucie Jones as Elle in Legally Blonde at the Royal and Derngate in October.
In 3rd place, Sooha Kim as Kim in Miss Saigon at the Curve Theatre Leicester in July.
In 2nd place, Janie Dee as Phyllis in Follies at the National Theatre Olivier in September.
In 1st place, Imelda Staunton as Sally in Follies at the National Theatre Olivier in September.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Musical.

Seven performances in the shortlist, producing this top three:

In 3rd place, Red Concepcion as The Engineer in Miss Saigon at the Curve Theatre Leicester in July.
In 2nd place, John McCrea as Jamie in Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, at the Apollo Theatre, London, in December.
In 1st place, John Partridge as Albin/Zaza in La Cage Aux Folles at the Milton Keynes Theatre in August.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Play.

Very tough one, this one. Eight in the shortlist, but here’s the top five:

In 5th place, Samantha Spiro as Peppy in The House They Grew Up In, at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester, in July.
In 4th place, Eve Best as Olivia in Love in Idleness, at the Menier Chocolate Factory, in April.
In 3rd place, Zoe Waites as Cassius in Julius Caesar at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, in May.
In 2nd place, Imelda Staunton as Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London in April.
In 1st place, Olivia Colman as Jenny in Mosquitoes at the National Theatre Dorfman, in September.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Play.

A very hotly fought for award, with eighteen contenders in my shortlist, and I whittled it down to this:

In 5th place, Ben Turner as Amir in The Kite Runner, at Wyndham’s Theatre, London, in February.
In 4th place, Peter Polycarpou as Ahmed Qurie in Oslo, at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London, in December.
In 3rd place, Adrian Scarborough as Stan in Don Juan in Soho, at Wyndham’s Theatre, London, in May.
In 2nd place, Sir Ian McKellen as King Lear in King Lear at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester, in October.
In 1st place, Richard McCabe as Cicero in the RSC’s Imperium, at the Swan Theatre, Stratford in December.

Theatre of the Year.

For the third year running there’s no change in the Number one and Number two theatres! Presenting an extraordinary range of drama and entertainment, this year’s Theatre of the Year is the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, with the Festival Theatre/Minerva Theatre in Chichester as runner-up.

It’s been another fantastic year, and I’ve seen more productions this year than I’ve ever seen in one year before – 190 productions in all. Thanks to you gentle reader for continuing to read my theatre reviews. Let’s look forward to another wonderful year of theatre in 2018!