Review – Christian Kluxen Conducts Tchaikovsky, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 14th May 2017

Christian Kluxen Conducts TchaikovskyTime for us to welcome back the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra once again for an evening of Italian, German and Russian music. Our conductor for this concert was the exuberant Christian Kluxen, one of those guys who really gets behind the music and cajoles every nuance out of the orchestra with every flex of his body. We’d not had the pleasure of Mr Kluxen’s company before, so I can only assume the photo on the programme is a little out of date; since then he has grown a full hipster beard so that he now resembles the Fred Sirieix of the Classical Scene.

Christian Kluxen They weren’t accepting interval orders at the bar (sigh) which can only mean one thing – a short first half. Our first piece of music was the famous William Tell overture by Rossini, with its irredeemably nostalgic final movement that reminds patrons of a certain age of the Lone Ranger. It’s easy though to forget the three other sequences that lead up to the finale, with its beautiful dawn opening – fantastic work by the cellos, the dazzling thunderstorm that follows, and the pastoral calm of the third part. But the final section must break through and does so almost before the pastoral has finished, and from there on it’s guns-ablazin’ and horses at the gallop. A delightful way to open the concert and the orchestra absolutely had it nailed.

Martin RoscoeNext was Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No 1 in G Minor, Op. 25. A piano soloist on the programme always causes a hiatus as the violins have to scatter to make way for the Steinway to be wheeled on. Meanwhile, the displaced musicians huddle round the back of the stage like they’re sneaking a fag break. It’s a very bizarre sight, but I guess there is no alternative. Enter Martin Roscoe on stage, an unshowy, quiet looking man with a sensible attitude to sheet music (i.e. he has it on display and continually looks at it) but who nevertheless unleashes passion at the keyboard when it’s required. The concerto is full of stunning tunes that Mr Roscoe hones and cares for as he coaxes them off the keys, and he is a true master of his instrument.

Because it is a short piece (and that is why we couldn’t pre-order interval drinks) Mr Roscoe took pity on the assembled crowd and gave us an encore: June, from Tchaikovsky’s Seasons, to whet our appetite for the second half symphony. I’d never heard this before and thought it was absolutely sublime. A simple, haunting barcarolle, I’m going to have to add it to my collection of classical CDs.

RPOAfter the interval (yes we did get our drinks) we returned for Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 6 (Pathétique). It’s a bold, exciting work with a number of themes that everyone recognises, that build to a dramatic climax. Most people thought the end of the third movement heralded the end of the symphony and started some rapturous applause; but no, the twist in the tale is that there’s a fourth and final movement that disconcertingly trades down from the triumph of the previous movement and ends not with a bang but a whimper. Such a mournful end will always be associated with the fact that Tchaikovsky himself died only nine days after conducting its debut performance. Those last few notes of the symphony were played so movingly by the RPO that the audience was stunned into silence, not wishing to break the moment by applauding. I think we were in a shared state of shock. A fantastic performance by the Royal Philharmonic that has made me go back to my recordings to listen again to some of these pieces and to want to explore anew – and I don’t think there can be any finer recommendation to a concert than that!

The RPO will be back in June with some more Mendelssohn and Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony – should be a blinder!

Review – Raphael Wallfisch Performs Elgar’s Cello Concerto, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 12th March 2017

Raphael Wallfisch Performs Elgar’s Cello ConcertoCircumstances have conspired against our attending the two most recent Royal Philharmonic concerts in Northampton, but on Sunday we were back with a vengeance to see a rousing performance of German and British music. Our conductor this time was Jac van Steen, new to us; an enthusiastic Dutchman who has the air of a kindly dentist; he seems extremely affable and wants you to be at your utmost ease, but if it calls for it, he’d be in for the kill like nobody’s business.

jac van steenOur opening piece was the Prelude to Act One of Lohengrin by Wagner. I was expecting that stirring, arresting introductory brassy tune that puts you in mind of Valkyries and big fat sopranos – but no, that’s the Prelude to Act Three. Act One’s starts far more gently, with violin strings all a-quiver, but nevertheless building up to a major frenzy, perfectly representing the search for the Holy Grail which is what the programme notes said it was about. The orchestra were obviously champing at the bit and it was a very exciting and enjoyable start to the concert. Quiz question: what’s the difference between a prelude and an overture? No, I can’t work that one out either.

raphael wallfischNext it was time to meet our soloist, Raphael Wallfisch, to perform Elgar’s Cello Concerto. We’d seen Julian Lloyd Webber perform the same piece nearly six years ago, but it’s hard to recall one performer’s interpretation of a piece after such a long time. Mr Wallfisch is another avuncular looking fellow, but with a rather serious, workmanlike attitude to his playing that belies the immense passion of the music he produces. Without any reference to any sheet music, he plunges his instrument into the deep gravitas of the opening movement, making his instrument take centre stage so that you watch the bow attacking the bridge of the cello rather than looking at the intent concentration on Mr Wallfisch’s face. In juxtaposition, Mr van Steen is sometimes up on his tippytoes coaxing all the emotion out of the strings, at other times thrusting himself downwards in the conclusion of a bar. There’s an electrically exciting sequence in the second movement (I think – I’m fairly unfamiliar with this piece and the boundaries between the movements were hard to identify) where Mr Wallfisch plays the cello with such vim and vigour that from our seat it looked as though he was whittling down some wood to fashion a set of cricket stumps. I’m not sure it was spiccato, more like old fashioned twiddling. Suffice to say it was an extraordinary performance and it was clear that everyone loved it.

beethovenAfter the interval, we returned for Beethoven’s 7th Symphony. We’d seen the RPO perform this before as well, a full seven years ago, conducted by Garry Walker. Then, as now, I can never remember what that special tune is that dominates the second movement. But as soon as it kicks in I remember why I love it so much. It has a sparse melancholy about it; a sense that happiness may be just around the corner but you’re never quite going to achieve it. And I love how Beethoven gives it just the one proper airing, building from a quiet start to an emotional fulfilment, but never ever going back to it, no matter how much you yearn to hear it again. Mr van Steen had to apply a reverse coaxing mechanism, where, rather than draw the passion out of the orchestra, he actively suppressed it, making those sad echo moments in the movement even softer than usual, creating a despairing exquisiteness to the whole thing. It was just sensational.

Royal Philharmonic OrchestraIn many respects, the symphony is Beethoven’s Greatest Hits, with the brightness of the first movement, the playfulness of the third and the overwhelming victory of the final movement. The orchestra gave it a superb performance, and yes, excitable man in the Upper Circle Box, we all saw you on your feet conducting away to your heart’s content. We were blown away by the sheer vitality and force of the Royal Philharmonic’s performance. A great concert!

Review of the Year 2016 – The Seventh Annual Chrisparkle Awards

It’s time again for the whole Chrisparkle team to meet in secret (well, in the living room) to determine who should win the gongs in this year’s annual Chrisparkle Awards. The world of the arts is once again on tenterhooks to discover who will be 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 15th January 2016 to 13th January 2017.

Let’s do this thing!

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

We saw five dance productions this year and this is the top three:

In 3rd place, the exciting return of Nederlands Dans Theater 2 with their unpredictable mixed programme at the Birmingham Hippodrome in May.
In 2nd place, the amazing story-telling and fantastic performances in Drew McOnie’s Jekyll and Hyde at the Old Vic in May.
In 1st place, for the fourth time in five years, the breathtaking programme by the literally unbeatable Richard Alston Dance Company that we saw at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton in October.

Classical Music Concert of the Year.

Of the five concerts we saw in 2016, these are the top three:

In 3rd place, the stirring eleventh Malcolm Arnold Festival, The Voice of the People Gala Concert with the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by John Gibbons, with soloist Craig Ogden, at the Royal and Derngate, in October.
In 2nd place, Alexandra Dariescu Performs Rachmaninov, a programme of German and Russian music with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Fabien Gabel, at the Royal and Derngate, in May.
In 1st place, the storming Alan Buribayev conducts Sheherazade, with soloist Anna-Liisa Bezrodny, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal and Derngate, in February.

Best Entertainment Show of the Year.

By which I mean anything else that doesn’t fall into any other categories – for example pantos, circuses, revues and anything else hard to classify. Very hotly contended this year so we’re going to have to have a top five – and last year’s winner, the annual Burlesque Show, which, whilst excellent as always, doesn’t feature in the charts this year!

In 5th place, the wacky surrealism of Spymonkey’s The Complete Deaths at the Royal in May.
In 4th place, the supremely inventive and unfailingly polite Jamie Raven at the Royal and Derngate in June.
In 3rd place, another magic act, the brilliant and funny Pete Firman in TriX, at the Royal in November.
In 2nd place, the filthy and hilarious Cinderella, at the London Palladium, in December.
In 1st place, the masterclass of hilarious mime that is The Boy with Tape on His Face at the Royal, in November.

Best Star Standup of the Year.

We saw eleven big-name stand-up comics this year, and they were all various shades of brilliant! So it’s going to be hard to whittle them down to a top five:

In 5th place, the long lasting warm glow of an evening spent in the company of Tommy Tiernan (Out of the Whirlwind Tour), at the Royal in March.
In 4th place, the ever-waspish and never unfunny Julian Clary (The Joy of Mincing Tour) at the Royal and Derngate in April.
In 3rd place, the supremely intelligent and devastatingly funny Dane Baptiste (Reasonable Doubts Tour), Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, in March.
In 2nd place, simply because he finally allowed me to laugh at the Brexit result with all my pain proudly on display, Marcus Brigstocke (Why the Long Face Tour) at the Royal in October.
In 1st place, the woman of the moment, and that’s because she just makes you laugh so much, Sarah Millican (Outsider Tour), at the Royal and Derngate in July.

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

As ever, a hotly contested award; now that the JAM Comedy club shows have started at the Ark, comics appearing there are also eligible for this award. From a very very long shortlist, here are the top five:

In 5th place, the infectiously manic stupidity of Steve Best (16th September)
In 4th place, larking around where angels fear to tread, Tez Ilyas (21st October)
In 3rd place, the new prince of high camp, Stephen Bailey (4th November)
In 2nd place, turning a gig into a party, the awesome Jonny Awsum (18th March)
In 1st place, last year’s winner and still unbeatable, Ian Cognito (21st October)

Best Musical.

Like last year, this is a combination of new musicals and revivals; I only saw eight this year but they were (almost) all excellent! Here are the top five:

In 5th place, the wonderful depiction of Latino life in Washington Heights lived to the full, In The Heights, that we saw at the Kings Cross Theatre in December.
In 4th place, the captivating and satisfying revival of Sondheim’s Into The Woods, at the Menier Chocolate Factory, that we saw in September.
In 3rd place, the stunning revival of Funny Girl, at the Menier Chocolate Factory, that we saw in February.
In 2nd place, the show I hadn’t wanted to see, just caught it before it closed, and I’m so glad I did, Bend It Like Beckham, that we saw at the Phoenix Theatre, in February.
In 1st place, because it’s text book in how to stage a show and gives you such a feelgood factor, Half A Sixpence, that we saw at the Noel Coward Theatre in December.

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. An extremely difficult decision, as you have to compare such different genres; but somehow I chose a top three from the eight contenders:

In 3rd place, actually three plays, the extraordinary National Theatre of Scotland production of The James Plays, at the Royal and Derngate Theatre, Northampton in April.
In 2nd place, the brilliantly written and performed The Herbal Bed, at the Royal Theatre, in February.
In 1st place, the hauntingly unforgettable Soul, at the Royal Theatre, in May.

Best Revival of a Play.

Saw ten revivals, all of which were worthy of consideration. Here’s the top five:

In 5th place, the highly innovative and enjoyable reworking of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, co-produced by the R&D and the National Youth Theatre, at the Royal Theatre, in June.
In 4th place, breathing new life into a play that could easily be a little sterile, Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land, at Wyndham’s Theatre in October.
In 3rd place, the hilarious and brutally honest revival of Terry Johnson’s Dead Funny, at the Vaudeville Theatre, in December.
In 2nd place, Christopher Luscombe’s electric production of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado About Nothing at the Festival Theatre, Chichester, in October.
In 1st place, the production that had me sweating with excitement and exhilaration, the late Howard Davies’ production of Christopher Hampton’s new translation of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, at the Festival Theatre, Chichester, in May.

As always, in the post-Christmas season, time to consider the turkey of the year – the one that stuffed us all as the biggest disappointment was the drabfest that was Breakfast at Tiffany’s at the Curve Theatre, Leicester, in March.

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

Best play – Edinburgh

We saw 16 plays in Edinburgh, and here are the top 5:

In 5th place, the elegant and moving story of post World War One England with Aulos Productions’ Lest We Forget (Bedlam Theatre)
In 4th place, the funny and unsettling Partial Nudity produced by Fandango Productions (Monkey House @ Zoo)
In 3rd place, the stunning one-man play set against Cardiff’s nightlife, Saturday Night Forever, produced by Aberystwyth Arts Centre and Joio (Underbelly Med Quad)
In 2nd place, the brilliantly stereotype-challenging Jumping The Barriers by The Courtyard Players (Space on The Mile)
In 1st place, the emotionally charged and truly creative Us/Them by Bronks/Made in Belgium (Summerhall)

Best Individual Performance in a Play – Edinburgh

This was a very difficult choice this year as most of the plays we saw were superb ensemble efforts where you couldn’t (well I couldn’t) identify one particular individual over the rest of the cast. However, I have no hesitation in recommending to you this top three:

In 3rd place, Adam J S Smith for Jumping The Barriers (Space on the Mile)
In 2nd place, Chris Daley for Jumping The Barriers (Space on the Mile)
In 1st place, Delme Thomas for Saturday Night Forever (Underbelly Med Quad)

Best stand-up comedy show – Edinburgh

Thirteen shows but a shortlist of just four gives this top three:

In 3rd place, for the honesty of his material the likeable and hilarious Dave Chawner (Cabaret Voltaire)
In 2nd place, for nailing the Zeitgeist with 10 Things I Hate About UKIP, Joe Wells (T-Bar)
In 1st place, again, the unmissable late night laughter line-up that is Spank! (Underbelly Cowgate)

Best of the rest – Edinburgh
This has been a ridiculously hard choice to make and I have to leave out at least seven brilliant shows that I would happily see again. Still, no one said life is easy. Here’s the top five: (As an aside, I was called out of the audience to participate in three of them!)

In 5th place, for brilliant impressions in a cleverly constructed show, Luke Kempner’s Judi Dench Broke My Heart (Pleasance Dome)
In 4th place, one of the best (arguably THE best) variety line-ups ever assembled and hosted brilliantly, Lili la Scala’s Another F*cking Variety Show (Pleasance Dome)
In 3rd place, the quick-fire inventive sketches that featured me but also Foil Arms and Hog – Doomdah! (Underbelly Cowgate)
In 2nd place, early morning hilarity with a beautifully written and performed subversion of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare for Breakfast (C Venues, Chambers Street)
In 1st place, a truly winning combination of parody, pressure and hot pan, Kev’s Komedy Kitchen (Just the Tonic at the Mash House)

This year’s Edinburgh turkey, which wasn’t as bad as all that, (although it wasn’t that great either) was the two-hander play involving night-club Mafia, The Club.

And now for a new award. This year I have seen many more local productions. They are mainly (but not exclusively) by students at the University of Northampton; but there are also the Royal and Derngate Actors’ Company, the Youth Companies, other local theatre groups and the National Theatre Connections to consider. So this is the First ever Chrisparkle award for Best Local Production – taking all aspects of the production into account.

In 5th place, from the Flash Festival, Infuse Theatre Company’s X or Y
In 4th place, by the current 3rd year students at the University, She Echoes
In 3rd place, again from the Flash Festival, La Zenna Theatre Company’s The Final Cut
In 2nd place, the Royal and Derngate’s Actors’ Company’s production of Market Boy at the Royal Theatre.
In 1st place, the University’s production of Blue Stockings at the Royal Theatre.

Best film

I only saw four last year, and, while I have to recognise the brilliance of I Daniel Blake, personal involvement (including being an extra in it) means I must award it to The Girl With All The Gifts. If you haven’t seen it – See it!!

Best Performance by an Actress in a Musical.

This is where it gets personal. Nine contenders in the shortlist, and here are the top three:

In 3rd place, Emma Williams as Helen in Half a Sixpence at the Noel Coward Theatre in December.
In 2nd place, Devon-Elise Johnson as Ann in Half a Sixpence at the Noel Coward Theatre in December.
In 1st place, Sheridan Smith as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl at the Menier Chocolate Factory, in February.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Musical.

Eight fine performances in the shortlist, producing this top three:

In 3rd place, Tony Jayawardena as Mr Bhamra in Bend it Like Beckham at the Phoenix Theatre, in February.
In 2nd place, Sam Mackay as Usnavi in In The Heights, at the Kings Cross Theatre in December.
In 1st place, Charlie Stemp as Kipps in Half a Sixpence at the Noel Coward Theatre in December.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Play.

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

In 5th place, Sophie Walter as Prosper in The Tempest at the Royal in June.
In 4th place, Adjoa Andoh as Alberta in Soul at the Royal in May.
In 3rd place, Clare Foster as Cecily in Travesties at the Menier Chocolate Factory, in October.
In 2nd place, Lisa Dillon as Rosaline in Love’s Labour’s Lost and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing at the Festival Theatre, Chichester in October.
In 1st place, Katherine Parkinson as Eleanor in Dead Funny at the Vaudeville Theatre in December.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Play.

The most hotly fought for award, with twenty contenders in my shortlist, and I whittled it down to this:

In 5th place, Hugh Bonneville as Dr Stockmann in An Enemy of the People, at the Festival Theatre, Chichester, in May.
In 4th place, Tom Hollander as Henry Carr in Travesties, at the Menier Chocolate Factory, in October.
In 3rd place, Nathan Ives-Moiba as Marvin Gaye Jnr in Soul at the Royal Theatre in May.
In 2nd place, Sir Ian McKellen as Spooner in No Man’s Land at Wyndham’s Theatre in October.
In 1st place, Edward Bennett as Berowne in Love’s Labour’s Lost and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing at the Festival Theatre, Chichester in October.

Theatre of the Year.

For the second 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 – 140 productions seen in all – and thanks to you gentle reader for continuing to read my theatre reviews. Let’s look forward to another wonderful year of theatre in 2017!

Review – The Eleventh Annual Malcolm Arnold Festival, The Voice of the People, Gala Concert, BBC Concert Orchestra, Craig Ogden, Derngate, Northampton, 16th October 2016

11th Arnold FestivalAn interesting change of personnel for this year’s Malcolm Arnold Festival Gala Concert; in previous years we have enjoyed the performances of the Worthing Symphony Orchestra, operating as its alter ego, the Malcolm Arnold Festival Orchestra. But whilst we still had John Gibbons as our conductor, this year he was wielding his baton over the BBC Concert Orchestra. The concert was being recorded for Radio 3 so I don’t know whether that was a reason for the change – after all, other orchestras are available, as the phrase goes. They were on great form though. I’m not sure we’ve seen this excellent body of musicians before but they filled the Derngate auditorium with their stunning virtuosity and created brilliant musical pictures from the works they played.

malcolm-arnoldWe could tell this was going to be a fantastic concert from the first item – Arnold’s Tam O’Shanter Overture, Op 61. Mr Gibbons gave us a brief introduction as to what to expect, but nothing could really prepare you to appreciate what an exciting and uplifting piece of music it is. It boasted a fantastic use of percussion (actually the drums and percussion were a big hit for me throughout the entire evening) but the whole orchestra gave it their all and it was a superb way to start the concert.

John GibbonsAs a contrast, the next piece was William Walton’s Funeral Music from Hamlet. I hadn’t heard it before and as it started, it seemed to be taking on an interesting and complex shape. And then, once I had settled down to appreciate it in full, it finished. And not with a bang, but a whimper. I felt slightly short-changed by Mr Walton!

craigogdenHowever, my reward was to follow next in what would be my favourite item of the evening – Malcolm Arnold’s Guitar Concerto Op 67. Our soloist was Craig Ogden, a relaxed kind of guy, the essence of smart casual in comparison to the BBCCO’s formal attire; I liked his straightforward approach to the whole event, not too showy, there simply to make music. He really made his guitar sing – each pluck creates a full, earthy, reverberant sound; the kind of playing where you appreciate each note. Again, I hadn’t heard the piece before, but the Guitar Concerto is a terrific piece of music. Forgive me if I show my (lack of) class, but I felt the Allegro first movement could have been written by Mike Oldfield – it would have fitted perfectly into something like Hergest Ridge. This was followed by the Lento, which brought to mind the melody of Jupiter from Holst’s Planets suite. I thought both movements were absolutely stunning. The concerto finishes with a Con Brio – which for me was a slight disappointment in terms of the creativity of the composing, but Mr Ogden gave it all the brio it required and rounded off a superb and musically eloquent performance.

william-waltonAfter the interval we returned for Walton’s Spitfire Prelude and Fugue from The First of the Few. An excellent piece to get us back into the mood – the prelude was full of stately dignity and the fugue really took off, like its eponymous aircraft, with a mixture of cheeky pride and lamentation. A fantastic performance. Next, we welcomed back Craig Ogden for Arnold’s short but sweet Serenade for Guitar and Strings, Op 13; another simply beautiful work where the juxtaposition of the lush orchestra strings against the resonant guitar chords really stands out.

bbccoOur final piece was Arnold’s Sixth Symphony. Mr Gibbons introduced it by way of comparison with other notable composers’ sixth symphonies – they often get overlooked. Arnold’s sixth gives you an almost complete impression of everything that he could achieve in an orchestral piece. Pageantry, jokiness, suspense, terror, peace and anger. The second movement in particular – Lento allegretto lento – was especially unnerving and spooky. But the whole piece was really invigorating and rewarding – and, as I said earlier, I really loved the drums!

A very enjoyable yet also challenging concert, bringing out the best of both Malcolm Arnold and the BBC Concert Orchestra. Be there for next year’s festival!

Review – The Last Night of the Derngate Proms, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 17th July 2016

Last Night of the Derngate PromsMrs Chrisparkle and I have always enjoyed our visits to the Last Night of the Proms – Derngate style, that is – although we did once get to see the real thing in the Albert Hall which was indeed a privilege. As usual, I booked for this show as part of our subscription package with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. The Last Night is always a very entertaining – if essentially shallow – flick through some of Classic’s Greatest Hits in the lead up to the usual flag-waving extravaganza of Rule Britannia, Jerusalem and Land of Hope and Glory.

The Derngate Auditorium was packed to the rafters for this final concert in the RPO’s annual season. Our conductor was Gareth Hudson, new to us, and as Mr Hudson himself explained, he was new to Northampton. But I think both Mr Hudson and Northampton got on very well with each other. He’s a charming host, with a reassuring voice of honey, providing an entertaining and informative running commentary on all the pieces we were going to hear. As a conductor, he’s not one of those who over-exerts himself but manages to get the best from the orchestra whilst retaining a simple air of dignity and authority. In honour of the gala occasion, the word had gone out to the ladies of the RPO to wear strikingly coloured gowns, so the stage was awash with beautiful reds, greens, and blues. Mrs C pointed out that if I mentioned what the ladies were wearing, I should, for the sake of equality, also pass comment on the gentlemen’s appearance. They were in their stock penguin suits. They obviously didn’t get the same memo. However, if we are concentrating on appearances, I must congratulate harpist Mr Hugh Webb on his spectacular moustache. His harpistry was pretty spectacular too.

There were eighteen pieces to listen to. Eighteen! Seventeen in the programme and one encore. Given that the concert lasted about 2 hours and 20 minutes, and including 20 minutes for the interval and say 20 minutes for chat and applause, I estimate the average time per musical item to be about 5 and a half minutes. It’s not really long enough to get fully engrossed in any particular piece; but on the plus side, if you don’t like any particular item, it won’t be long before it’s over and the next one has started!

Gareth HudsonThe programme began with the overture to Rossini’s Thieving Magpie – probably one of the longer pieces of the evening as it happens – lively, fun, and full of the joys of orchestration. The RPO were obviously going to be on great form. Then came the Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana, one of my favourite pieces of music, played with lush exquisiteness by the strings. When I was a kid I wanted to write an opera (I know, always had grand plans, me); I often used to think how chuffed Mascagni must have been to win that opera-writing competition, and what a brass neck he had to write the Intermezzo so that his two-act opera became a one-act opera, and therefore eligible for the prize. Clever chap.

So that was two Italians – now for a Czech: Dvořák’s Song to the Moon, from his opera Rusalka. We welcomed soprano Deborah Norman to the stage for the first of four appearances to sing this famous aria, although it’s not one with which I’m that attuned. Miss Norman certainly transported us to a lunar scenario, with her engaging interpretation and glittery voice. Then we had the famous Onedin Line theme from Khachaturian’s Spartacus suite – I know he didn’t strictly write it for the BBC but it’s what every one of my generation associates with it. I thought this was performed absolutely terrifically; incredibly stirring, a full tidal wave of emotion. Khachaturian was to be the first of two Russians – next was Tchaikovsky with the Sleeping Beauty Waltz, a timeless piece of sheer delight, again played beautifully by the orchestra.

Anyone who knows me, understands that I don’t do Gilbert and Sullivan. Yes, I know, it’s a failing on my part; and I have tried, believe me. But, as the old song in Liza of Lambeth goes, nothing is duller than Gilbert and Sullivan, in the British tradition they’re palpably rooted, the music is trivial and far from convivial, the words are appallingly convoluted. (Don’t worry, I won’t quote the whole song.) So I confess I wasn’t looking forward to Deborah Norman’s performance of The Sun Whose Rays Are All Ablaze (even the title is so trite in its need to rhyme) by Sir Arthur Sullivan, an aria (if you can call it that) from The Mikado. But, guess what? I really enjoyed it! I think it was the first time I’ve ever enjoyed any one song from G&S. Don’t get me wrong – I’m never going to be a convert. But I was most surprised to hear its delicacy and sweetness.

After the atrocity in Nice on Friday, Gareth Hudson simply said in his introduction to the next piece that he would like to dedicate it to the people of France. André Caplet’s orchestral arrangement of Debussy’s Clair de Lune received a stunning performance from the orchestra and it was a very moving moment. The first half of the concert wound up with another blistering performance, this time of Bizet’s L’Arlésienne Suite, No 2: Farandole, a piece I can never remember until I hear it, which is when I instantly remember how much I love it.

Deborah NormanIt was after the interval that things just started to get a little weird. Not musically – by any means; the RPO continued to give a fantastic performance. Mrs C and I just got the sense that this year’s flag-waving jingoism had taken on a little more… shall we say, sinister aspect. It all started in the first piece after the interval, the splendid overture to the operetta Light Cavalry by Franz von Suppé. The orchestra really got into its military stride with this, creating a fantastic rhythm; but the elderly lady sitting further along the row from us got totally carried away and started to pretend that she was on a horse, bobbing up and down with the rhythm, swaying the reins, and basically giving us all the giddy-ups. That’s fine. Good music well performed can do this to a person.

We welcomed back Deborah Norman to give us a tender rendition of Je veux vivre, from Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette. This piece was new to me and I found it very touching and full of that youthful enthusiasm we would associate with the young tragic heroine. Then it was time for the Polonaise from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. We saw this performed in Bratislava a few years ago and absolutely loved it – but I regret I couldn’t particularly remember the Polonaise. The RPO gave it a full-on rumbustious run for its money and the audience responded really warmly to it. Then came – for me, at least – perhaps the most rewarding performance of the evening – Two Songs Without Words (Country Song and Marching Song) by Gustav Holst. As Mr Hudson mentioned in his introduction, Holst’s back catalogue became completely eclipsed (pardon the pun) by the success of his Planets Suite, reducing the rest of his output to virtual insignificance. So here were two earlier pieces that rarely get performed, and I thought they were sensational. This is the English Folk Music-inspired Holst, rather than the astronomically-inspired version, although I definitely heard a music prequel of Jupiter somewhere in there. A fantastic performance of (for me) an exciting find. This section of the concert wrapped up with (as the RPO often do) those few minutes of intense emotion that constitute Nimrod, from Elgar’s Enigma Variations. Nimrod never does quite give you that same tingle when it’s played outside of the context of a full performance of the Variations, but nevertheless, it’s still a magnificent piece and gives you a few moments to cherish those you love and remember those you’ve lost.

It was Gareth Hudson’s introduction to the final sequence of patriotic numbers that encapsulated whatever it was that had been bothering us. He said (and I paraphrase) that no matter how we all voted in a certain referendum recently, we should take the opportunity to allow the evening’s music to unite us. Now forgive me, gentle reader, for going off piste here, and I know this may alienate many of you to bring politics into music, but Mrs C and I are still very much coming to terms with (what we feel is) the (disastrous) result of the referendum. The wounds have gone very deep; it’s going to be a long time before the healing takes place (indeed, if it ever does). Surrounded by an audience made up of almost entirely white, middle-aged to elderly, middle-class Northamptonians (our town voted 59-41 in favour of Brexit) we suddenly realised the extent to which we were in the minority in that room. The patriotism of our neighbours all waving the flags and standing, Nuremberg rally-like, to Land of Hope and Glory, felt very, very uncomfortable. I can’t help it – at the moment I’m not proud of our country, so I couldn’t permit myself to get up and join the others. I was happy to sing it, as I always am. But there was a swelling of nationalistic pride going on in that hall on Sunday night with which I really did not want to associate myself.

Back on piste. Our final sequence of music was as unchanging as the waning moon, starting with Tom Bowling and the Hornpipe from Sir Henry Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea Songs. Mr Hudson introduced lead cellist Tim Gill for the Tom Bowling and he was exceptional as usual, bringing out all that deep-seated sadness and searing emotion from its lamentation-like theme. The Hornpipe, of course, couldn’t be a greater juxtaposition, with Mr Hudson already encouraging us to clap along, even if, (of course), we all did it too loudly, too enthusiastically, and too early. Ms Norman returned for the final time (a little early in fact, as Mr Hudson was still humiliating us with My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean, making us stand, then sit, each time a word beginning with a B comes along – think about it, it gets exhausting) for Rule, Britannia! And I really appreciate it when all three verses are sung in full. Jerusalem, which followed, has much claim to be my own personal favourite song of all time, and nothing’s going to stop me from bellowing each syllable as if I were still in Morning Assembly in 1973. And finally, a lively and fun performance of the Pomp and Circumstance March No 1, which got our Cavalry overture lady up on her feet at the first whiff of a land of Hope and Glory. All credit to her, when no one else got up so early she didn’t budge but held her ground. Classic rule – if you ovate and no one else does, it looks appalling if you sit down again. Have the courage of your convictions! Reservations (as per the previous paragraph) aside, it was a wonderful performance.

Royal Philharmonic OrchestraAnd it was also with great pleasure that I realised it wasn’t to be quite the final number of the night. As an encore, and once again with a respectful nod to France and maybe something to assuage the Bremainers, Mr Hudson returned to the podium to crack out a fun and frolicsome performance of Offenbach’s Infernal Galop from Orpheus in the Underworld – the Can Can. Now that did deserve an ovation.

No more Royal Philharmonic Orchestra here in Northampton until much later in the year – and unfortunately we can’t make that concert! Still we’ll look forward to re-acquainting ourselves with the RPO next February.

Review – The Planets: An HD Odyssey, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 26th June 2016

The PlanetsMusic hath charms to soothe the savage breast. Mrs Chrisparkle’s and my combined breasts were feeling particularly savage after the slings and arrows of outrageous referendum results, so we were really looking forward to an evening in the company of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra who have so many times in the past coddled us, cushioned us, and sent us on our way home with a warm Ready-Brek glow. We also had friends up from Leatherhead joining us for the concert and we met Mr Smallmind there too, now such a permanent fixture at the R&D that an orchestra member asked his help in shifting his instrument up the cordoned-off Royal stairs post-concert.

Sometimes theatre or concert programming taps into the Zeitgeist and it wasn’t long before there were very few tickets left for this concert; and indeed it was a sell-out on the night. It was great to see so many families going out to enjoy this special space-themed selection of classical hits. The main attraction was to be the performance of Holst’s Planets Suite accompanied by a film created in collaboration with NASA and award-winning producer/director Duncan Copp, and featuring the latest high definition planetary images of NASA’s exploration of the solar system. I wondered to what extent the multimedia accompaniment would enhance or maybe diminish Holst’s commanding music. But more of that later…

Robert ZieglerOur conductor for the evening was Robert Ziegler. It was the first time we had seen Mr Ziegler on the podium. He comes out onto the stage, enthusiastic and with an air of kind-hearted wisdom, like a good-tempered History teacher, if one of those ever existed. With his jazzy shirt and black velour jacket, you sense he could be a man of many surprises. He certainly got the best out of the RPO, who gave us an evening of sparkle and chic, with really crisp playing and fantastic timing.

The first half was a fascinating mix of little classical jewels, all with an eye to the celestial. We started with the opening of Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra – giving the concert the equivalent of a musical lift-off – and I’d forgotten what a thrilling little piece it is; for an overture-in-miniature, it sure packs a punch! This was followed by Strauss’s (different Strauss) Blue Danube Waltz; also known, in the programme, as On the Beautiful Blue Danube; I’m not sure if the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle’s lyrics to it “The Danube is blue, it’s blue, it’s blue, I tell you it’s blue, it’s blue, it’s blue…” are entirely pure Strauss. Anyway the orchestra played it with swaying delight, hitting that first phrase of the chorus with wonderful as slow as you dare characterisation. You could almost feel the fairground merry-go-round whipping up to speed as the waltz gained traction. Really enjoyable.

RPOAn interesting third item: Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, but not played on the organ, but as a full orchestral piece as arranged by Leopold Stokowski. It’s a composition I love; and what I most enjoyed about this performance was the way in which the orchestra played some of it slow and stately, and other parts quick and quirky. It really lent itself to this different arrangement. (But I do prefer it done on the organ!) Next was the Allegretto from Beethoven’s 7th symphony; always moving, a strange mixture of the sombre and the triumphant. Again, beautifully played by the orchestra, that thick pizzicato tattoo that runs throughout the piece like a stick of rock creating a strong sense of unease and drama. It’s better when played in the context of the full symphony I feel, but nevertheless it was a super example of one of Classics’ Greatest Hits. Finally, we came much more up to date with the Main Theme to John Williams’ Star Wars: dynamic, exciting, irreverent; the violins could have been light-sabres and we could have become enmeshed in full intergalactic battle.

After the interval, we came back for the Main Event – The Planets. The orchestra took their places. Mr Ziegler returned to his podium. Unusually, the lights dimmed, like we were in a cinema, apart from the bright lamps illuminating the orchestra members’ music stands. And just as you thought Mr Z was about to cue in Mars… the movie started. NASA scientists giving their opinions on whether or not Holst characterised the planets correctly. OK…I’ll go with it, I thought to myself, but I hope they don’t push it… Eventually the movie announced Mars, The Bringer of War. This worked so, so well. Really fascinating and beautifully photographed footage of the red planet combined by an absolutely riveting performance of seven of the finest minutes in classical music. Not only a first class performance but absolute timing precision so that the footage on the screen changed at exactly the same instant as the first beat of the next bar in the music. A fantastic combination – I was pretty much gobsmacked.

Northampton Bach ChoirSadly, visually, for me at least, that was the most exciting footage by a long baton. The subsequent cinematographic accompaniments for each planet were attractive and nicely realised I guess, but as it went on, I felt like the visual effect created a laziness in one’s head; it served to limit one’s imagination and emotional response to each piece of music rather than enhancing it; and by the time we’d got to Jupiter – which has so many memories for me of my teenage years and all absolutely nothing to do with astronomy – I decided to shift my concentration from the screen to the musicians. Jupiter was performed with a freshness and vitality that I think you could simply describe as awesome. Whether the I Vow To Thee My Country section had an extra post-referendum resonance I could not tell; for me it had an interesting lack of sentimentality which I actually found quite refreshing.

Moving on; the words on the screen: Saturn The Bringer of Old Age created a few chuckles from around the auditorium as grandparents wrestled with cheeky grandchildren; and, no doubt about it, in the movie accompaniment – nice rings. Uranus always reminds me more of a sea shanty than a magician, so it was back to concentrating on the instruments for me. We ended with a stunningly eerie performance of Neptune, The Mystic; when the disembodied choral voices joined in, it was a moment of sheer dramatic magic. The programme promised us the Northampton Bach Choir, but they were nowhere to be seen, which caused a little post-show controversy amongst our party. Were the voices recorded? Or were the Northampton Bach Choir lurking backstage, as reticent to come forward as a politician to invoke Article 50?

PlanetsAn unusual structure for a classical concert but by and large it worked really well. Certainly the RPO were on top form and played some of Classic’s Greatest Hits with dynamism and éclat. Next up it’s the Last Night of the Derngate Proms next month – make sure you’re there!

Review – Alexandra Dariescu Performs Rachmaninov, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Derngate, Northampton, 15th May 2016

Alexandra Dariescu performs RachmaninovThere’s nothing quite like a classical concert when you’ve been a bit stressed. That old line about music having charms to soothe the savage breast? Darn right. It doesn’t matter if it’s soft and gentle or belting and Wagnerian, music can take the place of a sensual massage any day of the week. I was in the mood for a musical massage, so the timing was perfect! And it’s always a pleasure to welcome back the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to Northampton, the artistic hub of the East Midlands as I like to call it.

Our conductor for this mixed programme of German and Russian music was rising star M. Fabien Gabel, music director of the Quebec Symphony Orchestra, and a handsome and debonair chap to boot. I always like to observe the different ways that conductors work to get the best out of their orchestras. Some get swept away by a veritable tsunami of enthusiasm; others take control with a mere flick of their baton. M. Gabel takes a moderate path, his body lurching at a positive angle towards whatever section of the orchestra he’s addressing. The motion would be enough to send me to the chiropractors – but it certainly works well for him.

Fabien GabelThe first item on the musical agenda was the overture to Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel. I do like a good overture to start the ball rolling, and I was unfamiliar with this piece. It’s a very enjoyable mix of the smooth and the staccato and I thought the orchestra did a terrific job with it – beautifully clear phrasing, excellent precision. And there wasn’t a whiff of Release Me about it.

After the overture, the violins had to form a string huddle in the corner of the stage whilst the big guys wheeled on the super Steinway. I can never decide if this rearrangement procedure helps to build up expectation or just looks a bit silly. Half and half, I guess. Leader of the orchestra Duncan Riddell took his seat only to send one of his chair chucks flying, so there was a little more rearrangement to take place before we were able to greet our soloist for the evening, the officially fabulous Alexandra Dariescu. We had already seen Miss Dariescu here before when she performed Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 21, and had the interval crowd buzzing with excitement afterwards. This time she performed Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, which is another RPO favourite – we saw it here three years ago performed by Peter Jablonski.

Alexandra DariescuAfter a minor contretemps between Miss Dariescu’s billowing dress and Mr Riddell’s violin stand (the dress, being the more substantial of the two, won), she sat down at the piano and gave us a most amazing performance, full of excitement, jokiness, passion and irreverence. From where we sit, we get a great view of the pianist’s hands on the keyboard. I can tell you there were times during that piece when they were a complete blur. My eyes could not assimilate all that dexterity, and it’s hard to imagine the brain messages that get processed to tell your fingers to move so quickly and so accurately. It took everyone’s breath away. Her reception was so enthusiastic that she returned for an encore – Ginastera’s Argentinian Dance No 2 – a charming little piece that I’d not heard before but full of South American flavour which flourished under Miss Dariescu’s delicate touch.

After the interval we were treated to a very grand experience – Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard this performed live before, and it goes without saying what a tremendous work of art it is. From those initial stabbing chords to the final triumph of its ending, there’s not a note wasted that doesn’t play a vital part in its overall effect and structure. It calls for vigour and bravado in its playing and it certainly got that. There’s so much going on during that performance that it was a wonder M. Gabel kept it all together – but he did. I was caught out by the sudden jump from third to fourth movement and it was only just before the end that I realised we were, indeed, just before the end. A hugely entertaining performance of what must be an extraordinarily demanding work. Thanks again to the Royal Philharmonic for continuing to bring their magic to us here in Northampton – may you never cease!

P. S. We weren’t able to order interval drinks – that’s the policy when there’s only a short time before the interval, half an hour we were told. That timing didn’t quite make sense to me, but hey ho. However, after all the piano shifting and the encore, the first part of the concert ended up being a good fifty minutes. Queueing unnecessarily for interval drinks is one of my pet hates, but I didn’t complain. Much. And actually the Beethoven was over relatively quickly, so I ended up finishing my Shiraz whilst walking home (a route that took me through a no-alcohol restricted zone but don’t tell anyone). I had already decided that if the police stopped me I was going to say “Beethoven made me do it.”