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 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!

Review – Bananarama, Eventim Apollo, 9th December 2017

BananaramaMrs Chrisparkle and I have never really been into the pop/rock gig culture. My first proper concert wasn’t until I was 22 when a friend took me to see Simon and Garfunkel at Wembley; might as well start with a biggie. Then, one very wet day in 1984, I went with friends to see Genesis in the muddy squalor of the Milton Keynes Bowl – the last time that Peter Gabriel performed with them. Talk Talk were the support act – before their classic hit, It’s My Life. Before we met, Mrs C had seen both Howard Jones (yes) and Cliff Richard (oh yes) in Sydney. Some years later we would both see Howard Jones again – still a fan; and we were unfortunate enough to see Cliff Richard in the musical Time. Let’s draw a veil over that one.

BananasSince then we’ve seen a few, largely retro, performances of some big names of the past, such as Adam Ant, UB40, Lulu, and that doyenne of heavy metal, Petula Clark. Seeing these big names has always a most enjoyable experience. When it was announced that Bananarama were coming back with a mini-tour, my social media timeline went berserk. Unfortunately, so did the booking queues and at first I thought we’d missed out. But then they announced one extra date right at the end of the tour and somehow, with hardly any notice, I snuck in and secured us a couple of tickets.

Rough JusticeIt’s only looking back that you realise quite what a legacy of brilliant pop the girls left behind, although it’s fascinating to see from their discography that they never scored a UK Number One – unless you count their contribution to Live Aid. Starting off with those incredibly languid first few songs, they pepped up with some poppy cover versions, then ended up with the full Stock Aitken Waterman sound. Get one of their songs in your head and there’s no way out. I have a confession to make though, regarding two of their biggest hits; I prefer the originals. Don’t judge me.

Nathan JonesOf course, the Hammersmith Apollo was packed; our seats in Row S were surprisingly good, because the rake there is perfect and you’re still close enough to the stage to get the waft of a banana. They opened with Nathan Jones – one of the cover versions that I really like – and within a few minutes the crowd was ecstatic with nostalgia and appreciation for their really, very silly dance routine. I have to say the Bananas still look absolutely terrific; Siobhan’s older than I am, and that’s Really Saying Something. I’m no vocal expert but my guess is that you don’t have to be the best singer in the world to nail these numbers; their secret was all in their style.

Cheers ThenRather than have me tell you all the songs they sang, I’ll just say that, basically, they sang everything you’d expect. The only number missing that I would have liked to hear was their Comic Relief cover version of Help. An early treat was Robert de Niro’s Waiting, because everyone instantly sang along to create a great feeling of camaraderie within the Apollo. I was pleased that they performed Cheers Then, because I’ve always looked on it as the underdog of their repertoire, only getting to No 45 in the UK charts, and it took me years to track down a copy of the single at some obscure record fair. I hooted at delight when they sang Cruel Summer – that’s my favourite; their downbeat style suited perfectly the thorough sadness of that song.Venus As it did with Rough Justice, which I found surprisingly moving. Many of their songs were accompanied by video clips of them all, innocently larking around back in the day, meshed together in some very lively and exciting visual backgrounds which complemented the performances nicely. Siobhan left the stage when they sang Shakespeare’s Sister’s Stay – a certain irony there – and of course everyone went hysterical for Venus, I Heard a Rumour (which came over incredibly well), Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye and I Want You Back. For the final two songs we had a truly funky rendition of It Ain’t What You Do… and Love in the First Degree closed the show.

GoodbyeIt was an enormously fun night – the whole theatre was in a great mood – and there was a lot of love going on for all our yesterdays. Very glad we were able to make it!

StayP. S. OK! I’ll tell you which of those cover versions are not as good as the originals, IMHO. I prefer the hippiness of Steam’s Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye; and nothing can compare with the guitars on Shocking Blue’s original version of Venus.

FinaleP. P. S. There were a group of extremely well-dressed people in the row directly in front of us, including two older guys in very sharp suits. They all seemed to be having a great time, constantly saying hello to people, posing for selfies, and so on. It was only as we were on the way out at the end that we realised one of them was Andrew Ridgley.

Review – Francesca Dego Performs Bruch, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 26th November 2017

Francesca Dego Performs BruchAnother opportunity to welcome back the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to their spiritual East Midlands home, for a stirring concert of Beethoven, Brahms and Bruch. Our conductor was Mathieu Herzog, whom we haven’t seen before, but he’s a lively and charismatic presence on the podium. All decked out in a trendy, shiny frock coat with yellow beading, he’s one of those conductors who likes to throw himself into the music, arms reaching out in all directions to encourage every individual member of the orchestra to give their best. I think you can divide conductors into two kinds: those who never stand on tiptoe, and those who rarely don’t. M. Herzog definitely belongs in the latter category!

Mathieu HerzogFirst on the agenda was Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture. This has nothing to do with Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, but was written in 1807 for Heinrich Joseph von Collin’s 1804 tragedy Coriolan; not that it matters to today’s concertgoer. It’s a great start to a recital as it instantly arrests you with its bold and attacking style. You can really imagine old Ludwig van stabbing his baton at a petrified orchestra coaxing all those staccato beats out of the violins. Full of stops and starts, it’s impossible to listen to it without your head nodding up and down, furiously, in time to the rhythm. It showed off the orchestra’s fantastic strings to their best.

Next, we had the first of our two Brahms’ pieces, the Hungarian Dance No 6 in D Major. From stabbing, dramatic strings to gypsy swing strings in one fell swoop, you could almost smell the goulash. It was played with a great sense of fun and briefly transported you to some Czardas club in Budapest where your mind’s eye lingered on imaginary ladies in swirling skirts and gentlemen in knee-high boots. Pure escapism in three minutes, fifty seconds.

Francesca DegoTaking us into the interval was the performance of Bruch’s Violin Concerto No 1 in G Minor. This is quite a favourite of the Royal Philharmonic, as we have seen them perform it in both 2009 and 2014, when Chloe Hanslip turned in an amazing performance. Our soloist this time was Francesca Dego, a statuesque vision in lemon, brandishing an antique violin; according to the programme, she uses two violins, a Francesco Ruggeri, dated 1697, and a Guarneri del Gesu from 1734 – which she presumably refers to as “the new one”. Her dramatic appearance reflects her dramatic performance, as she produced the most glorious tone from the instrument, both blending perfectly with the rest of the orchestra and also standing out with its own enhanced clarity. I’m always impressed when someone plays as complex a piece as this without any sheet music to hand. I loved how the three movements all blended seamlessly together, and it was an exciting, moving, and authoritative performance which the appreciative audience in the Derngate auditorium absolutely loved.

Sir Peter EllwoodWhen we came back from the interval, there was a little surprise before the final piece. Managing Director of the RPO, James Williams, introduced us to Sir Peter Ellwood, who was given the orchestra’s highest accolade, that of Honorary Membership, in recognition of his support and work with the orchestra over the past twenty years. James presented the membership together with trumpeter Adam Wright. Sir Peter also happens to be Vice Lord-Lieutenant of Northamptonshire, so we wondered if he played a role in establishing the great connection between the orchestra and the Royal and Derngate. If so, well played sir!

The second part of the concert consisted of a performance of Brahms’ Symphony No 4. I love a Brahms Symphony. In fact, I remember, as a student, treating myself to a recording of each of the four symphonies, one a week, over the first part of a very difficult term – I’d buy one as a treat and a self-congratulation for getting through yet another tutorial. Being a (relatively) penniless student, I could only afford the Music For Pleasure recordings (remember them?) and they were by the Hallé Orchestra, under the baton of James Loughran. I thought they were fantastic. I confess that the first symphony is my ultimate favourite, but who’s going to turn up an opportunity to hear the fourth symphony performed live?

It was superb. I loved how the first movement shows off like a musical version of a question and answer session. Then when the second movement got going the pizzicato sequence was so impressive. It felt almost mournful but with a great resilience. And then the final two movements, which are a) lively and b) even livelier, were played with such gusto that it was hard for your brain to keep up with the music. The violinists were playing so vigorously that their arms were literally a blur. A wonderful performance, and a fitting end to a very exciting concert. The composers may have been Beethoven, Brahms and Bruch – three B’s – but it was an A+ evening. The RPO are next back in town on February 18th 2018 for an afternoon of Beethoven, Grieg, Tchaikovsky and Mendelssohn. Already looking forward to it!

Review – The Twelfth Malcolm Arnold Festival, Gala Concert, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Derngate, Northampton, 15th October 2017

Twelfth Malcolm Arnold FestivalOnce again the Royal and Derngate played host to the annual Malcolm Arnold Festival, celebrating the work, life and influence of one of Northampton’s finest Local Boys Done Good. This year’s title was “His Music Abounds in Singable Tunes”, and I can’t imagine a more fitting tribute. A dozen events – concerts, talks, even the re-enactment of a radio programme – all took place over the weekend, culminating in the usual pizazz of the Gala Concert in the Derngate auditorium. Again, we had the pleasure to welcome the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, under the baton of John Gibbons who’s been conducting these Malcolm Arnold concerts since he was about five years old, by my reckoning.

For reasons that he explained later, Mr Gibbons had decided to shuffle the order in which the pieces of music would be played. We started off with Arnold’s arresting River Kwai March from Bridge on the River Kwai; a perfect starter with its rousing atmosphere and cheerful arrangement. Military brass and smashing cymbals at the ready, the Royal Philharmonic gave it a great rendition and put a smile on everyone’s faces.

John GibbonsNext we had Malcolm Arnold’s Fifth Symphony. John Gibbons forewarned us that, if we weren’t already familiar with it – I wasn’t – we might find it challenging; but it’s also exuberant, cerebral, and full of singable tunes (as we had been promised.) It impressed me as a work of great variety. Premiered in 1961, Arnold included several musical references in memory of friends whom he had lost, including humourist and tuba-thumper Gerard Hoffnung, Frederick Thurston the clarinettist, and Arnold’s own brother Aubrey, who had taken his own life a few months earlier. So you can tell it’s a piece of work that demands to be taken seriously.

The first movement isn’t described as Tempestuoso for nothing. It’s full of attack, at times almost aggressive; but I did love the way the harp and celeste played together, creating the sound equivalent of fat golden droplets of rain – well that’s how it felt to me. The second movement is much more lush and warm, with the violins buzzing away together like a deep lullaby – it did actually send Mrs Chrisparkle off to sleep for a short while. The third movement (con fuoco) was one of those instant hits when you really love a classical tune, even if, afterwards, it’s really hard to recollect it. I loved that quirky rhythm and part-played, part-omitted melody. Everything gets brought together in the final movement, and I was really impressed with it. I’ll have to buy a recording of it! Again, the RPO gave it everything.

Arta ArnicaneAfter the interval, the Steinway had been wheeled into place for our only non-Arnold segment of the evening, a performance of Grieg’s Piano Concerto, with soloist Arta Arnicane. Always a favourite piece of music, I knew I had to steel myself not to sing along to the words of the Song of Norway – and I succeeded, much to everyone’s relief. Ms Arnicane looked stunning in a glistening steely grey dress – I couldn’t help but think that the long hem would have got in the way of the piano pedals, but I guess she knew what she was doing. There are so many fantastic sequences in the piano concerto but what most impressed me – and amused me – was how Ms Arnicane’s personal deportment changed with the mood of the music. For the strong, passionate parts she’d sit upright and authoritatively; for those languid phrases she’d almost flop over the keys. When Grieg got playful she’d wiggle from side to side as if preparing for a game of keyboard hopscotch. She really expressed the music so beautifully not only through the sound coming out of the piano but also through her own physical presence. I also loved her delicacy of touch, sometimes coaxing the music out with what appeared to be just the minimum of pressure. It was stunning.

Royal Philharmonic OrchestraOur final piece was Malcolm Arnold’s Heroes of Telemark. This was the first time that this piece had received a concert performance; having languished in film companies’ files for several decades after the film was made in 1965. The piece was re-shuffled to the end of the concert because, when the listing was originally produced, John Gibbons, who was creating the suite from the separate, individual passages of film, hadn’t yet finalised the work (reading between the lines, it was a much bigger job than he was expecting!)

As expected, it’s full of ravishing Arnoldesque moments, with stirring tunes, thumping orchestrations and a few delightful surprises. Mr Gibbons had told us that we would easily be able to identify the German marching songs (correct) and the big moment when the Allies exploded the plant where the Germans were making Heavy Water – also correct. I must be honest though and say that on the whole I didn’t think it really gelled as an orchestral suite. No question it was fascinating to listen to, and for Arnold enthusiasts (of whom there were plenty in the audience) a unique opportunity to hear something that’s been largely lost for fifty years; but for me, I won’t need to hear it again for a good while.

Nevertheless, a great night of classical entertainment, with a fantastic soloist and some amazing performances. Now to hunt down that third movement to the Fifth Symphony!

Review – Des O’Connor and Jimmy Tarbuck Live, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 17th September 2017

Des O'Connor and Jimmy Tarbuck LiveWhen I saw these two legendary names were appearing together on stage I had absolutely no hesitation in booking straight away. They were among the very first famous people I ever saw on stage as a child. Jimmy Tarbuck played Jack in the London Palladium pantomime Jack and the Beanstalk back in Christmas 1968 – New Year 1969; it was my first visit to a London theatre and my first ever pantomime. The Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle couldn’t wait to get me in the front stalls to see how I’d react to the Palladium environment (which she adored) – verdict, I loved it. But, even earlier, in the summer of 1967, I was taken to my first ever professional stage show; on holiday in Bournemouth, the 7-year-old me had a seat to see Showtime at the Pavilion Theatre, featuring Kenneth McKellar, Jack Douglas and starring – you guessed it – Des O’Connor.

Jack and the Beanstalk 1969 castI’d seen Des O’Connor live just once since then, when I took a young female friend (in the days before Mrs Chrisparkle, c. 1984) to see a recording of Gloria Hunniford’s TV chat show Sunday Sunday – it used to air on Sundays, I kid you not. Amongst the guests was Mr O’Connor. At one point all the lights blew and they had to stop the recording for about twenty minutes. Gloria Hunniford retreated into her shell and wouldn’t make eye contact with the audience. Des O’Connor, on the other hand, got up and did twenty minutes stand-up off the top of his head, and, let me assure you gentle reader, he was absolutely on fire! From that moment, I’ve always had immense respect for him.

Des O'Connor and Jimmy Tarbuck 1I’d not seen Jimmy Tarbuck on stage since that panto, and of course it’s been many years since he’s been a regular on TV; so I was very interested to see how he’s progressed, the young feller-me-lad. Well, I can report that he’s doing very well indeed. He’s 77, but looking at him you wouldn’t place him older than his mid-fifties. He still has that irrepressible cheekiness, a very nice line in occasional self-deprecation, natural confidence and authority, and absolutely immaculate comic timing. It’s true; some of his material isn’t very 21st century. Whilst Mrs C was pleased to note the total absence of mother-in-law jokes, they had been replaced by “ugly women” jokes. To be fair, they were often very funny.

Des O'Connor and Jimmy Tarbuck 4Mr Tarbuck (hereinafter Tarby) still uses that classic structure for many of his showpiece jokes – I mean those that aren’t one-liners. He sets them up with a statement that will end with a certain sequence of words; pause. Then comes another statement, ending with the same sequence of words; another pause, whilst suspense/curiosity/anticipation builds. There might even be a third statement, that ends with the same sequence of words – audience by now making up their own punchlines. Then comes the killer final statement that will take the sequence of words and turn them on their head to potentially devastating comic effect. I remember him doing that in the 70s, and he still does it today – brilliantly.

Des O'Connor and Jimmy Tarbuck 5Mr O’Connor (hereinafter Deso) has quite a close association with our beloved Northampton, as he was evacuated here during the Second World War, worked at Church’s shoes (very posh) and even had a stint playing football for Northampton Town. Today he still has that wicked glint in his eye, and at 85 he can still look down on young Tarby. But he did admit that he wasn’t feeling too well, with an ear infection affecting his balance, and would we mind if he sat down for most of his set; of course not – huge kudos to him for still going on with the show despite his health issue.

Des O'Connor and Jimmy Tarbuck 3I’m going to forgive him for starting the evening with a terrible homophobic joke and put it down to the infirmity of his age, as Regan said of Lear. Moving on, with the aid of a big screen, he reminisced about some of his favourite TV appearances – with Morecambe and Wise (naturally), Rod Hull and Emu, Benny Hill, Bernie Clifton and many more. We sang with him as he accompanied himself on a video of him singing with Neil Diamond (are you still with me?) and bizarrely it worked, as the rafters of the Royal and Derngate rang out to the chorus of Sweet Caroline. Deso also led singalongs to Carole King’s Will You Love Me Tomorrow and Tony Christie’s Is this the way to Amarillo, but, sadly, no Dick-a-Dum-Dum, which I’ve always thought was a truly charming look at Swinging Sixties London. Isn’t always the case that artists never perform your favourite song? It’s an unwritten law of Live Performance.

Des O'Connor and Jimmy TarbuckThere was precious little hesitation in the audience to rise for a standing ovation for these two grand old chaps. For Tarby, he absolutely deserves it for still delivering 45 minutes of cracking stand-up. For Deso, he deserves it in recognition of all the years of happy entertainment he’s provided, even from before I was born. They’re still touring this unique get-together show for a few more dates this year: 7th October in Harlow, 29th October in Reading and 5th November in Newcastle. These young lads deserve your support!

The Edinburgh Fringe One-Weeker 2017 – Late Night, 26th August 2017

Late NightTaking us up to Sunday morning is Late Night at the Bedlam Theatre at 23:00 on Saturday 26th. Here’s the blurb: “Strap in tight to the most rad, bizarre, awe-inspiring comedy and alt-performance rollercoaster at the Fringe! We’re back for our third year with one-off takeovers from your favourites, cabaret stuffed to the gunnels with fun and a feeling of general satisfaction. Last year’s stage was graced by Fern Brady (The Alternative Comedy Experience, 8 Out of 10 Cats), Andrew Ryan (Russell Howard’s Good News), 2016 Funny Women Awards winner Harriet Braine, sketch-mongers Princes of Main, Fringe First nominee clown Helen Duff and World Poetry Slam champion Harry Baker. This year’s line-up is ruddy epic – get down here!”

Not entirely sure what to expect – and I guess that’s the point! A variety of comics and cabaret artists, I hope, with that unpredictable Fringe twist. Check back shortly after midnight to see what happened. By then the final preview blog should be available to read too.

So it turned out to be an hour in the company of Lach; an American guitar singer who also tells jokes and does poetry. I found his music soporific, but in a good way. But it was very low key in comparison to what I was expecting, and I wouldn’t have booked his show under other circumstances. Sorry Lach, I just wasn’t your natural audience.