[Back to Index page] Index

Malcolm Arnold Festival

Royal & Derngate, Northampton

7 October 2007

Some 20 years ago, Jon Lord was being interviewed on a radio programme and talked about Malcolm Arnold as one of the most important modern symphonic composers. Everybody, he said, should listen to his music. So I listened, and I fell in love with it.

Twenty years later and it's the Second Malcolm Arnold Festival, a year after the composer's death; a weekend of his music in his home town of Northampton. Gala evening performance: Jon Lord's Concerto for Group and Orchestra. It's virtually a dream programme. Of course I'm going to go...

Travel logistics (six hours from Newcastle!) meant that I couldn't make Saturday's events, but Sunday's programme was more interesting to me anyway so that worked out ok. And at £10 for a weekend ticket (not inclusive of the Sunday evening concert), I was still getting more than good value for money.

Ok, I know you only want to hear about Jon Lord, but you can just skip to the last paragraph for that because I'm going to talk about the whole day... 11 hours of almost continuous music and talks. Intense, physically and mentally draining, and utterly wonderful.

The Royal & Derngate theatre is a big, modern complex with a large auditorium for orchestral pieces and a small, stifling, airless underground room for the chamber music (there were only about 50 people in the audience for each of these concerts — the same 50 people each time). As I waited in the spacious foyer for the 11am start, I must have looked lost because I was immediately adopted by members of the Malcolm Arnold Society, an immensely kind and friendly bunch who assumed I was "one of them". They were quite bemused to find that I wasn't a Society member and was only there because of Jon Lord! These people have a train spotter's knowledge of Malcolm Arnold and didn't know Lord's music at all — but they were all looking forward to it. It didn't matter that Lord's background was as a rock musician any more than it mattered that my background was as a rock music fan. We all loved the music so we all got along famously. (Two different musical cultures? Nope, no such thing...)

But this is a digression. On with the programme.

11am: Music for strings by students from the Royal College of Music (Sonata for Viola, Quartet for Oboe and String Trio, Five Pieces for Violin and Piano and Piano Trio).

I didn't know what to expect of this recital. I thought "students" meant they were just learning and maybe not very polished — that's why they got the early slot, I thought.


It turns out that "students" from the Royal College of Music are better than the best musicians you've ever seen. I was thoroughly impressed. The highlight was probably the Five Pieces for Violin and Piano (originally written for Menuhin). Jiafeng Chen is an amazing talent. (He took second place in the Sibelius International Violin Competition in 2005. In my first ever classical concert I saw the violinist who took first place in that competition. What are the odds...?) Despite their professionalism, the performers were all still young enough to look genuinely pleased with themselves and happy at the applause as they took their bows. Ahhh...

The hour passed far too quickly and then it was a quick sprint up the stairs to the gallery of the main auditorium where a big audience was already waiting and we barely found our seats before the Northamptonshire Training Orchestra began the Little Suite No. 1 for Orchestra. This was followed by the Little Suite No. 2 for Orchestra. Then a brief pause while the orchestra left, seats were rearranged, and the County Brass Band came on to play the Little Suite No. 1 for Brass Band, followed by the... Little Suite No. 2 for Brass Band. That's a lot of little suites! Now, I'm not a huge fan of brass band music, but Arnold wrote for brass bands like he was writing for a jazz band — this is the man who cites Louis Armstrong as his greatest musical inspiration — so although I didn't know any of the suites, I really enjoyed them all. The music is rhythmic and energetic and both bands played really well — remarkable when the combined age of all the members of the Training (read: "youth") Orchestra was probably less than some rock bands I could mention...

Next, a break (of less than an hour) to stretch the legs and grab a sandwich, as I realised that the timing of the events meant that this was going to be the only break (and food) all day...

2pm and it's back to the airless dungeon for an informal "illustrated" (audio-visual) talk by Philip Lane about Arnold's film music. The original scores for much of Arnold's vast output of film music have been lost (this probably sounds familiar to Deep Purple fans) and Lane has been involved in recreating them and re-recording the music, so he had some really interesting insights and anecdotes about the business in general. Far too many anecdotes to repeat here... you really should have been there. This lasted over an hour and a half, leaving just a five minute break to grab some air while the piano was wheeled out again for the afternoon recital.

3.45: Wind chamber music (Divertimento for Wind Trio, Solitaire for Flute and Piano, Sonatina for Clarinet and Piano, Day Dreams, Two Sketches for Oboe and Piano, Grand Fantasia for Flute, Clarinet and Piano, Sonatina for Oboe and Piano, and Suite Bourgeoise for Flute, Oboe and Piano). This was performed by the trio "Intriplicate" (Claire Filhart, flute; Sally Richardson, oboe; Claire Dunham, piano). To extend their repertoire, the trio was joined by Claire Filhart's twin sister, Rachel, on clarinet.

(Pause to think about this for a minute.)

Was this the highlight of the day? Arnold's wind music is possibly even better than his string music. I mean, Grand Fantasia for Flute and Clarinet... (pause to think about this for a minute).

Yes, it's all wonderful, probably the best of the Arnold chamber music that I know, and the performances were superb, despite the oppressive heat apparently taking its toll on reeds. Definitely the best of the day (so far). And do I need to mention flutes and clarinets again? No? Ok...

Another five minutes to vent some of the excess heat, then it's back for Kriss Russman to say a few words about, and then show, his 1991 Omnibus documentary about Malcolm Arnold. This is a terribly sad and moving look at a man in mental and physical decay ("Seventy is far too old. I didn't want to live to be seventy; I tried to kill myself several times") but it's also a damning examination of the "establishment", the BBC and the music critics, who declared Arnold to be too unfashionable and so denied his music to an entire generation, destroying his career (and possibly his mental health).

The film ends with the closing minutes of Arnold's 9th Symphony, unbearably bleak and depressing music. (Arnold said of it: "You hold the last chord for as long as you can, and at the end, if you've done it right, the audience shouldn't applaud." I think it was the last thing he wrote, and he was ready to die.) And then silence. And I just felt so terribly sad.

Finally, we're released from the dungeon to find that upstairs the foyer is filling with people who have come for the evening concert. The crowd is a curious mix of people in suits who have come to hear Malcolm Arnold and people in denim who have come to hear Jon Lord. (And at least one who has come to hear both and is wearing a Deep Purple t-shirt in spirit...)

Before the concert is a short (20-minute) talk with Jon Lord, I think only attended by people who had attended the all-day events. Jon is an engaging speaker as always, and though nothing he said was new to me it was new to the Malcolm Arnold Society and they all seemed suitably impressed.

And finally, the Gala Concert. An almost packed house that almost certainly didn't know what they were in for (one way or another...)

First is the UK premier of Jon Lord's M.A.s.q.u.e., a musical portrait of Malcolm Arnold, for string orchestra.

It's a beautiful piece and, maybe because Russman's film was still fresh in my mind, I found it very moving. The music contains many different moods and I could relate the different sections to the different facets of the subject.

It was interesting to find that there is a distinctive "Jon Lord" way of writing for strings, as there were several points where I found myself thinking, "that sounds like Jon Lord!"

M.A.s.q.u.e. lasts about 15 minutes in a single movement. The composer watches from a box and comes (runs!) on stage to take a bow when the conductor summons him. Then there is a short break while the rest of the RPO joins the strings on stage for Arnold's 6th Symphony.

The 6th is the perfect choice to accompany the Concerto for Group and Orchestra — it's energetic, dramatic, schizophrenic, and wears its jazz influences on its sleeve. There are better symphonies but none that would fit the evening so well, I think.

Paul Mann is an extremely energetic conductor, actually jumping bodily into the air as he exhorts the orchestra to even greater efforts. I confess that I don't know what makes a conductor good or bad, but he must have been doing something right as his version is far more exciting than those I'm used to. The percussion is deafening (well, I was only five rows back...), the brass full of drama, and the jazz tune really swings. And people who don't believe an orchestra can rock need to listen to the galloping finale of the 6th. And you have to hear it live, to hear how the rondo moves around the brass sections — you can't get that from a CD. Superb.

I was immensely satisfied.

A short interval for the hardened rock fans to grab an ice cream, and then Jon Lord's Concerto for Group and Orchestra. Soloists: Jon Lord (organ), Elliot Henshaw (percussion, a last-minute replacement for Miles Bould who is listed in the programme), Roger Glover (bass guitar), Chester Kamen (guitar) and Andy Cane (voice). Introduced by a few words from the composer to explain the thoughts behind the piece.

This is the fourth time I've seen the Concerto live, but the first time I've seen it without Deep Purple as the soloists. Would it stand as a piece of music without the magic of the greatest rock band in the world to prop it up?


This is my favourite piece of classical music. Not because of Deep Purple. Just because... it's so good. Take the band away and the orchestral tunes stand on their own as a tremendous piece of 20th-century English music. (Although the programme notes tell me that the introduction shows a Sibellian influence. It's a connection I had never consciously made, but I think it's no coincidence that the composer I love above all others is Jean Sibelius.)

And then you add a rock band. A Hammond organ — Jon Lord playing a Hammond organ — is the most beautiful sound I know and I'm reduced instantly to tears the moment it leads the band in to kick the orchestra aside. And in the slow movement, when the band and orchestra are meshing in harmony... there's a moment there where a simple organ tune is echoed by the flute... that's just one of the most perfect moments in the whole of music.

All of the soloists perform well. Chester Kamen (playing a Les Paul) plays the group parts as scored and then when it comes to his solos he improvises freely. And that's exactly how it should be played. And he's a very impressive player, technically excellent and with great feeling. The Les Paul sound also fits the Concerto really well (surprise!)

Elliot Henshaw is the star of the show. His final-movement cadenza is thunderous and incredibly fast. He really is phenomenal and his solo gets spontaneous applause — yes, I know you're not supposed to, but what can you do? I'm surprised the crowd stayed in its seats (I almost didn't).

Andy Cane sang well for his brief appearance in the second movement, emulating Ian Gillan's classic tone surprising closely. (I wonder what his screams are like?)

Roger Glover is... well, you all know what Roger Glover is. He's the best-sounding bass player in the world and is as solid as ever. And I think he had a new bandana for the occasion.

The sound in the hall was glorious, the balance between the band and orchestra perfect. They didn't over-amplify the band, so the orchestra's natural sound cut cleanly through when it needed to, and this had the consequence that the crashing parts really crashed, the drums were thunderous in the finale, and the energy topped even that of the 6th Symphony (and I think Paul Mann was on the verge of taking off completely at times). The whole thing sounded more smooth and clean and polished than any other version I've heard. And I've heard a lot of them...

And with a huge crash, the end. Standing ovations; bows; no encore. There was no encore that could follow that.

Best piece of music ever. Amazing orchestra and band. Perfect end to an excellent day.

Best concert I've ever seen.

I don't know how else to describe how good it was. The best compliment I can give anything is: as good as a Deep Purple concert.

That good.

[Back to Index page] Index