Malcolm Arnold Festival

Royal & Derngate, Northampton

18–19 October 2008


And here's a roving report from our man-on-the-spot...

Although I've been trying to hear more of Arnold's chamber music recently, I still mainly know him (as probably most people do) as a composer of symphonies and film music. So the vast majority of today's chamber music has been new to me — and very good it is too!

The day started with an unveiling of a bust of the composer, accompanied by the first music of the festival — the Fanfare for Louis, played by two trumpeters (trumpetists? trumpists?) who looked like they weren't even out of school yet! This was also the opportunity to sample the free coffee and biscuits and re-acquaint with old, er, acquaintances. I recognised (and was recognised by) a few people I had spoken to at last year's festival, although none of us could remember each others' names!

The first full concert was an hour of early chamber music:

Trio for Flute, Viola and Bassoon (1943)
Three Piano Pieces (1943)
Duo for Flute and Viola (1945)
Prelude for Piano (1945)
Quintet for Flute, Violin, Viola, Horn and Bassoon (1944)

This last piece was an odd grouping — even with a ginormous mute in, the horn was overpowering much of the other instrumentation. But that's the only quibble with what was an excellent programme.

Bear in mind that the ticket for the full weekend was only £12 and I've already heard six pieces of music, plus free coffee and biscuits — I could go home now and feel like I've had my money's worth!

But then it's time for lunch, and already the organisation seems better than last year because nothing has over-run and there really is a full hour, plenty of time to go out into town and find food.

The afternoon started with a talk by composer Philip Wood, who studied with Arnold in his last years, and the subject is (not surprisingly) Arnold's late music. Wood was an entertaining speaker and I found his insights into Arnold's [post-breakdown-]character, and how it influenced his late music, absolutely fascinating. He used three musicians to illustrate his points by playing two late works: a solo piano piece and a duo for two clarinets. Very beautiful music, but beautiful in a bleak, depressing sort of way. Not the sort of music you should listen to in a darkened room. (Think of his 9th symphony...)

Hmmm, still two recitals to describe and I've run out of time because I have to leave for the evening performance. More later...........

Aha! I'm back (as long as the hotel's erratic Wi-Fi holds out) with more musings on why everybody within commuting distance of Northampton (that's got to be a lot of people: Birmingham is only an hour on the train and London can't be much more the other way) isn't here for this weekend.

Next event: the world's second (probably) performance of Arnold's one-act opera The Open Window, commissioned by the BBC in 1956. (Can anybody imagine the BBC commissioning an opera these days? No, thought not.)

I approached this with trepidation, as I'm not really an opera fan, but it was really good fun. Probably the highlight of the day. Typically, if Malcolm Arnold was going to write an opera it was going to be a comedy. And it was genuinely funny: the libretto very clever, and Arnold's music a masterpiece of what I can only call "comic timing" — sudden pauses between dead-pan punch lines, that sort of thing. One section, where the hapless male lead is reciting his catalogue of ailments, is virtually a swipe from Gilbert and Sullivan.

The staging was interesting. The cast were in costume, and acted and used props, but also sang large chunks from music stands in the centre of the stage. (When I say "stage", I must point out that this was in a small room, comfortably sized for the audience of 50-100, and there was no raised stage nor orchestra pit so the audience were virtually on top of the actors.) The bulk of the opera is carried by two actors, the other four roles being very minor (one doubles as page-turner for the pianist after her brief opening scene!). Young (I'm not sure how young, but seemed very young) soprano Charmian Bedford was absolutely outstanding. Tenor Simon Iorio has a good voice but not powerful — at times he was swamped by the piano — but he gets top marks for his marvellous comic acting throughout.

Well, I never expected to write so much about an opera...

Finishing the afternoon's music were Arnold's two flute sonatas and two violin sonatas. Did I ever mention how much I love violins and flutes? These four pieces are exceptional, superbly performed by the young soloists, and would have been the highlight of the day if the opera hadn't already been so good...

Finally, after the dinner break, it was a change of venue to St. Matthew's Church on the other side of town for a concert of Arnold's complete choral music. And I can't think of much to say about it, except that it was just as enjoyable as the rest of the day, and far better than I was hoping for.

And that's it so far. In a few minutes I shall be leaving for the events of the festival's second day...


The second day was a bit of a mixed bag, not as consistently compelling as Saturday, but the highs being very, very high indeed.

The first item was a recording of Arnold's appearance on Desert Island Discs in 1986. Fun, but not essential listening.

Then a leisurely stroll upstairs to the main auditorium for a lunchtime concert by the Northampton County [youth] Orchestra and Northampton County [youth] Wind Band. The wind band started, with The Duke of Cambridge march (interesting but not a Great Work), The Sound Barrier concert suite (I don't find it works too well as a concert suite, though the orchestration of three piccolos can slice the top of your head off at twenty paces — worth hearing just for that), and Peterloo. Peterloo is one of Arnold's truly outstanding works, in my humble opinion. It's the most understandable programmatic music I know... you can understand what everything represents, and it's a profoundly emotional piece. And hearing it today, I finally understood its seemingly out-of-place happy ending: not "happy", it's "hopeful".

After a stage rearrangement, the County orchestra played Tam O'Shanter, which is wonderful of course. (I don't know how hard it is to play, but it always seems like it should be hard, with the music always threatening to fall apart, and the young orchestra handled it perfectly.) Then the English Dances, perhaps the most perfect English music... certainly Vaughan Williams never wrote anything so lyrically beautiful.

Both young orchestras played admirably. And as somebody pointed out afterwards, this is only five weeks into the new school year... the orchestras are five weeks old and already playing like professionals!

After lunch was a discussion of one of Arnold's film scores. I didn't think this segment worked terribly well... there is only so much to say about a single score, and the presentation seemed unsure whether it was looking at the film as a film, or simply at the music.

Anyway, on to the next musical performance — the complete music for guitar, by Milos Karadaglic and members of the Royal Academy of Music Orchestra. For some reason, the audience tripled in size for this performance. I'm not sure why so many extra people turned up... or rather, why they only turned up for this part.

So, I was especially looking forward to this. I love guitar music (probably not a great surprise), and of course I have recordings of Julian Bream playing Arnold's music. Well, Julian Bream was along as guest of honour, which was a nice touch. He started proceedings with a very amusing speech. Then, after his speech, he sat down in the soloist's chair and picked up a guitar. Hello, I thought, the poor chap's got a bit confused...

No... he really was playing the first item, Serenade for Guitar and Strings, having requested that he may be allowed to play it one more time!

I've seen Julian Bream playing live. Playing Malcolm Arnold. Julian Bream!

It was quite amazing. I actually had a lump in my throat.

Something I thought I would never see.

Worth the trip just for that!

The "real" soloist then completed the concert, which was Fantasy for Guitar, Fantasy for Flute and Guitar, and of course the incredible Guitar Concerto.

The final event was a talk about the nine symphonies, by Andrew Penny. This was fascinating, illustrated by excepts from Penny's recordings and slides of the score — and so clearly explained by Penny that even with no knowledge of music I could understand everything he was showing us. So this turned into a surprise highlight of the day and a fine way to end the festival.

An exceptional weekend, worth the distance and the expense. Every performer (and most of them were very young) played superbly, and the organisation of the whole package was first class.

And the weekend wasn't over, because I still had the evening concert in the main auditorium...... but that wasn't a part of the festival, so I will stop waffling here.

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