The Malcolm Arnold Festival

Derngate, Northampton

21–23 October 2011

I've just crossed out eight pages written in my hotel room over the weekend because it was all rubbish and didn't really describe the event at all. So this is version two.

Friday 21 October 2011 would have been Malcolm Arnold's 90th birthday, and festival organiser Paul Harris came up with the frankly bonkers idea of celebrating it by putting on all nine of Arnold's symphonies over a single weekend. Nine symphonies (plus some other stuff) by eight different orchestras and six different conductors all for the princely sum of £12. It sounds logistically insane on paper. In practice, it ran flawlessly and produced a unique musical experience for a few die-hard fans. "Few" being the operative word. Where was everybody?

Where were all the people who complain that British composers are under-represented in our concert halls? I've just spent a weekend listening to the music of Malcolm Arnold, Eric Coates, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Benjamin Britten, William Walton, John Ireland, Gilbert Vinter, Paul Harris, and Gordon Jacob. (Plus a couple of foreign chaps.) All for £12. Why wasn't the event sold out?

The audience looked lost in Northampton's cavernous Derngate auditorium on Friday night. No more than a third of the seats were full, I estimated (the figure I heard later was 400 people; seems about right, as the hall's nominal capacity is 1500), and the numbers for the daytime concerts on Saturday and Sunday seemed even lower. The only time the audience was anywhere near capacity was for Sunday night's "gala" concert. (Tickets for that were sold separately and cost twice as much as the rest of the weekend combined, but of course it had a pretty young soloist who's been on TV and had that nice piece by Tchaikovsky that everybody can hum. I despair.)

Enough despairing. Let's celebrate the music that the intrepid 400 experienced throughout the weekend.


Cambridgeshire Symphony Orchestra conducted by Steve Bingham, soloist Claudia Moore-Gillon.

Arnold: Symphony No. 1
Coates: Dambusters March
Vaughan Williams: The Lark Ascending
Arnold: Symphony No. 2

Obviously you're not going to get eight big-name orchestras for a £12 weekend ticket, something that led me to face these concerts with a bit of trepidation, as I don't have any experience with what "amateur" orchestras are actually like so didn't really know what to expect. The Cambridgeshire Symphony Orchestra is a very young orchestra, but they are superbly professional and I couldn't find a thing wrong with their performances of these symphonies (which I know pretty well). And in fact that was true of the whole weekend: every one of the youth or amateur orchestras performed superbly and I never once felt that I was getting anything "second rate". It's taught me a pleasant lesson about the huge amount of talent that exists outside the big name bands. The soloist was so young she couldn't have been out of school yet, but played beautifully.

The famous Coates and Vaughan Williams pieces seemed a bit obviously there to get bums on seats, but they did fit well within the programme. Putting the Dambusters March immediately following the fiercely anti-war Arnold's 1st symphony (the last movement is pure parody of a military march) completely changes the way you think about the piece.


Saturday's programme started early with an entertaining talk by John Amis (running over his allotted time as the audience begged him to carry on) and then a brief chamber concert:

Arnold: Oboe Sonatina
Arnold: Flute Sonatina
Arnold: Clarinet Sonatina

All chamber concerts throughout the festival were provided by various combinations of six musicians from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

The main concert of the morning was by the Slaithwaite Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Benjamin Ellin, soloist Philip Robertson:

Haydn: Trumpet Concerto in E flat
Arnold: Symphony No. 3

The Haydn... did exactly what Haydn does. I don't dislike it but find it hard to get excited by it. The Third Symphony is much more meaty and was superbly played.

After lunch, the University of London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Daniel Capps tackled:

Britten: Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes
Arnold: Symphony No. 4

This was a highlight of the festival, and not just because the symphony is one of my personal favourites, but because the orchestra's performance was out of this world. It got a hugely appreciative reception from the whole audience and was pretty unanimously declared the highlight (so far).

I almost felt sorry for the Northamptonshire County Youth Orchestra, conducted by Peter Dunkley, having to follow it:

Walton: Coronation March — Crown Imperial
Arnold: Symphony No. 5

I can't fault their performance, and conventional wisdom has it that Arnold's 5th is his best, but it was an uphill struggle for the young orchestra to meet the show-stealing standard set by the 4th.

The second chamber concert of the day was for some odd reason held in the Derngate's foyer, a space which is specifically designed to be unsuitable for such an activity. Oh well, the music was fine even if the location was stupid:

Arnold: Fantasy for Bassoon
Arnold: Fantasy for Clarinet
Arnold: Fantasy for Horn
Arnold: Fantasy for Flute
Arnold: Fantasy for Oboe

The next chamber concert was back in the more appropriate (though a bit hot and airless) recital room:

Arnold: Fantasy for Flute and Clarinet
Arnold: Three Pieces for Piano
Ireland: Fantasy Sonata for Clarinet and Piano

The Ealing Symphony Orchestra, conducted by John Gibbons, approached the Saturday evening programme in exactly the right spirit to make it one of the most entertaining (if not musically perfect) concerts I have ever been to:

Saint-Saëns: The Carnival of the Animals
Arnold: Carnival of Animals
Arnold: Grand Concerto Gastronomique for Eater, Waiter, Food, and Orchestra
Arnold: Symphony No. 6

The movements of Carnival of the Animals were introduced by Ogden Nash's poems, which I've never actually heard before but are quite amusing. Arnold's additional animals had new poems specially commissioned for the festival from a local school. The children's poems were perhaps not quite as polished as Nash's, but they were still clever and suitably funny.

Arnold's Concerto for Eater, Waiter, Food, and Orchestra is... exactly what it says it is. The "Eater" (a very large gentleman) has to consume a six-course meal in time with the six movements. It's all played up very farcically, and very silly, especially when the orchestra join in (the conductor is served coffee, while the leader pours wine and passes it round the violins, all without missing a beat). Eater and Waitress (and conductor) ham it up tremendously, and though it sounds stupid when you read about it you can't help laughing at it when you're there.

But the interesting revelation is that behind all the shenanigans is a beautiful piece of music, a fine example of the big tuneful pieces that Arnold is well known for.

And, you know, the festival needed something light-hearted at this stage. Arnold is probably best known as a writer of fairly light music with big tunes, but I find his symphonies altogether more dark and disturbing than his reputation would suggest. His slow movements especially always sound bleak and tortured.

So at this half-way point I'm feeling emotionally battered, and the light-hearted evening programme has been a welcome relief. The evening ends with the sixth symphony, perhaps my favourite, and despite the gallows march in the slow movement it ends on a big, triumphant fanfare.

Six down, three to go.


Arnold: Symphony No. 7
Shostakovich: Festival Overture
Arnold: Symphony No. 8

Andrew Penny conducts the Hull Philharmonic Orchestra in the 7th and the East Riding Youth Orchestra in the 8th. Nestled between these two is the short Festival Overture—played by the combined forces of both orchestras! It's a very impressive sound.

Especially impressive is how well the young people of the East Riding orchestra handle the bleak 8th symphony. It seems like a very difficult piece to tackle. Or maybe I'm wrong, maybe it's actually easier to play than it is to listen to (Penny says in his afternoon talk, "we could hear you concentrating"!)

The musical content of the afternoon programme is light. Andrew Penny gives a very interesting talk on conducting his Naxos cycle of Arnold's symphonies. Local radio presenter John Griff gave a talk on the historical events of the year of each symphony's composition—the subject was well presented but a bit unnecessary I thought. The only afternoon music was the final chamber concert of the festival:

Arnold: Wind Quintet
Vinter: Hunter's Moon for Horn and Piano
Harris: Sonatina for Piano
Jacob: Partita for Bassoon
Arnold: three Shanties for Wind Quintet

Finally, after a break for dinner, the "gala" concert:

The Malcolm Arnold Festival Orchestra conducted by John Gibbons, soloists Nicola Benedetti and Leonard Elschenbroich

Arnold: Symphony No. 9
Brahms: Concerto for Violin and Cello
Tchaikovsky: Fantasy Overture Romeo and Juliet

No, I didn't write that backwards. The programme was deliberately inverted, apparently following a comment by Malcolm Arnold that he thought concerts would be more interesting that way!

I am not convinced.

It somehow seems that if you're doing a festival devoted to all nine symphonies, you really need to end proceedings with the 9th, not with a bit of Tchaikovsky.


So. The 9th. A lot of people say it's a poor work and shouldn't have been written, that it shows a man whose talent has completely disintegrated. At least two distinguished speakers this weekend have specifically said that the festival should have stopped at the 8th.

And yet...

I have never been left so emotionally devastated by a piece of music. At the end, I couldn't even clap. I was just... numb. I had to go and walk round outside during the interval because people were trying to talk to me and... I couldn't talk.

I expect music to affect me emotionally. If a concert doesn't make me cry, I think something's wrong. But I've never felt like this before. In isolation, I don't know if it would have had the same impact. But as the culmination of the intense weekend, following the journey through Arnold's life in his symphonies, to be hit with this... this... was just indescribable. I don't think any other experience could match this.

And yes you can see its flaws and yes you can see that it lacks the skill and flair of his earlier work. But I don't believe this was written by a broken man who was no longer mentally capable of composing. I think this was written by a man who knew exactly what he wanted to say and exactly how he wanted to say it.

And at the end, the only important thing is, did it affect me?

Yes it did.

And then there was some Brahms and Tchaikovsky and that was the end.

(Actually, I'm being unfair. The Brahms is a tremendous piece of music (one I haven't heard before) and both soloists were superb in it. The Tchaikovsky is a nice one to hum along to... to be honest it was good to have these pieces at the end of the concert, as it definitely released the tension that the 9th otherwise leaves you with.)

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