A Memorable Celebration of Sir Malcolm Arnold’s Ninetieth Anniversary in Northampton

United KingdomUnited Kingdom The Sixth Annual Malcolm Arnold Festival, The Royal & Derngate, Northampton, 21- 23 October 2011 (LM)

Performing Orchestras

Cambridgeshire Symphony Orchestra conducted by Steve Bingham: Symphonies 1 and 2
Slaithwaite Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Benjamin Ellin: Symphony 3
University of London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Daniel Capps: Symphony 4
Northamptonshire County Youth Orchestra conducted by Peter Dunkley / Tim Green: Symphony 5
Ealing Symphony Orchestra conducted by John Gibbons: Symphony 6
Hull Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Andrew Penny: Symphony 7
East Riding Youth Orchestra conducted by Andrew Penny: Symphony 8
Gala Concert with the Malcolm Arnold Festival Orchestra conducted by John Gibbons. Symphony 9

This was a really ambitious event to celebrate what would have been Sir Malcolm Arnold’s 90th birthday (b 21 October 1921). All nine symphonies were performed by seven different orchestras.

The whole event was masterminded by the Festival Director Paul Harris (left) who had to book not just the orchestras and conductors but also a number of celebrity speakers, soloists and chamber music players and it does him great credit that the entire weekend ran without a hitch. Arnold’s scores make great use of a number of unusual instruments all of which needed arranging. There was something uplifting in seeing a young lady percussionist beating the life out of a cowbell! – a symbol of hope arising out of tribulation and despair according to Arnold commentators.

I had never been to the Derngate auditorium or even to Northampton before (Arnold was born in Northampton as were Alwyn and Rubbra). The first thing to say is that it is totally straightforward to get there, with ample car parking following an enlightened policy. It cost me £1 to park on the Friday, £7 for all day and evening Saturday and FREE on Sunday. The Festival itself was also extraordinarily cheap. A day visitor could pop in on the Saturday for £5 and would hear four symphonies and numerous other works. The Derngate itself was modern, having recently received a £15 million redevelopment incorporating a concert hall and theatre and in the ‘underground’ numerous recital and practice rooms. Snacks and drinks were available all day and there were various restaurants close by. The Festival publicity quotes the Daily Telegraph ‘I can think of few arts complexes that induce such a rush of excitement on arrival’. Northampton is certainly a place I will visit again.

I did not attend everything. There was a Friday afternoon session for members of the Malcolm Arnold Society in the adjacent Guildhall that I did not get to. Neither did I attend the closing celebrity concert on the Sunday evening that featured the 9th symphony together with Nicola Benedetti and Leonard Elschenbroich performing the Brahms Double Concerto.

The festival was launched on Friday evening by Robert Hardy who went to school with Arnold. Arnold was the bedroom monitor ‘charged with keeping order’, Hardy said with a chuckle. Arnold may not have instigated the pillow fights but he certainly joined in! Piers Burton Page gave an introduction to the first two symphonies with illustrative extracts from the orchestra. Unfortunately this idea was not followed up in any of the later concerts.Piers enacted an amusing account of Arnold receiving a phone call from Charles Groves who wanted to commission a symphony for the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. He asked Arnold if it would be like the first symphony to be told that Arnold never repeated himself! The Cambridgeshire Symphony Orchestra then played Arnold’s First Symphony which has an arresting opening that sets the tone for all the symphonies that follow. The first half was concluded by the Dambusters March. We then heard the 16-year old Claudia Moore-Gillon in Vaughan Williams The Lark Ascending. This was followed by the Second Symphony.

Saturday morning I missed, but it started with John Amis launching two new books prepared in time for the Festival: Composers on the 9 which contains commentaries from 10 contemporary composers on the Arnold nine, and Malcolm Arnold in Words edited by Paul Harris (£14.95 Available here). This was followed by a chamber concert given by members of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (RCS) ensemble which included the Oboe Sonata, Flute Sonatina and Clarinet Sonatina (Sarah Hayes – flute, Kenny Sturgeon – oboe, Fraser Langton-clarinet, Fraser Gordon-bassoon, Christine Smith – French horn, Scott Mitchel – piano).

I arrived in time for the main concert with the Slaithwaite (pr, Sloughwet) Philharmonic Orchestra. The concert was introduced by Kit Williams, Director of the National Youth Wind Orchestra, who knew Arnold as both she and Arnold had studied trumpet with Ernest Hall. The concert opened with Philip Robertson playing the Haydn Trumpet concerto followed by the Arnold Third Symphony. We learned that during the time it took to complete this symphony Arnold wrote 25 Film scores and other concert works. This was too much and was the beginning of his mental problems exacerbated by the death of his mother. For the first two movements it is a dark despairing symphony.

After lunch Colin Bradbury, former principal clarinet with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, recalled the fun side of Arnold, such as seeing him being pushed around in a wheelbarrow at a birthday party. Because of some delay we were only able to hear ‘Storm’ from Britten’s Peter Grimes Sea Interludes instead of all four of them. The University of London Symphony Orchestra then launched straight into Symphony number 4.Arnold had been shocked by the Notting Hill race riots in 1958 and this symphony is an affirmation that it is possible for two races to live together in harmony. He makes use of Caribbean and West Indian instruments. At this time Arnold was also heavily involved with the Hoffnung Festivals and I noticed that Annetta Hoffnung is one of the Patrons of the Arnold Festival. Ben Hoffnung was initially listed on the website as a speaker but work overseas rendered him unavailable.

There was an afternoon chamber concert of five Fantasies held in the walkway overlooked by a bust of Sir Malcolm.

John Kehoe introduced the home team, Northamptonshire County Youth Orchestra, with by far the youngest participants in the Festival, and the Fifth Symphony. Kehoe was the founder of Conifer Records and knew he did not want to record yet another Four Seasons so looked around for works that had not been recorded and invited Vernon Handley to set down the complete Arnold symphony cycle. In total he recorded 30 Arnold works. Decca re-released all these in 2006 for Arnold’s 85th anniversary but Sir Malcolm died just one month earlier and I notice these recordings have since been withdrawn. Kehoe said it was a pleasure to work with Arnold who was always meticulous in score preparation leading to quick, efficient recording sessions. He contrasted this with Oscar-winning Dimitri Tiomkin who was never satisfied with the orchestra, firing a few and sending others to the back and fiddling around with the scores, virtually rescoring on the hoof and getting very little laid down in the allotted session time. After Walton’s Crown Imperial we heard the Fifth Symphony. This is possibly the most popular among Arnold’s symphonies with a typical sumptuous slow movement, apparently inspired by Annetta Hoffnung. Following research by Paul Jackson we now know that the whole symphony is littered with ciphers of various friends. The symphony fades away over a long held note in the cellos and basses.

There followed another chamber concert in the ‘Underground’ given by members of the RCS ensemble. They played Fantasy for Flute and Clarinet, Three Pieces for Piano and John Ireland’s Fantasy Sonata for clarinet and piano.

The Ealing Symphony Orchestra entertained us for the evening. The introductory talk was to have been by Jon Lord but he was too ill to attend. This was the fun concert that started with Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals given with the introductory poems by Ogden Nash. This was followed by Malcolm Arnold’s Carnival of the other animals. This depicted giraffe, sheep, cows, mice, and ‘Jumbo and Chiroptera’ (bats), where the violinists mimic the speed and energy of bat wings without actually touching the strings. Where possible Ogden Nash poems were used – ‘The cow is of bovine ilk, one end Moo, the other milk’ – but members of the newly created Malcolm Arnold Academy had also been invited to contribute some verses. John Gibbons was the conductor; he also doubled as the second pianist and as the celeste player. The hall had been very warm so the doors had been left open, which created a draught that kept flicking over the pages of the score. So, in very fast passage work, he also had constantly to find the correct page. It was quite a virtuoso performance.

There followed a virtuoso performance of another ‘course’. For the 1961 Hoffnung Astronautical Music Festival Arnold composed Grand Concerto Gastronomique for Eater, Waiter, Food and Orchestra. It had not been performed since. John Gibbon said we all had to hope for the best as it was not possible to rehearse the work as the eater could never manage two meals in such a short time! The eater was Richard Brooman, with a body girth that resembled that of Gerard Hoffnung, and the waitress was Martha Shrimpton. During the music the eater eats a full meal, timing each course to the music starting with oysters, and then soup carried in by a trembling waitress slopping it out of the dish and onto the floor. While imbibing heavily and ogling the waitress, the main course of roast beef was taken. When the waitress returns with the Peach Melba the eater is now openly peering down her cleavage and by coffee she is sitting on his knee. A cheese trolley is wheeled on bearing a huge chunk of cheese which explodes as she tries to slice it. Make of that what you will! By now members of the orchestra are passing round glasses of wine and a platter of cheese and grapes. The conductor has his own table with a cup of coffee. At the end of the meal the eater leaves but infuriates the waitress by not leaving a tip. This work had disappeared without trace. It is not even mentioned in Annetta’s biography of Gerard Hoffnung.

After the interval we heard the Sixth Symphony, which was written after Malcolm Arnold had left London to live in Cornwall. The Sixth is the shortest of the symphonies ( around 25 minutes) The first movement was headed First movement – the Bird. Free improvisation!! This is a reference to the Jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker who Arnold admired. The second and third refer to Berlioz’s Grande Symphonie funèbre et triomphale

As we entered the hall on Sunday morning the Hull  Philharmonic orchestra were on the stage and sitting in the left stalls were members of the East Riding Youth orchestra (all perfectly behaved). Timothy Bowers made the introductions and said they had been travelling since 3am! Timothy Bowers has provided a long analysis of the symphonies in the book Composers of the 9.  It is a very personal symphony with the three movements being portraits of his children, Katherine (who I had the pleasure of meeting) Robert and Edward. The programme notes say that the first movement was written in Ischia and benefits from Italian Sunshine.  I cannot hear that at all and agree with Anthony Meredith and Paul Harris in Malcolm Arnold: Rogue Genius that the symphony is full of despair, conflict, violence and frustration. Although I know the symphony well I was in a state of shock after the first movement with tears in my eyes, and , I noticed, also in those of the person sitting in front of me. It was one of the most overwhelming experiences I have ever had in a concert hall. I rank this symphony alongside the Shostakovich Fourth.

Members of the East Riding Youth Orchestra then joined the Hull Philharmonic to produce a massive orchestra for Shostakovich’s Festival Overture. I quite see the point of programming Shostakovich just after the Arnold but I would not have chosen this particular piece.Many of the Hull orchestra then slipped away, leaving behind a few key percussionists and others for a performance of the Eighth Symphony. In the period between the composition of this and the Seventh symphonies Arnold had twice attempted suicide and was hospitalised. It was a commission from the Rustam K Kermani Foundation for the Albany Symphony Orchestra for an eighth symphony which helped to lift him out of his depression and to get his life together again. I wondered how I would find this symphony after the Seventh but they are not dissimilar. There is the same despair and an anguished andantino of a broken heart.

What do some of these very young players make of music like this? I gained some insight when I met a young lady carrying a cello and asked her which symphony she was playing. She said she had no idea! I have not commented on the performances by each of these orchestras. They are not professionals and I think should not be scored one against the other. However at least three of the orchestras were fully up to professional standards and never in any of the performances did I find I was making any allowances. This, I am sure, was due to the standard of the training and conducting. No professional showmanship here. Each conductor was solely concerned with guiding the players through these difficult works with as clear a direction as possible. It is wonderful that our local councils actively support these amateur activities. The benefits are clear to all. I ended my visit with great respect for the amateur musicians in this country and an even greater respect for the Arnold symphonies. I should also add that the various introductions were both illuminating and amusing and added to the enjoyment of the Festival.

However, what of the future? With national austerity measures causing Arts budgets to be cut by up to 30% will councils still be able to support these orchestras and explain that to Council Tax payers who may be more concerned with policing and rubbish collection.?

Ignoring the clouds that may be gathering I offer my congratulations to everyone concerned.

Len Mullenger

Founder of musicweb-international.com