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The Fourth Malcolm Arnold Festival Artistic Director: Paul Harris

With the glorious sound of Malcolm Arnold’s Four Fanfares for brass played by members of the Northamptonshire County Youth Orchestra, the start of the fourth Malcolm Arnold Festival was heralded in true style at Northampton’s Royal & Derngate theatre, on October 24th. In the presence of music lovers from throughout the UK and abroad, the eminent composer and pianist John McCabe CBE was then invited by Paul Harris to officially launch this year’s exciting programme of events, including concerts, films and talks.

The first concert to take place was a special recital entitled “Portraits”, given by five brilliant young musicians from the Purcell School. Throughout his life Malcolm Arnold wrote solo pieces for specific players – more often than not, his close friends who happened to be leading soloists of the day. The pianist Debbie Shan was joined by Emma Halnan (Sonatina for Flute, 1948), Jordan Black (Sonatina for Clarinet, 1951 & Scherzetto for Clarinet and Piano), Hannah Morgan (Sonatina for Oboe, 1951) and Philippa Ovenden (Sonatina for Recorder, 1953) – and by way of introduction, a short “portrait” in pictures and words, was presented by Paul Harris on the original dedicatees for each of these solo pieces.

The afternoon programme began at 2pm with John McCabe, Timothy Bowers and Fraser Trainer – distinguished composers all  – who were called upon to judge the first ever Malcolm Arnold Composition Prize. Earlier in the year, young composers from across the UK had been invited to write a short work based on one of Sir Malcolm Arnold’s own themes. There were two categories of entry and two prizes available  – the “Peterloo Prize” for young composers still at school, and the “Beckus Prize” for older students currently studying at College or University. The winners were Sarah Gauit (‘Peterloo Prize’) for ‘This Night, so tranquil now will not go hence unroused by winds’ for 2 violins, cello and marimba, and the ‘Beckus’ Prize went jointly to Toby Young (‘Divertimento’ for wind quartet) and Jude Carlton (Annexing Arnold’ for piano) This competition was especially interesting as each of the young composers involved - Sara Gait, Clara Catt, Joshua Herring, Toby Young, Rachel Coombes, Jude Carlton and Timothy Coombes – took part in performances of their own composition entries for the assembled audience, and the three judges.

In his mid-afternoon talk ‘Working with Malcolm Arnold – the Faber years’ Martin Kingsbury explored the period in which he played a significant role in the composer’s working life, as his publisher from 1965 until 1985. These were undoubtedly vintage Arnold years, in which many of his most powerful works were written, including the Concerto for two Violins and String Orchestra’, Symphonies 6,7 & 8, the ‘Four Cornish Dances’, the balletsRinaldo & Armidaand ‘Sweeney Todd’,and the orchestral overture ‘Peterloo’. As an experienced string player and former Editor, Managing Director and Vice-Chairman of Faber Music, Martin’s observations and memories of Malcolm Arnold during this time were insightful and fascinating.

Malcolm Arnold’s chamber music for strings was then given centre stage in an inspiring concert given by Anna Harpham (violin), Katherine Denton (cello) and Sophie Warwick (piano). Their programme included the Piano Trio’ op 54, Five Pieces for Violin & Piano’ Op 84, Fantasy for Cello’ Op 130 and the Hobson’s Choice Trio’.

The splendour of St Matthew’s Church – one of Northampton’s long admired architectural treasures  – provided the venue for Saturday night’s choral concert given by the Elysian Singers, under their conductor Sam Laughton.  The programme featured works by the Festival’s special guest John McCabe – including the UK premiere of his anthem Amen/Allelulia’ - and a rare performance of Malcolm Arnold’s nativity masque Song of Simeon’(1959). Scored for soloists, mixed chorus and ensemble, Malcolm Arnold brings together in this piece a wide range of choral styles brilliantly and cohesively, including traditional chorales and even one or two theatrically fun “numbers”, evoking the spirit of Gilbert & Sullivan! It is a plum pudding of a Christmas piece, which manages also to be fresh, witty and entirely contemporary. Special thanks are due to Sam Laughton and the Elysian Singers for their wonderful performance - and, of course, to Paul Harris, Artistic Director of the Malcolm Arnold Festival for programming this little known gem!

Sunday’s schedule of events at the Royal & Derngate began with a screening of the 1968 BBC Omnibus Programme: “A Portrait of Malcolm Arnold”. At noon, the Northamptonshire County Youth Orchestra and Brass Band demonstrated, once again, why they must surely be regarded as one of the best youth orchestras in the country! In the main auditorium of the Royal & Derngate they gave truly outstanding performances of Divertimento No 2’, ‘Four Scottish Dances’, and theFantasy for Brass Band’, and ‘March: The Padstow Lifeboat’ conducted by Peter Dunkley, Tim Green and Bradley Turnbull respectively.

Later, the brass theme was carried over into the main foyer of the Royal & Derngate, with a concert given by the Ipswich and Norwich Co-op Band, under their conductor Robin Norman. Their highly professional and polished performances of Fanfare for a Festival’, ‘Four Cornish Dances’, ‘Hobson’s for Brass’, ‘Attleborough Suite’, and  ‘March from River Kwai’ filled the open spaces of the building to thrilling effect! Their concert finished with a performance of the Grand, Grand Overture (arr. brass) with four special guest soloists playing the all important vacuum cleaners: Piers Burton-Page, Adrian Harris, Keith Llewellyn and Martin Sutherland.

Jill Kemp and the Arran Quartet then performed Malcolm Arnold’s music for recorder in the recital hall “Underground One” – including the Solitaire for recorder and strings’, ‘Concertino for Recorder and Strings’,Fantasy for Solo Recorder’ and ‘Fantasy for Recorder and String Quartet’. Too often dismissed merely as a musical instrument for use in schools, Jill Kemp clearly showed in her performance that the recorder is as eloquent and profoundly musical instrument as any of the standard orchestral wind family. Something that Malcolm Arnold himself was keenly aware of, when he originally composed these works for the great Danish recorder soloist Michala Petri.

In the late afternoon recital given by John McCabe, the programme was made up of piano works composed over the past 60 years. A heady mix of pieces from John’s own extensive catalogue  – including Afternoons & Afterwards’ (2001), the Piano Variations’ (1963), Snowfall in Winter’ (2003) and Tunstall Chimes’  – and Malcolm Arnold’s Children’s Suite’ (1947), Variations on a Ukrainian Folk-Song’ (1944) and, in an especially stunning performance, an arrangement of the ballet suite Homage to the Queen’ (1953).  As the Malcolm Arnold Festival’s special guest this year, John McCabe contribution to its success– in his role as both composer and performer – was deeply appreciated by audiences throughout the weekend.

The Sunday evening gala concert, held in the main auditorium at the Royal & Derngate, was given by the Arnold Festival Orchestra, conducted by John Gibbons. The first half of the programme included Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto with the brilliant Russian soloist Boris Brovtsyn, and Arnold’s A Flourish for Orchestra’ and Carnival of Animals’. The Festival was brought to a magnificent close with Sir Malcolm's 4th Symphony’, in a performance as revealing as it was inspiring. John Gibbons and his orchestra touched upon all the intrinsic energy, colour, sweetness and anger to be found in this work, and delivered their performance with total commitment and superb musicianship.

 

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