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REVIEW BY Richard Amey
Nik Rimsky-Korsakov, Dance of The Tumblers (from The Snow Maiden); Fred Delius, Sleigh Ride; Emil Waldteufel, Skaters Waltz; Howard Blake, The Snowman, concert version; Pete Tchaikovsky, Waltz (from Swan Lake); Leroy Anderson, Sleigh Ride; Johnny Sibelius, March (from Karelia Suite); Howard Blake, Piano Concerto Op412.
It was as though Sergei Prokofiev had been right there, narrating his own Peter And The Wolf with Worthing Symphony Orchestra. To audience surprise, Howard Blake was doing the same in The Snowman – a children’s composition of parallel universal success composed by he, an ex-Brighton & Hove Grammar School boy, and with some primary and secondary classmates in the audience.
Unbilled except last-minute on social media, Blake told me he was narrating a Snowman concert performance for the first time in five years. He was standing in for also-unpublicised actor Bernard Cribbins OBE, whose wife was unwell. Wombles voice-over Cribbins reached 91 in December. A month earlier, Blake OBE made it to 81, although he scarcely moves or looks older than 70. That’s the therapy of music for you.
Blake’s own ‘local lad makes good’ story happened 40 years ago when his idea of a TV cartoon outlawing dialogue struck gold. Instead, it’s musically with descriptive richness and synchronised with the precision of a Tchaikovsky-Petipa ballet, and delivering a hit song that seasonally sits alongside Irving Berlin’s White Christmas.
The familiar I’m Walking In The Air – the only words heard in the cartoon film – is sung by the Boy when the Snowman he has built suddenly lifts him up into flight, out over Brighton and up to the North Pole for a knees-up at a snowmen’s party visited by Father Christmas. A thaw-surviving scarf from that is living proof it happened for real, trumping at Christmas the Nutcracker Doll that can only underline a dream.
Now it was happening right here, without the images but with author Raymond Briggs’ dialogue pointed up by Blake’s music. A different and rewarding audience experience this way round. And a master class in light film music orchestration . . .
Sleep? Harp or strings. Fun building a snowman? Fairy harp and chirpy flute. Snowman greets his young creator? Cheery piccolo. Atmosphere around the boy’s house? Sober, nostalgic oboe. Terrified fleeing cat? Screeching strings. Snowman curious about human life? Cheeky bassoon or avuncular horn.
Perilous sources of heat? Cymbals! (Furtive footsteps? Xylophone) Music box? Glittery harp, piano, flute, piccolo. Motor-bike escapade? Tearing orchestra with xylophone saddled on top! The Celidh of the Father Christmases? Celtic pub dance tunes on flutes, piccolo, xylophone, muted trumpet.
And binding much together, the piano – setting new scenes, initiating rhythm and texture, creating mystery, punctuating or decorating percussively, bringing sentiment and affection, opening the mood and flow of I’m Walking In The Air for vocalist Victoria Ridgway – from Crawley, invited from the West Sussex Youth Choir.
The 17-year-old was singing it publicly for the first time and her nerves in the opening verse counted in her artistic favour. Initially frayed-edged in childlike wonder and fear (“What? My snowman’s really a bird?”), her voice gained in confidence (“He’s not going to drop me now – I’m flying too!”) arriving at a purity (“This is the best adventure I’ve EVER had”).
Incidentally, the washes of cymbals evoked for me the Cornish beach hut where Blake, years before, first thought of this tune. Blake’s is an unfamiliar face to most. His narration was thus like listening to a story a nice granddad at a small (under-control) children’s birthday party up the road. Throughout The Snowman, I sensed the audience’s adults captured by their own fascination and progressively moved. The final ovation’s vocal element was heartfelt.
Blake brought also his own Piano Concerto and soloist, the 21-year-old Paris-trained Briton, Julian Trevelyan. It’s rarely played, despite its distinctive, pleasing and constantly entertaining vigour and melodic content, easy form and good humour, since its commission for Princess Diana’s 30th birthday 29 years ago. Blake performed it for her at the Royal Festival Hall. Surely, her death is not the reason for its back seat in Blake’s output? “Yes, it is a portrait of her,” he replied. “There’s her warmth and sense of fun.”
After a shyly radiant opening musical vision, it garrulously flecks in syncopations and cross-rhythms of popular musical styles – though less prominently than in for example Ravel’s two-handed Concerto. Imagine a lively garden party, getting going. But in the jubilant, cosmopolitan finale of theme and variations they shine brightly and integral to the effervescence which, at the end, unexpectedly but poetically leaves us with a bookending repeat of that halting opening camera shot.
There are one or two royal sweeps of cinematic strings and French Horn grandeur, and the tenor trombone pair join in the contrapuntal fun.
The middle movement, far less loquacious, paints its own intimate photo or character album.
It began and ended with just piano plus the leaders of the three violin and viola section leaders, whom at rehearsal Blake persuaded Gibbons and the players themselves that they should stand to play. The effect in performance was of something original being done spontaneously as an apt focus on music speaking of loving homage and respect. A remarkable concert moment and result.
Trevelyan was bristlingly alive, alert and responsive to the Concerto’s solo demands and range, and evidently attuned with a composer whose birthday precedes his by a day. It was Trevelyan’s second performance of a piece composed for Russian prodigy Evgeny Kissin – who reportedly backed out of the premier, finding it too demanding to prepare in apparently ample time. It took Blake three months to prepare in Kissin’s place because Blake had abandoned concert piano performing.
But it took Trevelyan just a month before his December debut in it. “It’s challenging with its use of non-classical rhythms being put in a classical context,” he told me. “The trick is to let it sing, and to make an interpretation without destroying its simplicity.”
This climaxed and closed the concert, and won another enthusiastic reception. Trevelyan brought Blake on stage for a hug and then won over the audience without him in Chopin’s Mazurka No 2 in D major of Opus 33 as an encore.
What of the rest of the programme? Far from makeweights or fillers, they were Gibbons with reindeer bells setting a winter’s scene around a snowman. Rimsky’s bounding dance of the Russian street performers laid out cold any preference for a conventional overture. Delius’ Sleigh Ride and wander off on foot around snow-laden countryside may well have been a WSO first.
A Skater’s Waltz by a Strasbourg-born composer could not escape the notice of politically-aware Gibbons on Brexit Day. Out on Anderson’s stateside Sleigh Ride, the WSO were fully on the ball with its finger-snapping wit, and the Karelia Suite finale marched in out of the tundra chill with a genuine glow.
But seizing the biscuit was the one item which could have passed by unnoticed in a routine rendition – but instead launched the second half with hum-along anticipation. Gibbons and WSO gave us a Swan Lake Waltz with astute variation in dynamics and a sweeping conclusion of festive Russian theatricality lacking only Bolshoic vibrato in Tim Hawes’ important trumpet solo. Do take us the whole way to Moscow next time, Tim!