Classic Relief – A Gala Comedy Concert For Comic Relief


Nicola Benedetti (violin)
Alfred Brendel (poet)
Evelyn Glennie (percussion)
Paul Lewis (piano)
Loré Lixenberg (mezzo-soprano)
Karl Lutchmayer (piano)Alasdair Malloy (percussion)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Rainer Hersch (host)

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 7 March, 2009
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Rainer Hersch.  ©2008 Rainer HerschIt was a fun evening, classical music supporting “Comic Relief”, invariably slick, if too long (7.30 until 10.20 did rather spread the jokes a bit thin, and Rainer Hersch’s manic requests for applause palled at about 7.40). But Hersch is far more than a comic (one who has no idea what ‘stage fright’ means) – and, anyway, his comedy is seemingly spontaneous. As his radio programmes have shown, he knows his music and is a skilled practitioner in the art; here he conducted with some aplomb, and no-one could accuse him of being a lacklustre master-of-ceremonies – he kept the show on the road with panache.

And, of course, whatever any one person might have thought about the evening as a whole, or any one of the slots, this concert, which might be considered something of a classical-music barrier-breakdown event (if such boundaries still exist), should have worked wonders in proving that us-folk who inhabit this particular world can also have a laugh (I’m often on BBC Radio 7 for “Round the Horne”, “Hancock” and the like) and that members of orchestras, with no constraints to their professionalism, have a fun-side, too. The members of the red-nosed Philharmonia all proved ‘good sports’ on this occasion.

Rainer Hersch, part-German, part-English (“I’d like to take over the world but I’m too polite”) did well for drumming up support for classical music and orchestras, and also for pointing out to audiences their (crucial) role in the concert-going experience, not least in addressing the noise-makers who sometimes ruin an evening; that was one of the ‘sketches’, and quite well done, but Hersch failed to mention those who flick through programmes while the music is being played (visually and aurally maddening!), those who rummage through handbags (sexist comment!) and those who open sweet-wrappers.

Nicola Benedetti. Photograph: Simon Fowler/UniversalAh yes, those who cough; Alfred Brendel caught up with those (and the mob who applaud where they shouldn’t) in the first of his three poems, read gently and with mischievous wit. The now-retired Brendel also played the piano – well, okay, a chord, the opening of Grieg’s Piano Concerto; that must be a first (and last)! The rest of the soloist’s opening in that work was taken by Paul Lewis (a deft change) who also had a run-a-round (literally) during the opening of Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ Piano Concerto (an early orchestral entry joke losing its charm rather earlier than the performers no doubt intended; and Lewis’s voice-microphone transported his breathing through the auditorium while playing!). But the chastising of the noise-mongers within audiences failed to prevent a mobile phone ringing for a long portion of the ‘Méditation’ from Massenet’s “Thaïs”, as played by Nicola Benedetti.

Earlier, in this first half, the theme for “The Archers” had been played in counterpoint to ‘Montagues and Capulets’ (from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet ballet) and, as promised in the Southbank Centre’s March diary, the closing section (“The Lone Ranger” theme) of the Overture to Rossini’s final opera “William Tell” was indeed “ruined”! We had some “Psycho” music (the shower scene), the “EastEnders” cliffhanger cue, the Fanfare for 20th-Century Fox, and a reference to “The Magic Flute” (or “Die Zauberflöte”, for Rainer’s other half!). You needed to be there to work out how this fitted together!

Then Alasdair Malloy (principal percussionist of the BBC Concert Orchestra) turned up – in drag – to participate in Leroy Anderson’s The Typewriter (“The News Quiz” music), managing well on an antique Remington. The performance of Pizzicato Polka (a pact between two brothers of the Strauss Family, Johann II and Josef) was a load of balls, the juggling kind, Hersch conducting agilely with them! Then came Symphony for Audience (already referred to – “a subject close to your heart”, my guest perceptively whispered into my ear!).

Paul Lewis. ©Tom CaldwellThere were perhaps too few pieces played straight, one such though was Eric Coates’s march Calling All Workers, even if – critic in full flow now – the return of the trio was decidedly soupy and pulled out of shape. During his stint, Paul Lewis (as Rainer observed, not the chap who hosts BBC Radio 4’s “Money Box”!) had taken requests for Beethoven’s sonatas – the ones you’d expect (Moonlight, Appassionata – were those asking plants? I wished I’d shouted out “Opus 31 Number 3” now!). Still, Lewis played immediately to order. And we had some fun with role-reversal, 22 soloists in “Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto” (pedant now speaking, the one in E minor, there’s one in … move one letter to the left, but keep the minor). Oh, and some computer noises were orchestrated; something to do with Bill Gates … the Remington was more musical). And the first half ended with the phone-interrupted Massenet.

Yep, that was just the first half. Phew! 80 minutes (that’s a Mahler symphony – and we get enough of them). NB, for 2010 (150th-anniversary of Mahler’s birth) and 2011 (the centenary of his death) – bad planning! – how about no Mahler symphonies at all: now the best way to celebrate him.

Loré Lixenberg. Photograph: digress. There’s still Part the Second of the current extravaganza! Enter Loré Lixenberg. Superb! The “Star Trek” theme (take Courage, Alexander!) for voice and orchestra! There followed a dissertation on deaths in opera. Verdi takes the record; 60 percent of his characters get bumped off! This, when divided by the time it takes to perform Verdi’s operatic canon, makes Verdi more of a mass-murderer than Saddam Hussein (said Rainer!). Anyway this ‘vital statistic’ interlude interrupted (in a very amusing way) Loré’s contribution, which was then an aria from “Così fan tutte” (with the Italian text not so much translated as given English sound-a-likes – onion bhaji – hilarious!) and ‘Summertime’ from George and Ira Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess”. Did we need the latter? Probably not! It’s a question of knowing when to stop (this written by someone penning a longer-than-usual review; oh the ability to laugh at one’s-self, and I laughed more in the – shorter, if still an hour, or Mahler 1 or 4 – second half than the first).

Then we had a feature on the recorder – the musical instrument, that is, not the video/DVD type, or the legal Walla come to that (what a confusing language English can be!) and – who would have thought it – the Stylophone … as voiced-over by Rolf Harris three decades and more ago. Karl Lutchmayer and Paul Lewis joined in with some students from Trinity College of Music as a consort of Stylophones and Evelyn Glennie and Alasdair Malloy (the latter two on marimbas) for … wait for it … ‘The Ride of the Valkyries’ (the opening of Act Three of Wagner’s “Die Walküre”). Awful!! And ‘sacrilege’ best describes the Stylophone-treatment of ‘Jesu, joy of man’s desiring’.

If Loré Lixenberg had somewhat stolen the show, thus far – Alfred B’s surreal prose being not far behind – did I mention his swipe at coughers and clappers … yes, of course I did!), then the real highlight of the evening was whatever Evelyn (Glennie) and Karl (Lutchmayer) played four-hands at the piano. Lovely stuff, I just need to know what it was! (Rainer Hersch has since advised it was Fragment by John Psathas. Thanks, Rainer!)

Then more dressing up! Loré, Nicola and Alasdair returned as lost workmen from the recent refurbishment of the Royal Festival Hall (I’m glad that Rainer mentioned the “same” carpet!) for some more Leroy Anderson (no relation!) for Sandpaper Ballet. Then came On the Beautiful Blue Danube (Johann II’s waltz) – which was as “ruined” as the Rossini had been! – and, finally (yes, really), John Philip Sousa’s march, Liberty Bell, aka the signature tune of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus”.

Did I enjoy it? Yes! “And I mean that most sincerely”, as Hughie Green used to tell us. Opportunity knocked for Pam Ayres. Like her, “I’ll give it (Classical Relief) five”, albeit without the yokel accent. Give generously (the performers did), link below.

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