N&N Festival Diary: May 14

Ian Collins Tonight's gala bill is headed by a visit from the musical ambassadors for all things European - the European Union Chamber Orchestra - with the fabulous Natalie Clein, also our festive pin-up.

Ian Collins

Tonight's gala bill is headed by a visit from the musical ambassadors for all things European - the European Union Chamber Orchestra - with the fabulous Natalie Clein, also our festive pin-up.

All 50-plus youthful members of this continental orchestra must speak two languages well and be able to work in English. How many young Brits can do that I wonder?!?

But music is the key message. And it is beautifully delivered via Natalie Clein, a BBC and Eurovision Young Musician of the Year at 16, and a recent Classical Bit award winner for Young Performer of the Year, who now tours from Australia to America and, at 30, has finally recorded the Elgar cello concerto with which she first found fame.

The St Andrew's Hall programme includes Haydn's Cello Concerto No 1, Grieg's Holberg Suite, a dash of Mozart and a world premiere of Kiss on Wood, a new work by Scottish classical composer James MacMillan.

But top of the bill is Samuel Barber's blissful, yearning Adagio for Strings, which turns 70 this year. The tragic tone of the piece, by a man later to be dogged by clinical depression before his death in 1981, was topical from the outset.

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Premiered in November 1938, in the month of Kristallnacht - when more than a thousand synagogues were smashed across Nazi Germany, 400 Jews were killed and another 30,000 sent to concentration camps - the first conductor was Arturo Toscanini. Having lately escaped Mussolini's Italy he ensured that the concert, broadcast across America, was a passionate protest against fascism.

Adapted for the score of Platoon, Oliver Stone's devastating movie about the Vietnam War, Adagio retains the air of an anthem for our troubled times. It was played most famously at the last night of the Proms six days after the attack on the Twin Towers.

At nine the doom-laden Barber wrote to his mother thus: “I have to tell you a worrying secret. Now don't cry when you read it because it is neither yours nor my fault. I suppose I will have to tell it now, without any nonsense. To begin with I was not meant to be an athlete. I was meant to be a composer…”

Mom, a pianist, and sister of an opera singer, must have had worse news that.

But, reading between the lines, we may detect Samuel's first awareness of being gay at a time when such orientation was likely to mean misery. His great good fortune, a decade later, was to meet Gian Carlo Menotti - and to begin a life-long personal and professional partnership.

Mr Menotti, whose Amahl and the Night Visitors opera became a Christmas tradition on American TV, died last year aged 95.

Tonight's European Chamber Orchestra programme will be repeated next Tuesday, as part of the Bury Festival, in St Edmundsbury Cathedral (www.buryfestival.co.uk; box office: 01284 769505).

Since I honour Israel warts and all, and now celebrate the 60th birthday of the Middle East's only democracy, I often deeply dislike the sound of tonight's festival visitor, Gilad Atzmon.

Brilliant as a saxophonist - flitting from bebop to free jazz to swing - this former member of Ian Dury's Blockheads has performed with Shame McGowan (the dentally challenged Pogue), Robbie Williams and Paul McCartney. But the virulence of his anti-Israeli writings and actions, so beloved of Holocaust deniers and anti-Semites, leaves me chilled.

This Tel Aviv-born Jew emigrated to London in 1995, aged 32, protesting that Israel was a militarised state controlled by religious extremists. For me he proves that if there is such a thing as a global Jewish conspiracy it is directed against other Jews. (Then again, the worst oppressors of Muslims are other Muslims.)

Happily tonight Atzmon and his Orient House Ensemble, plus the Sigamos String Quartet, will be paying tribute to the classic Charlie Parker with Strings album - and the likes of If I Should Lose You and April in Paris. Best to let the music speak.

Award-laden Venezuelan violinist Giovanni Guzzo and pianist James Baillieu, a Royal Overseas League prize winner, perform a double double take in Norfolk today with two masterpieces of the violin chamber repertoire by Franck and Richard Strauss.

Double double? The Royal Academy of Music duo's tour de force at the Assembly House this lunchtime then tours to Sheringham's Little Theatre this evening.

Before last night's Armonico Consort production of Dido and Aeneas I was glued to YouTube for diverse versions of Dido's Lament - surely the most moving song in English music.

“When I am laid, am laid in earth. May my wrongs create no trouble, no trouble in thy breast,” sings Purcell's doomed queen on Carthage. “Remember me, remember me. But forget my fate.”

Among a vast multitude there are fine renditions by Emma Kirkby, Tatiana Troyanos and Evelyn Tubb, fair by Anne Sophie von Otter and Susan Graham and foul by Alison Moyet, Hayley Westenra, Ane Brun, the Swingle Singers and the cast of the movie The Man Who Cried.

Plus two real showstoppers. The first, from Glyndebourne in 1966, looks like a scene from Carry on Opera until Dame Janet Baker starts to sing.

The second, filmed in Yves Saint Laurent's Marrakech gardens, casts the majestic Jessye Norman as the sparkly centre of a spinning crystal. You have to see it.

Or, since there is really no beating live music, catch the Armonico Consort's East Anglian encore at the Bury St Edmunds Theatre Royal on Friday.

He may have retired as the festival's long-serving vice chairman this year, but Roger Rowe remains a pivotal figure as both trustee and benefactor, writer of splendid programme notes and avuncular, all-round supporter of the great adventure of making music in Norfolk.

A former Park Lane chapel, which the retired Norwich chartered surveyor bought for use as a music room, is in many ways the private centre of the festival. It's both haven and rehearsal room for a large cast of visiting musicians.


1pm Royal Academy of Music: Giovanni Guzzo and James Baillieu, Assembly House

7.30pm European Union Chamber Orchestra with Natalie Clein, St Andrew's Hall

7.30pm Royal Academy of Music: Giovanni Guzzo and James Baillieu, Sheringham Little Theatre

8pm NoFit State Circus, Earlham Park

8pm Gilad with Strings, Norwich Playhouse

t For a brochure with full listings of all events this year, phone 01603 877750 (or visit www.nnfestival.org.uk). To book tickets call 01603 766400.