N&N Festival Diary: Wednesday, May 7

Ian Collins Sir Willard Wentworth White CBE, has risen from poverty in Jamaica to conquer the world of opera. See him at Norwich Theatre Royal tonight.

Ian Collins

Despite being branded the most boring suburb ever invented, my old London stamping ground of Lewisham has stamps of delightful distinction.

My garden beside the River Quaggy drew kingfishers and green woodpeckers and my neighbours included Kate Bush, Jools Holland and music hall artiste Max Wall.

(The latter gave the telephone box outside his house as his home number, where he would be in residence on weekday lunchtimes.)

I once caused a sensation among friends in a local Indian restaurant when hailed by the man who rented my garage, but unrecognisable to me just then after the latest of many image changes.

That was Chris Difford, guitarist with the band Squeeze who were in the Top Ten at the time.

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When Glenda Jackson moved in, shortly after winning an Oscar, she introduced herself to her next-door neighbour. He then introduced her to his wife as “Brenda”.

But our grandest resident is Sir Willard Wentworth White CBE, who has risen from poverty in Jamaica (docker father, illiterate mother) to conquer the world of opera. He was spotted very early on by Lady Evelyn Barbirolli, who suggested training in London. His parents then bought him a one-way ticket to New York because the flight was cheaper.

Willard White has a glorious bass-baritone voice and, unlike so many of his operatic peers, he can actually act - having appeared in a celebrated Othello opposite Sir Ian McKellen and Imogen Stubbs. His CV is hugely varied, but maybe he's best known for Porgy and Bess and for his devotion to the original star of that opera, the American civil rights activist Paul Robeson. Tonight's Evening With Willard White at the Norwich Theatre Royal is really a date with Willard and Paul as the stirring programme revisits classic spirituals, folk songs and jazz standards from Steal Away and It Ain't Necessarily to I Got Plenty o' Nothin' and Ol' Man River.

t With a political frost between Moscow and the West of late, it seems more crucial than ever to warm to cultural links. So, after the recent triumph of the From Russia exhibition at London's Royal Academy, let's cheer the arrival in Norwich of the Russian State Symphony Orchestra. Founded 70 years ago, and the first independent symphony orchestra to play outside Russia, this was the grouping originally conducted by Igor Stravinsky.

Tonight's knockout bill at St Andrew's Hall comprises Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet and The Seasons, Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No 1 (featuring acclaimed soloist Dmitri Alexev) and the Shostakovich ninth symphony. The show is a sellout, but return tickets should be available on the door.

t Norwich clearly loved Laurie Anderson, but as the veteran performance artist left the Theatre Royal to continue her Homeland world tour in Italy, Switzerland and Germany, she was vocal in her love of Norwich. “It wasn't just a big audience but the RIGHT audience,” she said, grateful that she hadn't been expected to perform her greatest hits or recast herself as Mrs Lou Reed. She just received rapt attention for her latest challenging work and then a rousing ovation.

t The festival exceeded its £230,000 target for total ticket sales as early as Bank Holiday Monday - and that's £65,000 more than last year. Forget the credit crunch, and the rumours of recession. Norfolk is in festive mood.

t Lunchtime recitals at the Norwich Assembly House are normally pretty sedate affairs, but the crowd went wild after the recital by Royal Academy of Music pianists Wu Qian and Armandine Savary. After the performers were pressed into two encores, festival director Jonathan Holloway secured the promise of a rather longer third. “Wu and Armandine's playing was among the best I had ever heard, so I promptly booked them for an evening concert at next year's festival,” he said.

t Our jolly jamboree doesn't close with the last performance each evening, for the Festival Club is then in full swing for artists, spectators and organisers alike at the revamped Cinema City. The bar is open until midnight - or 2am on Friday and Saturdays, when a free film show adds to the fun. Actually the covered courtyard may be the hub of the festive hubbub - giving Norwich the atmosphere of a free-wheeling European arts festival.

t Yesterday's interval in the festive proceedings brought a celebratory break for the 13 staffers who work so hard to give us this glorious May gala. They all shared a magnum of champagne in the ancient office on Tombland (where sloping walls, floors and ceilings give you a drunken air at the best of times). They had been all set for a barbecue on the nearest Norfolk beach until someone remembered that artists were arriving at 7pm and needed welcoming.

t One of the saddest things about council elections is that the good - as well as the bad and indifferent - can be swept away by national swings, if not by special local factors. So I was very sorry to see veteran Labour councillor Brenda Ferris - deputy leader of Norwich council, executive member for culture and a great friend of our festival - unseated in Bowthorpe as our gala got under way. A councillor since 1979, Mrs Ferris has been a consistent champion of our arts and museums while also serving as lord mayor in 1994-5 and deputy lieutenant of Norfolk from 2003. Sparky, funny and very bright, she works as a translator of Dutch, French and German, is immensely proud of her barrister daughter and homeopathic dowser son and lists her main interests as “grandchildren, pub quizzes and birdwatching”. But I just wanted to tell Brenda that Norwich is very proud of her.

WHAT'S ON TODAY

11am-6.30pm Dries Verhoeven, Chapelfield Plain.

1pm Royal Academy of Music: Zivorad Nikolic and Milos Milivojevic, Assembly House.

7.30pm Russian State Symphony Orchestra, St Andrew's Hall. SOLD OUT.

7.30pm Royal Academy of Music: Sheringham Little Theatre.

8pm NoFit State Circus, Earlham Park.

8pm An Evening with Willard White, Norwich Theatre Royal.

HOT TICKETS

Today's two-for-one hot ticket offer is for a two-in-one accordion recital at Sheringham Little Theatre. Young, talented and much-travelled Serbian accordion duo Zivorad Nikolic and Milos Milivojevic will perform in a festive series from the Royal Academy of Music - with a programme featuring works by Vivaldi, Mendelssohn and Franck, as well as more contemporary pieces, starting at 7.30pm. To bag this seaside bargain call the box office - 01603 766400 - by noon.

t Whenever a headlining event is officially sold out - like the Russian State Symphony Orchestra - you have not missed the boat entirely. Return tickets are almost always available on the door 30 minutes before the show is due to begin.