Special emphasis on spectacle

IAN COLLINS Diaries at the ready. Even though part of this year’s Norfolk and Norwich Festival is billed as a new free-for-all, Ian Collins warmly recommends speedy booking of some hot tickets.


While the Norfolk and Norwich Festival has been fizzing merrily in enclosed spaces over four centuries – starting with cathedral concerts to aid a Georgian flagship hospital – many folk out and about might never have noticed.

Now that's all set to change.

For, at least in Norwich, the festivities are ready to erupt in parks and streets and the marketplace. Look out and look up – because the fun is even heading skywards.

This year's gala, from May 4-15, continues to cover the gamut of creative entertainment from classical and modern music, to theatre, dance, comedy and the visual arts. But now there is a special emphasis on spectacle.

The fresh focus is an instant calling card, and a sign of future intent, by the festival's incoming director – Jonathan Holloway, 34.

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He joins us hot-foot from the National Theatre, where he worked alongside Trevor Nunn and then Nicholas Hytner for seven years (before that, running an innovative theatre in Berkshire, taking a drama degree and training as a chorister).

While technically at the National, Mr Holloway spent much of his time as events organiser working outside the Thames-side institution, presenting shows in unexpected venues. Which is exactly what he wants to do here.

He says: "I am delighted to have been able to continue with a strong music programme featuring the best in jazz, world, classical, contemporary and chamber music.

"However I also really wanted to add a new element of outdoor spectacle, work in unusual spaces and free events to enable the festival to be enjoyed by all."

So his first festival will kick off at Norwich Railway Station around teatime on Wednesday with a belting performance by eight-piece brass ensemble The Ski Band (so-called because of the places its members hoped to win bookings). The cast arrives on the 4.30pm train from Cambridge.

Transport and launch venue come courtesy of 'one' railway – which, once again, is the festival's main sponsor.

Then the band slaloms to City Hall, to join forces with French Theatre Company Transe Express in a dramatic performance of music, acrobatics and daring. At 6.30pm seven drummers will be raised to the

heavens in a crane-assisted stunt entitled Mobile Homme.

Everyone gets an equally good view. And the show is free.

Other outdoor highlights include Berlin-based video artists Gob Squad making and premiering a film on the streets of Norwich, and Canadian artist Janet Cardiff installing her sound sculpture Forty-Part Motet, based on the sublime music of Thomas Tallis, in St Peter Parmentergate Church, King Street.

And Chapelfield Gardens will be adorned with the internationally-acclaimed walk-in sculpture luminaria from Architects of Air. An uplifting experience for anyone – stepping into labyrinths of light and colour should prove perfect therapy for Sad-sufferers who get the blues on grey days.

The 12-day gala will climax on May 15 with a free Family Day, unwinding along St George's Street and the Tombland area around the antics of The Tragic Flute (a moving street opera, loosely based on a certain Mozart classic, by madcap French musicians Les Grooms).

Then let's step inside for the bits in between – a billowing bill of paid-for performances. All are offered at bargain prices. Compared with a ticket for Carrow Road, the Norfolk and Norwich Festival is fantastic value for money!

I'm especially looking forward to a reprise visit by the queen of folk music June Tabor – for my money one of the great voices of Britain – and new singing sensation Clare Teal, whose soulful and jazzy tones have just earned her a Sony contract.

Although many complain that a city as fine as Norwich can still lack a purpose-built concert hall, I wonder how we might ever beat (or match) the atmosphere and acoustics of our great cathedral, in which music has been heard for a thousand years.

On May 11, the cathedral will host a tribute in choral music, percussion, light and movement to the 12th-century German nun Hildegard of Bingen, Europe's earliest composer and creator of some of the most beautiful sounds in history.

But the thrill of the first festive Saturday will be a celebration of the centenary of Michael Tippett's birth – with an airing of his most haunting work, A Child of Our Time, by 180 performers from the Britten Sinfonia and Festival Chorus in St Andrew's Hall.

I can't wait for all-American chanteuse Lhasa – that's Mexican-Canadian by the way – a favourite of my blessed Late Junction melodic medley on Radio 3 and now winner of the BBC Radio World Music Award. Bjork meets Tom Waits in her unique voice.

And the only way we will ever get to hear The Bays, comprising some of the best session players in the dance music world, is by catching a concert. For this intricate electronica will never be released on an album.

Being a Bachoholic, I always scan any festive programme for works by the great JSB. Alexander Balanescu's two late-night recitals of the sonatas and partitas for solo violin, in St Peter Mancroft Church, are my idea of fun.

And "raking through the ashes of their now-shattered comic careers", the Nimmo Twins will encore the best of their sellout Normal for Norfolk revues from the last nine festivals, in a three-night residency at the Playhouse.

The Russian State Symphony Orchestra – conductor Mark Gorenstein, guest pianist Nikolai Demidenko – will bring no fewer than two showstoppers to St Andrew's Hall in a single evening: Mahler's fabulous fifth and Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini.

Two nights later (on May 12), the hall will echo to Tippett's fantasy on a theme of Corelli, Mozart's clarinet concerto in A and Beethoven's blissful Eroica – courtesy of the City of London Sinfonia under Richard Hickox.

Some of us have never recovered from our first encounter with Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake – still the best thing I've seen on a London stage, though his choreography for the recent My Fair Lady and current Mary Poppins are also glorious. So the promise of Highland Fling, in which La Sylphide is transported to the mean streets of Glasgow, should lure crowds to the Theatre Royal.

There is another fine selection of lunchtime concerts at the Assembly House, and intimate evening recitals at the King of Hearts and John Innes Centre.

And a feast of jazz will culminate in Joshua Redman's Festival Finale at St Andrew's Hall.

Oh dear. I've reached the end of my festive preview and there are still masses of things I haven't even mentioned . . .

Festival brochures will be included in the May 5 edition of the EDP. Or look out for them in libraries, tourist information centres and shops, or call 01603 614921 to have one mailed to you.

To book tickets, call 01603 766400 or visit www.n-joy.org.uk

For further details on the festival, see Friday's three-page feature in EDP Event.