Classical music runs away to join the circus

The poor light and rose-coloured spots do not help. But my camera does not lie. That is a full-strength orchestra packed into a circus ring in front of a capacity audience. The band is the Russian State Philharmonic Orchestra, and I took the photo last night in one of oldest surviving working circus buildings in the world, where my search for unusual performance spaces had taken me.

Circuses and classical music go back a long way. In 1942 Stravinsky wrote his Circus Polka: For a Young Elephant to a commission from Barnum & Bailey's Circus. The Polka was performed in the circus ring by fifty elephants and fifty ballerinas before it was orchestrated in 1944 for concert performance. Circus buildings have also been home for some top-flight orchestras. In December 1940 Manchester's Free Trade Hall was destroyed by German bombs, forcing the city's Hallé orchestra and its permanent conductor John Barbirolli to decamp to the circus arena at Belle Vue Zoo, which was grandly named King's Hall. The circus arena was used for concerts by the Hallé until the restored Free Trade Hall was re-opened in 1951. But Sir John retained his affection for the old Belle Vue Circus, commenting 'Plenty of nice, soft wood around. Wooden floor, wooden wals, wooden roof. That gives much better results than your modern builder's rubbish'. Eat you heart out Frank Ghery!

Glorious John would have loved Yarmouth's Hippodrome. Last night's concert took place there, and the Edwardian facade can be seen seen above. There is a lot of wood around in the Hippodrome. In fact the Russian orchestra played on a wooden floor suspended over a still working water feature complete with original hydraulics. Elgar's Cello Concerto played by Julian Lloyd Webber was on last night's programme, and the Hippodrome first saw a circus performance fifteen years before Elgar composed his autumnal masterpiece. The Hippodrome is now owned and run by former rock star Peter Jay. Every year it presents two seasons of traditional circus in the historic arena. It also hosts visiting productions, including Armonico Consort Touring Opera's production of Purcell's Fairy Queen, which featured here in 2007. Part of the charm, and problem, of the Hippodrome is that it has seen very little updating during the past century. Modern safety regulations have reduced the audience capacity from several thousand to 450. The atmosphere remains, but walking a financial tight-rope means both the front and back of house facilities at the Hippodrome fall a little short of Disney Hall.

A remarkable organisation called SeaChange Arts put a Russian symphony orchestra in the Hippodrome's circus arena. Great Yarmouth is just 30 miles north of Benjamin Britten's beloved Aldeburgh. But the contrasts could not be greater. Aldeburgh is a prosperous community with many of the London media set owning second-homes there. It has expensive restaurants and a world famous arts festival. The port of Great Yarmouth is one of the most deprived towns in England. It has been blighted by the collapse of the North Sea fishing industry and a decline in tourism. Crime levels are high. Arts facilities are almost non-existent. The town is home to a transient population of migrant workers from eastern Europe and Portugal who work in the area's agricultural and service industries. Despite its name there is little hope to be found in Great Yarmouth today. But SeaChange Arts are bringing hope through social, economic and cultural regeneration with a focus on working with young people and on international collaboration.

In a neat example of international collabaration SeaChange Arts brought a Russian orchestra to Great Yarmouth. The Moscow based Russian State Philharmonic Orchestra, which is known in their home country as the State Symphony Capella of Russia (see photo above), was founded in 1991 by the post-perestroika merger of the State Symphony Orchestra of the USSR Ministry of Culture lead by Gennady Rozhdestvensky and the USSR State Chamber Choir under Valeri Polyansky. In 1992 Valery Poliansky was appointed artistic director and chief conductor of the Capella. Their repertoire includes contemporary music by Nikolay Sidelnikov, Sofia Gubaidulina and Alfred Schnittke. But, understandably, last night the orchestra stuck to the better known classics in the form of Rimsky-Korsakov's Easter Festival Overture, Elgar's Cello Concerto, and Tchaikovsky's Symphony No 6 (Pathétique). But there was a sting in the tail. Julian Lloyd Webber bowled a beautifully judged googly as an encore, the Serenata from Britten's First Cello Suite. Full of edgy pizzicato this work neatly links East Anglia to Russia; it was written by Britten as a Christmas present for Mstislav Rostropovich in 1961.

SeaChange Arts was able to bring the Russian State Philharmonic to Great Yarmouth as the orchestra was in the UK on an IMG Artists organised tour. This kind of tour is the grunt work of classical music. Instead of the glamourous venues such as the Royal Festival and Bridgewater Halls the Russian's itinerary takes in seven concerts in twelve days across England, including Carlisle, Middlesborough, Leed and Southend-on-Sea. There is no glamour in this existence. With a concert in Cambridge on Tuesday the orchestra's flight on Monday from Moscow to London was cancelled due to Heathrow's inability to deal with a few inches of snow. The Russians landed at lunchtime on the Tuesday and made the two hour bus journey to Cambridge, where they duly despatched Stravinsky's Firebird, Shostakovich's Second Piano Concerto and Tchaik 6 at 7.30pm.

Great Yarmouth last night was as cold as Moscow. But the concert was completely sold out, and there were queues for returns. Which was really quite remarkable, considering the weather, the location, and the tickets priced up to £27.50 due to the relatively small capacity of the venue. But the audience was boosted by the presence of many of the good and great of Norfolk who were there as much for the planned presence of a member of the royal family, the Duke of Kent, as for the music. However Britain's inability to deal with a little bit of snow scuppered that one too. His Royal Highness duly helicoptered (carbon footpring anyone?) in to Great Yarmouth for a pre-concert reception for the great and good. He then duly helicoptered out to return to his London residence before the concert started due to an adverse weather forecast. It seems that helicopters, classical music and the royal family just don't mix. Judging by the number of 4X4s with blacked-out windows parked around the Hippodrome other people were anticipating bad weather. It was good to see quite a few young people in the audience. But no use was made of the rehearsal for schools. Which was a shame as it included a complete playthrough of the Elgar Concerto. And, apart from the orchestra, I did not hear anything other than English spoken in the Hippodrome. Which is a pity concerning the rich mix of nationalities among Yarmouth's population.

Watching yesterday's rehearsal I could not help comparing the average of the Russian orchestra with today's youthful British bands. At 59 I can hardly talk; but a few of the Russian State Philharmonic probably saw service under Tchaikovsky as well as Shostakovich. However, as I have said before, youth is a state of mind, not a time of life. And what the capacity audience got last night was a very rewarding evening of great music. Even if it was interspersed with superfluous BBC Radio 3 style chatter from someone with a wireless microphone. Let us be honest, the Russian State Philharmonic are not the Kirov Orchestra, and Valery Poliansky is not the other Valery. And there wasn't much elbow room in the circus ring. If you look carefully at my header photo you will see that the tam-tam has been squeezed out of the arena and into the audience. But, despite this, the Russian State Philharmonic delivered an atmospheric if coarse-grained Easter Festival Overture, a better than workmanlike Elgar Concerto, and a Pathétique which at times showed what the orchestra must be like when it on top form. Yes, the players were a touch Schnittke in the rehearsal about the low temperatures in the hall (Moscow anyone?). Then there was the burly man in the very expensive suit who stood surveying the auditorium throughout the rehearsal. And, was it really necessary for Poliansky to make such a show in the concert of how his temporary podium, like Russian democracy, was somewhat wobbly? But full-marks to the maestro for imperiously cutting short the spurious applause at the end of the Allegro molto vivace third movement of the Tchaikovsky by launching straight into the slow last movement. No, they are not the Kirov Orchestra. But the Kirov do not come to Great Yarmouth. And give me an evening of live music from the Russian State Philharmonic any day over recorded music.

As I drove home along the A47 after the concert through a beautiful night for helicopter flying I reflected on quite a few things. Most important, through the great work of SeaChange Arts, a capacity audience had heard live classical music in a town where serious crime happens more often than serious art. Attracting people to classical music concerts is not just about ticket prices. We need to be far more adventurous in the spaces that classical music is performed in. We are also much too dismissive of the type of programme and orchestra that received a standing innovation last night. I am as guilty as anybody. If the Russian orchestra had not been playing in such an unusual venue I would not have travelled to hear them. Which is completely wrong. I have not heard the Pathétique live for decades. I listened to it last night with innocent ears and was reminded of just how much great music we mentally archive as we search for the next new sonic experience. Last night's circus ring had taken me full circle. Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony was in the first classical concert I attended as a child. Let us hope that, thanks to SeaChange Arts, some others in the Hippodrome audience last night were starting out on a musical path as rewarding as the one I have travelled in the last fifty years.

* There is surprisingly little biographical information available on Valery Poliansky, particularly considering he was chosen over the better known Rozhdestvensky to lead the State Symphony Capella of Russia. Polyansky's reputation was built as a choral conductor. But he appears to now mainly devote himself to the symphonic repertoire. Any more information from readers would be welcomed. Poliansky has recorded Alexander Grechaninov's The Seven Days of Passion with the Cappella for Chandos. Grechaninov is a fascinating composer, more about him here.

* SeaChange Arts are bringing the Berlin Symphony Orchestra under Lothar Zagrosek (another IMG Artists tour package) to the Hippodrome, Great Yarmouth on March 15th. The main work is Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony, so no problems about positioning the tam-tam. In a neat piece of synchronicity the Berlin Symphony's regular home is the Konzerthaus in Berlin, another performing space that has featured in a music and architecture post.

My thanks go to Penny Wright of SeaChange Arts and the impressively efficient Chrissy Dixon at IMG Artists for arranging my access to the rehearsal and concert. All photos (c) On An Overgrown Path 2009. My photos were taken using available light with my Casio EX-Z120. There was very little available light, and what was available was pink, so sorry about the picture quality. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk


Pliable said…
My innocent ears prompted me to listen today to Lorin Maazel's set of the complete Tchaikovsky symphonies made with the Vienna Philharmonic for Decca in the 1960s.

I am not a great fan of Maazel's music making and have few of his recordings. But this set is quite wonderful, and the sound from the Sofiensaal, Vienna is glorious. I have an early budget CD issue of the set. The recordings have been through many release formats. If you don't have them and find the set snap it up immediately.

Other blogs are making much today of the rumoured 'death' of the Decca label. It is a non-story for me. Decca's heart stopped beating eleven years ago when it was bought by Universal Music.
Pliable said…
The piano soloist on the tour is the conductor's daughter, Tatiana Polyanskaya.
Pliable said…
Predictable, oh so predictable -

'But after that emotional performance why change the mood so dramatically with a Britten encore?'
commenter said…
I don't have any more biographical information on Valeri Polianski, but to judge by a recording of the Rachmaninov Vespers (on Le Chant du Monde, LDC 278 845) he was/is a splendid choral conductor. This recording is with the USSR Chamber Choir with Irina Arkhipova and Victor Roumianev as the soprano and tenor soloists. Well worth seeking out - it seems to be currently unavailable commercially.
Pliable said…
Commenter, thanks for that. Your email jogged something in my mind. I'm very embarassed to admit that not only do I have a CD set with Valery Poliansky and the Russian State Symphony Cappella in my collection, but I have actually written about it on the path.

The 3 CD set (2 CDs feature Poliansky and his Cappella) is of Sergei Rachmaninov's sacred choral music is on Brilliant Classics at super-budget price.

It slipped through my search of almost 1000 Overgrown Path articles because it uses the alternative spelling of Polyansky.

Although the Brilliant Classics box contains texts there is no biography of Valery Poliansky/Polyansky.

Read more here -
Jacque said…
Orchestras and Circuses ... you may or may not be aware that the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for many years used Chicago's Medinah Temple as their home for recording -- Orchestra Hall being acoustically second-rate at the time. The Medinah Temple also presented the Shriner's Circus from time to time.

A google (or other) search of "medinah temple chicago" and "medinah temple chicago circus" will bring up some links, and CSO historians might be able to provide more detail.

A major renovation in the 1990's turned Orchestra Hall into Symphony Center in Chicago, improving the acoustics greatly. And commercial development turned the Medinah Temple into a branch of Bloomingdale's.

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