The Hilarious Heartbreaking Life and Music of Malcolm Arnold

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His orchestrations shine and his writing will always be welcome among orchestral musicians. For professionals, Arnold’s music carries the feeling that he was on their side. (He was frequently present on the podium, especially at major events like the Concerto for Group and Orchestra, for the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the rock band Deep Purple, a milestone written by the group’s organist, Jon Lord .) Before focusing on composition, he was a first-rate trumpeter, eventually obtaining the Principal Chair of the London Philharmonic, and he knew exactly what worked and what did not work within the orchestral organism.

His ability to traverse the sublime and the ridiculous is captured on a recent recording by the Liepaja Symphony Orchestra of Latvia, conducted by John Gibbons, which combines Arnold’s austere Ninth Symphony with a bizarre piece by Hoffnung, the “Great Gastronomic Concerto ”for eater, waiter, food and orchestra.

“There is a quality in the way Arnold’s music reaches audiences,” Gibbons said in an interview. “Even in the Ninth Symphony, which explores a wide range of human emotions, it is naked enough to be fully understood from the first hearing.”

The “Gastronomic” is an enlightening snapshot of Arnold the satirist. (The movement called “Roast Beef,” a nod to Elgarian nobility, is particularly delicious.) But it’s the Ninth, completed in 1986 and Arnold’s last major composition statement, that Gibbons wants to re-evaluate.

“It’s not all about heartbreak,” he said – and, indeed, Gibbons’ upbeat tempos have caused consternation in some circles. “Symphonists after Mahler should end in heartache and angst, but it is more like the serene wavering of a composer reflecting on the life of his old age.”

The conclusion of the Ninth in D major is surprisingly sunny, but is it the satisfying finish we can hope for? The short answer is no – it’s just a partial resolution, a near-end fitting the Arnold story, which continues to rumble chaotically, even to death.


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