Colourful tales from Cheltenham

Jeremy Pound enjoys the sights and sounds of a unique Sheherazade

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SheherazadeHave you ever tried to get a four-year-old boy to sit still for more than five minutes? Let’s put it this way: herding cats, squeezing blood out of a stone and threading camels through the eye of a needle are a doddle in comparison.

Imagine, then, my dismay when my own four year-old, James, announced that he’d like to go to a concert. And, what’s more, a concert lasting more than an hour. Most parents at this point would have shuddered and replied with a firm ‘no’. I, on the other hand, as a classical music journalist, could hardly go nipping my own son’s nascent enthusiasm in the bud. So, off to the ticket desk we trooped. Two seats, please, end of the row and near to the door – at least that way our inevitable early exit would disrupt as few people as possible.

The concert in question was a performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherazade at the Cheltenham Music Festival on Saturday. But not just any performance. Accompanying each of the four movements were visual illustrations of what was going on in the score, painted as the music unfolded by artist James Mayhew from the front of the stage, and projected onto a big screen behind the orchestra.

Mayhew himself, dressed in fetching Oriental gear, would also tell the tale depicted in each movement before grabbing his brushes and setting to work – it was seeing and hearing this, as we popped our heads round the Town Hall door during the rehearsal beforehand, that convinced Pound Jnr that he simply had to go to the concert itself.

SheherazadeAnd, I must say, he made a good choice. Top lad. Mention must be made of some fine playing from the Orchestra of the Music-Makers, a superbly drilled amateur orchestra from Singapore, making their first ever visit to Europe. While one or two frayed edges appeared in the previous night’s performance of Ravel’s Piano Concerto, here their playing showed both confidence and no little elegance. Let’s hope they return soon.

However, it was Mayhew’s artistry that really caught the attention. Depicting on canvas the long and winding tales told by Sheherazade to the Sultan to defer her own death sentence – Sinbad, the Kalendar Prince and the like – is complex enough. Doing so in around 15 minutes each and, get this, timing one’s brush strokes to match various moments in the music? Now that is deeply impressive. (The two pictures above are both from the Cheltenham concert).

There are plans afoot to take this project further afield, possibly even over to Singapore itself. If so, I recommend it. For us old lags who have heard Sheherazade so many times we start wishing that the poor girl had been sent off to the chopping block before embarking on her first rambling tale, it gave Rimsky-Korsakov’s music a new dash of colour (forgive the pun). And, given the lack of fidgeting among the youngsters in the audience – and there were oodles of them – the majority of them clearly found it entertaining too.

As for my own concert-going companion? He sat agog the full hour. And that is saying something.

Cheltenham Music Festival continues until 15 July

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