One might have expected a better turn out for Sir Roger’s 75th birthday bash – especially since the highly eclectic programme – spanning some three centuries of music – contained a little bit of something for everyone.
But maybe the Classic FM approach was unwise for an event of this kind and maybe Norrington himself is still too much of a connoisseur’s delight, too much of a maverick, ever to pull in the big crowds. And that’s quite an irony given that there are few more erudite, entertaining, communicative, or influential musicians on the planet. He is in every sense a one-off.
Still, the great and the good were out in force, one or two of them – like wickedly acerbic Jonathan Miller who started Kent Opera with Norrington – offered testimonials, and two of Sir Roger’s regular orchestras were on hand to share the performance honours: the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (or “Enslavement” as the ever-quipping Norrington would have it) and the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra, along with the Schutz Choir of London with whom Norrington cut his choral teeth.
Norrington’s immense influence in the matter of performing traditions and their continuity were, of course, at the centre of the evening’s proceedings with the period instruments of the OAE and the contemporary hardware of the Stuttgart Orchestra united through the big issue of style. Norrington’s great gift has always to make all the music he conducts sound new and exciting, to tantalise and surprise, to keep even familiar pieces sounding suspenseful. The big pay-off of Berlioz’ Le Corsaire Orchestra was underlined with the characteristic Norrington “swivel” to the audience - the musical equivalent of “howzat!” And there was a lovely moment in the last movement of Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony where the arrival of the theme in pizzicato brought a quizzical to-audience look which seemed to say: “Just you wait till you hear what Beethoven does with this!”
Naturally the sworn enemy of vibrato once again demonstrated how much fresher and purer music by romantics like Brahms (the slow movement of the 4th Symphony) can sound when expression is achieved through the honesty and mobility of the phrasing. And we all thought we were seeing things when Norrington’s left hand indicated vibrato in the Adagietto from Mahler’s 5th Symphony. We weren’t. For just two bars of the movement Mahler himself suggests it “as an experiment”. That’s something I never knew. But with Norrington it’s always fun learning. Many happy returns, Sir Roger.