Sunday, 17 May 2015

Caterpillars and Conductors - from The Castle Museum to St Andrews Hall with The Norfolk & Norwich Festival

Tonight I steward at the Philharmonia Orchestra concert at St Andrews Hall, the spiritual home of the Norfolk & Norwich Festival. Dating back to 1449, it forms a part of the most complete medieval surviving friary complex in England. Bought from the king by the City Corporation during the Reformation, it was used as a 'common hall'. Norwich's four day 'Grand Music Festival' of 1788 used St Andrews Hall for the evening performances, and the establishment of the Norfolk & Norwich Triennial in 1824 (the precursor of today's Norfolk & Norwich Festival) formed a partnership with St Andrews Hall that exists to this day.

A series of concerts at this year's festival celebrate the 19th century German composer, Felix Mendelsshohn, and along with the tonight's Philharmonia Orchestra performance, there have been concerts of the composer's chamber music at The Octagon Chapel, choral works at Norwich Cathedral, and culminating with a performance of Elijah, back at St Andrews Hall, with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and Festival Chorus. The soprano role in 'Elijah' was reported written for Jenny Lind, the Swedish singer whose name is associated with our own Jenny Lind Children's Hospital. Mendelssohn himself was once courted for the role of director of the Norfolk & Norwich Festival.

But before I present myself, suitably attired in volunteer t-shirt, at St Andrews Hall, I have time to visit the Castle Museum to check out the Artist Rooms exhibition of works by Jeff Koons, the American artist, and former New York commodities broker, renowned for his reproductions of banal objects.

'Puppy' by Jeff Koons outside the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao

The first piece of Jeff Koons' work that I remember was the enormous topiary 'Puppy' outside the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. Whilst Artist Rooms have not managed to have this 13 metre high living work of art dismantled and transported to Norwich, they have managed to secure a number of pieces which illustrate the different stages in his creativity, probably the most iconic of which is 'Winter Bears' (1988) from the acclaimed 'banality' series. To stand so close to this polychromed wooden masterpiece that, in photographs, looks simply like a piece of cheap kitsch pottery, is quite wonderful, a bit like seeing the 'Mona Lisa' for the first time.

'Winter Bears'

Other pieces include the gorgeous marble 'Bourgeois Bust - Jeff and Ilona' (1991), a self portrait incorporating his newly-wed wife at the time, Ilona Staller. Staller, an Italian pornography star of the time, was also immortalised musically by English band Pop Will Eat Itself in their 1990 dance hit 'Touched By The Hand of Cicciolina'.

'Bourgeois Bust'

The vitrines of basketballs  and Hoover vacuum cleaners from 'The New' series (1980-87) pre-dates Damien Hirst's tanking of ordinary objects as art by almost ten years, and manipulates familiar objects into an artistic setting, realising the artist's desire to capture and preserve the instant of perfection when everyday objects are first formed and released.


The coloured mirror animal heads from the 'Easyfun' series reflect not only the viewer, but also the surrounding exhibits, suggesting that neither should not take be taken too seriously, or even take themselves too seriously. Art is just another consumer product. The fun of 'Caterpillar with Chains' (2002), a heavy aluminium sculpture hung from the ceiling, is that it looks exactly like a weightless inflatable pool toy. The beauty and exquisite quality of the Murano glass pieces that together form 'Mound of Flowers' (1991), is balanced by the fact that, in a photograph, it looks exactly like a cheap piece of pottery.

'Mound of Flowers' with 'Easyfun' mirrors behind

'Caterpillar with Chains'

Koons may be controversial in challenging our perceptions of what constitutes art, but he cannot be ignored. This is the first chance to see his work publicly exhibited in Norwich, and really should not be missed. I took advantage of the Castle Museum's 'Pop in for £2' offer, which includes access to the temporary exhibitions for one hour at lunchtime, or for one hour before closing. I still had enough time to visit some of the works by artists from the Norwich School of Painters, just to remind myself what a traditional landscape artist also has to offer.

Back to St Andrews Hall, and the start of my shift has been brought forward by half an hour to 18.00hr. This is a big venue, and the seating plan can be slightly confusing so, as this is a sold-out performance, we have been brought in earlier to familiarise ourselves with the layout. After placing promotional material from Festival sponsors Abellio Greater Anglia onto the seats, we are given our roles for the evening. I am to be responsible for guiding ticket holders for the South Aisle to their seats, and for marshaling the audience away from the Steinway grand piano as it is moved during the interval. We are given reserved seating so, once everyone else is settled, we can take our places.

The programme starts with Mendelssohns' Overture 'The Hebrides' Op.26, before Swiss pianist Francesco Piemontesi joins the orchestra for the stunning Schumann Piano Concerto in A minor Op.5. After the interval, during which the piano is intriguingly removed by using a cantilevered ramp hidden beneath a section of the hall floor immediately adjacent to the stage, we re-take our seats for Wagner's 'Siegfried Idyll', and the concert finale, Mendelssohn's Symphony No.4 in A major Op. 90, 'Italian'.

This is my second concert of Mendelssohn works this week, and I have to admit that, despite the undoubted quality of the settings and the performers, I have not changed my personal appreciation of him as a composer. I have never really been a huge fan of the early Romantic composers. The 'Italian' symphony is a little too familiar and 'jolly' for my liking. The Schumann Piano Concerto, though, was absolutely beautiful, the conducting of Jérémie Rhorer, and the technique and concentration of pianist Francesco Piemontesi a pleasure to hear as well as watch, combining together to produce an inspired performance.

A final sweep around the venue to clear glasses and litter form the floor and the seats, and we are discharged. Another packed day as a volunteer for the Norfolk & Norwich Festival comes to an end as we head towards the weekend, and that orgy of free entertainment in Chapelfield Gardens that is 'The Garden Party'. Oh, and there is just the small matter of 'that' football match as well.

Norfolk & Norwich Festival runs until May 24th. For full programme and tickets go to

The Jeff Koons exhibition runs at the Castle Museum until September 6th. For ticket details go to

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