Friday, May 18, 2018

BBC Young Musician 2018

18 May 2018

2018 is the 40th anniversary of the BBC Young Musician competition, making me feel very old as I can remember the first one in 1978 (and most of the subsequent biennial competitions). I have written here about the past six finals (see: and I think the 2016 Concerto Final (reviewed here in May 2016) may have been the best ever. It was always going to be difficult for this year’s Concerto Final, at Symphony Hall in Birmingham last Sunday, to match the level of its predecessor but it did feature another astounding winner. Most of my writing about BBC Young Musician seems to relate to my own degree of success in predicting the winners. This time I must admit I initially misjudged the eventual winner Lauren Zhang. She didn’t even feature in my top three of the five competitors in the keyboards category final as I mistook her shyness and intensity for a lack of musical personality. By the time I had seen her perform again in the semi-final last Friday I realised my mistake and became convinced she would emerge as the overall winner of this year’s competition. Her performance in Sunday’s final of Prokofiev’s ‘Piano Concerto No 2’ was astounding: I think she could have won on the basis of the remarkable first movement cadenza alone. It was a good example of how the competition often seems to unearth someone really special. After a few years in the wilderness the BBC has now got its coverage of Young Musician just about perfect – restrained, respectful and very focussed on the music. So it was a real shame to end the final by pointing a microphone at Lauren Zhang at her moment of triumph to ask her “how do you feel?” – just don’t do that. But otherwise it was a lovely final with excellent performances by ‘cellist Maxim Calver and saxophone player Rob Burton before Lauren Zhang’s Prokofiev took us to a different level.

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Jeremy Hardy

18 May 2018

I have written here before of my admiration for Jeremy Hardy (in March 2007 and October 2013), but seeing him at The Stables in Milton Keynes last Saturday confirmed to me that he really is a comedian at the top of his game. His apparently casual, stream-of-consciousness delivery is actually incredibly cleverly constructed. He didn’t spend quite as long on stage as Danny Baker (who we saw the week before at Warwick Arts Centre) but Jeremy Hardy similarly barely paused for breath and talked through the many laughs rather than attempting to milk them. As usual there was a lot of politics and he didn’t shy away from uncomfortable subjects including Syria, Brexit, the Skripal poisoning and anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. But Jeremy Hardy always manages to cover such heavy topics with a lightness of touch, and also found time for plenty of middle class anxiety (not realising that the National Trust and English Heritage are separate organisations) and middle-aged frustration (being mistaken for someone taking a selfie when he was just holding his phone at arm’s length to read a text message without his reading glasses).


Friday, May 11, 2018

‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ by Tennessee Williams

11 May 2018

We last saw ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ by Tennessee Williams at the Novello Theatre in London’s West End in 2010 (reviewed here in February 2010) – a production memorable for James Earl Jones’ show-stealing performance as Big Daddy. On Tuesday we were at the Quarry Theatre in Bedford to see an encore screening of the NT Live broadcast of the Young Vic production of the play directed by Benedict Andrews. It was a gripping and powerfully acted performance with Sienna Miller very impressive as Maggie and Jack O’Connell a weary, muscular, ever-present Brick. Colm Meaney was great as Big Daddy – his expressive face betraying his constant frustration with his family and demonstrating a comic double-take that Oliver Hardy would have been proud of. Seeing the broadcast on a hot stuffy day in Bedford only helped to emphasise the stifling feel of the play.

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Danny Baker

11 May 2018

I have written here before of my admiration for the writer and broadcaster Danny Baker (reviewing the first two volumes of his autobiography here in July 2013 and April 2016). On Saturday we had the privilege of seeing him live at Warwick Arts Centre, on his second tour of anecdotes and reminiscences. Danny Baker is a brilliant storyteller – completely engaging and incredibly funny. He has a manic energy and an obsessive need to cram in as much as possible. Constantly pacing up and down and maintaining a rapid fire delivery with hardly a pause for breath, he came on stage at 7.30 pm and finished just after 11.00 pm, having failed to get through most of what he had planned to say. This was partly because he felt obliged to fill in most of the backstory of his childhood for the benefit of anyone who had missed his first tour a year ago (saying, with hindsight, “I should have done an early show at 5 pm for those of you who need to catch up”). He eventually got to ‘the rock ‘n’ roll years’ – recounting his experiences of working as a journalist at the NME and getting his break as a television presenter. But there is clearly much still left to tell and I can’t wait for the next instalment.

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Thursday, May 03, 2018

'Romeo and Juliet' by William Shakespeare

3 May 2018

The last play I saw directed by the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Deputy Artistic Director, Erica Whyman, was ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play for the Nation’ (reviewed here in May 2016) which featured local actors from amateur theatre companies playing the rude mechanicals alongside a professional RSC cast, with children from local schools playing Titania's fairies. So it was fascinating to see Erica Whyman building on this experience in her new production of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ which we saw at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon on Tuesday. ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is a play about young people but I don’t think I have ever seen it performed with such a young cast: a host of excellent early career professionals made the lead parts incredibly believable while young people from schools across the UK added to the ensemble on stage. Juliet is supposed to be 13 years-old at the start of the play and, while she is a few years older than that, the young Scottish actor Karen Fishwick – who we had previously seen as one of the schoolgirls in Lee Hall’s ‘Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour’ (reviewed here in May 2017) – did seem very young. Bally Gill as Romeo had a streetwise bravado coupled with youthful naivety that helped to explain his character’s rapid lurches between passion and violence. Setting this young cast in a very contemporary world made the knife fights between the rival young gangs feel frighteningly realistic. But the emphasis on youth strangely helped to show that the often disastrous actions of the young characters in the play are entirely understandable reactions to the situations in which they find themselves. It is the adults in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ whose actions are less excusable: it is their rush to support or condemn the youngsters that leads to tragedy. Erica Whyman interestingly also cast the adult parts with age-appropriate actors: it’s the first production of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ I have seen where both Montague and Capulet were younger than me! And this is a production that celebrates diversity in many ways, gender-swapping several characters and exploring sexuality and ethnicity. It was a confident, funny and thrilling production which felt completely gripping and it was wonderful to experience the reactions of the many young people in an enthralled audience.

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Friday, April 27, 2018

'The Last Ship' by Sting

27 April 2018

On Thursday we were at the Derngate in Northampton to see 'The Last Ship' - Sting's musical about the fight to prevent closure of a Wallsend shipyard in the 1980s. Originally produced on Broadway in 2014, this completely revised version, with a new book by Lorne Campbell (who also directs), has been getting great reviews. Its tale of a working community pulling together to oppose the forces of capitalism has been compared to 'The Full Monty' and 'Brassed Off' but 'The Last Ship' is a bleaker show. A little slow to get started, the second half of the musical increases the narrative pace and builds to a powerful emotional climax. Sting's music very effectively blends North East folk styles with pop, alluding in places to the clog tradition (though I would have loved to see a proper clog dancing number in the show). Joe McGann leads an impressive cast in this touring Northern Stage production, with particularly fine singing from Frances McNamee  and Richard Fleeshman (you could imagine Sting himself signing some of Fleeshman's ballads). The ensemble choral singing was very strong, making the most of the distinctive North East accents. But the real star of the show was the amazing set and design by 59 Productions which makes very effective use of projection to create the massive scale of the shipyard on the large Derngate stage. The visual effects, blending live action and the physical set with video and lighting, were stunning.

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Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert

24 April 2018

There seems to be an increasing trend for football players missing games because they get injured in the warm-up but this sort of thing is still thankfully rare amongst orchestral musicians. So it was a shock when the start of our Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert last Saturday was delayed after one of our oboe players was stung on the lip by a wasp while the orchestra was tuning-up. Sadly she was unable to play in the concert – as was our principal ‘cellist who had been taken ill a few days before. Nevertheless, the orchestra managed a fine performance of a challenging programme with Philip Luck’s ‘cello solos proving a particularly impressive highlight. Continuing our season of music inspired by the visual arts, for this concert NSO conductor John Gibbons had selected a series of pieces evoking the sea. ‘The Garden of Fand’ by Arnold Bax is based on an Irish mythical figure, Fand, the daughter of the Lord of the Ocean. It is an ethereal piece underpinned by the constant swelling of the waves. Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphonic poem ‘Sadko’ also draws inspiration from legend, being based on an epic Russian poem in which the hero Sadko is transported to the realm of the Sea King. The best known piece in the programme was ‘La Mer’ by Claude Debussy – a three-movement impressionist picture of the sea that requires a mixture of concentration, delicacy and power from the orchestra. There was fine playing from all sections of the NSO, particularly the woodwind and Nick Bunker’s excellent trumpet solos. But the highlight of the concert was undoubtedly Richard Peaslee’s trombone concerto ‘Arrows of Time’, magnificently played by Carol Jarvis. ‘Arrows of Time’ is an accessibly tuneful modern piece with playful syncopated rhythms. Carol Jarvis gave a virtuoso performance, demonstrating an amazing dexterity in the fast passages and a beautiful tone in the slow movement.

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Friday, April 20, 2018

BBC Young Musician podcast

20 April 2018

Regular readers will be familiar with my enthusiasm for the biennial BBC Young Musician competition which I have written extensively about here since 2006. I am really enjoying watching the category finals of the 2018 competition (currently being shown on Friday evenings on BBC4) and I will share my thoughts after the concerto final on 13 May. I am also really enjoying the new BBC Young Musician weekly podcast which accompanies this year’s competition. Hosted by 2016 BBC Young Musician finalist, saxophonist Jess Gillam, it’s a really engaging discussion about what it is like to learn an instrument, practice, perform in public and develop a musical career. Each week Jess and her friends discuss their own experiences and interview former BBC Young Musician winners. Jess Gillam – who performed twice with the Northampton Symphony Orchestra last year (reviewed here in March 2017 and July 2017) – is a natural presenter: open, engaging and enthusiastic. The podcasts, which have so far covered topics including stage fright, practice and getting into music, are interesting and amusing. There don’t refer directly to this year’s BBC Young Musician competition so there are no spoilers. Well worth a listen. See:

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Friday, April 13, 2018

'The Likeness' by Tana French

13 April 2018

Regular readers may remember that I have been working my way through the six Dublin Murder Squad novels by Tana French. As each novel features a different lead detective I have been able to read them out of order. I have now completed the set by reading novel 2: ‘The Likeness’ (as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Grainne Gillis). This is a sequel, of sorts, to ‘In the Woods’ (reviewed here in May 2017) in that its narrator is Detective Cassie Maddox, who was partner to the previous novel’s narrator Detective Rob Ryan, and the events of ‘The Likeness’ take place against the backdrop of the fallout from their previous case. But each novel stands alone as a murder mystery and ‘The Likeness’ is grippingly plotted. I found the premise that an undercover detective could pass herself off as the murder victim, resuming her life amongst her closest friends, a little too far-fetched – even if she happens to be a doppelgänger for the dead woman. But once you go with it, this premise sets up a thrilling undercover investigation to try to work out exactly what happened and who committed the murder. ‘The Likeness’ also introduces Detective Frank Mackey – a recurring character through several of the other Murder Squad novels. Now I’m waiting for the seventh novel in the series to be published.