Friday, March 20, 2015

'A Spool of Blue Thread' by Anne Tyler

20 March 2015

Anne Tyler has said her latest novel, 'A Spool of Blue Thread', might be her last. That would be a great shame as she is still at the height of her powers. 'A Spool of Blue Thread', which I have just finished reading (as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Kimberly Farr), is an amazing book. It is the story of a family, and the story of a house, with the narrative flitting forwards and backwards in time to create a thoroughly rounded picture of the Whitshanks and their family home on Bouton Road in Baltimore. Anne Tyler's writing appears clear and simple – it lacks the elegant flourishes of Marilynne Robinson's prose (reviewed here in February 2015) – but goes much deeper than you first realise, building an incredibly powerful emotional connection with the characters. 'A Spool of Blue Thread' is full of domestic scenes where little seems to be happening but enormous currents swell beneath the trivial everyday tasks. This is a mature Anne Tyler novel, without some of the quirkiness of her earlier books, more melancholy and serious. We really feel the family's joy and grief. It's gentle, subtle, impressive and moving. More please, Anne.

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Friday, March 13, 2015

'Behind the Beautiful Forevers' by David Hare, based on the book by Katherine Boo

13 March 2015

Katherine Boo's prize-winning book 'Behind the Beautiful Forevers' chronicles life in Annawadi – a shanty town next to the airport in Mumbai, which looks a lot like the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. David Hare's play, directed by Rufus Norris for the National Theatre, and broadcast to cinemas by NT Live this week, dramatises real people and incidents to create a theatrical experience that is shocking, frightening and violent but also warm, funny and uplifting. We saw the NT Live broadcast at Cineworld in Milton Keynes and the combination of the impressive scale of the set, recreating Annawadi on the vast Lyttleton stage, with the close-ups afforded by the NT Live cameras made for a compelling spectacle. 'Behind the Beautiful Forevers' was also the first National Theatre show to feature a completely British Asian cast. It was a fascinating and moving production.

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Monday, March 02, 2015

Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert

2 March 2015

The music of Anton Bruckner tends to divide classical music fans. Unsurprisingly, as a horn player, I love Bruckner symphonies – my CD box set of all eleven symphonies (numbers 1-9, Die Nulte (number 0) and the Study Symphony (number 00)), conducted by Georg Tintner with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, is a treasured favourite in my music collection. Bruckner's orchestral music has a raw, slowly menacing power, like huge waves rolling through the middle of a great ocean. There is beauty, glory and brilliance, tempered by humility. The symphonies are big, long, and loud, but with moments of unexpected gentleness. On Saturday I played the first horn part in Bruckner's Symphony No 6 with the Northampton Symphony Orchestra at St Matthew's Church in Northampton. During 2014-15, while we search for a new permanent conductor, each NSO concert is being directed by a different guest conductor. On Saturday James Ham, currently the Sir Charles Mackerras Conducting Fellow at Trinity Laban Conservatoire, drew a great performance from the orchestra that had seemed unlikely as late as last Wednesday's rehearsal. I think it's fair to say we had struggled to get used to the Bruckner, but it came together beautifully on Saturday evening and I really enjoyed playing it. Bruckner writes wonderfully for the horns, with plenty to do throughout the piece and prominent moments for all four horn players. It was great to be part of a really strong horn section and, though there was some fine playing in all sections of the orchestra, this time I think I might be forgiven for saying it was all about the horns! The concert opened with Mozart's Overture to 'Cosi fan Tutte' which we followed with a wonderful performance of the Schumann Piano Concerto by the brilliant young, Northampton-born soloist, Stephen Meakins. Stephen, a 27-year-old graduate of the Royal College of Music, had not performed the Schumann before and told me he had been working on the piece for fourteen months in preparation for this one performance. I don't know about him but that made me nervous! I needn't have worried as he gave a stunning performance, our accompaniment of the tricky syncopated passage in the last movement finally began to click in Saturday afternoon's rehearsal and James held us together well in the concert. It was a really enjoyable concert, perhaps more so because the orchestra had not felt particularly comfortable with the repertoire and had to work that bit harder, so the results were especially pleasing. Now I'm really looking forward to the next concert, new pieces and another new conductor.

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Thursday, February 26, 2015

'Jefferson's Garden' by Timberlake Wertenbaker

26 February 2015

Last Saturday we were at the Watford Palace Theatre to see 'Jefferson's Garden', a new play by Timberlake Wertenbaker, directed by Brigid Larmour. It tells the story of the American War of Independence and the founding of the United States through the eyes of a quaker family, newly arrived from England. Wertenbaker manages to blend the macro political story with the personal family tale by using a Greek-style chorus. The chorus steps out of the historical period, using contemporary language and references wittily to prick the potential pomposity of a very worthy narrative. With a cast of nine actors playing a host of characters on a fairly bare set, this is a fast-moving and inventive piece of theatre. But there is a very serious purpose at the heart of the play, as it addresses Jefferson's dilemma in drawing up the Declaration of Independence – whether the hard-won freedom should be extended to the slaves, knowing that this would have split the new union.

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Bad Manners

26 February 2015

I have been to many concerts at Bedford Corn Exchange over the years, but (perhaps because most of the concerts have involved the Philharmonia Orchestra) I have never previously witnessed the audience anticipating the arrival of the performers on the stage by aggressively chanting “You Fat Bastard, You Fat Bastard”. When Bad Manners finally took to the stage, their inimitable lead-singer, Buster Bloodvessel, beaming at the adoring crowd, simply replied “you're too kind!”. We later learned that the portly Buster Bloodvessel, now 56 years old, had just got out of hospital and nearly didn't make the concert. Bad Manners' upbeat 1980s ska is cheerful, catchy and incredibly tongue-in-cheek. At one point Buster Bloodvessel said “now for something serious – and some people say we're just a joke band” before launching into a very cheesy version of Andy Williams' “Can't Take My Eyes Off You”. Buster Bloodvessel is a compelling front man who looks like he is having a ball. As I've said here on numerous occasions, you can’t beat a band that dances to its own tunes – and Bad Manners never stopped dancing. A packed Corn Exchange was full of fans who knew the words to all the band's songs and were also dancing like it was 1981. Towards the end of the evening my eye was distracted by a sudden movement across the stage. It took me a moment to realise this was a dog running into the middle of the band. “That's my dog” Buster informed us as the hound leapt up at him, playfully. He proceeded to hold the microphone so we could hear the dog barking in time to the ska beat, its tail wagging furiously.


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Friday, February 20, 2015

'Housekeeping' by Marilynne Robinson

20 February 2015

I've been reading Marilynne Robinson's 1980 novel 'Housekeeping' (as an unabridged audio book narrated by Becket Royce). 'Housekeeping' is widely regarded as a modern American classic, which Robinson followed more than twenty years later with the highly-acclaimed Gilead trilogy of novels. It's the tale of a family living in the remote Idaho town of Fingerbone. The domestic setting and gentle pace reminded me of the books of Anne Tyler. 'Housekeeping' is narrated by Ruth, one of two young girls who are cared for by a succession of family members after their mother's suicide. The writing very cleverly gives the impression of a girl emerging from the fuzzy confusion of childhood into a world that gradually crystallises as she approaches adulthood. At first I was not clear which of the sisters was the elder – for a while I wondered whether they might be twins – but as they grow older and more distinct from each other, it becomes very clear which is the younger sibling. This gently confusing, non-linear narrative feels initially a little hard to follow but you soon realise that this is not a book that requires you to pay attention to an intricate plot. There is very little plot in 'Housekeeping' – the most dramatic events (a train plunging off a bridge into the lake, a car driving into the lake) happen off-stage or before the start of the narrative. This is a novel that focusses on characters and family relationships. It's beautifully written – I found myself frequently stopping to note the most lovely phrases. Of Bernice, an elderly neighbour who wears an excessive amount of make-up, we are told “she was an old woman but she managed to look like a young woman with a ravaging disease”. When floods swept the town “the library was flooded to a depth of three shelves, creating vast gaps in the Dewey Decimal system”. Floods are a recurring theme of the novel, as are the call of the railroad and a transient life. The tone of Ruth's narrative is unexcitable, matter-of-fact, taking the eccentricities of others in her stride. 'Housekeeping' washes over the reader like a gentle, benevolent flood.

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Friday, February 13, 2015

Natalie Prass

13 February 2015

I'm really enjoying the eponymous album by the young American singer-songwriter Natalie Prass. Natalie Prass has a delicate, pretty voice and writes beautiful songs in a variety of styles – from country to soul. This is upbeat but slightly wistful pop with soaring strings and a laid-back horn section. The brass sound in particular reminds me of Zach Condon's Beirut (reviewed here in November 2006 and October 2007) and the catchy, theatrical songs sound a lot like Nerrina Pallot (reviewed here in May 2006). The album has a retro feel that seems like a familiar old friend the first time you hear it. Lovely stuff.

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Wednesday, February 04, 2015

'The Corrections' by Jonathan Franzen, adapted by Marcy Kahan

4 February 2015

Jonathan Franzen's 2001 novel, 'The Corrections', is one of the great contemporary American novels and one of the best books I've read in the past twenty years. It's more than ten years since I read 'The Corrections' so I have enjoyed reconnecting with it through the recent BBC Radio 4 dramatisation which I finished listening to this week. Marcy Kahan's adaptation, in fifteen 15-minute episodes, necessarily cherry-picks key scenes from this mammoth novel but felt like rediscovering old friends. I had forgotten many aspects of the story and was surprised to remember how funny it is. 'The Corrections' looks at the relationships between an elderly Mid-Western couple, Alfred and Enid Lambert and their three grown-up children. It is an often-excruciating examination of the strains within a family. As Enid tries desperately to persuade her sons and daughter to come to the family home for one last Christmas together, Jonathan Franzen manages to make the reader simultaneously sympathetic to characters with directly opposing points of view (something also very impressively achieved by Andrea Levy in 'Small Island'). All the main protagonists can be quite annoying but each has some redeeming qualities. 'The Corrections' is incredibly sad, painful and terribly funny, with some great set-piece scenes. You can still listen to most of the episodes at: www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04wtcj1

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