Monday, November 12, 2018

Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert

12 November 2018

On Saturday we launched the 125th anniversary season of the Northampton Symphony Orchestra with a piece written in 1893 – the year the orchestra was founded: ‘Entry March of the Boyars’ by the Norwegian composer Johan Halvorsen. This was followed by the ever-popular ‘Cello Concerto’ by Antonin Dvorak, written soon afterwards and premiered in 1896. Our soloist was the wonderful young Ukrainian ‘cellist Yaroslava Trofymchuk who gave a stunning performance of this incredibly romantic piece. Dvorak wrote the concerto during his stay in America and you can hear the similarities with his ‘New World Symphony’, which we are due to perform in February 2019. We finished Saturday’s concert with Aaron Copland’s ‘Third Symphony’, written to celebrate the end of the Second World War. It’s an optimistic piece which paints a picture of a forward-looking America. The final movement uses Copland’s ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’, written in 1942 to mark America’s entry into the war but reworked here as a poignant reflection. The symphony is full of Copland’s distinctive sparse orchestral sound, with recognisable echoes of ‘Rodeo’ and ‘Appalachian Spring’. It is a considerable test of stamina, particularly for the brass section in the mammoth final movement. I really enjoyed getting to know the symphony and I think our performance was pretty impressive, with brass and percussion excelling in the famous fanfare and some great delicacy from the strings, woodwind, keyboards and harps in the quieter sections.

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Friday, November 09, 2018

'Whorls' by Kittel & Co

9 November 2018

I’ve been enjoying ‘Whorls’, the debut album by Brooklyn-based fiddler Jeremy Kittel’s new string quintet Kittel & Co. The band consists of Kittel’s violin plus mandolin, guitar, ‘cello and hammer-dulcimer. The mostly instrumental tracks are mixture of bluegrass, Celtic folk, jazz and classical. This is gentle, thoughtful music, excellently played – folk chamber music rather than dance music. See this 3-minute video about the making of ‘Whorls’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DPttBkXQ5Io

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Friday, November 02, 2018

'The Giant Killers' by Andrew and Eve Pearson-Wright

2 November 2018

On Sunday we were at the Stantonbury Theatre in Milton Keynes to see the Long Lane Theatre Company production of ‘The Giant Killers’ by Andrew and Eve Pearson-Wright. This is the true story of Darwen Football Club, the first working-class team to play in the FA Cup. In 1879 they took on the “poshest team of all” – The Old Etonians. The play is ‘The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists’ with added football, looking at working conditions in the cotton mills of Lancashire and the clashes between unions and management as well as the early development of Association Football. It’s a fascinating and inspiring story, told with gusto by a cast of four as a kind of dramatised lecture. Some of the language (particularly the swearing) felt a bit too contemporary for 1879 but this didn’t detract from the rousing David vs Goliath narrative which had us all shouting “Darwen, Darwen” by the end.

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Andy Hamilton

2 November 2018

I’ve long been a fan of the comedian and writer Andy Hamilton but had not had the chance to see him perform live until Saturday when we were at the Harpenden Public Halls for ‘An Audience with Andy Hamilton’. It’s a brave move for a comedian to genuinely base a whole performance around answering audience questions but Andy Hamilton is a great raconteur and the slightest of prompts set him off on a multitude of entertaining anecdotes. It helps that he has such a huge back catalogue of comedy successes – from writing for ‘Weekending’ in the 1980s to ‘Drop the Dead Donkey’, ‘Old Harry’s Game’, ‘Revolting People’ and ‘Outnumbered’, as well as regular appearances on ‘The News Quiz’, ‘Have I Got News For You?’ and ‘QI’. Andy Hamilton is a very gentle, likeable comedian and an evening based on audience participation never felt threatening in the way it might in other hands.  

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Thursday, October 25, 2018

'Early Riser' by Jasper Fforde

25 October 2018

Regular readers may remember my enthusiasm for Jasper Fforde’s silly fantasy novels, particularly the Nursery Crimes series (reviewed here in April and October 2007), his Thursday Next literary detective series (reviewed here in August, September and October 2008, February and April 2009 and April 2012) and his 'Dragonslayer' young-adult fantasy novels (‘The Last Dragonslayer’ reviewed here in August 2014). I was less taken with his more serious post-apocalyptic dystopian novel ‘Shades of Grey’ (no, not that one! – reviewed here in April 2011), intended as the first in a series but not yet followed up. Jasper Fforde’s new novel ‘Early Riser’, which I have just finished reading as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Thomas Hunt, is his first deliberately stand-alone novel. And this feels like a successful blend of what he was trying to achieve with ‘Shades of Grey’ and the comic parallel-world versions of real places from his earlier series. After his bizarre alternative-reality versions of Reading (Nursery Crimes), Swindon (Thursday Next) and Hereford (Dragonslayer), ‘Early Riser’ is set in weirdly recognisable but significantly different Wales. In this reality severe five-month winters (caused by some catastrophic but unexplained climate change) mean the majority of the population have to hibernate in order to survive. Only a few hardy ‘consuls’ stay awake to police the savage winter months. It’s a high concept novel, drawn in intricate detail but with enough reference to the real world to make it relatively easy to follow. I missed the silly humour of Fforde’s earlier novels but I enjoyed the unravelling mystery plot and the cast of eccentric but loveable characters. (You’ve got to love the night-walker zombie Mrs Tiffin, doomed to endlessly play ‘Help Yourself’ by Tom Jones on the bouzouki!). It was lovely to see a reprise (from the Thursday Next novels) of the Wales Tourist Board slogan ‘Wales: not always raining’. And interesting to see the parallel between the parts of the action that take place within fictional books in the Thursday Next series and within dreams in ‘Early Riser’. It was also nice to have a self-contained plot which properly resolves itself rather than just preparing for a sequel – though I will miss Charlie ‘Wonky’ Worthing and his friends. But “we’ll always have the Gower”.

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Wednesday, October 24, 2018

'Touching the Void' adapted by David Greig from the book by Joe Simpson

24 October 2018

In 1985, while climbing in the Peruvian Andes, Joe Simpson slipped down an ice cliff and broke his leg. His climbing partner Simon Yates attempted to lower him down the mountain but inadvertently lowered Simpson off a cliff. Suddenly the rope tying the two men together threatened both their lives and Yates took the horrible decision to cut the rope to save himself while Simpson plunged to almost certain death. I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to reveal that Simpson didn’t die, as his incredible tale of survival against all the odds became an award-winning book and film. Now playwright David Greig and director Tom Morris have adapted ‘Touching the Void’ for the stage, in a joint production by Bristol Old Vic, Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh, Royal & Derngate Northampton and Fuel, which we saw in Northampton on Saturday. Their creative approaches to dramatising Joe Simpson’s interior monologue and staging the mountaineering are very innovative and impressive – helped by Ti Green’s amazing set which creates a very theatrical version of the story. The cast of four actors take on some incredibly physical challenges and David Greig’s framing of the tale, beginning with a wake for Simpson in a Scottish climbers’ pub, is very clever. And I liked that the play’s musical soundtrack used tracks chosen by Joe Simpson when he appeared on ‘Desert Island Discs’ in 2004. But I felt they missed a trick by ending the play with the ‘revelation’ of Simpson’s survival rather than going on to explore the subsequent relationship between him and Simon Yates and that painful question of whether he should have cut the rope.

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Friday, October 19, 2018

'Troilus and Cressida' by William Shakespeare

19 October 2018

This week I ticked off one of the diminishing number of Shakespeare plays I had never seen, with Gregory Doran’s new RSC production of ‘Troilus and Cressida’ which we saw at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon on Thursday. Shakespeare throws us straight into the Trojan War with the Prologue explaining that we are “beginning in the middle”. He manages to incorporate almost every ancient Greek character you have heard of: Agamemnon, Menelaus, Ulysses, Paris, Hector, Priam, Achilles, Patroclus, Cassandra, Helen et al. Doran’s production is set in a steampunk, ‘Mad Max’ version of Troy, complete with motorbikes and shipping containers (standing in for the Greek army’s tents). He squeezes as much comedy as possible from this brutal tale of war, with Sheila Reid’s Thersites as a Janette Krankie Shakespearean Fool, somewhat incongruous amongst the Greek warriors. ‘Troilus and Cressida’ is an odd play – a mixture of history, comedy and tragedy with recognisable elements of other Shakespeare plays (‘Romeo and Juliet’, ‘Henry IV Part One’, ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ etc) transposed to ancient Greece. It’s not his greatest work but the RSC production is impressive, with an original musical score for four percussionists by Evelyn Glennie (her first composition for the stage). And RSC veteran Oliver Ford Davies steals the show as Pandarus – a very funny performance as the kind of bumbling old fool that he specialises in: nobody does Oliver Ford Davies better than Oliver Ford Davies!

'Troilus and Cressida' will be broadcast live from Stratford-upon-Avon to cinemas on 14 November.

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Monday, October 15, 2018

'Dangerous Corner' by J B Priestley

15 October 2018

On Saturday we were at the Abbey Theatre in St Albans to see ‘Dangerous Corner’ by J B Priestley, presented by the very impressive local amateur theatre group ‘Company of Ten’. Written in 1932, ‘Dangerous Corner’ was Priestley’s first solo play. It is a drawing-room drama that reflects its period and is a very clever, slowly revealing thriller. Priestley’s intricate web of unrequited attractions is maybe a little too neat but makes for a very satisfying puzzle. Tina Swain’s production managed to unveil each hidden connection without descending into melodrama. She was aided by an excellent amateur cast: all seven actors were very strong but Andrew Baird as the knowingly cynical Stanton was the pick of the bunch.

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