Friday, September 22, 2017

'The Box Garden' by Carol Shields

22 September 2017

I had forgotten how much I like the work of the Canadian novelist Carol Shields. Very much like Anne Tyler, Carol Shields (who died in 2003) wrote domestic dramas where something threatens to disrupt the pattern of day-to-day family life forcing the main character to reflect on her life and her future. I have just read ‘The Box Garden’ - a 1977 novel by Carol Shields which I found in a charity shop and it has rekindled my enthusiasm for her books. It is a very subtly but cleverly plotted novel. You are not sure where it is going to take you but by the time something dramatic happens to challenge the status quo the various members of the family at the heart of the story have been so well drawn that you can predict how each of them will react to the situation. It’s a beautifully written tale and has made me want to return to some of my favourite Carol Shields novels such as ‘Larry’s Party’ and ‘The Stone Diaries’.

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‘Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World’ by Haruki Murakami

22 September 2017

Regular readers will know I am a big fan of the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami. Earlier this year I spotted a couple of early Murakami novels I hadn’t read in a charity shop in Great Malvern. One of these was his 1985 novel ‘Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World’ which I have just finished reading. This book has all the usual Murakami elements – a contemporary real-world Japan setting into which magical realism starts to intrude, a parallel fantasy world and a host of Western cultural references. Murakami is probably an acquired taste – particularly in relation to his reluctance to tie up the loose ends of his incredibly weird plots. ‘Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World’ resolves more satisfyingly that many of his books but it’s still a very peculiar plot. I love the quirkiness and unpredictability of a Murakami novel and the seriousness with which he, and his characters, take their musical references – in this case, for example, discussing the merits of various different recordings of the ‘Brandenburg Concertos’. But if you are new to Haruki Murakami I would still suggest starting by reading 'Kafka on the Shore' (reviewed here in October 2006).

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Canary Islands Cruise

22 September 2017

We had a lovely cruise on the new P&O ship Britannia, visiting Spain, Madeira and the Canary Islands. We enjoyed lovely weather and fairly calm seas. Lanzarote was our favourite of the islands we visited but the highlight of our holiday was a return to the lovely city of Cadiz, which we visited last year on our previous cruise. On board the ship we did a lot of ballroom dancing: it’s wonderful to be able to dance to an excellent live band every night. And I took my first ever tap dancing lessons – something I have wanted to do for years and really enjoyed.

You can see a selection of my holiday photos at: https://culturaloutlook.blogspot.co.uk/search/label/CanariesSept2017

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Friday, September 01, 2017

'Stay With Me' by Ayobami Adebayo

1 September 2017

It was interesting to see ‘Yerma’ in the week I finished reading Ayobami Adebayo’s novel ‘Stay With Me’ (which I read as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Adjoa Andoh). This is another story of a couple’s desperation to have children – but in a very different context. Set in Nigeria in the 1980s and 1990s, ‘Stay With Me’ reveals a society which feels shockingly alien. The gender divide is stark, with polygamy the norm – and the reason for a husband to take multiple wives is entirely about providing the family with sufficient offspring. ‘Stay With Me’ tells its family saga through first person narration from the point of view of both Yejide and her husband Akin. It’s not a happy story – and it is set against a backdrop of military coups and armed robberies. But it provides a fascinating insight into what feels like a very old-fashioned, family focussed society but is actually a fairly recent period in Nigeria’s history.

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'Yerma' by Simon Stone after Federico García Lorca

1 September 2017

On Thursday we were at Leighton Buzzard Theatre to see the live screening of Simon Stone’s production of ‘Yerma’ from the Young Vic in London. Adapted by 31-year-old Australian director and writer Simon Stone from the 1934 play by Federico García Lorca, this ‘Yerma’ is set in contemporary London and features an amazing performance by Billie Piper. The play tells the story of a young couple (played by Billie Piper and Brendan Cowell) trying to start a family. We piece together their journey through a rapid series of short scenes, each separated by a passage of time (48 hours, a few months, two years) indicated by captions in a way that reminded me of Harold Pinter’s ‘Betrayal’. The dialogue is smart, hip and often overlapping and it took me a while to ‘tune in’ but the effect is very realistic. Indeed Stone does a remarkable job of making an old-fashioned brutal tragedy completely believable in this modern context. The set, by Lizzie Clachan encases the stage in a massive glass box, giving the impression that we are watching specimens in some scientific experiment and creating spooky effects with multiple reflections of the actors in the glass – in a similar way to the set for Polly Findlay's RSC production of 'The Merchant of Venice' (reviewed here in August 2015). The acting is excellent throughout: I particularly enjoyed Maureen Beattie as the unemotional, determinedly rational mother. The script is incredibly witty and the play is often very funny but, ultimately, it tells a grim tale. And Billie Piper, on stage for almost every minute of the play, gives an achingly real portrayal of a life gradually falling apart.

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Thursday, August 24, 2017

'42nd Street' by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble with songs by Harry Warren and Al Dubin

24 August 2017

‘42nd Street’ was a 1933 film directed by Lloyd Bacon with songs by Harry Warren and Al Dubin, and choreography by the inimitable Busby Berkeley. It was the classic feelgood backstage musical about the chorus girl who steps in for an indisposed leading lady and becomes a star – designed to cheer up depression-era America. ‘42nd Street’ didn’t become a stage musical until 1980 when the producer David Merrick commissioned a book by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble and added more Warren & Dubin songs (originally written for other films). The show was a hit and the subsequent London West End production, in 1984, is famous for life imitating art as the teenaged Catherine Zeta-Jones actually had to stand in when both the actor playing Peggy Sawyer and her understudy were taken ill, and was then cast permanently in the role, launching her professional career. I saw that West End production when it toured to the Opera House in Manchester in the late 1980s and I can remember being bowled over from the start of the show when the current rises to reveal row upon row of people tap dancing to the title song. So I was looking forward to seeing whether the show was as good as I remembered when we went to see the latest West End revival, directed by the show’s author Mark Bramble, with choreography by Randy Skinner, at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, last Saturday. It was brilliant! Even that opening moment didn’t disappoint as the curtain rose a few tentative inches and paused to show forty pairs of tap dancing feet, before completing its ascent to reveal the whole massive stage of the Theatre Royal. ‘42nd Street’ is a delightfully old-fashioned musical: there is very little plot but the dialogue is snappy, the songs are wonderful and the dance numbers are truly amazing. This production has a cast of 55 people on stage (plus 19 musicians in the pit) and provides an endless supply of big dance numbers, including a typical Busby Berkeley circle of dancers lying on the stage with a huge overhead mirror to show the audience the kaleidoscopic patterns they create. The star name in the cast is Sheena Easton as awkward diva Dorothy Brock: I was particularly impressed by her singing in the challenging chromatic intervals of ‘About a Quarter To Nine’. But the show definitely belongs to the dancers: Clare Halse as Peggy Sawyer and Stuart Neal as Billy Lawlor were both incredible. With tap dancing there really is nowhere to hide – it’s audibly obvious if you put a foot wrong. And the increasingly ambitious tap routines create a thrilling, breath-holding fascination before delivering beautifully every time. By the final spectacular ensemble dances I had tears in my eyes from the sheer joy of this stunning live entertainment. ‘42nd Street’ is still a feelgood show for depressing times – go see it.

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Tuesday, August 15, 2017

'Golden Hill' by Francis Spufford

15 August 2017

I last encountered the historical writer Francis Spufford through his excellent BBC Radio 4 mini-series about HG Wells’ ‘The War of the Worlds’, ‘Following the Martian Invasion’ (reviewed here in March 2017). Spufford brings an historian’s touch to his first novel ‘Golden Hill’, which I have just finished reading (as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Sarah Borges). ‘Golden Hill’ is a brilliant tour de force. Set in Manhattan in 1746, when New York City has a population of 7,000 and feels like a frontier town, ‘Golden Hill’ is written in the style of novels of that period – a ‘Joseph Andrews’ for the New World. As a contemporary novel written in an historical style, it reminded me of Jo Baker's 'Longbourn' (reviewed here in April 2014), 'The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet’ by David Mitchell (reviewed here in August 2011) and 'The Luminaries' by Eleanor Catton (reviewed here in December 2013). ‘Golden Hill’ grips from the start as a mysterious young man arrives on a ship from London with a bill of exchange for an unbelievable amount of money. The novel is beautifully written, historically fascinating with wonderfully drawn characters and a mesmeric plot. It manages to be a very funny comic novel without reducing its protagonists to caricatures. And there is a final satisfying twist which is achieved without any damage to the believability of the story. ‘Golden Hill’ is one of the best novels I’ve read in years – very highly recommended.

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County Wicklow

15 August 2017

Earlier this year my brother and his wife moved to the Republic of Ireland and last week we visited them in their new home in the beautiful Wicklow Mountains, South of Dublin. We had a lovely week exploring County Wicklow – walking part of the Wicklow Way with stunning views of the Great Sugar Loaf mountain, walking the spectacular coastal path from Bray to Greystones and looking down on the dramatic valley of the two lakes, Glendalough. We visited the stately homes of Castletown and Powerscourt and enjoyed a brilliant concert by the Chamber Philharmonia Cologne in Wicklow Town. We also visited the mediaeval town of Kilkenny on the opening day of the Kilkenny Arts Festival. And we were very lucky with the weather – hardly any rain and plenty of glorious sunshine. You can see a selection of my photos of Wicklow at: http://culturaloutlook.blogspot.co.uk/search/label/Wicklow2017

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Tuesday, August 01, 2017

WOMAD 2017

1 August 2017

I have been writing here about my annual visit to the WOMAD Festival every year since 2006, so regular readers will be expecting a list of my key highlights, a boast about how many bands I saw and some comments on the weather – and I don’t plan to disappoint you! This year it was good to get the chance to see again some old favourites as well as some great new discoveries. It was WOMAD 2009 when I last saw the great Wassalou singer from Mali, Oumou Sangaré (reviewed here in July 2009 and March 2009), and it was wonderful to see her on great form again on the Open Air Stage this weekend. I wrote here in January 2016 about ‘Junun’ – the wonderfully hard-to-categorise album of music by the Israeli composer Shye Ben Tzur, recorded with a troupe of Sufi qawwali musicians and Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood – and it was great to get the chance to see this music performed live by Shye Ben Tzur & Rajasthan Express on Friday. One of the most bizarre moments of the weekend was watching Dorit Chrysler and Charlie Draper from the New York Theremin Society performing a mixture of classical, jazz and contemporary music on the original electronic instrument – I want a theremin! Talking of bizarre, it was a joy to discover the brilliant Spooky Men’s Chorale from the Blue Mountains of Australia. As their own publicity says “Men. Singing Songs. Some of them are funny.” Their idiosyncratic mixture of dead-pan comedy, pathos and beautiful harmonies felt like a combination of the amazing Chumbawamba performance at WOMAD 2010 (reviewed here in July 2010) and the legendary Flying Pickets. Here’s a flavour of the Spooky Men’s Chorale: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RiFJL4IrH7Y. And another standout moment in an increasingly bizarre weekend was watching a 28-piece brass band playing Mike Oldfield’s ‘Tubular Bells’. Tubular Brass, arranged and conducted by Sandy Smith, also accompanied the young electronic music experimentalist Hannah Peel in her new work ‘Mary Casio’. But my favourite performances from WOMAD 2017 were all from the Baltic. Estonian fiddler Maarja Nuut and the Estonia folk trio Trad.Attack! both create very modern music from traditional folk sources. It has been eleven years since I last saw one of my favourite bands, the great Finnish folk/rock band Värttinä, live (reviewed here at WOMAD in August 2006) and it was fantastic to see their three female vocalists performing as Värttinä Vocal Trio on Saturday. They were joined by the English folk star Eliza Carthy for a wonderful English/Finnish version of ‘Three Drunken Maidens’. But my favourite song was the beautiful ‘Emoton’ which you can hear at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VjsSMIXOnn0. For the record I beat last year’s tally of 22 bands, seeing 23 performances in total last weekend. And the weather was a mixed bag this year – hot, sunny, cold, wet, windy and very muddy by the end of the weekend. You can see a selection of my WOMAD 2017 photos at: https://culturaloutlook.blogspot.co.uk/search/label/WOMAD2017.



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Thursday, July 27, 2017

'GLOW' by Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch

27 July 2017

I’ve just finished watching the excellent new Netflix comedy drama series ‘GLOW’. The Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling was a real 1980s TV franchise from which Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch have created this fictionalised show about the development of the show. Alison Brie plays Ruth – an aspiring actor struggling to land a serious role who comes to see the schlocky world of wrestling as a chance to perform. There is a great ensemble cast, including British pop singer Kate Nash making an impressive acting debut. ‘GLOW’ is very funny but ultimately succeeds because it really makes you care about the characters – as well as actually persuading this sceptic about the value of the staged sport it portrays. There is lots of 1980s period detail. And standup comedian Marc Maron steals the show as the sleazy director trying to bring a disparate group of women together to wrestle on camera.

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Friday, July 21, 2017

Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert

21 July 2017

The last concert of each Northampton Symphony Orchestra season is always a private performance for the Friends of the Orchestra - a chance to say thank you for their support and an opportunity for the orchestra to explore repertoire that might not fit into one of our main concerts. This year's NSO Friends' Concert, last Sunday, concluded our season of Fifth Symphonies with Beethoven's 'Symphony no 5'. With such a famous piece of music it is easy to take it for granted and assume you know it all. So it was good to have the opportunity, over the past few weeks, to really get to grips with the symphony and to appreciate why it is such a successful and well known work. During 2016-17 we have played the fifth symphonies by Shostakovich, Glazunov, Sibelius, Alwyn, Mendelssohn and Beethoven. It has been a really enjoyable and interesting season of concerts, cleverly programmed by NSO Conductor, John Gibbons. But I'm not sure whether we really identified any particular characteristics of fifth symphonies. It is interesting that for many composers the fifth symphony seems to be a particularly significant work but, beyond the fact that getting as far as writing five symphonies is likely to indicate a maturing of the composer's skill, I don't think we noticed any other common features.

The rest of our programme on Sunday included Sullivan's overture to 'The Yeomen of the Guard' and Handel's 'Music for the Royal Fireworks'. But the star attraction was the return of the brilliant young saxophonist, Jess Gillam, who played John Williams' 'Escapades' with the NSO at our February 2017 concert. Jess is due to make three appearances at this year's BBC Proms, starting with the John Williams Prom this Thursday (which is being shown on BBC4 on the evening of Friday 21 July). She joined us again on Sunday to try out some pieces by Chick Corea that will form part of one of her Proms performances. Jess Gillam is an amazing performer and it was a privilege to see her in action again.

Sunday's concert also marked a final appearance with the NSO by my fellow horn player, Ian Frankland. Ian has been with NSO for 19 years and we have played alongside each other since 2000. We've had a great time and played in some amazing concerts together. I'll really miss Ian and wish him well for his forthcoming move to Copenhagen.

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