Friday, December 09, 2016

London Symphony Orchestra concert - John Adams at 70

8 December 2016

On Thursday I enjoyed a real musical treat – watching the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican celebrating the 70th birthday of the American composer John Adams. Adams conducted pieces by Bartok and Stravinsky, illustrating some of the traditions in which his own very modern musical style is rooted. You could hear distinct echoes of John Adams in both Bartok's folk music-inspired 'Hungarian Sketches' and Stravinsky's eerie evocation of ancient Greece in the music from the ballet 'Orpheus'. But the main attraction was the performance of Adams' latest composition 'Scheherazade.2' - a piece for solo violin and orchestra, premiered in 2015. Adams explained to the audience that, rather than calling the work a concerto, he had taken the idea of a 'dramatic symphony' from Berlioz and had created four movements which follow a rough narrative, telling the story of a modern, feminist Scheherazade who "speaks truth to power".  Instead of charming her captive to avoid death, this Scheherazade stands up to her tormentors, falls in love, defends herself in a trial and flees to sanctuary. The piece was written for the Canadian violinist Leila Josefowicz and it was a privilege to see her perform it, conducted by the composer. Adams described Josefowicz as "the Lisbeth Salander of the violin" and she definitely displayed a punk-like flair, her restless energy causing her to pace back and forth while waiting to play. Her violent playing sometimes seemed to pull her feet across the stage. This was the violinist as rock star, her stance reminding me of the defiant pose of Martha Wainwright (reviewed here in July 2008). Like much of Adams' music, the symphony was incredibly entertaining – complex and quirky but never inaccessible, with some beautifully serene moments. The narrative structure, unusual soundscapes and character soloist reminded me of Jan Sandström's 'Motorbike Concerto' which I saw Christian Lindbergh perform with the Halle Orchestra about 20 years ago (if you don't know it do look it up on YouTube). Thursday's LSO concert was a similarly wonderful experience that will also live long in my memory. You can see John Adams and Leila Josefowicz talking about 'Scheherazade.2' at:

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Wednesday, November 30, 2016

John Cooper Clarke and Hugh Cornwell

30 November 2016

Harpo Marx’s autobiography was famously titled ‘Harpo Speaks!’ – a witty play on the one thing you thought you knew about Harpo. (It’s a great book by the way, which taught me much about both croquet and chess.) Saturday’s gig at The Junction in Cambridge might similarly have been billed as ‘John Cooper Clarke Sings!’. The punk poet of Salford (who we saw last year supporting Squeeze – reviewed here in October 2015) has recorded an album of classic rock ‘n’ roll songs (‘This Time It’s Personal’) with Hugh Cornwell (former lead singer of The Stranglers) which they are now touring. I had expected it to be more of a double act but Cornwell, and his excellent band, were clearly backing John Cooper Clarke who was very much the main attraction. His surprisingly strong baritone voice worked well with the punkish interpretation of well-chosen classics including ‘Johnny Remember Me’, ‘Wait Down Yonder in New Orleans’ and ‘It’s Only Make Believe’. And, although, the welcome discovery that John Cooper Clarke really can sing gradually gave way to the realisation that he can’t sing that well, his engaging personality made for a fun evening. He has a very dry sense of humour and a great way with words, dedicating ‘Spanish Harlem’ to that late great ‘Spanianista’, Fidel Castro, and suggesting his version of the Ritchie Valens song ‘Donna’ was being offered as reparations to the Mexican people for the damage done by Marty Wilde’s interpretation. And his rendition of ‘MacArthur Park’ (made famous by that other non-singer, Richard Harris) was a highlight of the evening, see:

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Thursday, November 24, 2016

'The Tempest' by William Shakespeare

24 November 2016

On Tuesday we were at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon to see Greg Doran’s new production of ‘The Tempest’, starring Simon Russell Beale as Prospero. I had only seen ‘The Tempest’ once before (reviewed here in April 2012) and regular readers might remember that my low expectations of the play set me up for a very enjoyable experience. This time round my expectations were much higher and, perhaps inevitably, I wasn’t quite so taken with the play. Nevertheless this new production, by the Royal Shakespeare Company in collaboration with Intel and in association with the Imaginarium Studios, was a stunning spectacle. Two years in the making, the collaboration brings groundbreaking digital effects to the stage. Imaginarium Studios, established by motion-capture pioneer Andy Serkis, have created a digital avatar of Ariel, driven by live motion-capture from the body of the actor Mark Quartley, allowing him to appear simultaneously on stage and projected onto a series of moving curtains. Stephen Brimson Lewis’s amazing set turns the auditorium of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre into the innards of an enormous wrecked ship. Projection behind the set and on the surface of the stage creates beautiful dreamlike tableaux, particularly effective in the masque towards the end of the play that features three opera singers – Alison Arnopp, Samantha Hay and Jennifer Witton – singing original music by Paul Englishby. The digital technology is impressive but never overwhelms the play itself, thanks partly to a compelling performance by Simon Russell Beale as a Prospero with an uncanny resemblance to Obi Wan Kenobi. I was feeling my age, reflecting on having seen Simon Russell Beale play Hamlet – it’s only a matter of time before I will be watching him as King Lear! There were also outstanding physical performances by Mark Quartley as Ariel and Joe Dixon as Caliban. But it is the experience of feeling like part of a giant digital art installation that will live long in the memory. You can see videos about the digital development of ‘The Tempest’ at and

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Friday, November 18, 2016

Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert

18 November 2016

I first discovered Shostakovich's ‘Symphony No 5’ in my teens, playing 3rd horn in a performance by Stockport Youth Orchestra in Stockport Town Hall, and have loved the piece ever since. I haven’t played the symphony for many years and it was fascinating to get to grips with it again over the past few weeks in preparation for Saturday’s Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert. Having recently read Julian Barnes’ biographical novel about Shostakovich, 'The Noise of Time' (reviewed here in March 2016), I appreciated the ambiguity of ‘A Soviet Artist's Response to Just Criticism’ properly for the first time. It’s a stunningly powerful symphony but its cynical sting in the tail reminds you that all was not what it seemed in Soviet Russia. I think our performance on Saturday achieved the necessary blend of strength and delicacy with some beautiful solos and a devastating finale. We started the concert with another work I first encountered in my teens – Malcolm Arnold’s second set of ‘English Dances’, which was one of the first pieces I played with the Manchester Youth Orchestra – playing those tunes immediately took me back to our tour of the Loire Valley in France in 1984. For the past 16 years I have spent most Wednesday evenings rehearsing with the Northampton Symphony Orchestra in the Edmund Rubbra Hall at Northamptonshire Music and Performing Arts Trust, without ever wondering who Edmund Rubbra was. In Saturday’s concert we played ‘A Tribute’ - a short, gentle piece by the Northampton-born Rubbra, written to mark the 70th birthday of Vaughan-Williams. Saturday’s concert also featured the ‘Violin Concerto’ by William Walton played by the amazing Joo Yeon Sir. It’s an incredibly difficult concerto, for orchestra and soloist, but it was a really enjoyable challenge and Joo’s incredibly precise, rhythmic performance helped to carry us through. I was amazed to learn this was the first time she had performed the work in public.

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Thursday, November 10, 2016

‘Career of Evil’ by Robert Galbraith

10 November 2016

I’ve just finished reading ‘Career of Evil’ – the third Cormoran Strike detective novel by J K Rowling (writing as Robert Galbraith) – as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Robert Glenister. Fans of 'The Cuckoo's Calling' (reviewed here in May 2014) and ‘The Silkworm’ (reviewed here in August 2014) will enjoy this return to the world of Cormoran and Robin, now on the trail of a serial killer with a passion for dismemberment. As with the previous books, J K Rowling seems to be determined to root the story in a very realistic contemporary setting, throwing in an often unnecessary level of detail. This makes the occasional inaccuracy particularly jarring. At one point Strike and Robin have breakfast in the dining room of a Travelodge – which never have dining rooms: there really wasn’t any need to be so specific about the particular hotel chain. And I’m beginning to suspect that the recurring inaccurate references to televised football matches that it would have been impossible to watch (in all three novels) are actually a deliberate running joke! But I can forgive these niggles because Rowling has created some compelling characters and you really care what happens to them. I was also amused to see an example of my third rule of detective fiction in action, though I can’t tell you what that is without spoiling the plot – ask me after you’ve finished the book.


Friday, November 04, 2016

‘The Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen’s Guild Dramatic Society’s Production of Macbeth’ - a comedy by William Shakespeare, David McGillivray and Walter Zerlin Jnr.

4 November 2016

On Saturday we were at the George Street Community Centre in Fenny Stratford, Milton Keynes to see the local amateur theatre group The Branchette Players. They were performing ‘The Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen’s Guild Dramatic Society’s Production of Macbeth’ - a comedy by William Shakespeare, David McGillivray and Walter Zerlin Jnr. This is one in a series of 10 play-within-plays by McGillivray and Zerlin featuring the Farndale Avenue Guild. This one might have been subtitled ‘The Scottish Play That Goes Wrong’. Playing an incompetent amateur theatre group allows any actual slips to go unnoticed but for the comedy to work the amateur actors do need to be able to deliver most of the original Shakespearean lines straight. The Branchette Players were clearly very capable with some great Shakespearean acting on show, amongst the farce, particularly from Shona Gilchrist as Macbeth. Sue Noon was wonderful as Mrs Reece who ends up holding the show together. And Wayne Oakes was a surprisingly sympathetic Lady Macbeth. But the funniest moments were the blank-faced confusion of Lynn Homer’s voiceless Banquo.

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Friday, October 28, 2016

'Young @ Heart' by Stephen Walker

28 October 2016

Flourish House in Glasgow is a Clubhouse that enables people with mental health difficulties to gain a sense of well-being. Members recover confidence and skills whilst achieving social, financial and vocational goals. It is part of an international network of Clubhouses that provide a safe environment to help people make the transition from hospital-based mental health care to re-entering everyday life. I was at Flourish House on Thursday evening for a film screening and discussion as part of Luminate 2016 and the Scottish Mental Health Arts & Film Festival. We watched the film ‘Young @ Heart’, Stephen Walker’s inspiring 2007 documentary about the Young @ Heart Chorus – a choir of singers in their seventies, eighties and nineties from Northampton, Massachusetts, who sing an unlikely repertoire of songs by Jimi Hendrix, Coldplay, Sonic Youth etc. It’s a wonderful film which shows older people having fun, not taking themselves too seriously but working hard towards a communal goal. These are clearly not the greatest singers in the world but the ecstatic reaction of the audiences for the choir’s performances completely rebuffs any concerns about ‘artistic quality’: the Young @Heart Chorus is obviously ‘great art’. The film really shows the individual characters of many of the singers and the deaths, during the filming, of some choir members is incredibly sad. Ultimately, though, this is a life-affirming story – funny, moving and completely inspirational. After the film, Richard Warden from the Scottish Mental Health Arts & Film Festival chaired a panel discussion involving a mental health nurse from a South Glasgow hospital and the director of a community choir based in the Gorbals. The film provoked a fascinating and uplifting discussion about mental health, ageing and the therapeutic power of singing. It was a lovely end to my two days in Scotland visiting Luminate Festival events.

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