Friday, August 01, 2014

'The Silkworm' by Robert Galbraith

1 August 2014

I enjoyed 'The Cuckoo's Calling' by Robert Galbraith – J K Rowling's first detective novel (reviewed here in May 2014) – and I was looking forward to the sequel. I've just finished reading 'The Silkworm' (as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Robert Glenister) and I wasn't disappointed. 'The Silkworm' is more of the same, but it's well done, gripping, puzzling and satisfying. The private detective, Cormoran Strike, and his assistant, Robin, are likeable, sympathetic characters. My only gripe is that, amongst the clearly carefully researched, realistic London setting, there are a few small anomalies that I would have expected an editor to spot – Cormoran Strike must be the only person able to watch live football on his television at 3 pm on a Saturday afternoon! But this is a minor quibble – 'The Silkworm' is a good read and I will be eagerly awaiting the next novel in the series.

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Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games

1 August 2014

We had a brilliant time at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow at the beginning of this week. It was very well organised and there was a fantastic atmosphere throughout the city. It was great to see the Clydesider volunteers making such an important contribution – and being properly recognised for it. On Monday we attended an extended morning session of athletics at Hampden Park and were lucky to see our local hero, Greg Rutherford (from Woburn Sands), in the long jump, Kenyan world-record holder David Rudisha in the 800m, the amazing David Weir in the T54 1500m, and Scotland's Eilidh Child in the 400m hurdles. The stadium was packed and, even though we were mostly watching heats rather than finals, it was a thrilling experience which finished with a fascinating decathlon pole vault competition won by Ben Gregory from Wales. Watching events like the pole vault or high jump you find yourself genuinely delighted when any competitor manages to clear the bar – regardless of which country they are representing. In the latter stages of the competition, when there are more failures than clearances, any success is truly exciting. On Monday afternoon and evening we were at a long session of badminton at the Emirates Arena. I have never watched badminton before and I really enjoyed it. We could see matches going on simultaneously across four courts and there was plenty to hold your attention, even in some fairly one-sided first round matches. The rallies in badminton tend to be lengthy and dramatic and there is a balletic athleticism to many of the shots. It was great to see some of the smallest competing nations and territories taking part in the mixed doubles – including teams from the Norfolk Islands and St Helena. On Wednesday morning we were back at Hampden Park for a second session of athletics which included the women's high jump and long jump qualifying and the heats of the men's 200m. It was great to be in Glasgow and to see the excitement generated by the games. Waiting in Glasgow Airport for our flight home we saw two young members of the Australian swimming team, being persuaded to pose for photos with their medals by fellow passengers who were thrilled to meet them. You can see a selection of my photos from Glasgow 2014 at: http://culturaloutlook.blogspot.co.uk/search/label/Glasgow2014

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WOMAD 2014

1 August 2014

2014 was the hottest WOMAD I can remember. It was also the busiest - the first time the Festival has sold out since it moved to the enormous Charlton Park, near Malmesbury in Wiltshire, in 2007. The weekend was full of musical superlatives too. Every year WOMAD is a showcase for the best music you had never previously heard of. I don't bother looking at the line-up until I arrive because it's invariably the unknowns that provide my personal highlights. This year my favourites included four female singer/songwriters – the Swedish 'cellist Linnea Olsson, the lively swing of harpist Lucinda Belle (this year's 'Caravan Palace' moment), Cumbrian folkie Maz O'Connor (the recent beneficiary of an English Folk Dance and Song Society Fellowship) and the former Mercury Prize nominee Kathryn Williams (whose latest album 'Crown Electric' is wonderful – highly recommended). It was a privilege to see the veteran Indian Sarod maestro Amjad Ali Khan performing with his sons Ayaan and Amaan Ali Khan. The warmest applause of the weekend was for two sisters from Iran, Masha and Marjan Vahdat, who break Iranian law every time they perform in front of an audience that includes men. They got a deservedly rapturous reception. But my pick of WOMAD 2014 was a performance by Justin Vali and the Ny Malagasy Orkestra from Madagascar. Justin Vali is famous for championing the valiha – a bamboo zither from which he can conjure both beautifully delicate and rousingly percussive music. His set with the Ny Malagasy Orkestra included a wide variety of styles and was moving, charming, lively and very danceable. You can see a selection of my photos from WOMAD 2014 at: http://www.culturaloutlook.blogspot.co.uk/search/label/WOMAD2014

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Thursday, July 24, 2014

'Two Gentlemen of Verona' by William Shakespeare

24 July 2014

On Tuesday we were at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon to see 'Two Gentlemen of Verona' – one of Shakespeare's earliest plays, and possibly his first comedy. It's not often performed (the last RSC performance on the main Stratford stage was 45 years ago) and you can see Shakespeare developing the technique that he would use to create later greater works. But Simon Godwin's Royal Shakespeare Company production is great fun and well worth seeing. It's fascinating to spot the prototypes for scenes in 'As You Like It', 'Twelfth Night', 'A Midsummer Night's Dream', 'The Winter's Tale' and other plays. And I enjoyed watching a Shakespeare play without knowing exactly where the plot was heading. 'Two Gentlemen of Verona' is a fairly bonkers romp and the RSC's swashbuckling production reminded me of the marvellous Not Man Apart production of 'Pericles Redux' we saw in Edinburgh some years ago (reviewed here in August 2008). The RSC cast were all impressive – with Roger Morlidge giving a great comic turn as the servant Launce. The RSC is very good at introducing wave after wave of stunning young actors. Michael Marcus, Mark Arends, Peal Chanda and Sarah Macrae, who played the four young lovers, were all excellent – and all four are in their RSC debut season. But the star of the show was undoubtedly the lurcher Mossup who played Launce's dog Crab. Mossup was clearly an experienced actor and it was good to see that she had her own biography in the programme (she has previously appeared in 'Legally Blond' (in Glasgow), 'Casualty' and 'The Tudors' on TV, and the film 'The Invisible Woman'!). I also enjoyed Nicholas Gerard-Martin channelling Morrisey in his desperate singing of 'Who is Silvia?'. 'Two Gentlemen of Verona' is a hoot.

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Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert

24 July 2014

The Northampton Symphony Orchestra Friends' Concert, each July, always feels like an 'end of term' party. This year it was also our final concert with conductor Alexander Walker. Alex has been conducting NSO since 2009 and, looking back over the past five years, he has been presided over some stunning concerts and I think he has helped to create a marked improvement in our playing. Alex has been a reassuring presence during concerts, often steering us calmly to safety when a wrong entry threatened to derail our performance. And I think we have learned a lot from his particular knowledge of, and passion for, Russian music. My personal highlights from Alex's tenure as our regular conductor include the incredible experience of playing Mahler's 'Symphony No. 6' (reviewed here in November 2011), a stunning performance of Richard Strauss’ ‘Four Last Songs’ with Katherine Crompton (featuring an exquisite horn solo in ‘September’ by David Lack) (reviewed here in November 2010), Shostakovich's immense ‘Leningrad Symphony’ (reviewed here in November 2013) and our 'Love and Death' concert earlier this year (reviewed here in February 2014) which included the Richard Strauss tone poem 'Tod und Verklärung' ('Death and Transfiguration'). Alex's final NSO programme, last Sunday, included Dvorak's tone poem 'The Water Goblin' (a lovely piece), the 'Danse Macabre' by Saint-Saens and Rimsky Korsakov's rousing 'Capriccio Espagnole'. But I most enjoyed playing Wagner's 'Siegfried Idyll' – an achingly beautiful expression of love.

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Friday, July 18, 2014

'Piano Concerto No. 3' by Peter Lieberson

18 July 2014

The American composer, Peter Lieberson, died in 2011, leaving an extensive legacy of orchestral, chamber and vocal music. I've been listening to his 'Piano Concerto No. 3' in a new recording by by Steven Beck and the Odense orchestra, conducted by Scott Yoo. The three movements are based on poems by Pablo Neruda, St Francis of Assisi and Charles Wright. This is clearly modern classical music, but with the grandeur of a 19th century romantic concerto. Serious, thoughtful and intriguing. I look forward to exploring other music by Peter Lieberson.

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Monday, July 07, 2014

'Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant'

7 July 2014

Regular readers will remember I am a big fan of the novels of Anne Tyler (see, for example, 'Noah's Compass' reviewed here in May 2010 and 'The Beginners Goodbye' reviewed here in March 2013). My first experience of Anne Tyler was her 1985 novel 'The Accidental Tourist' (still a favourite) so it was interesting to go back to an earlier work, from 1982, 'Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant', which I have just read as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Suzanne Toren. Like nearly all Anne Tyler's novels, 'Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant' is a family story set in Baltimore. In this case we follow the lives of Pearl and Beck Tull and their three children, from the 1940s to the 1970s. Each chapter is written in the third person, but from the point of view of one member of the family. The narrative is non-linear, with some seminal events revisited from different viewpoints to reveal more than was originally obvious. It's a beautifully constructed and beautifully written novel, full of delicate, heartbreaking moments. Anne Tyler achieves the same trick as Jonathan Franzen did (much later) in 'The Corrections' (and Andrea Levy did in 'Small Island') of making us empathise and sympathise with each member of the family in turn, allowing us to root simultaneously for the opposing sides in each argument. Whereas, in 'The Corrections' the mother is desperate to bring her children together for one final family Christmas, here Ezra is forever trying to get his relations to remain at the same table for the duration of one proper family dinner. Ezra, his brother Cody and sister Jenny, are brilliantly drawn characters – each with distinct voices and characters but sharing enough traits to make them totally believable siblings – clearly three parts of a singe whole, demonstrating both the frustrations that drive families apart and the ties that inexorably bind them together. 'Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant' is a very sad tale – none of the protagonists has a happy life and there is little of the humour that characterises later Anne Tyler novels. Nevertheless it is an excellent executed and painfully moving book.

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Friday, July 04, 2014

Midsummer Mischief: 'The Ant and the Cicada' by Timberlake Wertenbaker and 'Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again.' by Alice Birch

4 July 2014

Last Thursday we were in Stratford-upon-Avon to see two of the RSC's new 'Midsummer Mischief' plays. 'Midsummer Mischief' comprises four short plays commissioned to mark the 30th anniversary of The Other Place and performed in a pop-up theatre on the stage of the Courtyard Theatre (which currently stands on the site originally occupied by The Other Place). We saw 'Programme A' which was directed by RSC Deputy Artistic Director, Erica Whyman. 'The Ant and the Cicada' by Timberlake Wertenbaker is a contemporary Greek tragedy which explores democracy, art and commerce. It is a relatively conventional play but uses some gentle audience participation to make us complicit (“we are all Greeks”). 'Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again.' by Alice Birch is a much more experimental piece, consisting of a series of apparently disconnected scenes in which unnamed characters challenge traditional views of sex, gender and work. The writing is witty, funny and thought-provoking and I liked the way recurring phrases and references emerge to link the scenes. I always used to like The Other Place for the way it got you closer to the actors, stripping away the distraction of the big production values of the old Royal Shakespeare Theatre stage and allowing you fully to appreciate the brilliant acting. The new thrust stage Royal Shakespeare Theatre brings the audience much closer to the action and has managed to recreate some of the excitement of The Other Place on a much bigger scale, but it was still nice to be reminded of the charm of the RSC's smallest stage.

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'Henry V' by William Shakespeare

4 July 2014

In 2012 – the year it celebrated its 50th anniversary – Toddington Amateur Dramatic Society attempted its first performance of a Shakespeare play. Sue Sachon's production of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' (reviewed here in May 2012) was a triumph, and last week we were back at the TADS Theatre in Toddington to see her direct 'Henry V'. Sue had added framing scenes to link Shakespeare's examination of war with more recent conflicts. In 1939, as war is being declared, a village theatre company is about to perform 'Henry V'. One of the cast is suffering from shellshock and experiencing flashbacks to the trenches of the First World War, before taking his place on stage as The Chorus. It was really interesting to see 'Henry V' in context, having recently seen the RSC productions of 'Richard II' (reviewed here in December 2013), 'Henry IV Part 1' (reviewed here in April 2014) and 'Henry IV Part 2' (reviewed here in May 2014). I spotted nuances and references to the previous plays that I had not seen before. 'Henry V' is a very different play to 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' but the TADS production – again presented in the round – was equally excellent. In particular, Peter Carter-Brown's performance as the King would not have been out of place at the RSC. There is little comedy in 'Henry V' but Peter Carter-Brown showed a lightness of touch in the occasional comic moments to suggest it would be fascinating to see him tackle a Shakespeare comedy. And the 'Franglais' scene between Princess Catherine (Lea Pryer) and her maid Alice (Janet Bray) was wonderfully funny.

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Sunday, June 15, 2014

Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert

15 June 2014

I don't think I've ever opened an orchestral concert by playing an unaccompanied horn solo, before last Saturday's Northampton Symphony Orchestra performance - and it's not an experience I am particularly keen to repeat! Have a listen to the start of Leonard Bernstein's Symphonic Suite from the film 'On The Waterfront' on Spotify or YouTube and you might appreciate the terror I experienced on first seeing the music. The solo horn passage occurs three times in the piece and I can take some comfort from the fact that I think I played the second (slightly easier) solo perfectly, but my high notes in the other two solos came out strained and warbled. This being the opening piece of the concert, I can't blame any lack of stamina - it was pure nerves. I was slightly embarrassed to be asked to take an individual bow at the end - particularly as there were several other people (including Mara Griffiths, Kathy Roberts, Simon Cooper, Sian Bunker, Stephen Hague, Peter Dunkley, Ben Drouit and Naomi Muller) whose far more impressive solos in Saturday's concert did not receive such recognition. 

Fortunately, my trials and tribulations were completely overshadowed by a remarkable performance by the stunning young Latvian pianist, Arta Arnicane, whose playing in two Gershwin pieces, 'Rhapsody in Blue' and the 'I Got Rhythm' Variations for piano and orchestra, brought the house down. Her encore, 'The Serpent's Kiss' - a Rag Fantasy by William Bolcom drew gasps, laughter, rapturous applause and a standing ovation. Do take a look at this recording of Arta Arnicane playing 'The Serpent's Kiss' to get an idea of what we experienced on Saturday: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s08a4OeB_YY

The American composer Ferdy Grofé is best remembered for being the orchestrator of the most commonly played version of Gershwin's 'Rhapsody in Blue' and for his lovely 'Grand Canyon Suite'. I first discovered the 'Grand Canyon Suite' in 2002 when we were driving from Washington State in the North West corner of the United States, through Idaho to Montana, with nothing to listen to in the car. We stopped at a service station and bought a cassette of American orchestral music which we played over and over on this long journey. Although it wasn't the terrain Grofé was writing about, I will always associate the 'Grand Canyon Suite' with the stunning scenery of Montana. We finished Saturday's concert with an impressive performance of the 'Grand Canyon Suite' with the donkey leading us 'On The Trail' recreated by a violin, a bass clarinet and two halves of a coconut. 

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Friday, June 13, 2014

'A Small Family Business' by Alan Ayckbourn

13 June 2014

On Thursday we were at Cineworld in Milton Keynes to see the NT Live broadcast of Adam Penford's National Theatre production of 'A Small Family Business' by Alan Ayckbourn. This performance, live from the stage of the Olivier Theatre in London, was simultaneously broadcast to 1100 cinemas in 40 countries around the world - the largest audience yet for a NT Live screening. We first saw 'A Small Family Business' about 20 years ago in an amateur production at Uppingham Theatre, produced by our friend Brian Stokes who had himself taught the young Ayckbourn. The National Theatre production faithfully recreated 1987 period details which felt all the more real in the close-ups on the cinema screen. The kettle, phone and other household items were incredibly recognisable and nostalgic. Though surrounded by a large cast, this is Nigel Lindsay's play. Lindsay, who we last saw as Henry Bolingbroke in Greg Doran's RSC production of Richard II (reviewed here in December 2013), demonstrated a very believable descent, in the space of the week in which the action of the play takes place, from honest upright citizen to criminal Godfather. There appears to be a rule that all professional productions of Alan Ayckbourn plays have to involve Matthew Cottle. We have seen him in Ayckbourn’s ‘Just Between Ourselves’ at the Theatre Royal in Bath in 2002, in the same play at the Royal Theatre Northampton (reviewed here in May 2009) and in Ayckbourn’s ‘Neighbourhood Watch’ at the Palace Theatre in Watford (reviewed here in March 2012). In the National Theatre production of 'A Small Family Business' Matthew Cottle played the incredibly creepy private detective Benedict Hough - it was an uncomfortably sleezy performance. The other standout performance was Alice Sykes, perfect as the stroppy teenage daughter. Like many of Alan Ayckbourn's plays 'A Small Family Business' starts with the appearance of a straightforward farce but gradually reveals a much darker, more serious tone. The final poignant image, as the lights fade to black, has stuck in my mind from that Uppingham production 20 years ago and was just as affecting this time.

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