Friday, May 19, 2017

'In the Woods' by Tana French

19 May 2017

My exploration of the Dublin Murder Squad novels by Tana French has now taken me back to the start. I’ve just finished reading the first novel in the series, ‘In the Woods’ (as an unabridged audio book, narrated by John McCormack). This story had a lot in common with the last Tana French book I read – ‘Faithful Place’ (reviewed here in April 2017). Both novels have a narrating detective who was personally involved in a historical crime at the centre of new investigation and both these detectives proved to be fairly unsympathetic protagonists. As with most of the Dublin Murder Squad books, Tana French is almost as interested in the relationship between the investigating detectives (here Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddox) as in solving the crime. Although there were some signs of an author finding her way a little with this first book in the series, I found the plot of ‘In the Woods’ a particularly intriguing puzzle. And French’s writing is always intelligent and eloquent.



19 May 2017

We had a wonderful holiday in Croatia last week. We were staying in the village of Slano on the Dalmation coast, North of Dubrovnik. It’s a beautiful area – a Croatian version of the French Riviera, with a narrow, winding coastal road providing spectacular views of steep, wooded slopes leading down to the deep blue Adriatic sea. We did a lot of walking – along the coast, into the mountains and on the idyllic island of Koločep – seeing amazing views and stepping carefully to avoid the occasional snake! The medieval, walled old town of Dubrovnik is stunning – it’s a real tourist trap but well worth braving the crowds. You can see why it is in so much demand as a film set. We also walked up Mount Srd to the Fortress overlooking Dubrovnik where there is a sobering exhibition about the 1991 siege of the old town, when Serbian and Montenegrin forces bombed this unique heritage site. Watching recordings of the ITN coverage of the siege felt very strange as we stood in the same area that some of the bombs were falling on the TV screen.

You can see some of my photos of Croatia at:


Friday, May 05, 2017

'Far From The Madding Crowd' by Thomas Hardy, adapted by Adrian Preater

5 May 2017

On Thursday we were at The Place in Bedford to see the Hotbuckle Productions performance of ‘Far From The Madding Crowd’, adapted from the novel by Thomas Hardy by Adrian Preater. It was an excellent show – high quality fringe theatre with four actors playing multiple parts. It had the feel of a  summer outdoor touring production with clear, accessible story-telling, live music and plenty of humour. They steered a course which avoided the danger of being worthy but dull, while not making the comedy too broad and pantomimic. The play used narration passing between each of the four actors in turn, creating a sequential relay Greek Chorus (as in the Propeller production of ‘Henry V’, reviewed here in December 2011, and Polly Findlay’s production of ‘Antigone’ at the National Theatre, reviewed here in June 2012).   The actors – Adrian Preater, Virginia Lee, Mimi Edwards and Matthew Rothwell – were all excellent, conjuring up their different characters through changes of stance and facial expression as much as with costume changes. It was a very likeable and moving performance.

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Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert

3 May 2017

I first encountered the stunning young Latvian pianist Arta Arnicane in June 2014 when she joined the Northampton Symphony Orchestra to give a remarkable performance of two Gershwin pieces, 'Rhapsody in Blue' and the 'I Got Rhythm' variations for piano and orchestra (reviewed here in June 2014). That concert is still fondly remembered by members of the orchestra and our audience, in particular for Arta’s encore, 'The Serpent's Kiss' – a Rag Fantasy by William Bolcom, which drew gasps, laughter, rapturous applause and a standing ovation. On Saturday Arta Arnicane was back in Northampton to play the ‘Piano Concerto No 3’ by Bela Bartok – an incredibly challenging work which required intense concentration by all of us in the orchestra, but which Arta seemed to float through with ease. The delicate slow movement, in particular, was beautifully moving: it was a very impressive performance. The first half of the concert also featured William Alwyn’s ‘Symphony no. 5 “Hydriotaphia”’. Our conductor, John Gibbons, is a champion of the Northampton-born composer, Alwyn: we played his piece ‘The Magic Island' (inspired by 'The Tempest') in the NSO’s Shakespeare celebration, 'The Bard's Birthday Bash' last year (reviewed here in April 2016). Alwyn’s 5th Symphony is an entertaining, programmatic work which builds on his extensive experience as a composer of film music. Rhythmically and harmonically unpredictable, it presented some similar challenges to the Bartok but I enjoyed getting to know it and the symphony seemed to go down well with our audience. The second half of the concert contained two much more familiar works, Mussorgsky’s ‘A Night on a Bald Mountain’ as well as the mighty ‘Symphony No 5’ by Sibelius, continuing our season of 5th symphonies. Considered by some to be the greatest symphony of the 20th century, Sibelius’ 5th is a gorgeous melting pot of harmonies with some lovely moments for us horn players. It was a fascinating concert which saw the orchestra rise to a series of very different challenges. You can get a flavour of several elements of Saturday’s concert by watching this 2014 performance of William Alywn’s ‘Piano Concerto No 2’ by Arta Arnicane with the Ealing Symphony Orchestra, conducted by John Gibbons:

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Friday, April 28, 2017

'Zanaka' by Jain

28 April 2017

If you want to cheer yourself up I would recommend listening to ‘Zanaka’ – the debut album by young French singer/songwriter Jain. 25-year-old Jeanne Galice has French and Madagascan parents and grew up in the United Arab Emirates and the Republic of Congo. Her songs are bright, cheerful pop incorporating a wide range of Arabic and African influences. The result is incredibly cool and funky. Though musically quite different, her sense of style and beautifully choreographed performances have a lot in common with that other young French talent, Christine and the Queens. Take a look at Jain’s tribute to the late great South African singer Miriam Makeba (‘Mama Africa’) at: and the wonderfully upbeat song ‘Come’ at:

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Thursday, April 20, 2017

'South of the River' by Blake Morrison

20 April 2017

Blake Morrison is a poet who received great acclaim for his candid and moving memoirs of his parents – ‘And When Did You Last See Your Father?’ (1993) and ‘Things My Mother Never Told Me’ (2002) – both of which I read and enjoyed some years ago. In 2007 he published his second novel, ‘South of the River’ which I have just finished reading. Reviews praised this as a state-of-the-nation novel – a British Jonathan Franzen or Philip Roth – but it felt to me much more like a David Lodge novel, with the same deceptively accessible prose disguising an incredibly clever structure and serious themes. ‘South of the River’ follows five interlinked individuals through the years immediately following the 1997 general election with each chapter written from the point of view of one of these five main characters. Although it doesn’t have the set-piece comic scenes of a David Lodge book, Blake Morrison demonstrates a similar lightness of touch and subtle planting of plot points that return later in the story. It’s a compelling set of stories that resists the temptation to neatly tie up all its loose ends. Unsurprisingly Blake Morrison shows a poet’s attention for words and word-play but what most impressed me was his ability to make us sympathise with each of the five main characters, even when their views were in opposition with each other. In this respect ‘South of the River’ did remind me of Jonathan Franzen’s ‘The Corrections’ but also of ‘Small Island’ by Andrea Levy. ‘South of the River’ is a really enjoyable novel covering an interesting period of our recent history through a series of connected personal stories. By the end I had become attached to these characters and really wanted to know what happened to them next.


Wednesday, April 19, 2017

'An American in Paris' by George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin and Craig Lucas

19 April 2017

George Gershwin wrote ‘An American in Paris’ in 1928 as a symphonic poem suggesting the experience of a first-time visitor falling in love with the French capital (complete with its car horns!). The piece has become a staple of the orchestral repertoire: I played it with Northampton Symphony Orchestra in 2010 (reviewed here in April 2010). In 1951 Vincente Minnelli took the music (and its title) and combined it with some popular Gershwin songs and a script by Alan Jay Lerner to create the famous film starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron. The climax of the film is a 17-minute ballet sequence using the original Gershwin orchestral work. In 2015 the English choreographer Christopher Wheeldon created a stage musical version of ‘An American in Paris’ (with book by Craig Lucas) which played to great acclaim on Broadway. That original Broadway production, choreographed and directed by Christopher Wheeldon, is now at the Dominion Theatre in London where we saw it last Friday. It is a truly wonderful show – beautiful, uplifting and charmingly old-fashioned. To call it a musical is slightly misleading – the show is more a ballet interspersed with songs. It draws on Gershwin’s ‘An American in Paris’ and a range of his other orchestral compositions to create the score for a succession of big ensemble dance pieces. I spotted music from Gershwin's 'Cuban Overture' which I played with Northampton Symphony Orchestra last year (reviewed here in June 2016). But the show also includes some of Gershwin’s best-known songs including ‘I Got Rhythm’, ‘'S Wonderful’ and ‘But Not For Me’. The dancing was amazing: both the leads are star ballet dancers – Robert Fairchild was a Principal Dancer with the New York City Ballet and Leanne Cope gave up her position as First Artist with the Royal Ballet to take this role. All the cast danced beautifully but Robert Fairchild was particularly compelling – his movement, even in the acted scenes, was wonderfully fluid with the elasticity of a cartoon character. And these dancers are also impressive singers. The set by Bob Crowley, lighting by Natasha Katz and projections by 59 Productions created a stunning and dynamic theatrical landscape. The plot might have been a bit thin but this was an outstanding evening in the theatre. And the climax was, of course, an extended ballet duet featuring the original ‘An American in Paris’ music in full. Highly recommended.

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Tuesday, April 18, 2017

'Faithful Place' by Tana French

18 April 2017

I’ve been continuing my journey through the Dublin Murder Squad novels by Tana French. Having read her latest book ‘The Trespasser’ (reviewed here in January 2017) I went back to an earlier novel, ‘Faithful Place’, which I have just finished reading as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Gerry O’Brien. ‘Faithful Place’ is told through the eyes of Detective Frank Mackey: in my backwards reading of the series I first encountered Frank Mackey in ‘The Secret Place’ (reviewed here in December 2016) in which Frank’s 16-year-old daughter Holly alerts Detective Stephen Moran to information about a murder at her boarding school. In ‘Faithful Place’ Holly is 9 years old and witness to a murder mystery involving her father’s family. This novel is slightly different to the others in the series in that the narrator is not a member of the Dublin Murder Squad (Frank is an Undercover Detective) and the crime at the centre of the story, which was committed 22 years ago, involves him and his family directly. ‘Faithful Place’ is another intriguing mystery but I found Frank Mackey a fairly unsympathetic protagonist. This book was more enjoyable as a piece in the jigsaw puzzle of novels created by Tana French. It was interesting to see Detective Scorcher Kennedy – the narrator of ‘Broken Harbour’ (reviewed here in May 2016) through the eyes of one of his colleagues. And it was satisfying to understand the beginning of the relationship between Frank Mackey and Stephen Moran which plays an important part in ‘The Secret Place’.