Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert

22 April 2015

When the soloist who was due to perform the 'Oboe Concerto' by Richard Strauss at our Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert last Saturday pulled out, some weeks ago, the orchestra's Principal Oboe, Kathy Roberts, stepped into the breach. Kathy's performance on Saturday was stunning, mastering the technical challenges of the concerto, the emotion of the music and the nerves of the situation. I can't believe anyone else would have played it better. It was also very impressive to see our second oboe player, Jayne Henderson, taking Kathy's role in the orchestra for the whole programme – including many exposed solo passages. We started the concert with Dvorak's tone poem 'The Noonday Witch' but our main focus was the mighty 'Symphony No.1' by Rachmaninoff. I didn't know this symphony, which feels quite different from its better known successor, but really enjoyed getting to grips with it. The piece has a thematic coherence across its four substantial movements and climaxes in a very exciting finale – the opening of which, featuring our trumpet and percussion sections, was truly thrilling. Our latest guest conductor, Scott Wilson, combining meticulous attention to detail with passionate enthusiasm, drew a great performance from the orchestra.

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'The Hard Problem' by Tom Stoppard

22 April 2015

Last Thursday we were at the wonderful Errol Flynn Filmhouse in Northampton to watch the NT Live broadcast of Tom Stoppard's new play, 'The Hard Problem', live from the National Theatre in London. I'm a big Stoppard fan and it was great to leap back into the familiar speech patterns of his characters debating their way through complex issues – in this case the mystery of consciousness. If it is going to become possible to model the human brain as a machine, will we be able to explain consciousness? In 'The Hard Problem' there is a running joke about the cliché of 'the prisoner's dilemma', but Stoppard avoids any reference at all to the other elephantine cliché in the room – that of 'the ghost in the machine'. The play asks whether anyone ever truly acts completely altruistically: if every apparently generous act actually conceals some vested interest or ulterior motive, however slight, then it could potentially be modelled and predicted. Tom Stoppard plays with these ideas through a (fairly slight) plot that demonstrates the complications of altrusim and coincidence through the lives of the characters. 'The Hard Problem' is a star vehicle for its female lead, the excellent Olivia Vinall, who we last saw as Desdemona in the National Theatre production of 'Othello' (reviewed here in September 2013). She appears in almost every scene and creates a very sympathetic protagonist. Some Stoppard plays would work as well on the radio as the stage, but Olivia Vinnal's reactions and facial expressions make 'The Hard Problem' more than just a play of words. This is a relatively short play, without an interval – a condensed version of Stoppard, without the elaborate framing devices of some of his earlier plays – but I really enjoyed it.

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Thursday, April 16, 2015

'Mainlander' by Will Smith

16 April 2015

The comedian Will Smith is best known for his role as an inept political advisor in 'The Thick of It', and for the fact that he comes from Jersey. His first novel, 'Mainlander' (which I have just read as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Jot Davies), clearly draws closely on personal experience. It is set in Jersey in 1987, allowing Will Smith the opportunity to mix some 1980s nostalgia with a portrait of his island home. He creates a vivid impression of what was like to live on Jersey, showing both the pros and the cons. You might expect a comedian's first book to be a comic novel but 'Mainlander' is a fairly straight thriller, with some nicely judged humour but driven by its intricate plot. We see the events through the eyes of series of key characters as their individual stories overlap. There's more plot than character development and I didn't find any of the protagonists very sympathetic, but it's an entertaining and gripping read.

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The Blockheads

16 April 2015

On Sunday we were at The Stables in Wavendon to see The Blockheads. I've written here before about seeing The Blockheads live (in July 2007, December 2012 and November 2014) and they always put on a good show – primarily because they seem to be playing mainly for their own enjoyment. The band were on fine form this week as they marked the fifteenth anniversary of Ian Dury's death, dedicating an appropriately anarchic version of 'Sweet Gene Vincent' to the late singer/songwriter.

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Tuesday, April 07, 2015

'The Nether' by Jennifer Haley

7 April 2015

On Saturday we were at the Duke of York's Theatre in London to see the Headlong/Royal Court Theatre production of 'The Nether' by Jennifer Haley. This innovative 2013 play looks at the way our online lives are growing and might become more attractive than our real-world lives. Director Jeremy Herrin, set designer Es Devlin and video designer Luke Halls have created an amazing theatrical experience that blends video imagery with a spectacular set to show the 'real' being constructed from the virtual (though it's interesting how much is achieved with very old-fashioned mirrors!). Jennifer Haley explores some extremely uncomfortable issues, asking whether online role-play might provide a 'safe' outlet for those with paedophile tendencies or whether it might encourage such behaviour. It's a clever, disturbing play that questions the boundaries between dreams and reality and hopes to act as a wake-up call about what is already beginning to happen in online virtual communities such as Second Life. 'The Nether' is a visually stunning but morally chilling drama.

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Thursday, April 02, 2015

'Death of a Salesman' by Arthur Miller

2 April 2015

This week we were at The Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon to see Greg Doran's new production of 'Death of a Salesman' by Arthur Miller. It was very interesting to compare this with the Young Vic production of 'A View From The Bridge', though they are very different plays. Anthony Sher was stunning as Willy Loman, nervously cheerful and talkative in complete contrast to the dark, brooding silence of Mark Strong's Eddie Carbone. Sher is a very physical actor and his subtle transformation from the unsteady, ageing Loman to his younger self in the flashback sequences, while managing to remind you that this is the older man re-enacting remembered events rather than the events themselves, was a masterclass. There were moments during the play when Sher's portrayal of the disintegration of Willy Loman's false bravado was so discomfiting I found myself physically squirming in my seat. Harriet Walter gave Loman's wife Linda a tragic grace and it was fascinating to see Anthony Sher and Alex Hassell, who I last saw playing Falstaff and Prince Hal in Henry IV Parts 1 & 2 (reviewed here in April and May 2014) as Willy Loman and his son Biff – two similarly strained 'father-son' relationships. A five-star production of a great play.

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'A View From The Bridge' by Arthur Miller

2 April 2015

Last Thursday we were at the West End cinema in Boston to see the NT Live screening of the Young Vic production of Arthur Miller's 'A View From The Bridge', directed by Ivo van Hove and starring Mark Strong. This acclaimed production, now at Wyndham's Theatre in London's West End, is a stark rendering of the play in an almost bare, square box set. It brings out the Greek tragedy structure of the text and builds to an incredibly powerful, tragic conclusion which feels like an inevitable car crash everyone can see coming but no-one can avoid. The acting was wonderful and the close-ups of Mark Strong's facial expressions were a lesson in how much can be said without words. Painful, brutal and compelling.

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Lincolnshire

2 April 2015

We had a lovely holiday in Lincolnshire last week. We stayed in the village of Wrangle, between Boston and Skegness and enjoyed walks along the mud flats on the north side of The Wash, looking across to Norfolk, and at the nature reserve at Gibraltar Point. We also ventured north into the Lincolnshire Wolds, visiting Gunby Hall and Bolingbroke Castle (the birthplace of Henry IV) and walking from Tealby and Donnington on Bain. We visited Louth, Horncastle and the delightful town of Woodhall Spa. We were very lucky with the weather, waking up to bright sunshine every morning apart from one, and saw some spectacular Lincolnshire sunsets across the big skies of the fens.

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Friday, March 20, 2015

'A Spool of Blue Thread' by Anne Tyler

20 March 2015

Anne Tyler has said her latest novel, 'A Spool of Blue Thread', might be her last. That would be a great shame as she is still at the height of her powers. 'A Spool of Blue Thread', which I have just finished reading (as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Kimberly Farr), is an amazing book. It is the story of a family, and the story of a house, with the narrative flitting forwards and backwards in time to create a thoroughly rounded picture of the Whitshanks and their family home on Bouton Road in Baltimore. Anne Tyler's writing appears clear and simple – it lacks the elegant flourishes of Marilynne Robinson's prose (reviewed here in February 2015) – but goes much deeper than you first realise, building an incredibly powerful emotional connection with the characters. 'A Spool of Blue Thread' is full of domestic scenes where little seems to be happening but enormous currents swell beneath the trivial everyday tasks. This is a mature Anne Tyler novel, without some of the quirkiness of her earlier books, more melancholy and serious. We really feel the family's joy and grief. It's gentle, subtle, impressive and moving. More please, Anne.

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Friday, March 13, 2015

'Behind the Beautiful Forevers' by David Hare, based on the book by Katherine Boo

13 March 2015

Katherine Boo's prize-winning book 'Behind the Beautiful Forevers' chronicles life in Annawadi – a shanty town next to the airport in Mumbai, which looks a lot like the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. David Hare's play, directed by Rufus Norris for the National Theatre, and broadcast to cinemas by NT Live this week, dramatises real people and incidents to create a theatrical experience that is shocking, frightening and violent but also warm, funny and uplifting. We saw the NT Live broadcast at Cineworld in Milton Keynes and the combination of the impressive scale of the set, recreating Annawadi on the vast Lyttleton stage, with the close-ups afforded by the NT Live cameras made for a compelling spectacle. 'Behind the Beautiful Forevers' was also the first National Theatre show to feature a completely British Asian cast. It was a fascinating and moving production.

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Monday, March 02, 2015

Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert

2 March 2015

The music of Anton Bruckner tends to divide classical music fans. Unsurprisingly, as a horn player, I love Bruckner symphonies – my CD box set of all eleven symphonies (numbers 1-9, Die Nulte (number 0) and the Study Symphony (number 00)), conducted by Georg Tintner with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, is a treasured favourite in my music collection. Bruckner's orchestral music has a raw, slowly menacing power, like huge waves rolling through the middle of a great ocean. There is beauty, glory and brilliance, tempered by humility. The symphonies are big, long, and loud, but with moments of unexpected gentleness. On Saturday I played the first horn part in Bruckner's Symphony No 6 with the Northampton Symphony Orchestra at St Matthew's Church in Northampton. During 2014-15, while we search for a new permanent conductor, each NSO concert is being directed by a different guest conductor. On Saturday James Ham, currently the Sir Charles Mackerras Conducting Fellow at Trinity Laban Conservatoire, drew a great performance from the orchestra that had seemed unlikely as late as last Wednesday's rehearsal. I think it's fair to say we had struggled to get used to the Bruckner, but it came together beautifully on Saturday evening and I really enjoyed playing it. Bruckner writes wonderfully for the horns, with plenty to do throughout the piece and prominent moments for all four horn players. It was great to be part of a really strong horn section and, though there was some fine playing in all sections of the orchestra, this time I think I might be forgiven for saying it was all about the horns! The concert opened with Mozart's Overture to 'Cosi fan Tutte' which we followed with a wonderful performance of the Schumann Piano Concerto by the brilliant young, Northampton-born soloist, Stephen Meakins. Stephen, a 27-year-old graduate of the Royal College of Music, had not performed the Schumann before and told me he had been working on the piece for fourteen months in preparation for this one performance. I don't know about him but that made me nervous! I needn't have worried as he gave a stunning performance, our accompaniment of the tricky syncopated passage in the last movement finally began to click in Saturday afternoon's rehearsal and James held us together well in the concert. It was a really enjoyable concert, perhaps more so because the orchestra had not felt particularly comfortable with the repertoire and had to work that bit harder, so the results were especially pleasing. Now I'm really looking forward to the next concert, new pieces and another new conductor.

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