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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Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Toumani and Sidiki Diabaté

11 June 2014

I wrote here in May 2008 about the Malian kora virtuoso Toumani Diabaté who represents the 71st generation of a line of griots that has passed on songs forming the oral history of the Mandé Empire of West Africa from father to son. Last Thursday I was at The Stables in Wavendon to see this remarkable hereditary process in action, as generations 71 and 72 performed together – Toumani playing kora duets with his son Sidiki Diabaté. Sidiki is already a star in his own right – a hip hop performer who regular plays to crowds of 20,000 or more in football stadia in Mali. But he is also a very accomplished kora player and the interplay between father and son was fascinating. The 21-string kora is a delicate, mesmerising instrument but recordings sometimes feel a bit tame compared to the excitement generated by a live performance. I had been listening to the new 'Toumani & Sidiki' album but seeing them playing the pieces at The Stables was a completely different experience. Toumani is an extraordinary performer – surely one of the greatest musicians in the world today. The concert ended with a standing ovation – it was a stunning performance.

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Wednesday, June 04, 2014

'Glow' by Ned Beauman

4 June 2014

I'm a big fan of the young novelist Ned Beauman: his second book 'The Teleportation Accident' (reviewed here in July 2013) was my Pick of the Year for 2013 and I also really enjoyed reading his debut 'Boxer, Beetle' (reviewed here in September 2013). So I eagerly pounced on his latest novel 'Glow' as soon as it was published last month and I have just finished reading it (as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Jamie Parker). It felt wonderful to be back in the company of Beauman's idiosyncratic authorial voice and it was great to spot some similar themes and characters from his earlier books. 'Glow' is set mainly in contemporary London and is a complicated tale of recreational drugs, a pirate radio station, appallingly powerful multinational companies, unusual sleep patterns, fakes and replicants – and foxes. The prose is careful, precise, complicated and very funny and there are numerous plot twists and an excessive number of underlying themes. 'Glow' is more of a straightforward thriller than the previous books but is still a complex read. I loved it while I was reading it but, on reflection I don't think it was quite as successful as his earlier novels. If you haven't experienced Ned Beauman yet I would urge you to start with 'The Teleportation Accident' but I'm really looking forward to whatever he writes next.

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Miles Jupp

4 June 2014

I was familiar with the comedian Miles Jupp from his numerous BBC Radio 4 appearances and his role in Tom Hollander and James Wood's excellent BBC Two sitcom 'Rev'. On Sunday I got a chance to see his stand-up show at the Alban Arena in St Albans. He performed a very slick, polished set, playing on his posh accent and public school education. Self deprecating, with constant asides and digressions, he focused mostly on domestic, observational humour and was very impressive, building to a nice set-piece finale.

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'Dealer's Choice' by Patrick Marber

4 June 2014

I first saw Patrick Marber's debut play 'Dealer's Choice' in an excellent student production at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2000. It's a cleverly constructed drama with the muscular masculinity of Harold Pinter, tempered with humour and poignant sadness that could have come from an Alan Ayckbourn play. It was great to re-encounter 'Dealer's Choice' last weekend in Michael Longhurst's new production at the Royal Theatre, Northampton. The play gathers six men around a poker table to explore dreams, addiction and friendship. This production had a universally strong cast who made you care about a set of characters who, on the face of it, are not the most likeable. In particular Cary Crankson gave the irrepressibly cheerful Mugsy a loveable vulnerability and was very funny.

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