Thursday, October 23, 2014

'Love is Strange' by Ira Sachs

23 October 2014

On Thursday evening I was at the Glasgow Film Theatre for a screening of Ira Sachs' new film 'Love is Strange', presented as part of both the Luminate Festival and Glasgay! Alfred Molina and John Lithgow play George and Ben, an elderly gay couple who have lived very happily together in New York for 39 years. But when they decide to get married, their world begins to fall apart. George loses his job teaching in a Catholic school and they can no longer afford their apartment. While they search for an affordable alternative they have to sleep on the sofas and bunk beds of friends and family. The pain of living apart from each other after so many years together is evident. And the strain of living in other people's homes is cleverly depicted. 'Love is Strange' is a delicate, subtle, intelligent film. Much is said without the need for words, with numerous close-ups of unspeaking faces telling you much more about the characters' feelings than the dialogue does. The film is beautifully shot, with the trees, streets and skyline of Manhattan becoming part of the cast of characters. There's also a lot of Chopin – sometimes deliberately obscuring the dialogue (though it was very distracting to have two scenes where different characters were shown playing a piano they clearly weren't playing – why bother showing the hands in that case?). One beautiful scene sums up the best aspects of the film: Ben's nephew's wife Kate (Marisa Tomei) is trying to write a novel in her living room while Ben is innocently chatting to her, oblivious to the fact he is constantly interrupting her work. Kate grows more and more frustrated – we can observe the strain growing on her face (unseen by Ben) and we are waiting for the point at which she is clearly going to snap at him. But before this comes Ben's chatter turns into a moan about how annoying it is when Kate's son Joey thoughtlessly interrupts Ben while he is trying to complete a painting. Kate's frustration dissolves into a smile without a word. As Ben says: “When you live with people, you know them better than you care to”. 'Love is Strange' is gentle but powerful, incredibly sad but ultimately uplifting. It will be on general release from February 2015.

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'Every Picture Tells My Story' by Hugh Campbell

23 October 2014

On Thursday afternoon I was at the Haining Centre – a nursing home in Falkirk – for 'Every Picture Tells My Story' – a Luminate Festival event. Haining resident Hugh Campbell had created a noticeboard depicting the story of his life through text and photos, and talked us through some of the key episodes. Hugh was an entertaining raconteur and it was fascinating to piece together the personal history of the man sitting in front of us. We learned about Hugh's childhood: he was brought up by his grandmother and aunt as his parents couldn't cope with rearing six children. He saw active service in the Second World War and, after an apprenticeship in a local foundry, Hugh went on to enjoy a 30-year career as a bus conductor, getting to know his regular passengers well, including the young midwife who he went on marry. He told us about his love of ballroom dancing, the music of Daniel O'Donnell and Mediterranean cruises. In telling his story, apart from an occasional lapse of memory, Hugh was very sharp and I was genuinely amazed to discover that he is 95 years old: he seems at least ten years younger. He clearly still has an eye for the ladies and took a lively interest in one young woman in the audience who was a mere 65 years his junior! At the end of the session she had her photo taken with Hugh to provide another addition to his notice board. Hugh's key message was that he doesn't feel old, he feels like he is getting younger rather than older, and he's not finished his story yet.

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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

'Love Me Do' by Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran

21 October 2014

On Saturday evening we were at Watford Palace Theatre to see 'Love Me Do', a new play by Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran. Set in 1962, during the Cuban missile crisis, the play focuses on a young American woman stranded in London, wondering whether she will ever see her husband and children again. Making playful use of physical theatre techniques, and with a cast of five actors creating a host of colourful characters, Co-Directors Brigid Larmour and Shona Morris evoked early 1960s London as an entertaining and slightly sinister foreign country. Marks and Gran cleverly avoided the period drama trap of giving the characters knowing hindsight from a contemporary perspective by using two Americans adrift in London to point out the outdated idiosyncrasies of English life (eg "Yellow Pages?" - "they don't have them here yet"). But, for me, there wasn't quite enough plot and a few ideas seemed under-developed. Calling the main character, who is desperate to get back to Kansas, Dorothy might have had more impact if the 'Wizard of Oz' reference hadn't been blatantly pointed out by one of the characters early in the play. Nevertheless Sara Topham and Robert Curtis made a believable odd-couple thrust together in a crisis - in the manner of a classic Hollywood screwball comedy.

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Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert

21 October 2014

In 1982 the Scottish trumpeter, John Wallace, gave the premiere performance of Malcolm Arnold's 'Trumpet Concerto' at the Royal Albert Hall in London. John Wallace's 1984 recording with the Bournemouth Sinfonietta is still the only time this short but fiendishly difficult concerto has been recorded. So it was very exciting, last Saturday, to have the opportunity to perform Arnold's 'Trumpet Concerto' at the Derngate in Northampton with John Wallace. The Northampton Symphony Orchestra, conducted for the first time by John Gibbons, had been invited to open the ninth Malcolm Arnold Festival with a morning concert of works by Arnold and other 20th century English composers. As well as the 'Trumpet Concerto' we played Arnold's 'A Flourish for Orchestra' and his mighty 'Peterloo Overture' (which was commissioned by the Trades Union Congress to mark its centenary in 1968). Our programme also included the beautiful 'Rhapsody, A Shropshire Lad' by George Butterworth, Ralph Vaughan Williams' 'March Past of the Kitchen Utensils' from 'The Wasps', and the wonderful suite from the 1936 film 'Things To Come' by Sir Arthur Bliss. Between these pieces young musicians from the Malcolm Arnold Academy performed the movements of Arnold's rarely heard ‘Miniature Suite'. But the highlight of the morning was undoubtedly John Wallace's brilliant performance of the 'Trumpet Concerto', accompanied by the Northampton Symphony Orchestra (in which Malcolm Arnold himself played the trumpet in his youth) and finishing with a glorious, stratospheric major third between the soloist and NSO's Principal Trumpet, Nick Bunker.

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Thursday, October 16, 2014

'Me Talk Pretty One Day' by David Sedaris

16 October 2014

The American humourist David Sedaris is now such a familiar figure on BBC Radio 4 it is hard to read his essays without hearing his voice in your head. I've been reading his collection published in 2000, 'Me Talk Pretty One Day'. It's a good sample of the David Sedaris style – a neurotic, sarcastic, self-deprecating collection of personal experiences. I know his writing is not to everyone's taste – his amusing observations of foreigners can sail close to racism and he sometimes succeeds in his attempts to persuade you that he's not a very nice person. But his prose is beautifully constructed and can be incredibly funny. I liked this opening to 'The Learning Curve' in which “a terrible mistake was made” and the recently graduated Sedaris was offered a position teaching a writing workshop:

“The position was offered at the last minute, when the scheduled professor found a better-paying job delivering pizza. …. Like branding steers or embalming the dead, teaching was a profession I had never seriously considered. I was clearly unqualified, yet I accepted the job without hesitation, as it would allow me to wear a tie and go by the name of Mr Sedaris.”


Tuesday, October 07, 2014

'Everybody Down' by Kate Tempest

7 October 2014

It's not often that a rapper is featured on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, but Kate Tempest is not your average rapper. Last month, the day after her new album 'Everybody Down' was shortlisted for the Mercury music prize, Kate Tempest was selected by the Poetry Book Society as one its Next Generation poets. The 27-year old from South East London studied music at the Brit School and poetry at Goldsmiths College. Intrigued, I thought I would listen to 'Everybody Down' but I have to admit that when I first played the opening track my immediate reaction was that hip-hop really isn't my kind of music and I very nearly gave up on the album. Something persuaded me to persevere and I decided to reserve judgement until I had listened to the whole thing. I realised I really needed to give my full attention to the words and treat 'Everybody Down' like a radio play, written in verse, with background music – rather than thinking of it as an album of songs. The 12 tracks form a single continuous story with excellently drawn characters and I found myself rooting for Becky as her family and friends pull her into a world of criminality, drug-dealing and violence. There is some wonderful word-play:  

I’m in a mess, I can’t help it
I just go round and round
I’m paranoid, I’m selfish
Push me, I clam up, I’m shellfish
We had a dream, I shelved it
That eats me up, that’s Elvis
Las Vegas era
I’m half bag lady, half Bagheera

And the more I listened the more I fell for the words, the characters and the story. I've since learned that Kate Tempest is working on transferring the characters from Everybody Down into a novel, due to be published next year, which will begin where the album ends and will also include characters from two of her three stage plays (one of which was commissioned by Paines Plough). Clearly Kate Tempest is a name to watch.

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Friday, October 03, 2014

'Colin Gray: a journey with his parents through love, life and death'

3 October 2014

While I was in Edinburgh this week I visited North Edinburgh Arts Centre to see an exhibition of photographs by Colin Gray, presented as part of Luminate 2014 – Scotland's Creative Ageing Festival (of which I am a Trustee). 'Colin Gray: a journey with his parents through love, life and death' is a selection of works documenting Gray's 34 year collaborative journey with his parents. It includes work from 'The Parents' series, which started in 1980; from 'In Sickness and in Health', photographs that explored his parents' older age and his mother's death; and a preview of new work from 'Do Us Part', his ongoing series of images of his father and daughter. Many of the photos are playful and funny – showing Gray's ageing parents retaining a childlike sense of fun. I particularly enjoyed the picture of them sailing down an imaginary stream in their garden in an old bathtub. In contrast, the pictures of Colin Gray's mother's final days are incredibly sad – including candid shots of her in a hospital bed and her corpse in the coffin. And the scenes of her husband grieving alone are painful and moving, including a close-up of his wrinkled neck enclosed by collar and black tie. But the exhibition ends with pictures of Gray's father with his granddaughter comforting him, providing a warm final image that shows continuity of life into the next generation.

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Baltic Cruise

3 October 2014

Our Baltic cruise on the P&O ship Adonia was a wonderful holiday. We sailed through the Kiel canal in North Germany and spent a couple of days in Kiel, during which we took a train to the pretty medieval town of Lubeck which I last visited with the Manchester Youth Orchestra nearly 30 years ago. Some parts of the town were familiar but I failed to find the bar in which the orchestra's leader Angela Ceasar wowed the locals, singing 'Summertime' with the house band. From Germany we sailed to Estonia, stopping at the beautiful island of Saaremaa before spending a day in Talinn. Talinn is a fairytale city – like a Disneyland version of a medieval European town. The architecture is reminiscent of Switzerland or Austria but more brightly coloured and with some clear Russian influences. We loved Talinn's narrow cobbled streets, high town walls and stunning central square. Our next port of call was St Petersburg – my first visit to Russia. St Petersburgh is an amazing place – intimidating and austere on the outskirts, with a magnificent city centre. Like Paris, the centre of St Petersburg was designed and built as a single project, giving the streets and buildings a consistency missing from most major cities. There are some incredibly impressive buildings, dominated for me by the Church of Our Saviour over Spilled Blood – an incredibly colourful, extravagant, onion-spired showpiece of a building. We also visited the Hermitage – an enormous museum which reminded me of the Louvre in Paris (and can be similarly crowded, though it wasn't too bad when we were there). We had a guided tour of the Hermitage and saw works by Rembrandt, Cezanne, Monet, Renoir, Van Gogh and Leonardo da Vinci. Our visit to Stockholm was also dominated by a fantastic museum: the Vasa Museum houses the preserved remains of a warship which sank in 1628. The museum gives a fascinating insight into the history of the period, through a series of displays all linked to the Vasa itself, ever-present as you walk around the four floors which provide a range of views over the huge ship. It's brilliantly done – one of the best museums I have ever visited. We were similarly charmed by the much smaller David Collection in Copenhagen which includes extensive displays of early Islamic art, beautifully presented with lots of background information about the history of much of the Middle East and North Africa. It was great to return to Copenhagen – one of my favourite European cities. Regular readers will be relieved to know that we finally managed to see the Little Mermaid. You can see a selection of my holiday photos at:

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Thursday, September 11, 2014

'Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage' by Haruki Murakami

11 September 2014

The Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami combines critical acclaim with huge popularity and the publication of a new Murakami book now feels like a major event. I'm very much a fan and I rushed to read his latest novel, 'Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage' (which I read as an unabridged audio book, translated by Philip Gabriel and narrated by Michael Fenton Stevens). After the enormous magical saga of Murakami's previous book, ''1Q84' (reviewed here in April 2012), 'Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage' is a smaller, calmer, more serious work. There is no magic realism (though the symbolism of erotic dreams again plays a significant part). This is essentially a gentle love story. Tsukuru Tazaki is a 36-year old engineer whose life has been haunted by the mystery of his sudden expulsion, 16 years ago, from a close group of school-friends. Tsukuru never knew why his four best friends suddenly rejected him and finally decides to try to find out what happened. Murakami's writing has a compellingly odd quality. His prose is terribly precise and careful and most of his characters behave in a very logical, straightforward way, but somehow he makes you feel the presence of something deeply mysterious and intriguing in his narrative. Nothing appears to be missed out but you get the impression that the most important things are not being said. Tsukuru Tazaki is likeable and sympathetic but a little dull – but is there anything wrong with being an empty vessel? I enjoyed being back in the strange world of Haruki Murakami and found myself gripped by Tsukuru's pilgrimage, though I missed the humour of some of the earlier novels.


Friday, September 05, 2014

'All The Things You Are' by Leon Fleisher

5 September 2014

“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture” is an often mis-attributed quotation which appears to have been coined by the comedian Martin Mull (see for a lengthy investigation of its origins). As a musician I often find written descriptions of pieces of music (particularly in novels) excruciating. (And don't even get me started on the common misuse of the term 'crescendo'!) So it was a pleasure to come across two excellent pieces of writing this week that sent me scurrying off to listen, not just to the works in question but to the particular recordings that the authors were describing. I rarely listen to solo piano music, so it is an additional testimony to these pieces of writing that both were about this genre.

I've just started reading the new novel by Haruki Murakami, 'Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage', and I was intrigued by this passage: “As they listened to one piano recording, Tsukuru realised that he'd heard the composition many times in the past. He didn't know the title, however, or the composer. It was a quiet, sorrowful piece that began with a slow, memorable theme, played out as single notes, then proceeded into a series of tranquil variations. Tsukuru looked up from a book he was reading and asked Haida what it was. “Franz Liszt’s 'Le Mal du Pays' – it's from his 'Years of Pilgrimage' suite, Year One: Switzerland ... The piece seems simple technically but it's hard to get the expression right: play it just as it's written on the score and it winds up pretty boring, but go the opposite route and interpret it too intensely and it sounds cheap. Just the way you use the pedal makes all the difference and can change the entire character of the piece.” “Who's the pianist here?” “A Russian – Lazar Berman. When he plays Liszt it's like he's painting a delicately imagined landscape … there aren't many living pianists who can play it accurately and with such beauty. Among more contemporary pianists, Berman gets it right.”” Apparently copies of Lazar Berman's CD sold out almost immediately after the publication of Murakami’s novel, and a new release is now planned.

I also loved this New Yorker article by Alex Ross: , which persuaded me to listen to the pianist Leon Fleisher's album 'All the Things You Are' – an eclectic collection which includes pieces by Bach, George Perle, Gershwin and Jerome Kern. Ross writes: “In the mid-nineteen-sixties, Fleisher began suffering from focal dystonia, and for several decades he lost the use of his right hand. Eventually, thanks to experimental treatments, he returned to playing with both hands, but he still gravitates toward the left-hand repertory, much of which was commissioned by the Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein, one of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s brothers, who lost an arm during the First World War. Fleisher has expanded that repertory further, and draws upon it in 'All the Things You Are'. The central work is Bach’s 'Chaconne in D Minor for violin', arranged as a left-hand piano exercise by Brahms. In a letter to Clara Schumann, Brahms told of his love for the Chaconne – “a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings” – and said that he enjoyed struggling in solitude to execute it with one hand, because “one does not always want to hear music actually played.” The miracle of Fleisher’s account is that, while he performs with astonishing dexterity, he retains that atmosphere of exploration, as if no one were listening. The most wrenching passage in the Chaconne comes toward the end, when, after an upward-striving, light-seeking section in D major, there is a shuddering collapse back into the minor. Here, as sonorous, multi-register figuration gives way to spare, confined lines, you may remember what you might have forgotten, that the pianist is using one hand, and that the impairment of the other has caused him much sorrow.”

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