Tuesday, August 15, 2017

'Golden Hill' by Francis Spufford

15 August 2017

I last encountered the historical writer Francis Spufford through his excellent BBC Radio 4 mini-series about HG Wells’ ‘The War of the Worlds’, ‘Following the Martian Invasion’ (reviewed here in March 2017). Spufford brings an historian’s touch to his first novel ‘Golden Hill’, which I have just finished reading (as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Sarah Borges). ‘Golden Hill’ is a brilliant tour de force. Set in Manhattan in 1746, when New York City has a population of 7,000 and feels like a frontier town, ‘Golden Hill’ is written in the style of novels of that period – a ‘Joseph Andrews’ for the New World. As a contemporary novel written in an historical style, it reminded me of Jo Baker's 'Longbourn' (reviewed here in April 2014), 'The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet’ by David Mitchell (reviewed here in August 2011) and 'The Luminaries' by Eleanor Catton (reviewed here in December 2013). ‘Golden Hill’ grips from the start as a mysterious young man arrives on a ship from London with a bill of exchange for an unbelievable amount of money. The novel is beautifully written, historically fascinating with wonderfully drawn characters and a mesmeric plot. It manages to be a very funny comic novel without reducing its protagonists to caricatures. And there is a final satisfying twist which is achieved without any damage to the believability of the story. ‘Golden Hill’ is one of the best novels I’ve read in years – very highly recommended.

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County Wicklow

15 August 2017

Earlier this year my brother and his wife moved to the Republic of Ireland and last week we visited them in their new home in the beautiful Wicklow Mountains, South of Dublin. We had a lovely week exploring County Wicklow – walking part of the Wicklow Way with stunning views of the Great Sugar Loaf mountain, walking the spectacular coastal path from Bray to Greystones and looking down on the dramatic valley of the two lakes, Glendalough. We visited the stately homes of Castletown and Powerscourt and enjoyed a brilliant concert by the Chamber Philharmonia Cologne in Wicklow Town. We also visited the mediaeval town of Kilkenny on the opening day of the Kilkenny Arts Festival. And we were very lucky with the weather – hardly any rain and plenty of glorious sunshine. You can see a selection of my photos of Wicklow at: http://culturaloutlook.blogspot.co.uk/search/label/Wicklow2017

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Tuesday, August 01, 2017

WOMAD 2017

1 August 2017

I have been writing here about my annual visit to the WOMAD Festival every year since 2006, so regular readers will be expecting a list of my key highlights, a boast about how many bands I saw and some comments on the weather – and I don’t plan to disappoint you! This year it was good to get the chance to see again some old favourites as well as some great new discoveries. It was WOMAD 2009 when I last saw the great Wassalou singer from Mali, Oumou Sangaré (reviewed here in July 2009 and March 2009), and it was wonderful to see her on great form again on the Open Air Stage this weekend. I wrote here in January 2016 about ‘Junun’ – the wonderfully hard-to-categorise album of music by the Israeli composer Shye Ben Tzur, recorded with a troupe of Sufi qawwali musicians and Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood – and it was great to get the chance to see this music performed live by Shye Ben Tzur & Rajasthan Express on Friday. One of the most bizarre moments of the weekend was watching Dorit Chrysler and Charlie Draper from the New York Theremin Society performing a mixture of classical, jazz and contemporary music on the original electronic instrument – I want a theremin! Talking of bizarre, it was a joy to discover the brilliant Spooky Men’s Chorale from the Blue Mountains of Australia. As their own publicity says “Men. Singing Songs. Some of them are funny.” Their idiosyncratic mixture of dead-pan comedy, pathos and beautiful harmonies felt like a combination of the amazing Chumbawamba performance at WOMAD 2010 (reviewed here in July 2010) and the legendary Flying Pickets. Here’s a flavour of the Spooky Men’s Chorale: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RiFJL4IrH7Y. And another standout moment in an increasingly bizarre weekend was watching a 28-piece brass band playing Mike Oldfield’s ‘Tubular Bells’. Tubular Brass, arranged and conducted by Sandy Smith, also accompanied the young electronic music experimentalist Hannah Peel in her new work ‘Mary Casio’. But my favourite performances from WOMAD 2017 were all from the Baltic. Estonian fiddler Maarja Nuut and the Estonia folk trio Trad.Attack! both create very modern music from traditional folk sources. It has been eleven years since I last saw one of my favourite bands, the great Finnish folk/rock band Värttinä, live (reviewed here at WOMAD in August 2006) and it was fantastic to see their three female vocalists performing as Värttinä Vocal Trio on Saturday. They were joined by the English folk star Eliza Carthy for a wonderful English/Finnish version of ‘Three Drunken Maidens’. But my favourite song was the beautiful ‘Emoton’ which you can hear at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VjsSMIXOnn0. For the record I beat last year’s tally of 22 bands, seeing 23 performances in total last weekend. And the weather was a mixed bag this year – hot, sunny, cold, wet, windy and very muddy by the end of the weekend. You can see a selection of my WOMAD 2017 photos at: https://culturaloutlook.blogspot.co.uk/search/label/WOMAD2017.



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Thursday, July 27, 2017

'GLOW' by Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch

27 July 2017

I’ve just finished watching the excellent new Netflix comedy drama series ‘GLOW’. The Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling was a real 1980s TV franchise from which Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch have created this fictionalised show about the development of the show. Alison Brie plays Ruth – an aspiring actor struggling to land a serious role who comes to see the schlocky world of wrestling as a chance to perform. There is a great ensemble cast, including British pop singer Kate Nash making an impressive acting debut. ‘GLOW’ is very funny but ultimately succeeds because it really makes you care about the characters – as well as actually persuading this sceptic about the value of the staged sport it portrays. There is lots of 1980s period detail. And standup comedian Marc Maron steals the show as the sleazy director trying to bring a disparate group of women together to wrestle on camera.

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Friday, July 21, 2017

Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert

21 July 2017

The last concert of each Northampton Symphony Orchestra season is always a private performance for the Friends of the Orchestra - a chance to say thank you for their support and an opportunity for the orchestra to explore repertoire that might not fit into one of our main concerts. This year's NSO Friends' Concert, last Sunday, concluded our season of Fifth Symphonies with Beethoven's 'Symphony no 5'. With such a famous piece of music it is easy to take it for granted and assume you know it all. So it was good to have the opportunity, over the past few weeks, to really get to grips with the symphony and to appreciate why it is such a successful and well known work. During 2016-17 we have played the fifth symphonies by Shostakovich, Glazunov, Sibelius, Alwyn, Mendelssohn and Beethoven. It has been a really enjoyable and interesting season of concerts, cleverly programmed by NSO Conductor, John Gibbons. But I'm not sure whether we really identified any particular characteristics of fifth symphonies. It is interesting that for many composers the fifth symphony seems to be a particularly significant work but, beyond the fact that getting as far as writing five symphonies is likely to indicate a maturing of the composer's skill, I don't think we noticed any other common features.

The rest of our programme on Sunday included Sullivan's overture to 'The Yeomen of the Guard' and Handel's 'Music for the Royal Fireworks'. But the star attraction was the return of the brilliant young saxophonist, Jess Gillam, who played John Williams' 'Escapades' with the NSO at our February 2017 concert. Jess is due to make three appearances at this year's BBC Proms, starting with the John Williams Prom this Thursday (which is being shown on BBC4 on the evening of Friday 21 July). She joined us again on Sunday to try out some pieces by Chick Corea that will form part of one of her Proms performances. Jess Gillam is an amazing performer and it was a privilege to see her in action again.

Sunday's concert also marked a final appearance with the NSO by my fellow horn player, Ian Frankland. Ian has been with NSO for 19 years and we have played alongside each other since 2000. We've had a great time and played in some amazing concerts together. I'll really miss Ian and wish him well for his forthcoming move to Copenhagen.

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Friday, July 14, 2017

'Alan Partridge: Nomad' by Alan Partridge with Rob Gibbons, Neil Gibbons and Steve Coogan

14 July 2017

When I reviewed the Alan Partridge ‘autobiography’, ‘I, Partridge: We Need to Talk About Alan’ (in May 2012) I was particularly taken with how it managed to replay many of the best known Partridge moments (from radio and TV series going back more than 20 years) without making the book feel like a ‘greatest hits’ exercise, merely replaying old jokes, but actually adding a further layer of hindsight humour by re-telling the various incidents in exactly the way Alan himself would. The ‘sequel’, ‘Alan Partridge: Nomad’ by Alan Partridge with Rob Gibbons, Neil Gibbons and Steve Coogan (which I have just finished reading as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Alan Partridge) cleverly extends this technique. In this diary of Alan’s ill-fated attempt to get a TV commission for a celebrity walking series (in the style of Julia Bradbury or Clare Balding) by embarking on an emotional trek across East Anglia in the footsteps of his father, he includes his reflections on almost everything that has happened to Alan Partridge since the publication of ‘I, Partridge’. This includes telling us about the events that form the plot of Declan Lowney’s excellent 2013 film ‘Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa’. The whole Alan Partridge canon has become increasingly meta-textual. Rob Gibbons and Neil Gibbons are genuine Partridge fans who have turned their obsessively pedantic (Patridgean?) attention to detail regarding Alan’s history to superb effect in the books.

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'Respectable' by Lynsey Hanley

14 July 2017

Since the EU referendum in June last year, I’ve been thinking a lot about the class divisions that were highlighted by the vote in so many communities that clearly felt disconnected from, and disillusioned with, Government and the ‘metropolitan elite’. In September 2016 I saw the Guardian journalist Lynsey Hanley give a brilliantly entertaining and provocative presentation about class and culture at the Creative People and Places conference in Doncaster. Lynsey Hanley’s book ‘Respectable: Crossing the Class Divide’ has been my timely, inspiring and challenging companion over the past few months. It has made a significant impression on my thinking in a very similar way to ‘Welcome to Everytown’ – Julian Baggini’s exploration of mainstream culture (reviewed here in April 2008). So it was particularly interesting to discover a reference in ‘Respectable’ to ‘Welcome to Everytown’ – especially as I hadn’t come to this reference when I met Julian Baggini for the first time in February and encouraged him to read ‘Respectable’. Lynsey Hanley uses her own experience of social mobility as a platform to explore and explode many middle class assumptions about working class people and culture. It is an important and fascinating book – highly recommended.

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'Titus Andronicus' by William Shakespeare

14 July 2017

Last Tuesday we were at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon to see the new RSC production of ‘Titus Andronicus’. I had never seen ‘Titus Andronicus’ before and, although this was a stunning production, I don’t think I want to see it again. I knew the play has a reputation for being particularly gory but I found the plot incredibly discomfiting as well as not making a great deal of sense. There is a horrifically brutal rape scene that sits very uneasily with the dark comedy that follows. There is also an incredible amount of blood spilled during the performance: don’t sit in the front row! Blanche McIntyre’s modern-dress production is an amazing theatrical experience which compares contemporary crises to the decline of Roman civilisation, opening with anti-austerity protesters in hoodies trying to storm fences protecting the Roman Senate.  There were some very witty touches, such as making the messenger Titus Andronicus sends to the Emperor into a cyclist with a padded ‘Deliveroma’ box on his back. And having some of the speeches delivered from a podium with a microphone allowed for a quiet comic undercutting of some of the more declarative text. The (very) dark humour reminded me of the 2005 National Theatre production of ‘Theatre of Blood’ (adapted by Lee Simpson and Phelim McDermott from the 1973 MGM movie). The always-impressive David Troughton, who I last saw at the RSC as Gloucester in ‘King Lear’ (reviewed here in September 2016) is wonderful as Titus Andronicus (is he working his way through the goriest Shakespearean parts?). This is a quality production of a very peculiar play.

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'Great Expectations' by Charles Dickens, adapted by Laura Turner

14 July 2017

On Saturday 1 July we were at the National Trust stately home at Claydon near Buckingham for an outdoor theatre production by Chapterhouse Theatre Company. We have seen many Chapterhouse productions over recent years (at a variety of venues) and they always bring an impressive cast of young actors who rise to the many challenges of an outdoor performance. Laura Turner has made a specialism of adapting classic novels for Chapterhouse outdoor productions and this time we saw her adaptation of ‘Great Expectations’ by Charles Dickens. It was a beautiful evening to spend in such a lovely setting, with Claydon itself playing the part of Satis House and a wonderful sunset providing the backdrop to the play. The cast were all very strong but Dominic Quinn, making his Chapterhouse debut as a late replacement for the actor playing Magwitch and Jaggers, was particularly impressive.

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Thursday, June 29, 2017

'Small Great Things' by Jodi Picoult

29 June 2017

Jodi Picoult's novel 'Small Great Things', which I have just finished reading (as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Noma Dumezweni, Jeff Harding and Jennifer Woodward), is a very impressive exploration of racism in contemporary America. When Ruth Jefferson, an experienced and highly respected nurse working in a hospital in Newhaven, Connecticut, is removed from caring for a newborn baby because his white supremacist parents do not want an African American touching their son, she is understandably angry and upset. When the baby then dies suddenly and unexpectedly, Ruth finds herself suspended and charged with murder. But 'Small Great Things' resists the melodrama this plot suggests and focuses instead on the prejudices, explicit and implicit, of everyone involved. Telling the story through the eyes of Ruth, her white liberal lawyer and the baby's skinhead father, Picoult alternates narrators, often overlapping different views of the same scene. She makes all these characters very real and believable - even making the fascist father almost sympathetic. Ultimately she shows the unconscious racism of well-meaning people like the liberal lawyer to be as damaging as the more blatant prejudice practised by the baby's parents. I was struck by her distinction between 'equality' and 'equity' - suggesting that treating everyone the same is often not enough to redress the balance. What appears, initially, to be a fairly grim thriller turns into a thought-provoking examination with well drawn characters and some beautiful writing.

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Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Aegon Birmingham Classic Tennis

27 June 2017

On Saturday we were at the Priory Club in Edgbaston, Birmingham to see the semi-finals of the Aegon Birmingham Classic tennis tournament. It was great to see the former Wimbledon Champion, Petra Kvitová, returning to form following an enforced absence from the game after being attacked and injured by an intruder in her home at the end of last year. It was a shame her semi-final was cut short by an injury to her opponent, Lucie Šafárová, but still good to see her playing so well. The second semi-final was a thriller, with Garbiñe Muguruza – last year’s French Open winner – losing in three sets to the young Australian doubles specialist Ashleigh Barty. It was one of those tennis matches where you genuinely couldn’t tell who was going to win. Even at 5-1 down in the final set Muguruza looked as if she still might triumph. It was a really exciting match. We finished the day with an entertaining, if fairly one-sided, doubles semi-final won by Chan Hao-ching and Zhang Shuai. We had been looking forward to seeing Ashleigh Barty again in the doubles but her semi-final was a walkover after one of her opponents pulled out through injury. The problem with a pre-Wimbledon tournament is that anyone who feels the slightest twinge is clearly not to going to risk missing Wimbledon. Nevertheless we had a really enjoyable day of tennis in Birmingham.

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