Wednesday, July 29, 2015

WOMAD 2015

29 July 2015

I may have been tempting fate twelve months ago when I wrote here (in August 2014) that “2014 was the hottest WOMAD I can remember”. This year's WOMAD Festival, at Charlton Park in Wiltshire, was much more reminiscent of the infamous 2007 festival (reviewed here in August 2007), when weeks of rain led to a sea of mud across the festival site. Last weekend wasn't quite that bad – the ground had been very dry before the rain started on Friday, and Saturday's weather was really good – but continuous rain on Friday and Sunday made festival-going hard work. If you have never had the festival liquid mud experience I can assure you it is even worse than you are imagining! Nevertheless I saw some great music (and quite a lot of great dancing too this year). I will particularly cherish the memories of two performances from South Africa – veteran female singers the Mahotella Queens, now in their seventies but still creating glorious vocal harmonies and exuberant dance moves, and, at the other end of the age spectrum, the joyful young a capella trio The Soil who had a similarly engaging stage presence with a very different style of music. Another highlight was the final WOMAD appearance of the English folk big band, Bellowhead, who I first encountered at WOMAD in 2006. About to start their farewell tour, Bellowhead gave a typically rousing performance on the Open Air Stage on Friday evening which drew an enormous crowd, despite the pouring rain. As well as the musical performances at this year's festival I enjoyed a talk by Richard Ranft, Head of Sound and Vision at The British Library, about '125 years of recorded music at The British Library'. I also attended the live simulcast on BBC Radio 3 and 6 Music on Sunday morning, hosted by Cerys Matthews, Mary Ann Kennedy and Lopa Kothari, which featured short performances by a host of the festival's stars. One of my favourite discoveries of the weekend was the French/Egyptian band Orange Blossom who draw on musical influences from around the world to create thoughtful, serious music, blending electronica and Arabic rhythms. I'm really enjoying listening to their new album, 'Under The Shade of Violets'. You can see a selection of my photos from WOMAD 2015 at: http://culturaloutlook.blogspot.co.uk/search/label/WOMAD2015


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Monday, July 20, 2015

Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert

20 July 2015

What do the New York Philharmonic, Berliner Philharmoniker, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Northampton Symphony Orchestra have in common? They have all included players who were alumni of the Northamptonshire County Youth Orchestra. On Sunday, at our end-of-season concert for the Friends of Northampton Symphony Orchestra, the current leader of Northamptonshire County Youth Orchestra, 18-year-old Cleo Annandale, gave a beautiful performance of 'Mélodie' from Tchaikovsky's 'Souvenir d’un lieu cher', arranged by Alexander Glazunov for violin and orchestra. The rest of the concert had a operatic theme, including the Overture to Borodin's 'Prince Igor' (also arranged by Glazunov), the 'Grand March' from 'Tannhäuser' by Wagner and the 'Triumphal March' from Verdi's 'Aida'. The latter two pieces proved a showcase for the brass and percussion sections with our four trumpet players sounding particularly splendid. It was a lovely way to finish our 2014-15 season, which has seen the orchestra work with six different conductors. Sunday's concert was conducted by former NSO leader Trevor Dyson, who guided us to an impressive and very enjoyable performance.

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'The Honours' by Tim Clare

20 July 2015

I've just finished reading 'The Honours' – the debut novel by the poet Tim Clare (as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Julie Teal). It's a peculiar book. Set between the wars, it tells the story of thirteen-year-old Delphine Venner. Delphine's father has suffered a breakdown and is taken, with his family, to recuperate at Alderberen Hall in Norfolk – home to a progressive 'Society' which uses a variety of new practices to improve the mind and body. Soon Delphine – the only child in this stately home commune – begins to suspect something more sinister is going on. Eavesdropping on the adults, discovering secret passages and befriending the grumpy gamekeeper, Mr Garforth, she sets out to discover the truth. But as the story develops it becomes clear that there is not going to be a rational solution to the puzzle Delphine is attempting to resolve. The conventional country-house narrative gives way to a fantasy story with the arrival of vicious creatures from another dimension. 'The Honours' is an ambitious undertaking, echoing the looming storm of the Second World War with the threat of a supernatural invasion of Britain, whilst also exploring themes of mental illness, immortality, time travel and more. I'm not sure it completely works: the action scenes are so meticulously described that they seem to go on forever, and there are far too many loose ends untied at the close. 'The Honours' could also have benefited from a little humour as light relief occasionally. Nevertheless, it is beautifully written: you can feel the poet's touch in phrases such as “the distant treeline hung like an unresolved chord”, “his slicked-back hair, receding at the temples, gave the impression he was moving at speed”, and “his posture shivered with the concentrated tension of a mousetrap.” This playfulness with metaphors, together with the country-house setting and a touch of the supernatural, reminded me of the novels of Ned Beauman (such as 'The Teleportation Accident', reviewed here in July 2013) but without Beauman's comic touch. Still, it will be interesting to see what Tim Clare writes next.

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Friday, July 17, 2015

Chamber music concert at Hartwell House

17 July 2015

Mozart's 'Serenade for 13 Wind Instruments' is thought by some to be one of the greatest pieces of music every written. It's an unusual format and a unique combination of instruments, featuring four horns (though Mozart only ever wrote orchestral music scored for two horns) and requiring two basset horns (a close relation to the clarinet). I played the Serenade at a Music in the Brickhills concert in 2011 (reviewed here in May 2011) and it was a pleasure to have the opportunity to play it again in the delightful setting of Hartwell House in Buckinghamshire last Sunday. Hartwell House is a National Trust property that is also a luxury hotel. The stately home surroundings gave us a feel of the sort of salon environment that Mozart's chamber music was originally written for. It was great to be part of a very impressive group of musicians assembled by Paul Harris for this lovely concert.

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Dominic Holland

17 July 2015

Dominic Holland first came to prominence as a comedian in the 1990s and I fondly remember his award-winning BBC Radio 4 series 'The Small World of Dominic Holland' (2000). He seemed to disappear from the stand-up comedy circuit soon afterwards to concentrate on writing. I really enjoyed his novel, 'The Ripple Effect' (published in 2003), – a comic tale of fans fighting to save a local football club – and he now has a string of popular novels to his name. Like many good comedians who seem to have disappeared from public view he now writes material for other performers, including Rob Brydon. So, I was interested to see that Dominic Holland was to headline the regular 'Rolling in the Aisles' comedy night at Kettering Arts Centre last Saturday. Kettering Arts Centre (where we saw Jeremy Hardy a couple of years ago, reviewed here in October 2013) uses St Andrews Church in Kettering. It feels odd watching a comedy night in a church but it has the distinct benefit of requiring the comedians to refrain from swearing (and seeing some struggle with this is amusing in itself!). Since taking the booking to play Kettering Arts Centre, Dominic Holland has had some significant news. A couple of weeks ago his son, Tom Holland, was announced as the new Spiderman, signing a six movie deal with Marvel which will start filming next year. Dominic Holland is clearly still somewhat shell-shocked by this news and started his act on Saturday by saying “I am Spiderman's Dad: this means I literally don't have to be here!”. Fortunately for us, he stayed and gave a great performance. His gentle, observational humour, slick ad libs and warm personality were likeable and extremely funny. If this was the last stand-up gig Dominic Holland feels the need to do, I'm glad we were there.

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Friday, July 10, 2015

Iceland cruise

10 July 2015

We had a lovely two-week holiday on the P&O cruise ship Oriana, visiting Ireland, Iceland the Faroe Islands and Orkney. Our weather was much cooler than back home but we enjoyed some beautiful sunshine in Killybegs (Donegal), Reykjavik and Thorshavn in the Faroe Islands. We did a lot of hiking, exploring the countryside in each of our ports of call. Reykjavik is a lovely small city, surrounded by water and mountains. We also visited two towns at the end of long fjords in the North West (Isafjordur) and North East (Akureyri) of Iceland. Both were very reminiscent of the Norwegian fjords but somewhat bleaker, with few trees. Thorshavn, capital of the Faroe Islands, has a very pretty old town with a collection of colourful old houses with turf on the roofs crammed into a maze of narrow winding alleys on a spit of land between its two harbours. Our visits to Kirkwall (Orkney) and Dublin were hampered by heavy rain but we enjoyed the Orkney Museum in Kirkwall and the National Gallery in Dublin.

You can see a selection of my holiday photos at: http://www.culturaloutlook.blogspot.co.uk/search/label/Iceland2015

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Tuesday, June 23, 2015

'The Hook' by Arthur Miller, adapted for the stage by Ron Hutchinson

23 June 2015

Arthur Miller was born in the Red Hook district of New York City in 1915. His centenary is being celebrated with some great new productions of his best plays: the Young Vic production of 'A View From The Bridge' directed by Ivo van Hove and starring Mark Strong (reviewed here in April 2015), and the Royal Shakespeare Company production of 'Death of a Salesman, directed by Greg Doran and starring Anthony Sher (also reviewed here in April 2015), are two of the best stage plays I've seen this year. Last night we were at the Royal Theatre in Northampton to see the world premiere production of 'The Hook' – a screenplay Arthur Miller wrote in 1951 for an Elia Kazan film that was never made, which has now been adapted for the stage by Ron Hutchinson. In the 1950s, the film studio felt that Miller's script, about exploited dock workers standing up to corrupt union leaders, was too incendiary for an America embroiled in the House Un-American Activities Committee's anti-communist hearings. James Dacre's production for the Northampton Royal & Derngate and Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse recreates the bustling mayhem of the Red Hook dockyards on stage. Whereas 'A View From The Bridge' shows dock workers from the same district solely in a domestic setting, 'The Hook' was clearly intended to reveal the docks themselves on screen. Patrick Connellan's stunning set (with lighting by Charles Balfour) uses a framework of stairs and ramps and ingenious video projection to create a realistic picture of this dangerous workplace. The Royal & Derngate's policy of using a 'community ensemble' of local amateur actors alongside the professional cast was used effectively to cram 26 actors onto the small stage of the Royal Theatre, emphasising the crowded chaos of the dockyards. There were other signs that this had started life as a screenplay – short scenes switching locations abruptly - but Ron Hutchinson's adaptation was very effective. 'The Hook' is not among Miller's best works – it's a little too didactic and quite unrelentingly grim. But this was a fascinating and impressive production.

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Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert

17 June 2015

During the first rehearsal of Vaughan Williams' 'Symphony No 6' with Northampton Symphony Orchestra in April, I told my fellow horn player, Ian Frankland, that not only had I never played the symphony before, I didn't think I had even heard it. The music felt unfamiliar and not what I had expected from a Vaughan Williams symphony. A few minutes later trumpeter Nick Bunker leant across holding his phone screen towards me to show me the review I had written here (in November 2008) about performing Vaughan Williams 'Symphony No 6' with Milton Keynes Sinfonia. It clearly had not made much of an impression on me! As we worked on the symphony over the past seven weeks I did begin to remember it. It is an unusual work for Vaughan Williams, sounding more like Shostakovich - angular, dispassionate, brutal and angry. Written in 1948, the symphony clearly suggests the horrific reality of war. It's a bleak outlook though the incredibly quiet final movement brings a sadly reflective peace. Our performance in Northampton last Saturday conquered most of the fiendish technical challenges of the work (with a particularly fine saxophone solo by Malcolm Green) and that last movement was really effective - you could have heard a pin drop at the end. Our concert opened with a contrasting view of war - the heroic splendour of William Walton's 'Prelude and Fugue (The Spitfire)'. We also played Bruch's 'Scottish Fantasy' with the brilliant young violinist Benjamin Roskams. Bruch uses a series of familiar Scottish folk songs to create a romantic concerto which tugs at the heart strings. Ben gave a stunning performance which I believe reduced some members of our audience to tears. Much of the piece feels like a duet between solo violin and harp, and our harpist, Alexander Thomas, was equally impressive. We ended this British themed concert with the tone poem 'Tintagel' by Arnold Bax - a sumptuous Wagnerian work which provided a wonderful finale to a really enjoyable concert. Our latest guest conductor Robert Max led us very effectively through this ambitious and challenging programme with its wide variety of styles.

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Friday, June 12, 2015

'Othello' by William Shakespeare

12 June 2015

On Thursday we were at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon to see the new RSC production of 'Othello', directed by Iqbal Khan, with Hugh Quarshie as Othello and Lucian Msamati as Iago. The production has attracted attention for casting two black actors in the leading roles. Having a black Iago – and a mixture of ethnic backgrounds throughout the cast – alters the focus of the play, making the jealousies and rivalries less racially motivated and more personal. But the real achievement of the production – and its cast – is to make the audience believe in the characters and almost forget the innovative casting (which also includes a female Duke of Venice). Hugh Quarshie initially plays a very cool, laid-back Othello, with a confident swagger and a few impressive dance moves. But Iqbal Khan's production reminds us that he is also a trained soldier, capable of brutal violence, making his descent into lethal rage all the more believable. The production's contemporary setting emphasises the violent reality of war, with uncomfortable scenes of water-boarding and torture (surely the first 'Othello' to feature pliers, electric drill and blowtorch). Designer Ciaran Bagnall has created an amazing set that makes good use of the unique facilities of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Venice is conjured up in the opening scenes with Iago and Rodrigo sailing a gondola along a real canal flowing through the middle of the stage. Lucian Msamati is wonderful as Iago – brash, funny, michievous, vicious and scheming – you really can't take your eyes off him. Joanna Vanderham is a tall, statuesque Desdemona, towering over Othello in her heels and bouffant hair. She brings a very young, wide-eyed enthusiasm to the role – the considerable age difference with her husband giving another angle to his jealousy.

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