Friday, May 22, 2015

London Festival of Baroque Music concert

22 May 2015

In 2014, after 30 years of continuous support, Lufthansa withdrew its sponsorship from the Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music. After a frantic 12 months of fundraising the Festival's Artistic Director, Lindsay Kemp, and his team have succeeded in presenting the first-ever London Festival of Baroque Music. On Sunday we were at St John's Smith Square in London to see the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the Schola Pietatis Antonio Vivaldi present a programme of music by Vivaldi. In early 18th century Venice the Pieta was a foundling hospital which took in infants abandoned by their parents and deposited anonymously in a special niche in its wall. The children were fostered by local families and received a good education and vocational training. Nearly all the boys left aged 18 to take up occupations in the wider world but most of the female residents remained for their whole lives in the hospital. The girls were trained in handicrafts and music. When Vivaldi, who was a member of the hospital staff, wrote music for the Pieta choir his four-part harmonies were sung entirely by female singers with women unusually taking the tenor and bass parts. The Schola Pietatis Antonio Vivaldi aims to recreate this unfamiliar choral sound. It was strange to hear Vivaldi's 'Gloria' – one of his best known choral works – sung by the all-female choir. While the musical notes were the same, the timbre of the low female voices contributed to a very different choral sound. The choir were ably accompanied by the period instruments of the excellent Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, led  by the charismatic violinist, Kati Debretzeni. Her performance of Vivaldi's 'Concerto in D major' at the end of the first half of the concert was fantastic – the delicate, playful cadenza at the end of the final movement had a packed audience collectively holding its breath – a magical moment. The whole concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and you can listen to it for the next 25 days at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b05vh237

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Friday, May 15, 2015

'Man and Superman' by George Bernard Shaw

15 May 2015

On Thursday this week we were at the Errol Flynn Filmhouse in Northampton to watch the NT Live broadcast of George Bernard Shaw's 'Man and Superman', live from the National Theatre in London. Simon Godwin's production squeezed Shaw's text down to a “compelling three and a half hours” but the time whizzed by. Ralph Fiennes is a compelling presence on stage, delivering his lines at a machine-gun pace but with every syllable completely clear and intelligible, and his physical acting is amazing. This was an incredibly funny production, with an extremely strong cast. Indira Varma, as Anne, was fantastic – her facial expressions and rapid mood-turns rivalling Fiennes as the standout performance. And Tim McMullan, as Mendoza and The Devil, almost stole the show. 'Man and Superman' is a long and very wordy play but this production created a multitude of laugh-out-loud moments and demonstrated how Shaw links the wit of Oscar Wilde to the cerebral thirst for knowledge of Tom Stoppard. Indira Varma and Ralph Fiennes were a 'Beatrice and Benedict' pairing that was both hilarious and remarkably touching.

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Berlin

15 May 2015

We had a wonderful holiday in Berlin last week. This was my first visit to this fascinating city and it was great to explore it. We took bus and boat tours and visited the Brandenburg Gate, Checkpoint Charlie, remaining sections of the Berlin Wall and Charlottenburg Palace. One of highlights of our trip was climbing to the top of Norman Foster's Reichstag Dome – you walk up a spiral ramp inside the massive glass dome, with amazing views out across the city as well as being able to look directly down into the German Parliament chamber (the people symbolically above the politicians). We also visited the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe – an amazing installation of 2,711 concrete slabs, designed by architect Peter Eisenman and engineer Buro Happold. We enjoyed the Pergamon Museum, particularly the enormous reconstruction of the Ishtar Gates of Babylon. It was interesting to be in Berlin in the week of the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. There were lots of exhibitions about the war and we marked the anniversary of VE Day by attending a stunning performance of Benjamin Britten's 'War Requiem' at the Gethsemane Church. The War Requiem was written for the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral, was built after the original fourteenth-century structure was destroyed in a World War II bombing raid. Britten combines the text of the Latin requiem mass with war poems by Wilfred Owen. I played in a performance of the War Requiem while I was at University in Birmingham, but I hadn't seen it performed since. The work requires massive forces – a symphony orchestra, chamber orchestra, choral society, boys' choir, organ and three soloists – so it always feels like a major event. This concert was presented by the Junges Ensemble Berlin and featured the Berlin youth orchestra and youth choir, together with the Prometheus Ensemble and the Berlin Cathedral Choir. It was conducted by Frank Markowitsch and Michael Riedel. Having so many people performing resulted in a sell-out audience of mostly young people and families. The concert started with a video collage projected on a large screen above the stage, showing scenes of conflict from World War II to Vietnam to modern-day Afghanistan and Iraq. This film was accompanied by a performance of Arvo Pärt's haunting 'Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten'. The dying chimes of the bell at the end of this piece merged seamlessly into the opening notes of the War Requiem. It was a wonderful concert, brilliantly performed and very moving – and an emotional end to our visit to Berlin.

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Monday, May 11, 2015

'King John' by William Shakespeare

11 May 2015

When King John held court in Northampton he is known to have visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – a church built by the Earl of Northampton on his return from the crusades. This 12th century church is still standing and it was a wonderful setting, as we mark the 800th anniversary of John signing the Magna Carta, for the Northampton Royal & Derngate's production of Shakespeare's 'King John', which we saw there last Monday. 'King John' is definitely not one of Shakespeare's best plays, but James Dacre's production (the first Royal & Derngate co-production with Shakespeare's Globe) was a five-star theatrical experience. From the moment we entered the church to see the body of Richard the Lionheart lying in state in the circular sepulchre, surrounded by monks conducting his funeral, we were immersed in the action of the play. The amazing setting, lit almost entirely by candles, with the scent of incense ever-present, combined with original music written by Orlando Gough and Jonathan Fensom's stunning design, created a wonderfully atmospheric performance. It was a privilege to be among the sell-out audience crammed into the wooden church pews, watching the actors on a cross-shaped platform along the nave and transepts. Jo Stone-Fewings was excellent as King John and I was particularly impressed by the two youngest actors: Laurence Belcher (playing Arthur and Henry) demonstrated both compelling acting and a beautiful counter-tenor singing voice; and Aruhan Galieva as Blanche was a great singer making an impressive acting debut. 'King John' finishes its run in Northampton this weekend and then plays at Temple Church in London and Salisbury Cathedral before heading to Shakepeare’s Globe in June. Catch it if you can.

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Monday, April 27, 2015

'Cyrano de Bergerac' based on the translation by Anthony Burgess of the play by Edmond Rostand

27 April 2015

On Saturday we were at the Royal Theatre in Northampton to see 'Cyrano de Bergerac' – a co-production by Royal & Derngate Northampton and Northern Stage, based on the translation written by Anthony Burgess of the play written by Edmond Rostand. 'Cyrano de Bergerac' is such a familiar story it was a surprise to realise I hadn't seen the play before. And it was interesting to discover its history: Rostand's 1897 play was based on a real-life duellist and literary figure who lived in early 17th century France. It was translated into English – in prose and in verse – several times before the 1971 version by Anthony Burgess entered the canon as a modern classic. Burgess, the author of 'A Clockwork Orange' was an accomplished translator (and a composer). According to the programme, he rewrote Rostand's original verse (rhymed alexandrines) as “decasyllabic heroic couplets, with occasional diversions into sonnets, hexameters, and free verse for the moving final scene”. All of which helps to emphasise the fact that 'Cyrano de Bergerac' is a play about poetry and drama. At times the plot feels almost incidental to an exploration of ideas about language and performance. The Royal & Derngate/Northern Stage production, directed by Lorne Campbell, starts metatextually with Cyrano speaking to the audience about the play we are about to see. The action is set in a gymnasium, complete with climbing bars and vaulting horses. Most of the actors wear fencing whites, which they adorn with brightly coloured hats or scarves to indicate the various roles they assume through the play. It is an energetic and intriguing production but it felt like an odd mix of styles. The plot was often interrupted by the performance of standalone poems, with the actors occasionally using a microphone hanging from a long cable for these performances within the performance. The Burgess version is clearly extremely clever, playful and witty but I felt I really needed to read it to get the full effect of the text. Nigel Barrett was a very impressive Cyrano, commanding the stage physically and vocally. It was also fascinating to discover, afterwards, that the production's ensemble cast was made up of six emerging performers from Northern Stage's NORTH scheme – a 21 week paid training programme to support and develop young actors in the North East of England, part of Northern Stage's commitment to creating access and opportunities for working class actors with exceptional talent.

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'Love, Sex and Other Foreign Policy Goals' by Jesse Armstrong

27 April 2015

Jesse Armstrong is best known as one of the writers of the long-running TV comedy 'Peep Show'. His first novel, 'Love, Sex and Other Foreign Policy Goals' (which I have just finished reading as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Chris Addison) has the same hilarious but squirm-inducing tone as 'Peep Show', with the consequences of believably selfish bad behaviour creating both cartoon comedy and real-world pain. 'Love, Sex and Other Foreign Policy Goals' follows a group of students, setting out in 1994 to cross Europe in a minibus to perform a peace play in war-torn Sarajevo. Their mixture of naivety, good intentions and lack of understanding makes for an uncomfortable but thrilling tale. And Andy, our first person narrator, who has only got involved in the expedition as a way of getting close to the girl of his dreams, is both despicable and sadly sympathetic (particularly as you wait for his lie about being able to be speak Serbo-Croat to be discovered!). Chris Addison feels like the perfect voice to bring Andy to life. As the gang get to the Balkans, their story becomes increasingly bleak, turning from a road trip into a very real evocation of war. Though often very funny, this is too serious to be a comic novel but I found it a real page-turner, grippingly compelling. I look forward to seeing what Jesse Armstrong writes next.

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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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