Wednesday, December 13, 2017

'Antony & Cleopatra' by William Shakespeare

13 December 2017

On Tuesday I was at the Barbican in London to see the Royal Shakespeare Company production of ‘Antony & Cleopatra’ starring Antony Byrne and Josette Simon. Incredibly, I last saw Josette Simon on stage in 1995 as Katherina in Mihai Maniutiu’s brilliant production of ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ at Leicester Haymarket. 22 years later, she is still a striking, mercurial performer, playing a capricious Cleopatra with a childlike playfulness and petulance. I had never previously seen ‘Antony & Cleopatra’. It’s one of those Shakespeare plays that relies on people immediately and unquestioningly believing the word of a messenger who arrives to tell them someone has died – without any evidence of the veracity of the message. But the central relationship between Mark Anthony and the Queen of Egypt is very believable and well played in Iqbal Khan’s production. I also liked Ben Allen who plays Octavius Caesar as a public schoolboy who feels upset and disappointed when his opponents won’t play fair. The original music, composed by Laura Mvula, is an interesting mix of rock, folk and classical which uses a worldless female singer (Zara McFarlane) to create a mystical, ancient world feel.

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Milton Keynes Sinfonia concert

13 December 2017

There was much disappointment last Sunday when the annual Northampton Symphony Orchestra Christmas Cracker concert had to be cancelled because of the snow. It’s the first time in the 17 years I have played in the orchestra that we have cancelled a concert. A great shame for everyone who had been looking forward to dressing up as their favourite hero or villain (the members of the orchestra as much as the children in the audience!) Fortunately the snow arrived on Sunday morning and didn’t affect the Milton Keynes Sinfonia concert which I was playing in on Saturday evening. I made one of my occasional appearances with Milton Keynes Sinfonia in a popular programme which included the Sibelius Violin Concerto, played by the exciting young soloist Charlotte Moseley, and Tchaikovsky’s ‘Symphony No 5’. I was ‘bumping’ the 1st horn part to allow the Principal Horn player, Kate Knight, to concentrate on a beautiful performance of the big horn solo in the slow movement of the symphony. Tchaikovsky 5 is a very exciting piece to play but must be one of the most exhausting works in the repertoire: by the end of the last movement I was relying on Kate to support me as my stamina waned. It was a lovely concert and it was great to see a packed audience at the Church of Christ the Cornerstone in Milton Keynes.

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Thursday, December 07, 2017

'Symphony No 4' by Sergei Taneyev

7 December 2017

I am grateful to Lee Dunleavy for recommending, on FaceBook, the 4th Symphony by Sergei Taneyev which I have been listening to this week (in the Naxos recording by the Novosibirsk Academic Symphony Orchestra conducted by Thomas Sanderling). I must admit I had never heard of Taneyev, a Russian composer born in 1856 who died in 1915. He he studied piano at the Moscow Conservatory with Rubinstein and composition with Tchaikovsky, who became a close friend. Taneyev later taught at the Conservatory himself, where his pupils included Rachmaninov. He wrote four symphonies, although the first three were not published until long after his death. Symphony No 4 was published in 1901 (as No 1) is a powerful, romantic work which shows the influence of Tchaikovsky and also reminded me of another Russian work, ‘Symphony No 5 (The Heroic)’ by Alexander Glazunov which I played with Northampton Symphony Orchestra earlier this year (reviewed here in March 2017). I am definitely going to listen to more Taneyev.

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Wednesday, November 29, 2017

'Wicked: The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz' by Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman

29 November 2017

Some time in 2001 I heard someone on the radio talking about a novel that was going to tell the story of the childhood of the Wicked Witch of the West from L Frank Baum’s ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’. Even though the book had not yet been published in the UK, I was hooked by the concept. During a trip to Seattle in 2002 I bought a copy of 'Wicked' by Gregory Maguire at the wonderful Elliot Bay Book Company store and I loved it. It has since become a bestseller and spawned a Broadway musical, which has now been running at the Apollo Victoria in London for 11 years. Last Saturday I finally got around to going to see it. I think I had been put off by the initial critical reviews and worried that the show wouldn’t live up to Gregory Maguire’s novel – an incredibly complex tale which is both an exercise in magical realism and (strangely) believably realistic. (As is his other novel 'Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister', reviewed here in March 2008.) ‘Wicked: The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz’, directed by Joe Mantello, is great fun: an impressive spectacle with an amazing set (by Eugene Lee), stunning lighting (by Kenneth Posner) and a huge cast. It’s a rock musical with solid music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz. But it’s really worth seeing for three reasons: 1. it is rare to see a mainstream musical with two strong female leads (it would definitely pass the Bechdel test) – Alice Fearn as Elphaba and Sophie Evans as Glinda are the stars of the show; 2. the book by Winnie Holzman is brilliant – incredibly witty, quickly pricking any emerging pomposity, with some beautifully hidden references to lines from ‘The Wizard of Oz’ and many laugh-out-loud quips; and 3. anyone who grew up watching the 1939 MGM film will love this reverential ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead’ alternative viewpoint on some of the key events in the original story.

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Thursday, November 23, 2017

'La Belle Sauvage' by Philip Pullman

23 November 2017

Searching back through my blog, I was pleased to discover that when I wrote here about Susanna Clarke’s brilliant novel ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell’ (reviewed here in April 2008) I noted the similarity between Clarke’s parallel universe and those of Philip Pullman's 'His Dark Materials' novels. While ‘His Dark Materials’ was inspired by Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’, Philip Pullman’s new trilogy of young adult novels, ‘The Book of Dust’, take Spenser's ‘The Faerie Queene’ as its underlying theme. And in the first of these new novels, ‘La Belle Sauvage’ (which I have just finished reading as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Michael Sheen), Pullman’s characters’ initial encounters with the fairy world are very reminiscent of ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell’. It was great to return to Philip Pullman’s alternative Oxford – a contemporary world that feels strangely old-fashioned, where familiar places are populated by people with animal daemons. ‘La Belle Sauvage’ is a prequel to ‘Northern Lights’ – the first ‘His Dark Materials’ novel – and shows us that novel’s hero Lyra Belacqua as a baby, given sanctuary in Godstow Priory to hide her from the Magisterium. This tale is told through the eyes of an eleven-year-old boy, Malcolm Polstead, who lives with his parents at the Trout Inn, across the river Thames from the Priory. It’s more than 15 years since I read the ‘His Dark Materials’ novels and reading ‘La Belle Sauvage’ was like re-encountering an old friend. I had forgotten how good Philip Pullman’s writing is and how genuinely thrilling he makes his stories. ‘La Belle Sauvage’ is incredibly scary and exciting (particularly with Michael Sheen’s dramatic narration). These novels are aimed at children but deal with some very serious themes. Ultimately they seem to be very well observed, sometimes funny, sometimes painful, reflections on the process of growing up. This new Philip Pullman novel was a real treat and I can’t wait for the next two books in the series.

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Friday, November 17, 2017

'Follies' by Stephen Sondheim

17 November 2017

Stephen Sondheim’s 1971 musical ‘Follies’ is rarely performed, largely because it requires an enormous cast. Laurie Sansom’s splendid 2006 production at the Northampton Royal & Derngate (reviewed here in November 2006) cast local amateurs as the ageing Follies girls, with a professional cast playing the leads and the ‘ghosts’ of their younger selves. Dominic Cooke’s new production at the National Theatre (which we saw as a NTLive broadcast at the Odeon at Milton Keynes Stadium on Thursday) uses a cast of 37, plus a 21-strong orchestra. It’s a stunning production with Vicki Mortimer’s massive set showing the crumbling carcass of a condemned theatre constantly rotating on the huge stage of the Olivier. ‘Follies’ is a bitter-sweet show, full of set-piece songs in which the older women each reprise the hits of their youth. Sondheim’s songs are pastiches of the style of those early 20th century Follies shows, but with more knowing poignancy. Dominic Cooke’s production is of the highest quality with great music and dancing. The singing, in particular, is excellent – from the operatic contributions of Josephine Barstow and Bruce Graham, to musical standards by Di Botcher (‘Broadway Baby’) and Tracie Bennett (‘I’m Still Here’), to brilliant song and dance numbers by Dawn Hope (‘Who’s That Woman? (Mirror Mirror)’) and the wonderful Janie Dee (‘The story of Lucy and Jessie’). And it felt impossible not to cry at Imelda Staunton’s heartbreakingly beautiful performance of ‘Losing My Mind’ – the melancholic climax of the evening. The nature of the show, with its roll call of solos by each of the characters, invites audience adulation throughout and the reaction of the audience at the National Theatre on Thursday seemed to grow more exuberant with each number. It’s always a slightly-detached experience sitting in a cinema watching the relay of a live show, but on this occasion the final curtain prompted spontaneous applause from everyone at the Odeon Milton Keynes – and, on screen in the Olivier auditorium, the audience were all on their feet for the most enthusiastic standing ovation I have seen for years. This was a brilliant production of ‘Follies’ and it is amazing for it to be playing in London at the same time as Christopher Wheeldon’s production of ‘An American in Paris’ (reviewed here in April 2017) and Mark Bramble’s production of ‘42nd Street’ (reviewed here in August 2017). All three could make a strong case for being the best musical you will ever see: we are so lucky to have seen them all this year.

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Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert

14 November 2017

Northampton Symphony Orchestra’s 2017-18 season features music inspired by the visual arts. The opening concert, at Spinney Theatre in Northampton last Saturday, included William Walton’s overture ‘Portsmouth Point’, inspired by Thomas Rowlandson’s 1872 satirical print of the same name. Rhythmically, it’s a fiendishly difficult piece to play with constant changes of time signature and syncopated figures which create an exciting depiction of the bustling port. ‘The Frescoes of Piero della Francesca’ by Bohuslav Martinu presents similar challenges to the orchestra, with few downbeats coming where you expect them. It’s a lovely three-movement work which creates a shimmering sound-world capturing the atmosphere of Piero della Francesca’s paintings. Ralph Vaughan Williams’ ‘Job: A Masque for Dancing’ is a rarely performed one act ballet, loosely based on William Blake’s ‘Illustrations to The Book of Job’. I'm still finding it hard to believe it is more than 32 years since I last played ‘Job’ – in a series of 3 staged performances by the Manchester Youth Orchestra at the Royal Northern College of Music in January 1985. When we started rehearsing the piece for this NSO concert memories came flooding back of that seminal musical experience and I was amazed how well I remembered the detail of the horn parts. Our performance on Saturday featured wonderful solos by Stephen Hague (violin), Sarah Mourant (oboe), Naomi Muller (clarinet) and Graham Tear and Helen Taylor (flutes). I don’t think anyone would dispute, however, that the concert was dominated by Dinara Klinton’s amazing performance of the ‘Piano Concerto for the Left Hand’ by Maurice Ravel. Written for the Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein who lost his right arm during the First World War – by Ravel who had been an ambulance driver on the other side in the war – it was a poignant piece to play on 11 November. The concerto is a dark, brooding work which opens with a menacingly deep contrabassoon solo – beautifully played by Frank Jordan. Listening to a recording it seems impossible that the piano is being played with only one hand. It was fascinating to see the young Ukrainian pianist Dinara Klinton making the seemingly impossible not only possible but musically stunning. I can confidently say that no-one who was at the concert will ever forget her performance. Dinara Klinton gave herself the luxury of using both hands for her encore – one of Liszt’s ‘Transcendental Studies’ (the full set of which she recorded for Genuin Classics in 2016: you can watch her playing them at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tDHZC7b4u4I). The NSO negotiated these four unfamiliar and challenging pieces very impressively (though with much furrowed brow concentration!) to present an intriguing and unusual concert which was a tribute to Music Director John Gibbons’ inventive programming and effective conducting.

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Friday, November 10, 2017

'Twelfth Night' by William Shakespeare

10 November 2017

“What country, friends, is this?” It is Illyria and we’ve been here before. I think I have seen ‘Twelfth Night’ more times than any other Shakespeare play. I’ve seen the play interpreted in many different ways but it always seems to work. On Thursday we were at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon to see Christopher Luscombe’s new RSC production of ‘Twelfth Night’. Luscombe’s 2014 RSC production of ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ (reviewed here in November) felt like a cosy, crowd-pleasing version but had some subtle, serious touches (such as Dogberry’s shellshock). His ‘Twelfth Night’ has a similar feel. It’s a play famous for its songs but, in this production, composer Nigel Hess creates additional songs based on fleeting references in the text, making it feel almost like ‘Twelfth Night: The Musical’. Luscombe sets the play in the 1890s, bringing a late Victorian decadence with hints of Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley. There’s a beautifully lavish set by Simon Higlett and steam trains, music hall and top hats. Though he is far from being the main character of the play, it is traditionally Malvolio who gets the top billing and Adrian Edmondson gave an impressively restrained and touching performance, managing to be both obnoxious and sympathetic with a charming twinkle in his eye. (I last saw Adrian Edmondson on stage 25 years ago, when he starred with Rik Mayall in ‘Waiting for Godot’ at the Queen’s Theatre in London.) But unusually for Shakespeare, ‘Twelfth Night’ gives two female actors the lead roles: Dinita Gohil’s Viola and Kara Tointon’s Olivia were both excellent as the emotional heart of the play.

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