Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert

10 December 2019

As regular readers will remember, the official start of Christmas is the annual Northampton Symphony Orchestra Christmas Cracker concert. After last year’s Victorian-themed concert (as part of our 125th anniversary season) on Sunday afternoon we finally got to play the ‘Heroes and Villains’ concert that we had to cancel at the last minute two years ago because of snow. A large, enthusiastic audience of all ages joined us at the Spinney Theatre in Northampton – many of them dressed as their favourite heroes or villains. There were some amazing costumes on display in the orchestra as well – a few of which were quite disturbing! Alongside the usual Christmas carols and festive medleys, we saluted heroes and villains with music including John Williams’ ‘Superman March’, the ‘Overture to The Crimson Pirate’ by William Alwyn, ‘Men of Sherwood Forest’ by Doreen Carwithen (which we had played at our concert in Clifton Cathedral in Bristol in November), ‘How The Grinch Stole Christmas’ arranged by Jerry Brubaker and ‘Music from Frozen’ by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, arranged by Bob Krogstad. ‘Frozen’ was a particular hit with the younger members of our audience, and featured a beautiful violin solo by Scott Blundell. Scott had been called in at the eleventh hour to deputise for NSO leader Stephen Hague after Stephen was suddenly taken ill last Thursday. He is now recovering well but Scott did a wonderful job as leader in his absence. The centrepiece of the concert was Carl Nielsen's ‘Aladdin’ suite, originally written 100 years ago in 1919 as incidental music for a production of ‘Aladdin’ at the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen. For the NSO Christmas Cracker concert Graham Tear wrote a new narration which was woven into Nielsen’s music with the help of NSO conductor John Gibbons and theatrically performed by our compère, Alan Bell. It was great fun and a clear highlight of the concert for many members of our audience.

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Tuesday, December 03, 2019

‘Constitution Street' by Jemma Neville

3 December 2019

In 2017 Jemma Neville took a 9-month sabbatical from her role as Director of Voluntary Arts Scotland to write her first book. Responding to issues raised by both the 2014 Scottish independence referendum and the 2016 United Kingdom European Union membership referendum, and drawing on her own background in human rights law, Jemma wanted to explore the potential for a rights framework in the form of a written constitution. She did so, rather brilliantly, by looking at the national (and international) picture through a very local lens, setting out from her home in Constitution Street in Leith to walk and talk with her neighbours – literally taking a constitutional. The resulting book ‘Constitution Street: finding hope in an age of anxiety’ is a compelling read. Through 60 interviews with residents of Constitution Street Jemma examines the reality of human rights in our everyday lives. The stories of the people she gets to know are beautifully told. The structure of the book follows the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but the focus is always on the individual people, with the underlying message subtly in the background. Jemma is an incredibly generous narrator, giving ample room even to views she clearly doesn’t share. ‘Constitution Street’ is a deeply personal work, taking the reader through Jemma’s own moments of joy, confusion and grief. Although the book draws mainly on Jemma’s expertise in human rights law it was good to spot some small influences from Voluntary Arts – both in a focus on ‘the commons’ and on the use of exploratory ‘open conversations’. At this worryingly unsettling time in national and international politics ‘Constitution Street’ is an important book, gently persuasive and refreshingly human. It’s also a fascinating social history of a particular community and a really entertaining and enjoyable read. Last Thursday, having almost finished reading the book, I found myself walking along Constitution Street to visit Jemma in the new Voluntary Arts Scotland office on Customs Lane. I had walked down Constitution Street many times before, but now I was seeing it differently, recognising particular buildings from the book and imagining particular individuals behind the doors. The street itself is currently closed to traffic during the construction of the extension to Edinburgh’s tram system. With the road surface inaccessible behind high metal fences along the edge of the pavement and subject to excavation and resurfacing, and the closing chapters of the book fresh in my mind, Constitution Street felt like a film set being dismantled after shooting had finished. Or maybe a community being prepared for the next chapter in its history. ‘Constitution Street’ is an amazing achievement: if you haven’t bought your copy yet go straight to: https://www.404ink.com/store/constitution-street-jemma-neville

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Monday, December 02, 2019

‘The Season’ by Jim Barne and Kit Buchan

2 December 2019

On Saturday we were at the Royal Theatre in Northampton to see ‘The Season’ – a new chamber musical by Jim Barne and Kit Buchan. This lovely two-hander features Tori Allen-Martin and Alex Cardall as an odd couple, meeting in New York on Christmas Eve, discussing all the terrible clichés of New York Christmas romcom movies and then proceeding to act out those same clichés. It’s a very knowing take on the schmaltzy Christmas romance which manages to rise above the cynicism to be genuinely charming. The story of the musical’s development is also heart-warming, with Barnes and Buchan getting their break to stage their first musical after winning the 2018 Stiles & Drewe mentorship award which gave them a year’s mentorship from the successful musicals writing partnership George Stiles and Anthony Drewe (whose works include 'Betty Blue Eyes', reviewed here in July 2011). ‘The Season’ – a Royal & Derngate, Northampton and New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich co-production, directed by Tim Jackson – is witty, sweet, moving and great fun. It has been playing to packed houses in Northampton and Saturday’s audience gave the show an enthusiastic standing ovation.

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Thursday, November 28, 2019

'The Portage' by RANT

28 November 2019

I’ve been enjoying ‘The Portage’ – the new album from Scottish fiddle quartet Rant. This is chamber folk – somewhere between Trad and classical. Rant are four young female fiddle players, two from Shetland and two from the Highlands. The album, which was recorded over four days at the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Church in Glasgow, is a nicely varied collection of tunes ranging from frantic fiddling to haunting melancholy ballads that reminded me of the albums by Duncan Chisholm (reviewed here in December 2010). And like Duncan Chisholm, Rant have played with Julie Fowlis, providing the strings for her album 'Gach Sgeul (Every Story)' (reviewed here in May 2014). There is a beautiful simplicity to the music of ‘The Portage’ precisely because it is played so precisely and sensitively.

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Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert

19 November 2019

I’ve been a member of Northampton Symphony Orchestra for 19 years but last Saturday was the first time I’ve played with the orchestra outside Northamptonshire as we performed a concert in Clifton Cathedral in Bristol. It was really enjoyable being ‘on tour’ with the orchestra (if only for one night!) and getting the chance to play in a truly unique venue. Clifton Cathedral is a modern, hexagonal Cathedral – winner of the 1974 Concrete Society Award – and an amazing space in which to perform. It was also great to have a second opportunity to play some of the pieces from our October concert in Northampton. We usually rehearse a work for weeks but only get one chance to perform it. Revisiting Tchaikovsky’s ‘Fantasy Overture: Romeo and Juliet' I think we gave a more exciting performance second time around. And it was fascinating to play the ‘Piano Concerto No 2’ by Rachmaninov with a different soloist, so soon after our performance in Northampton with Rhythmie Wong. In Bristol we were joined by the amazing Latvian pianist Arta Arnicane – a favourite of the orchestra following our previous performances with her of the 'Rhapsody in Blue' and the 'I Got Rhythm' Variations for piano and orchestra by Gershwin (reviewed here in June 2014) and the ‘Piano Concerto No 3’ by Bela Bartok (reviewed here in May 2017). Arta’s performance of the Rachmaninov Second Concerto was thrilling and incredibly romantic (and featured an outstanding clarinet solo by Christine Kelk in the second movement). Arta also joined us to play the ‘Piano Concerto No 1’ by William Alwyn (which the orchestra had played in a concert I missed in March 2018). NSO conductor John Gibbons is a champion of the Northampton-born 20th century composer and it’s a lovely concerto with some achingly beautiful moments. Our programme also featured the ‘Overture: Men of Sherwood Forest’ by Doreen Carwithen, which we will get another chance to perform as part of the NSO Christmas Cracker ‘Heroes and Villains’ concert at Spinney Theatre in Northampton on 8 December. It was great fun playing at Clifton Cathedral and I think it was one of our best recent performances.

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Ruth Notman

19 November 2019

I remain eternally grateful to our good friend Steve Heap for introducing me to the music of young Nottingham folk singer Ruth Notman. In 2008 Steve's label, Mrs Casey Music, released ‘Threads’ - the debut album by the 18-year-old Ruth Notman (reviewed here in February 2008) and in 2009 I saw her perform most of the songs from the album at The Stables in Wavendon (reviewed here in April 2009). Ruth took an extended break from music to complete a degree in Medical Science followed by postgraduate studies as a Physician Associate. Ten years after I saw her at The Stables she returned to the folk scene with a new album of duets with Sam Kelly, ‘Changeable Heart’ (reviewed here in March 2019). And last Friday we returned to The Stables to see the 30-year-old Ruth Notman. It was wonderful to hear her distinctive voice again, with its remarkable quivering vibrato making even solo unaccompanied songs sound like an ensemble. She sang songs from ‘Threads’ – still one of my favourite albums – and spoke about how it felt to revisit songs she had written as a teenager. It was great to see her really enjoying performing: she was relaxed, chatty and smiley – a more polished performer now. We had a lovely evening: my highlights included the jaunty story-song ‘Limbo’ (see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZlcM17Jc3Lw) and the beautiful ballad ‘The Lonely Day Dies’ (see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k4Tc7n0MPKE). And, with apologies to every Scottish singer who has recorded it, I think Ruth Notman’s version of Dougie Maclean’s ‘Caledonia’ is unbeatable: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V4xREBu9-XE

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Tuesday, November 12, 2019

'The Pitmen Painters' by Lee Hall

12 November 2019

Lee Hall’s 2007 play ‘The Pitmen Painters’, which tells the story of the miners who learn to paint at a Workers Education Association art appreciation class at Ashington in Northumberland, quickly became a valuable shorthand for everything Voluntary Arts is about. Writing about the National Theatre/Live Theatre touring co-production featuring the original cast from the premiere at the Live Theatre, Newcastle (reviewed here in October 2009), I described the play as “entertaining, thought-provoking, moving and extremely funny”. It was wonderful, last Saturday, to revisit the play 10 years later in a brilliant amateur production by Company of Ten at the Abbey Theatre in St Albans. Jenny Kilcast’s production has a great set by Alison Pagan which features three enormous easels at the back of the stage holding large blank canvases onto which the pictures being discussed are projected. The projections (by Matt Harker) are slickly timed, creating triptych studies, both of the classic paintings the miners are studying and their own works. The amateur actors were excellent, particularly Peter McEntee who was earnest, humble and entirely believable as Oliver Kilbourn. Above all it was wonderful to rediscover Lee Hall’s brilliant comic script which was impressively handled by Company of Ten. The script is full of quotable lines that extol the importance of everyday creativity and the value of having a go. As the Pitmen Painters say (in a moving Greek chorus section at the end of the first half of the play) “we saw that art was not about the privileged. It wasn't about money or doing things a right way or a wrong way. Art was a gift ... Art doesn't really belong to anybody – not to the artist or the owner or the people who look at it. Real art is something that's shared. Real art belongs to everyone.”

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Wednesday, November 06, 2019

The Open Ears Project

6 November 2019

I'm really enjoying listening to the Open Ears Project – a daily bite-sized podcast of classical music recommendations from WNYC Studios in New York. There are 30 episodes available to download. In each a different person talks about a particular piece of classical music that means something special to them. The guests include famous musicians, writers and actors alongside a firefighter and a yoga teacher. Each podcast consists of just a couple of minutes of the guest talking about the music, followed by a full uninterrupted recording of the relevant piece. It’s nice to be introduced to some unfamiliar music but also to reflect on the role music plays in our lives. You could binge-listen to the entire series but  I am enjoying listening to one-a-day: each episode is really short but it's a great way to start the day. https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/open-ears-project/episodes

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