Thursday, April 17, 2014

'Longbourn' by Jo Baker

17 April 2014

Jane Austen's novels must have generated more sequels, prequels, parodies and imitators than any others, but Jo Baker's wonderful novel 'Longbourn' stands out from the crowd. 'Longbourn', which I have just finished reading as an unabridged audio book narrated by Emma Fielding, revisits characters and scenes from 'Pride and Prejudice' from the point of view of the Bennetts' servants. As with Tom Stoppard's 'Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead', for everyone familiar with the original, there is great pleasure to be had from discovering what happened in between the bits we know. And Jo Baker is very good at demonstrating how little those below stairs notice or understand about events which appear so momentous in Austen's story. But 'Longbourn' succeeds so well because it is a complete novel in its own right, with a self-contained plot – an achingly painful love story – that would make it an enjoyable and satisfying read even if you had never heard of 'Pride and Prejudice'. 'Longbourn' is a very modern novel, but completely true to its period setting. It is beautifully written, without succumbing to the temptation to imitate Austen's prose style. Jo Baker evokes the harsh realities of a servant's life and explores some of the darker questions beneath the polite society of Jane Austen's world. Revealing that Mr Bingley's wealth comes from sugar, she explores the role of slavery – which makes for interesting comparisons with those in service in England. The arrival of the army in Meriton takes us on a journey into the horrors of an ordinary soldier's experiences in the European wars. But all this is done without any knowing, contemporary sneering: 'Longbourn' tells it how it was and allows the readers to draw their own conclusions. One of the most intriguing revelations concerns the relationship between Mr and Mrs Bennett. From 'Pride and Prejudice' (and more so in many of its film and TV adaptations) Mr Bennett appears to be a saint, while his wife is an incredibly irritating comic character. It is tempting to wonder how they ever got together. Jo Baker paints a much more sympathetic portrait of Mrs Bennett and shows a darker, but sadly believable, side to her husband. 'Longbourn' is a clever, fascinating and moving novel – highly recommended. 


Friday, April 11, 2014

Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert

11 April 2014

Accompanying a soloist in a concerto is always a difficult discipline for an orchestra. Maintaining balance often requires considerable restraint from the orchestra and the need to follow the soloist's fluctuations of speed can be a significant challenge for the conductor. In the Northampton Symphony Orchestra's concert last Saturday we had the privilege of accompanying the amazing violinist Clare Howick in a performance of Elgar's 'Violin Concerto'. Less well-known but very similar to the Elgar Cello Concerto, this romantic and dramatic work twists and turns the tempo in almost every bar. Clare Howick gave a stunning performance, and it was very exciting to accompany her, but the concentration required throughout the concerto (which lasts nearly 50 minutes) was exhausting. In the second half of the concert we performed Brahms' 'Symphony No. 1', a very 'classical' symphony that feels like supercharged Beethoven. There is a deceptive simplicity to the piece which reveals more and more as you get to know it and builds to a very exciting finale. I think we gave a very strong performance and it was an extremely enjoyable concert.

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Thursday, April 03, 2014

Milton Keynes Sinfonia workshop - ''Sinfonietta' by Leoš Janácek

3 April 2014

As regular readers may remember, I first came across the 'Sinfonietta' by Leoš Janácek in 2007 (reviewed here in October 2007). Last weekend I finally got the opportunity to play the Sinfonietta, in a workshop day at the Open University, organised by Milton Keynes Sinfonia. Following the success of last year's workshop on 'The Rite of Spring' (reviewed here in May 2013), players from Milton Keynes Sinfonia and other local orchestras gathered on Sunday morning to tackle the very different demands of the Janácek work, under the guidance of conductor David Knight. It was a very enjoyable and sociable day – with plenty of tea and cake! - and it was lovely getting to know this wonderful piece of music better by playing it. We finished the afternoon with a very passable informal performance of the Sinfonietta. I'm looking forward to the next MKS workshop.

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The Lake District

3 April 2014

We had a lovely week in the Lake District. The weather was cold but mostly sunny and we enjoyed some stunning walks. We were staying in a cottage in the village of Uldale, near Caldbeck, North of Keswick, so we mainly explored the Northern parts of the Lake District. We walked around Buttermere and up Sale Fell, overlooking Bassenthwaite Lake. We did a coastal walk at Silloth and visited the popular tourist haunts of Grasmere and Rydal. We particularly enjoyed driving over the spectacular Honister and Kirkstone passes. We also enjoyed some wonderful meals and would recommend the Quince & Medlar vegetarian restaurant in Cockermouth and the Overwater Hall Hotel restaurant near Ireby.


Tuesday, March 18, 2014

'Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities’ adapted by Mike Poulton

18 March 2014

On Saturday we were at the Royal Theatre in Northampton to see 'Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities’ – a new adaptation by Mike Poulton, with incidental music by Rachel Portman. This was the first production we have seen directed by the Royal & Derngate’s new Artistic Director, James Dacre, and it was great to see him building on some of the key characteristics of his illustrious predecessors – creating a set which appeared to have escaped from the stage and started to colonise the auditorium (much like Rupert Goold might have done), and using a ‘community cast’ of local students and amateur actors to provide crowds and extras to support the professional leads (a feature of many of Laurie Sansom’s Northampton productions). ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ was impressive, effective and enjoyable – whipping through the story at a rapid pace with a swagger and well-judged humour that never detracted from the seriousness of the situation. I particularly liked the sinister appearance of Mairead McKinley’s Madame Defarge in one of the theatre’s boxes, overlooking events on the stage, and knitting furiously throughout.

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Thursday, March 13, 2014

St Albans Symphony Orchestra concert

13 March 2014

I've played 'An Alpine Symphony' by Richard Strauss twice - in a workshop day with the Northampton Symphony Orchestra and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in 2000 and last year in a workshop in Bedford (reviewed here in October 2013) but I've never seen the piece performed. This is hardly surprising, given the gargantuan forces the symphony requires. It's an incredibly ambitious undertaking for any orchestra, so I was intrigued to see how the St Albans Symphony Orchestra would cope with the challenge in St Albans Abbey last Saturday. The concert opened with 'From the Apocalypse' - a dramatic piece based on 'The Book of Revelation' - by Anatoly Liadov, a Russian composer who was a pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov. We were then treated to a stunning performance of Mendelssohn's 'Violin Concerto' by the exciting young violinist Charlotte Scott, who brought a mixture of passion and delicacy to the concerto. In the loudest passages she arched her back and leaned her head back in the manner of the lead guitarist in a rock band with one foot on the amp. And in the fiendishly difficult quiet waterfalls of notes she bent forward over her violin in intense concentration, her bow bouncing across the strings in perfect metronomic rhythm. The second half of the concert saw the stage packed with extra players for ' An Alpine Symphony'. Merely scaling Strauss's mountain of a symphony and descending again safely without having to stop and restart would represent a considerable achievement. This was a very impressive performance which built to several jaw-dropping climaxes at which it must have been amazing to be conductor Bjorn Bantock, with both arms aloft, unleashing an avalanche of sound. I naturally took a particular interest in the orchestra's horn section and I was very impressed by the principal horn player, Stephen Orriss, who played the impossibly high solo lines wonderful, even towards the end of this  mammoth work.

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Friday, March 07, 2014

'Piano Trio in E minor' (Op 118) by Edwin York Bowen

7 March 2014

This week I have been playing Brahms and listening to York Bowen – and being struck by the similarities. The Northampton Symphony Orchestra has started to rehearse Brahms' 'Symphony No 1', which we are to perform in Northampton at the beginning of April. I'm enjoying the final movement horn solo and practising hard to ensure I am ready for it. I've long had a soft spot for the chamber music of the early 20th century English composer Edwin York Bowen, perhaps because he played the horn (among other instruments). His 'Quintet in C minor for Horn & String Quartet' is a lovely piece – gentle, romantic and tuneful. This week I have been listening to his splendid 'Piano Trio in E minor' (Op 118) (from the album York Bowen Chamber Works Volume 2 by Endymion) which has touches of both Brahms and Rachmaninov. 


Friday, February 28, 2014

'The Goldfinch' by Donna Tartt

28 February 2014

Life is catastrophe” – that certainly seems to be true for Theodore Dekker, the hero of Donna Tartt's third novel 'The Goldfinch'. Theo is 13 years old when a visit to the Metropolitan Museum in New York changes his life, as a terrorist bomb destroys a section of the museum and kills Theo's mother. Theo emerges from the wreckage carrying a famous painting, Carel Fabritius' 1654 masterpiece 'The Goldfinch'. Theo's future becomes intertwined with the fate of the painting, and his journey from New York to Las Vegas and Amsterdam, through a succession of guardians, finding and losing friends and soulmates, is thrilling and emotional. 'The Goldfinch', which I read as an unabridged audio book narrated by David Pittu, is an epic work, even longer than 'The Luminaries' by Eleanor Catton (reviewed here in December 2013). If Eleanor Catton was channelling Wilkie Collins, Donna Tartt is definitely a contemporary Charles Dickens. I felt her wonderful second novel 'The Little Friend' – one of my favourite recent American novels – created a Dickensian cast of characters. 'The Goldfinch' continues this approach, combining slightly exaggerated but entirely believable characters with a Dickensian coming of age plot. The orphaned Theo Dekker is a modern day Pip, David Copperfield or Oliver Twist. His best friend, Boris, is his Herbert Pocket – or maybe The Artful Dodger. Donna Tartt writes beautifully with the adult Theo's first person narration reflecting on his childhood in a way that makes you feel exactly what it must have been like for him. This is often a harrowing experience as you really feel Theo's pain, loneliness and despair. Tartt creates empathy rather than sympathy so that, even when Theo commits indefensibly stupid, cruel or criminal acts, you feel you would have done exactly the same in his position. But 'The Goldfinch' is not a miserable novel – it has a slow-burning thriller plot that builds to a terrifying climax. And there is a wonderful twist about three quarters of the way through, which I was terribly satisfied to have spotted when the seeds were planted much earlier in the story. 'The Goldfinch' is a long, and sometimes deliberately slow, novel but expertly constructed, beautifully written and well worth investing your time in.