Friday, July 22, 2016

'Sense and Sensibility' by Jane Austen, adapted by Laura Turner

22 July 2016

On Wednesday we took advantage of the hot weather to watch an open-air theatre performance at Wrest House in Silsoe. It was a beautiful setting for Chapterhouse Theatre's production of 'Sense and Sensibility', adapted by Laura Turner. We had actually seen this production before (reviewed here in September 2011) but it was still very enjoyable second time round – with a fresh and enthusiastic young cast and a packed audience on the tiered lawns beside the Orangery. When Marianne Dashwood was caught in a thunderstorm (leading to her development of a 'putrid fever') there was a moment when we all wondered whether the recorded thunder sound effect was the actual weather finally breaking but fortunately we stayed dry as the sun sank behind the trees.

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Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert

20 July 2016

The annual Northampton Symphony Orchestra Friends' Concert is an opportunity for us to say thank you to the Friends of the NSO for their support over the past year. It is also a chance for the orchestra to play a variety of shorter, lighter pieces that wouldn't necessarily fit into our main concerts. This year's Friends' Concert – the first with our new conductor John Gibbons – featured waltzes by Johann Strauss and Aram Khachaturian, 'Entry Of The Gladiators' by Julius Fucik and two pieces by Eric Coates ('London Suite' and the 'Dambusters March'). We also played a suite of music by Nigel Hess written for the 2004 film 'Ladies in Lavender' with NSO leader Stephen Hague – who actually appeared in the film – playing the solo violin part. Our concert programme also included 'On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring' by Delius and Dvořák's 'Slavonic Dance No 1'. It was a lovely concert – followed by a wonderful buffet!

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Friday, July 15, 2016

'Vinegar Girl' by Anne Tyler

15 July 2016

Anne Tyler said that 'A Spool of Blue Thread' (reviewed here in March 2015) was to be her last novel, so it was great to be able to discover a new Anne Tyler book in the form of 'Vinegar Girl: The Taming of the Shrew Retold', which I have just read as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Kirsten Potter. 'Vinegar Girl' is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series in which contemporary novelists are invited to re-imagine Shakespeare plays. This being Anne Tyler, her 'Taming of the Shrew' is set in modern-day Baltimore and focusses, like most Anne Tyler novels, on the slightly quirky domestic life of a relatively normal family. In the manner of most Anne Tyler protagonists, Kate Battista contemplates a radical step that would change her comfortable, familiar life for ever. 'Vinegar Girl' is a fairly short novel which succeeds by concentrating on character development rather than slavishly following Shakespeare's plot. It's a gentle and very enjoyable book – an unexpected treat for Anne Tyler fans who feared there was no more to come.


Wimbledon 2016

15 July 2016

We made our first visit for three years to the All England Tennis Championships at Wimbledon last week. We were very lucky to get Centre Court tickets for Ladies' semi finals day and had the best seats we have ever had – just three rows from the court. It was an incredibly hot day and we had a wonderful view of the action. Unfortunately neither semi final was a great match: Serena Williams' win over Elena Vesnina was so one-sided it felt like a first round match. The second semi final, between Venus Williams and Angelique Kerber, was more competitive but the result never really seemed in doubt. We did, however, get a great men's doubles semi-final which saw the eventual champions, Nicolas Mahut and Pierre-Hugues Herbert, triumph over Max Mirnyi and Treat Huey in five tight sets. It was amazing seeing the lighting-fast rallies between all four players at the net so close-up. You can see a selection of my Wimbledon 2016 photos at:


Wednesday, June 29, 2016

'The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047' by Lionel Shriver

29 June 2016

It's a long time since I read Lionel Shriver's stunning novel 'We need to talk about Kevin'. Writing here about it in August 2006 I said “I found it completely compelling – very clever and well-written – a gripping and emotional ride that made me feel like I had been holding my breath throughout – and made me burst into tears after finishing the final page – brilliant!” So my expectations were high in approaching Lionel Shriver's new novel 'The Mandibles' (which I read as an unabridged audio book, narrated by George Newbern). 'The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047' explores the economic crises of recent years through an inventive fantasy that follows the lives of a wealthy American family through a dystopian future in which the dollar crashes resulting in the unravelling of civilisation and the rule of law across the USA. Shriver has lots of fun imagining Mexico imposing border controls to stop US citizens fleeing South and Americans providing cheap labour to the new Chinese superpower. But the author's extensive research is rather blatantly displayed. This is a novel of ideas in which characters who are desperate for food and other essential supplies seem happy to spend most of their time having long intellectual conversations about economic theory and the role of cash in society. 'The Mandibles' often feels like one of George Bernard Shaw's more didactic plays, with far too many dinner party scenes of unrealistically eloquent expository debate. Strangely, for a story whose events span the breakdown of Western civilisation, there doesn't seem to be enough plot: the dramatic incidents tend to happen 'off-stage' (even a scene where the family is robbed at gunpoint descends into a theoretical discussion with the gunman). 'The Mandibles' is an interesting exploration of economic theory but ultimately a somewhat stilted novel.


Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert

21 June 2016

The Cornish composer George Llloyd was born in 1913 – the same year as Benjamin Britten. In his heyday Lloyd was revered (with Britten) as one of England's two great contemporary composers. But his traumatic experiences while serving with the Arctic convoys in the Second World War led him to give up composing for some years and today he is largely overlooked. George Lloyd's 'Symphony No 9', which we performed in the Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert at St Matthew's Church in Northampton last Saturday, was written in 1969. The symphony shows a composer responding to the horrors of the 20th century by deciding to focus on the cheerier aspects of life. The music feels like a, sometimes odd, mixture of the seriousness of Vaughan-Williams and the jauntiness of Eric Coates. But, over the weeks we have been rehearsing it with our conductor John Gibbons who is a great champion of British composers, I think most members of the orchestra have grown very fond of the work and many of us are now beginning to listen to George Lloyd's other symphonies. The final movement of the ninth symphony is a tour de force for tuned percussion, requiring two xylophones, marimba, glockenspiel, vibraphone, tublar bells and celeste, and the NSO percussionists gave a truly stunning performance: congratulations to Keith Crompton, Ben Lewis, Oliver Lowe, Alex Taylor, William Thallon, harpist Alexander Thomas and Chris Henderson on timpani. The concert also featured a beautifully delicate performance of Rodrigo's 'Concierto de Aranjuez' for guitar and orchestra by Graham Roberts. Our programme (of pieces linked to various holiday destinations) also included Malcolm Arnold's 'Four Cornish Dances', 'L'Isle Joyeuse' by Claude Debussy, George Gershwin's 'Cuban Overture' and John Barry's theme from the film 'Out of Africa'. Like the Lloyd symphony, the concert as a whole felt like an odd mixture but proved hugely enjoyable for both orchestra and audience. There were some wonderful solos by Graham Tear (flute), Rob Reid (clarinet) and Nick Bunker (trumpet) in the Debussy, Gershwin and the slow movement of the symphony. But my main memory of the concert will be the thrilling finale of George Lloyd's 'Symphony No 9' with its rapid-fire xylophones. If you want to get an idea of the piece there is a recording of the symphony's premiere on YouTube:

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Friday, June 17, 2016

Iberian cruise

17 June 2016

We had a wonderful holiday on board the P&O cruise ship Oriana, visiting Spain, Portugal and Morocco. We enjoyed two weeks of consistently glorious sunshine and remarkably calm seas. It was great fun exploring some beautiful cities, including Lisbon, Cadiz, Malaga and Porto. Visiting Tangier in Morocco was a fascinating, if slightly intimidating, experience. We wandered through the crowded, narrow alleyways of the Medina with its myriad of shops and stalls selling leather goods and spices, getting lost several times as we tried to retrace our steps from the Kasbah at the top of the hill back to the harbour. Another highlight was our first visit to the Frank Gehry's amazing Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao – an incredible building that has helped to transform an ailing industrial city into a major tourist destination.

You can see a selection of my holiday photos at:


Friday, May 27, 2016

'Juliet, Naked' by Nick Hornby

27 May 2016

The writer Nick Hornby is well known for his fascination with popular music – from his brilliant first novel 'High Fidelity' (1995) to his compelling non-fiction book '31 Songs' (2003) (which leaves you desperate to listen to Stevie Wonder's 'Songs in the Key of Life'). In October last year I saw Hornby interviewing Elvis Costello at the Royal Festival Hall in London (reviewed here in October 2015). So I was fascinated recently to discover Nick Hornby's 2009 novel 'Juliet, Naked' which focusses on an obsessive fan of fictional singer-songwriter, Tucker Crowe – a hybrid of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen who mysteriously disappeared into obscurity more than 20 years ago. I had somehow missed this Nick Hornby novel which came out before his tale of 1960s television 'Funny Girl' (reviewed here in January 2015). 'Juliet, Naked' is familiar Hornby territory, dealing with fandom, obsession and relationships. It's an easy, enjoyable and funny read which smuggles in some serious themes. It felt like a more mature work than some earlier Nick Hornby novels – with fewer hilarious set-piece comic scenes and not afraid of leaving some loose ends dangling. The ending left me wanting more but maybe that is a sign of the author's success.