Tuesday, June 23, 2015

'The Hook' by Arthur Miller, adapted for the stage by Ron Hutchinson

23 June 2015

Arthur Miller was born in the Red Hook district of New York City in 1915. His centenary is being celebrated with some great new productions of his best plays: the Young Vic production of 'A View From The Bridge' directed by Ivo van Hove and starring Mark Strong (reviewed here in April 2015), and the Royal Shakespeare Company production of 'Death of a Salesman, directed by Greg Doran and starring Anthony Sher (also reviewed here in April 2015), are two of the best stage plays I've seen this year. Last night we were at the Royal Theatre in Northampton to see the world premiere production of 'The Hook' – a screenplay Arthur Miller wrote in 1951 for an Elia Kazan film that was never made, which has now been adapted for the stage by Ron Hutchinson. In the 1950s, the film studio felt that Miller's script, about exploited dock workers standing up to corrupt union leaders, was too incendiary for an America embroiled in the House Un-American Activities Committee's anti-communist hearings. James Dacre's production for the Northampton Royal & Derngate and Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse recreates the bustling mayhem of the Red Hook dockyards on stage. Whereas 'A View From The Bridge' shows dock workers from the same district solely in a domestic setting, 'The Hook' was clearly intended to reveal the docks themselves on screen. Patrick Connellan's stunning set (with lighting by Charles Balfour) uses a framework of stairs and ramps and ingenious video projection to create a realistic picture of this dangerous workplace. The Royal & Derngate's policy of using a 'community ensemble' of local amateur actors alongside the professional cast was used effectively to cram 26 actors onto the small stage of the Royal Theatre, emphasising the crowded chaos of the dockyards. There were other signs that this had started life as a screenplay – short scenes switching locations abruptly - but Ron Hutchinson's adaptation was very effective. 'The Hook' is not among Miller's best works – it's a little too didactic and quite unrelentingly grim. But this was a fascinating and impressive production.

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Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert

17 June 2015

During the first rehearsal of Vaughan Williams' 'Symphony No 6' with Northampton Symphony Orchestra in April, I told my fellow horn player, Ian Frankland, that not only had I never played the symphony before, I didn't think I had even heard it. The music felt unfamiliar and not what I had expected from a Vaughan Williams symphony. A few minutes later trumpeter Nick Bunker leant across holding his phone screen towards me to show me the review I had written here (in November 2008) about performing Vaughan Williams 'Symphony No 6' with Milton Keynes Sinfonia. It clearly had not made much of an impression on me! As we worked on the symphony over the past seven weeks I did begin to remember it. It is an unusual work for Vaughan Williams, sounding more like Shostakovich - angular, dispassionate, brutal and angry. Written in 1948, the symphony clearly suggests the horrific reality of war. It's a bleak outlook though the incredibly quiet final movement brings a sadly reflective peace. Our performance in Northampton last Saturday conquered most of the fiendish technical challenges of the work (with a particularly fine saxophone solo by Malcolm Green) and that last movement was really effective - you could have heard a pin drop at the end. Our concert opened with a contrasting view of war - the heroic splendour of William Walton's 'Prelude and Fugue (The Spitfire)'. We also played Bruch's 'Scottish Fantasy' with the brilliant young violinist Benjamin Roskams. Bruch uses a series of familiar Scottish folk songs to create a romantic concerto which tugs at the heart strings. Ben gave a stunning performance which I believe reduced some members of our audience to tears. Much of the piece feels like a duet between solo violin and harp, and our harpist, Alexander Thomas, was equally impressive. We ended this British themed concert with the tone poem 'Tintagel' by Arnold Bax - a sumptuous Wagnerian work which provided a wonderful finale to a really enjoyable concert. Our latest guest conductor Robert Max led us very effectively through this ambitious and challenging programme with its wide variety of styles.

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Friday, June 12, 2015

'Othello' by William Shakespeare

12 June 2015

On Thursday we were at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon to see the new RSC production of 'Othello', directed by Iqbal Khan, with Hugh Quarshie as Othello and Lucian Msamati as Iago. The production has attracted attention for casting two black actors in the leading roles. Having a black Iago – and a mixture of ethnic backgrounds throughout the cast – alters the focus of the play, making the jealousies and rivalries less racially motivated and more personal. But the real achievement of the production – and its cast – is to make the audience believe in the characters and almost forget the innovative casting (which also includes a female Duke of Venice). Hugh Quarshie initially plays a very cool, laid-back Othello, with a confident swagger and a few impressive dance moves. But Iqbal Khan's production reminds us that he is also a trained soldier, capable of brutal violence, making his descent into lethal rage all the more believable. The production's contemporary setting emphasises the violent reality of war, with uncomfortable scenes of water-boarding and torture (surely the first 'Othello' to feature pliers, electric drill and blowtorch). Designer Ciaran Bagnall has created an amazing set that makes good use of the unique facilities of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Venice is conjured up in the opening scenes with Iago and Rodrigo sailing a gondola along a real canal flowing through the middle of the stage. Lucian Msamati is wonderful as Iago – brash, funny, michievous, vicious and scheming – you really can't take your eyes off him. Joanna Vanderham is a tall, statuesque Desdemona, towering over Othello in her heels and bouffant hair. She brings a very young, wide-eyed enthusiasm to the role – the considerable age difference with her husband giving another angle to his jealousy.

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Monday, June 08, 2015

David Sedaris

8 June 2015

On Sunday evening we were among a packed audience at the Derngate in Northampton to see the American humourist David Sedaris. I've enjoyed listening to David Sedaris on the radio and reading his books (such as 'Me Talk Pretty One Day' – reviewed here in October 2014) for years, but I had never seen him perform before. The huge popularity of his live performances might seem odd for what is primarily an old-fashioned reading. Sedaris stands behind a large wooden lectern, with only his head and the top of his bow tie visible, and reads a series of essays. His observational pieces are incredibly funny and he is a very good storyteller but he doesn't act them out – this is very much a reading, albeit a very slick one. The structure of the performance feels slightly odd as well, starting with a couple of long essays, followed by a series of random diary entries and finishing with a question & answer session – the content getting progressively briefer as the evening goes on. But however odd it seems, it really works. Sedaris is a quirky but very engaging personality. His ad libs and engagement with the audience are surprisingly good (given how reliant on his script he initially seems). And those audience questions reveal the obsessive following he has developed in the UK (mainly, I suspect from his appearances on BBC Radio 4), probing him on his family and his passions for taxidermy and litter-picking. He is careful to avoid using any material that has previously been broadcast on the BBC, treating us to new writing and work in progress. At times, David Sedaris gets close to being a stand-up comedian, with impressive improvisation and highly polished comic timing. But, as I am sure he would self-deprecatingly insist, he is a writer rather than a comedian. He is certainly one of a kind and it was great evening in the theatre.

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Tuesday, June 02, 2015

'Another Man's Ground' by The Young’uns

2 June 2015

The Young’uns are a trio of young men from Teeside who sing a cappella versions of traditional and contemporary folk songs. They recently won the BBC Radio 2 Folk Award for best group and I've been listening to their wonderful album, 'Another Man's Ground'. Most of the songs feature unaccompanied vocals, though there is some instrumentation on a few of the tracks. Their traditional folk harmonies, together with a mischievously satirical (and political) approach to their subject matter, reminded me a lot of Chumbawamba (reviewed here in July 2010). The Young’uns blend protest songs, sea shanties and narrative tales, bringing a folk sensibility to the modern world – I particularly liked the song 'You Won't Find Me on Benefits Street' and they do a very moving version of Billy Bragg’s 'Between the Wars' (“I was a miner ...”). There's humour and a lightness of touch throughout the album, such as in the song 'A Lovely Cup of Tea' in which a racist attack on a mosque is subverted by Muslim hospitality. 'Another Man's Ground' is catchy, clever, witty, amusing and thought-provoking.

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Thursday, May 28, 2015

Heliotrope Chamber Ensemble concert

28 May 2015

Heliotrope Chamber Ensemble is a Northampton-based wind quintet, occasionally augmented by additional players. I played with them in a concert two years ago (reviewed here in April 2013) which included the UK premiere of 'Sacred Women' by the contemporary American composer Jeff Scott. Last Saturday I joined Heliotrope again for a concert performance of Richard Strauss's 'Suite in B flat major'. This is a very early work by Richard Strauss (opus 4) – written when he was still a teenager – but it is a lovely piece and very enjoyable to play. It's an interesting challenge playing in a thirteen-piece wind ensemble without a conductor. You have to work hard to keep the music together and to avoid slowing down but I think our performance went very well. The concert also included the fiendishly difficult Nielsen 'Wind Quintet' which I last saw performed at a Music in the Brickhills concert in 2011 (reviewed here in June 2011). I was full of admiration for the Heliotrope Quintet who tackled this challenging work very impressively.

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'Mr Mac and Me' by Esther Freud

28 May 2015

It was nearly twenty years ago when we first visited the beautiful village of Walberswick in Suffolk. We took the 'ferry' (a small rowing boat which charged 50 pence per person!) across the estuary to Southwold and, as we got out of the boat, we asked the ferryman what time he was due to finish for the day. “That was my last trip” he said, but reassured us that there was a footbridge a little further inland that we could use to return. That footbridge turned out to be quite a long way inland – a considerably longer return journey. It was only later that I learned of Walberswick's connection to the architect and artist Charles Rennie Mackintosh who lived and worked there for a year from 1914. In 1997 I attended the Scottish launch of the seminal Comedia report 'Use or Ornament? The social impact of participation in the arts' at the recently completed 'House for an Art Lover' in Bellahouston Park in Glasgow. It was great to hear the report's author Francois Matarasso speaking about his groundbreaking work, but it was the building, designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh with his wife, Margaret MacDonald, in 1901 but only built long after his death, that made the bigger impression on me. It was wonderful to revisit the House for an Art Lover on a trip to Glasgow in 2013. So it was fascinating to discover Esther Freud's novel 'Mr Mac and Me' (which I have just read as an unabridged audio book, narrated by John Banks) which deals with the time Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Margaret MacDonald Mackintosh spent in Walberswick and talks at length about their design for the 'House for an Art Lover'. Esther Freud's story is told by a local boy, Thomas Mags, whose father runs a pub in Walberswick (only ever referred to in the novel as 'the village'). Thomas is an aspiring artist and, like Charles Rennie Mackintosh, has a limp due to a damaged foot. The boy becomes friends with the Mackintoshes but, when the war with Germany begins, these outsiders are viewed with suspicion by the local community, particularly when correspondence in the German language is discovered amongst their possessions. The effect of DORA (the 1914 Defence of the Realm Act – which introduced the first licensing hours among many other measures) on local life is really interesting. 'Mr Mac and Me' is beautifully written but, at times, reads more like a diary than a novel. Despite the wartime setting, the pace of the plot is slow. Nevertheless I enjoyed discovering more about the Mackintoshes and it was lovely to bring together my own memories of Walberswick and the House for an Art Lover.


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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