Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert

26 April 2016

Last Saturday was the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death and the Royal Shakespeare Company marked the occasion with a star-studded gala performance at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford, hosted by David Tennant and broadcast live on BBC2. I was thrilled to receive an invitation from the RSC but quickly remembered that I was already committed to playing in the Northampton Symphony Orchestra's own Shakespeare celebration – 'The Bard's Birthday Bash' – the same evening. Our Shakespeare-themed concert opened with music from Prokofiev's ballet 'Romeo and Juliet' followed by 'The Magic Island' – a piece by Northampton-born composer William Alwyn which was inspired by 'The Tempest'. Alwyn's score quotes Caliban's speech 'Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises' – the words spoken by Kenneth Branagh at the start of Danny Boyle's London 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony and which I used in ‘Island Race’ – the short choral piece I wrote with Robin Osterley and Evan Dawson to celebrate London 2012 (see: http://culturaloutlook.blogspot.co.uk/2012/09/island-race.html). But the main event in Saturday's NSO concert was a performance of William Walton's music from the 1944 Laurence Olivier film of 'Henry V', arranged by Christopher Palmer as 'Henry V: A Shakespeare Scenario' – in which the music is interspersed with key speeches from the play. For our performance actor Graham Padden and NSO Conductor John Gibbons had added even more of Shakespeare's text to turn the piece into a one-man performance of the play, accompanied by 80-piece orchestra. It was great fun to play and Graham Padden did an amazing job of conjuring up Shakespeare's scenes and characters. The shunning of Falstaff by the King was a really poignant moment, Henry's wooing of the French Princess was playful and touching and the Battle of Agincourt was powerful and brutal: 'Cry God for Harry, England, and Saint George!'. There were many great woodwind solos, a mysteriously wandering off-stage trumpet and an army of percussionists. With a series of short movements carefully co-ordinated with narrative cues it felt more like playing for a show than an orchestral concert but it was a really enjoying and satisfying experience. I'm glad I decided to celebrate the Shakespeare anniversary with the NSO: when you've got Graham Padden, who needs David Tennant?

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Friday, April 22, 2016

Milton Keynes City Orchestra concert

22 April 2016

It feels quite old fashioned to start an orchestral concert by playing the national anthem but this week's Milton Keynes City Orchestra concert coincided with the Queen's 90th birthday on Thursday and the whole audience was on its feet singing 'God Save The Queen'. The concert, in the magnificent new auditorium at 'The Venue' at Walton High in Milton Keynes, featured 'Haydn's Symphony No 103 (The Drumroll)' followed by the 'Violin Concerto No 5' written by the 19-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and played exquisitely by the young violinist Aleksandra Li – a winner of this year's Yamaha Music Foundation of Europe competition. The performance finished with Prokofiev's 'Symphony No 1 (Classical)' – a short symphony written in 1916 that draws on the classical tradition of Haydn and Mozart but adds twentieth century harmonies. I hadn't heard the Classical Symphony for years and was reminded what a perfect piece it is. Hearing a small orchestra playing it at close quarters was really exciting. It felt like the professional players of the MKCO, precise and comfortable in the Haydn and Mozart, were much more on the edge of their seats for the Prokofiev: it was a thrilling and charming performance under their new Musical Director, Damian Iorio.

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Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Heliotrope Chamber Ensemble concert

13 April 2016

On Saturday I made my third appearance with the Heliotrope Ensemble (following previous concerts reviewed here in April 2013 and May 2015). Once again we were at Abington Avenue United Reformed Church in Northampton to perform a programme of chamber music for large wind ensemble. The first half of the concert featured Mozart’s ‘Serenade for 13 Wind Instruments’ (the ‘Gran Partita’) – a legendary summit for wind players to climb. I've played the Gran Partita twice before – at a Music in the Brickhills concert in 2011 (reviewed here in May 2011) and last summer at Hartwell House in Buckinghamshire (reviewed here in July 2015). It's a beautiful piece but the horn parts are fairly straightforward: the intricate solos are in the oboes, clarinets, bassoons and basset horns and my Heliotrope colleagues gave an excellent performance, ably led by conductor Peter Cigleris. In the second half of the concert we tackled the 'Sonatina no. 2 for 16 Winds' by Richard Strauss ('From the Happy Workshop'). This rarely performed work is one of the last Strauss wrote and was intended as a tribute to the wind music of Mozart. There are many similarities and references to the Gran Partita but one of the most obvious differences from Mozart is the writing for the four horns, which is magnificent. I found the first horn part a major challenge – incredibly high, fast and intricate – but huge fun to play. I think our performance went really well: the decision not to rehearse on Saturday afternoon, as we normally would, left me with enough stamina to get through the concert. Any mistakes were down to lack of concentration rather than stamina. There was some brilliant playing throughout the ensemble and it was a privilege to be asked to be part of it. I look forward to the next Heliotrope project.

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Friday, April 08, 2016

'Super' by Pet Shop Boys

8 April 2016

It's always a pleasant surprise to discover that the Pet Shop Boys are still going. I've been enjoying their new album, 'Super', which is a good example of their ability to combine criminally catchy choruses, serious dance music, intelligent lyrics and a gentle wistfulness. On 'Happiness' Neil Tennant sings “it's a long way to happiness and when we get there is anybody's guess” and you realise it would be quite a shock to see the Pet Shop Boys exhibiting signs of happiness. Theirs is a dead-pan, straight-faced delivery that makes you want to dance whilst simultaneously contemplating the sadness of the universe. 'The Pop Kids' is an excellent exercise in nostalgia for early 90s clubland: “They called us the Pop Kids 'cause we loved the pop hits and quoted the best bits so we were the Pop Kids”. 'The Dictator Decides' evokes the melancholy of a reluctant tyrant “The joke is I'm not even a demagogue – have you heard me giving a speech? My facts are invented, I sound quite demented, so deluded it beggars belief. It would be such a relief not to give another speech”. Super.

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Friday, April 01, 2016

'Going Off Alarming' by Danny Baker

1 April 2016

I've just finished reading 'Going Off Alarming' – the second volume of autobiography by Danny Baker. In Quixotic style Danny Baker spends much of this book reflecting on the reaction to its predecessor, 'Going to Sea in a Sieve' (reviewed here in July 2013 and subsequently adapted to become the TV sitcom 'Cradle to Grave' starring Peter Kay). Many people, it seems, have been quick to point out to him what he missed out from his account of his childhood – and some of those marvellous missed stories now find a place in the new book, though this volume focusses mainly on his first few years on television and radio. Danny Baker was at the height of his fame in the early 1990s when, for a while, he became almost ubiquitous on TV. He describes the origins of his close friendships with Chris Evans, Paul Gascoigne and Jonathan Ross and meeting Spike Milligan, Mel Brooks, Frankie Howerd and many others. His witty, self-deprecating, descriptions of his encounters with the stars bears comparison with David Niven's great autobiographies ('The Moon's a Balloon' and 'Bring On the Empty Horses'). 'Going Off Alarming' is a deliberate antidote to the current vogue for 'misery memoir': horrible things have happened to Danny Baker but he makes it clear from the start that he has no interest in writing about them. This is an autobiography with the hat cocked on the side of the head and, as he reassures the reader early on “I don't get cancer until Book Three'.

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'Hamlet' by William Shakespeare

1 April 2016

Regular readers may remember that I am a fan of the theatre director Simon Godwin – having enjoyed his productions of 'Two Gentlemen of Verona' (reviewed here in July 2014) 'Man and Superman' (reviewed here in May 2015) and 'The Beaux' Stratagem' (reviewed here in September 2015). Last Tuesday we were at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon to see Simon Godwin's new RSC production of 'Hamlet' starring Paapa Essiedu. Setting the play in a nameless West African dictatorship showed parallels between Hamlet's return from university in Wittenburg and those African leaders who studied in Europe. It was a refreshing reversal to see a cast with only a handful of white actors in minor parts. 25-year-old Paapa Essiedu was very impressive – a young, impetuous and very believable Hamlet. Natalie Simpson also gave Ophelia a poignant realism. Clarence Smith's Claudius was very much the soldier and Tanya Moodie emphasised Gertrude's ambiguous role in the events that precede the play. Every time you see 'Hamlet' you remember aspects of previous productions but every new version also shows you something new in the play. This was a fresh, bright, colourful and highly entertaining production and Paapa Essiedu is clearly a name to watch.

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Wiltshire

1 April 2016

We had a lovely holiday in Wiltshire last week. We stayed in a cottage near Bremhill, between Calne and Chippenham and enjoyed a week with hardly any rain and plenty of sunshine. We did a lot of walking – on the chalk downs near Marlborough, on Box Hill and in the grounds of the stately homes at Corsham and Bowood. It was good to revisit Bath, for the first time in many years. And we had a lovely day in Bourton-on-the-Water in the Cotswolds on our way to Stratford-upon-Avon. It was a really relaxing week.

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Monday, March 14, 2016

Milton Keynes Sinfonia concert

14 March 2016

Another week, another stunning young Russian pianist: on Saturday I played in a Milton Keynes Sinfonia concert where the undoubted star of the show was Ilya Kondratiev who gave a thrilling performance of the spectacular 'Piano Concerto No 1' by Prokofiev. Ilya is an amazing pianist and was clearly having a great time, beaming from the moment he walked in, finishing the concerto with an exaggerated flourish and beguiling both audience and orchestra with two brilliant encores. Conductor David Knight and the Milton Keynes Sinfonia then faced the daunting challenge of following this bravura performance but, fortunately, we were armed with the substantial might of Shostakovich's 'Symphony No 10'. I played this symphony with the Northampton Symphony Orchestra nearly ten years ago (reviewed here in March 2006) and I was surprised how well I remembered it. It's a long, complex work that manages to be bleak, angry, powerful and beautifully delicate. Our performance on Saturday went really well and featured many excellent solos but I will particularly remember the piccolo solo by Andrea Patis at the end of the first movement and Kate Knight's horn solo in the slow movement which were both wonderful. We opened the concert with the ‘Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia’ from ‘Spartacus’ by Khachaturian – still better known as the theme from 'The Onedin Line'. Having recently read Julian Barnes' novel about Shostakovich, 'The Noise of Time' (reviewed here in February 2016), it was interesting to see, in the concert programme, a rare photograph of Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Khachaturian together. Their stories are intertwined with each other, and with the story of 20th century Russia. It was fascinating to play music by all three on Saturday, in what was a great concert.

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Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert

8 March 2016

For horn players, tackling a Mahler symphony is the equivalent of running a marathon. It requires extensive training to build your stamina. And like preparing for a marathon, it is difficult to find the time and energy to practice doing the whole thing before the day itself. Regular readers may remember me writing here in 2011 about preparing to play Mahler's 'Symphony No 6' with the Northampton Symphony Orchestra. The First Symphony by Gustav Mahler is not quite such an enormous undertaking as the Sixth but it is still a monumental challenge. I've played through the final movement almost every day for the past few weeks in an attempt to build enough stamina to survive its glorious finale. Last Saturday was the day of reckoning, with the NSO concert taking place at St Michael's Church, Northampton, conducted by John Gibbons. The concert also featured the beautiful 'Piano Concerto' by Alexander Scriabin in which we accompanied the amazing young Russian pianist Vavara Tarasova. It was a stunning performance of a lovely piece which has much in common with the piano concertos of Chopin (and, I thought, some echoes of Rachmaninov). Our performance of Mahler 1 seemed to go really well, with beautifully delicate woodwind solos, some fine off-stage trumpet fanfares and a great double bass solo by Matthew Jackson at the beginning of the slow movement. And then we reached the finale and it was thrilling to be one of eight horn players standing with bells raised for the final bars. In the end it felt like we just about managed to fall over the marathon finishing line, exhilarated, exhausted and gasping for breath. It was a brilliant experience but one I would be happy not to repeat for a while!

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