Friday, July 06, 2018

Wimbledon 2018

6 July 2018

On Thursday we were lucky enough to have tickets for Centre Court at Wimbledon. It was an incredibly hot and we were quite near the front in the fierce sunshine, but it was worth it to see three really entertaining, if a little one-sided, matches. We saw Rafael Nadal, for the first time since 2011, beating Mikhail Kukushkin in straight sets to reach the third round. We then watched Johanna Konta lose to Dominika Cibulkova. Finally we enjoyed seeing Kyle Edmund defeat the American Bradley Klahn to set up a meeting with Novak Djokovic on Saturday.

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Thursday, June 28, 2018

'Rivers of London' by Ben Aaronovitch

28 June 2018

I’ve really enjoyed reading Ben Aaronovitch’s novel, ‘Rivers of London’, which I read as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Kobna Holdrook-Smith. This is a contemporary, carefully-researched and realistic police procedural detective story, told by a London police constable who is seconded to the Metropolitan Police’s secret division of wizards dealing with magic and supernatural crimes. The blend of real-world policing and fantasy is clever, thrilling and very funny. ‘Rivers of London’ acknowledges the influence of Harry Potter but this is a very knowing, adult novel with sex, violence, bad language and ghosts. PC Peter Grant is a droll first person narrator, thrust into a baffling world of magic and desperately trying to apply all his standard police training to increasingly impossible situations. It’s a very entertaining tale, with a literary link between the serial killer’s seemingly random crimes that is very satisfying when you discover it. Best of all this is the first in a series of Peter Grant novels by Ben Aaronovitch: I’m looking forward to reading them all.

Baltic Cruise

28 June 2018

We spent the last two weeks on the Cunard ship Queen Elizabeth on a wonderful Baltic cruise – with calm seas and glorious weather almost the whole time. We visited seven countries, calling at capital cities (Oslo, Helsinki and Riga), small towns and countryside (Visby on the Swedish island of Gotland and Klaipeda in Lithuania), the spectacle of St Petersburg and the beautiful medieval city of Gdansk in Poland. It was fascinating to be in Russia during the early stages of the World Cup: visiting some of the royal palaces outside St Petersburg we saw football fans from a variety of countries, and we drove past the stunning new football stadium in St Petersburg. We enjoyed all the places we visited but we were particularly taken by the pretty old town in Gdansk – much of which was carefully recreated after the destruction of World War II. You can see a small selection of my holiday photos at: http://culturaloutlook.blogspot.com/search/label/Baltic2018

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Friday, June 08, 2018

'Orchestral Music, Volume One’ by William Wordsworth

8 June 2018

It’s been a good day for Northampton Symphony Orchestra conductor John Gibbons. A tireless champion of under-rated British composers, John has programmed Charles Villiers Stanford’s ‘Symphony No 6’ for our NSO concert next Saturday, 16 June, at St Matthews Church in Northampton. Remarkably, it appears this may be the first public performance of this lovely symphony for more than 100 years. It’s a really enjoyable piece – reminiscent of Glazunov’s ‘Symphony No 5 (The Heroic)’ which we played with NSO last year (reviewed here in March 2017) and with elements of Richard Strauss. It has been great to get to know the symphony over the last few weeks, even though I am not able to play in the concert (the first NSO concert I have missed for some years). This morning Petroc Trelawny played the first movement of Stanford ‘Symphony No 6’ on BBC Radio 3 and gave the NSO concert a plug. Coincidentally John Gibbons’ new CD with the Liepaja Symphony Orchestra was favourably reviewed by Andrew Clements in today’s Guardian, see: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2018/jun/07/william-wordsworth-orchestral-music-volume-i-cd-review-forgotten-voice-of-quiet-assurance. ‘William Wordsworth: Orchestral Music, Volume One’ is the first in a new series of recordings from Toccata Classics. This William Wordsworth (1908-88) was the great-great-grandson of the poet’s brother Christopher. John’s CD features Wordsworth’s 4th and 8th symphonies together with his ‘Divertimento in D Major’ and the playful ‘Variations on a Scottish Theme’. Wordsworth’s music is tuneful and romantic – easy to listen to but with enough complexity and depth to be worth getting to know. Sounds like it would be fun to play ...

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Friday, June 01, 2018

‘Education, Education, Education’ by The Wardrobe Ensemble

1 June 2018

On Tuesday we were at the Royal & Derngate in Northampton to see ‘Education, Education, Education’ by The Wardrobe Ensemble. This play takes place in a comprehensive school on the day after Labour’s landslide general election win in May 1997. Looking forward to the prospect of massive new funding for schools, it highlights the state of education at the time and enjoys its 1990s pop-culture references. With a cast of seven playing both the teachers and the pupils, often talking directly to the audience, it reminded me of John Godber’s ‘Teechers’ (reviewed here in September 2010). The adults playing children was also similar to 'Blue Remembered Hills' by Dennis Potter (reviewed here in June 2013). While the script of ‘Education, Education, Education’ wasn’t as sophisticated as either of those other plays, The Wardrobe Ensemble’s physical movement was excellent. It was a really slick ensemble performance with brilliant timing. In the end it felt more like a fairly conventional school story, rather than having much to save about the politics of education funding, but it was really enjoyable and drew a ratpurous reception from the Royal Theatre audience.

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'Nigel Slater's Toast' by Henry Filloux-Bennett

1 June 2018

On Saturday we were at The Lowry in Salford for Week 53 – The Lowry’s ‘Festival for the Compulsively Curious’ which focuses on using the building in unusual ways and giving the audience access to areas that are normally out of bounds. We were there to see Henry Filloux-Bennett’s new adaptation of Nigel Slater’s ‘Toast’ – the chef’s ever-popular childhood memoir, told through a series of short food-based episodes (reviewed here in November 2009). This fringe-scale drama was being performed in the main Lyric Theatre but with the auditorium closed off and both audience and actors on the stage (much like the Royal Theatre Northampton production of ‘Private Fears in Public Places’ by Alan Ayckbourn, reviewed here in July 2009). Unfortunately technical problems delayed the start of the performance for more than an hour, testing the patience of the audience. This late start, combined with the interval taking place in a pop-up bar in the theatre’s scene dock which meant a visit to the toilets required a long walk out of The Lowry, along the quay and back into a deserted part of the building – made for a bizarre evening at the theatre. Fortunately Jonnie Riordan’s production of ‘Toast’ brilliantly won us over – not least by feeding the audience with a constant supply of sweets and cakes (all carefully chosen to relate to particular moments in Nigel Slater’s story). The energetic cast of five playing multiple parts really brought this evocation of childhood to life. The cartoon kitchen set (by Libby Watson) added to the dreamlike recollections from the perspective of the nine-year old Nigel (excellently played by Sam Newton). And the mixture of humour and poignancy was nicely judged, with the actors occasionally breaking the fourth wall but not over-using this device. This was a very physical production with some beautifully choreographed movement. ‘Toast’ is a charming, sad, funny book and the stage adaptation really did it justice.

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Friday, May 25, 2018

'Sandra' by Kevin Moffett and Matthew Derby

25 May 2018

I’ve just finished listening to ‘Sandra’ – the new audio drama from the American podcast powerhouse Gimlet Media. Written by Kevin Moffett and Matthew Derby and directed by Sebastian Silva, ‘Sandra’ is a comedy-drama about an Alexa/Siri-type digital assistant that is actually operated by an army of real human beings in a call centre. It stars Kristen Wiig as Sandra and Alia Shawkat as Helen who hopes to transform her life after she lands a new job with the company that makes Sandra. Through seven half-hour podcasts, it addresses very current issues of privacy, artificial intelligence and loneliness. But it’s also very funny, with some great characters. I particularly liked Delia, Helen’s cranky, quirky mother-in-law, played by Madonna Cacciatore. You can listen to all seven episodes now, see: https://www.gimletmedia.com/sandra

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Friday, May 18, 2018

BBC Young Musician 2018

18 May 2018

2018 is the 40th anniversary of the BBC Young Musician competition, making me feel very old as I can remember the first one in 1978 (and most of the subsequent biennial competitions). I have written here about the past six finals (see: http://culturaldessert.blogspot.com/search/label/BBCYoungMusician) and I think the 2016 Concerto Final (reviewed here in May 2016) may have been the best ever. It was always going to be difficult for this year’s Concerto Final, at Symphony Hall in Birmingham last Sunday, to match the level of its predecessor but it did feature another astounding winner. Most of my writing about BBC Young Musician seems to relate to my own degree of success in predicting the winners. This time I must admit I initially misjudged the eventual winner Lauren Zhang. She didn’t even feature in my top three of the five competitors in the keyboards category final as I mistook her shyness and intensity for a lack of musical personality. By the time I had seen her perform again in the semi-final last Friday I realised my mistake and became convinced she would emerge as the overall winner of this year’s competition. Her performance in Sunday’s final of Prokofiev’s ‘Piano Concerto No 2’ was astounding: I think she could have won on the basis of the remarkable first movement cadenza alone. It was a good example of how the competition often seems to unearth someone really special. After a few years in the wilderness the BBC has now got its coverage of Young Musician just about perfect – restrained, respectful and very focussed on the music. So it was a real shame to end the final by pointing a microphone at Lauren Zhang at her moment of triumph to ask her “how do you feel?” – just don’t do that. But otherwise it was a lovely final with excellent performances by ‘cellist Maxim Calver and saxophone player Rob Burton before Lauren Zhang’s Prokofiev took us to a different level.

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Jeremy Hardy

18 May 2018

I have written here before of my admiration for Jeremy Hardy (in March 2007 and October 2013), but seeing him at The Stables in Milton Keynes last Saturday confirmed to me that he really is a comedian at the top of his game. His apparently casual, stream-of-consciousness delivery is actually incredibly cleverly constructed. He didn’t spend quite as long on stage as Danny Baker (who we saw the week before at Warwick Arts Centre) but Jeremy Hardy similarly barely paused for breath and talked through the many laughs rather than attempting to milk them. As usual there was a lot of politics and he didn’t shy away from uncomfortable subjects including Syria, Brexit, the Skripal poisoning and anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. But Jeremy Hardy always manages to cover such heavy topics with a lightness of touch, and also found time for plenty of middle class anxiety (not realising that the National Trust and English Heritage are separate organisations) and middle-aged frustration (being mistaken for someone taking a selfie when he was just holding his phone at arm’s length to read a text message without his reading glasses).

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Friday, May 11, 2018

‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ by Tennessee Williams

11 May 2018

We last saw ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ by Tennessee Williams at the Novello Theatre in London’s West End in 2010 (reviewed here in February 2010) – a production memorable for James Earl Jones’ show-stealing performance as Big Daddy. On Tuesday we were at the Quarry Theatre in Bedford to see an encore screening of the NT Live broadcast of the Young Vic production of the play directed by Benedict Andrews. It was a gripping and powerfully acted performance with Sienna Miller very impressive as Maggie and Jack O’Connell a weary, muscular, ever-present Brick. Colm Meaney was great as Big Daddy – his expressive face betraying his constant frustration with his family and demonstrating a comic double-take that Oliver Hardy would have been proud of. Seeing the broadcast on a hot stuffy day in Bedford only helped to emphasise the stifling feel of the play.

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Danny Baker

11 May 2018

I have written here before of my admiration for the writer and broadcaster Danny Baker (reviewing the first two volumes of his autobiography here in July 2013 and April 2016). On Saturday we had the privilege of seeing him live at Warwick Arts Centre, on his second tour of anecdotes and reminiscences. Danny Baker is a brilliant storyteller – completely engaging and incredibly funny. He has a manic energy and an obsessive need to cram in as much as possible. Constantly pacing up and down and maintaining a rapid fire delivery with hardly a pause for breath, he came on stage at 7.30 pm and finished just after 11.00 pm, having failed to get through most of what he had planned to say. This was partly because he felt obliged to fill in most of the backstory of his childhood for the benefit of anyone who had missed his first tour a year ago (saying, with hindsight, “I should have done an early show at 5 pm for those of you who need to catch up”). He eventually got to ‘the rock ‘n’ roll years’ – recounting his experiences of working as a journalist at the NME and getting his break as a television presenter. But there is clearly much still left to tell and I can’t wait for the next instalment.

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