Monday, March 02, 2015

Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert

2 March 2015

The music of Anton Bruckner tends to divide classical music fans. Unsurprisingly, as a horn player, I love Bruckner symphonies – my CD box set of all eleven symphonies (numbers 1-9, Die Nulte (number 0) and the Study Symphony (number 00)), conducted by Georg Tintner with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, is a treasured favourite in my music collection. Bruckner's orchestral music has a raw, slowly menacing power, like huge waves rolling through the middle of a great ocean. There is beauty, glory and brilliance, tempered by humility. The symphonies are big, long, and loud, but with moments of unexpected gentleness. On Saturday I played the first horn part in Bruckner's Symphony No 6 with the Northampton Symphony Orchestra at St Matthew's Church in Northampton. During 2014-15, while we search for a new permanent conductor, each NSO concert is being directed by a different guest conductor. On Saturday James Ham, currently the Sir Charles Mackerras Conducting Fellow at Trinity Laban Conservatoire, drew a great performance from the orchestra that had seemed unlikely as late as last Wednesday's rehearsal. I think it's fair to say we had struggled to get used to the Bruckner, but it came together beautifully on Saturday evening and I really enjoyed playing it. Bruckner writes wonderfully for the horns, with plenty to do throughout the piece and prominent moments for all four horn players. It was great to be part of a really strong horn section and, though there was some fine playing in all sections of the orchestra, this time I think I might be forgiven for saying it was all about the horns! The concert opened with Mozart's Overture to 'Cosi fan Tutte' which we followed with a wonderful performance of the Schumann Piano Concerto by the brilliant young, Northampton-born soloist, Stephen Meakins. Stephen, a 27-year-old graduate of the Royal College of Music, had not performed the Schumann before and told me he had been working on the piece for fourteen months in preparation for this one performance. I don't know about him but that made me nervous! I needn't have worried as he gave a stunning performance, our accompaniment of the tricky syncopated passage in the last movement finally began to click in Saturday afternoon's rehearsal and James held us together well in the concert. It was a really enjoyable concert, perhaps more so because the orchestra had not felt particularly comfortable with the repertoire and had to work that bit harder, so the results were especially pleasing. Now I'm really looking forward to the next concert, new pieces and another new conductor.

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Thursday, February 26, 2015

'Jefferson's Garden' by Timberlake Wertenbaker

26 February 2015

Last Saturday we were at the Watford Palace Theatre to see 'Jefferson's Garden', a new play by Timberlake Wertenbaker, directed by Brigid Larmour. It tells the story of the American War of Independence and the founding of the United States through the eyes of a quaker family, newly arrived from England. Wertenbaker manages to blend the macro political story with the personal family tale by using a Greek-style chorus. The chorus steps out of the historical period, using contemporary language and references wittily to prick the potential pomposity of a very worthy narrative. With a cast of nine actors playing a host of characters on a fairly bare set, this is a fast-moving and inventive piece of theatre. But there is a very serious purpose at the heart of the play, as it addresses Jefferson's dilemma in drawing up the Declaration of Independence – whether the hard-won freedom should be extended to the slaves, knowing that this would have split the new union.

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Bad Manners

26 February 2015

I have been to many concerts at Bedford Corn Exchange over the years, but (perhaps because most of the concerts have involved the Philharmonia Orchestra) I have never previously witnessed the audience anticipating the arrival of the performers on the stage by aggressively chanting “You Fat Bastard, You Fat Bastard”. When Bad Manners finally took to the stage, their inimitable lead-singer, Buster Bloodvessel, beaming at the adoring crowd, simply replied “you're too kind!”. We later learned that the portly Buster Bloodvessel, now 56 years old, had just got out of hospital and nearly didn't make the concert. Bad Manners' upbeat 1980s ska is cheerful, catchy and incredibly tongue-in-cheek. At one point Buster Bloodvessel said “now for something serious – and some people say we're just a joke band” before launching into a very cheesy version of Andy Williams' “Can't Take My Eyes Off You”. Buster Bloodvessel is a compelling front man who looks like he is having a ball. As I've said here on numerous occasions, you can’t beat a band that dances to its own tunes – and Bad Manners never stopped dancing. A packed Corn Exchange was full of fans who knew the words to all the band's songs and were also dancing like it was 1981. Towards the end of the evening my eye was distracted by a sudden movement across the stage. It took me a moment to realise this was a dog running into the middle of the band. “That's my dog” Buster informed us as the hound leapt up at him, playfully. He proceeded to hold the microphone so we could hear the dog barking in time to the ska beat, its tail wagging furiously.

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Friday, February 20, 2015

'Housekeeping' by Marilynne Robinson

20 February 2015

I've been reading Marilynne Robinson's 1980 novel 'Housekeeping' (as an unabridged audio book narrated by Becket Royce). 'Housekeeping' is widely regarded as a modern American classic, which Robinson followed more than twenty years later with the highly-acclaimed Gilead trilogy of novels. It's the tale of a family living in the remote Idaho town of Fingerbone. The domestic setting and gentle pace reminded me of the books of Anne Tyler. 'Housekeeping' is narrated by Ruth, one of two young girls who are cared for by a succession of family members after their mother's suicide. The writing very cleverly gives the impression of a girl emerging from the fuzzy confusion of childhood into a world that gradually crystallises as she approaches adulthood. At first I was not clear which of the sisters was the elder – for a while I wondered whether they might be twins – but as they grow older and more distinct from each other, it becomes very clear which is the younger sibling. This gently confusing, non-linear narrative feels initially a little hard to follow but you soon realise that this is not a book that requires you to pay attention to an intricate plot. There is very little plot in 'Housekeeping' – the most dramatic events (a train plunging off a bridge into the lake, a car driving into the lake) happen off-stage or before the start of the narrative. This is a novel that focusses on characters and family relationships. It's beautifully written – I found myself frequently stopping to note the most lovely phrases. Of Bernice, an elderly neighbour who wears an excessive amount of make-up, we are told “she was an old woman but she managed to look like a young woman with a ravaging disease”. When floods swept the town “the library was flooded to a depth of three shelves, creating vast gaps in the Dewey Decimal system”. Floods are a recurring theme of the novel, as are the call of the railroad and a transient life. The tone of Ruth's narrative is unexcitable, matter-of-fact, taking the eccentricities of others in her stride. 'Housekeeping' washes over the reader like a gentle, benevolent flood.


Friday, February 13, 2015

Natalie Prass

13 February 2015

I'm really enjoying the eponymous album by the young American singer-songwriter Natalie Prass. Natalie Prass has a delicate, pretty voice and writes beautiful songs in a variety of styles – from country to soul. This is upbeat but slightly wistful pop with soaring strings and a laid-back horn section. The brass sound in particular reminds me of Zach Condon's Beirut (reviewed here in November 2006 and October 2007) and the catchy, theatrical songs sound a lot like Nerrina Pallot (reviewed here in May 2006). The album has a retro feel that seems like a familiar old friend the first time you hear it. Lovely stuff.

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Wednesday, February 04, 2015

'The Corrections' by Jonathan Franzen, adapted by Marcy Kahan

4 February 2015

Jonathan Franzen's 2001 novel, 'The Corrections', is one of the great contemporary American novels and one of the best books I've read in the past twenty years. It's more than ten years since I read 'The Corrections' so I have enjoyed reconnecting with it through the recent BBC Radio 4 dramatisation which I finished listening to this week. Marcy Kahan's adaptation, in fifteen 15-minute episodes, necessarily cherry-picks key scenes from this mammoth novel but felt like rediscovering old friends. I had forgotten many aspects of the story and was surprised to remember how funny it is. 'The Corrections' looks at the relationships between an elderly Mid-Western couple, Alfred and Enid Lambert and their three grown-up children. It is an often-excruciating examination of the strains within a family. As Enid tries desperately to persuade her sons and daughter to come to the family home for one last Christmas together, Jonathan Franzen manages to make the reader simultaneously sympathetic to characters with directly opposing points of view (something also very impressively achieved by Andrea Levy in 'Small Island'). All the main protagonists can be quite annoying but each has some redeeming qualities. 'The Corrections' is incredibly sad, painful and terribly funny, with some great set-piece scenes. You can still listen to most of the episodes at:

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Tuesday, January 27, 2015

'How To Be Both' by Ali Smith

27 January 2015

I like a bit of ambiguity and the novelist Ali Smith seems to specialise in it. I know her novels, such as 'The Accidental' (reviewed here in May 2006), frustrate some readers with their unresolved plots and loose ends, but occasionally it's nice to read something that challenges you and really makes you think. I've just finished reading Ali Smith's new novel, 'How To Be Both' (as an unabridged audio book, narrated by John Banks). It's a fascinatingly unconventional story consisting of two halves, both titled 'Part One', which can be read in either order. (Half the printed copies of the book have the parts one way round and half the other.) The two interlinked tales – of a teenage girl in contemporary Cambridge coming to terms with the death of her mother and the (fictionalised) life story of the (real) Italian early-Renaissance painter, Francesco del Cossa, are full of parallels. George is a girl with a boy's name while Francesco is a woman living as a man. George can bring her mother back to life by remembering their times together in the present tense, just as biography can bring long-dead people like Francesco back to life. 'How To Be Both' is about being both male and female, alive and dead, light and dark. The novel focusses on the art of allegory, the technique of painting and the act of remembering (and forgetting). George lives in the place where DNA was discovered and the double helix acts as another example of 'both'. Both halves of the novel end quite abruptly (a bit like the sections of David Mitchell's 'Cloud Atlas') and leave the reader with lots of unresolved questions. I think your view of the book would be substantially different depending on which half you read first. George's mother asks which comes first, the painting you see on the surface or the picture which has been obscured beneath it by an artist reusing a canvas. George says the earlier painting obviously came first but her mother points out that it is not the one we see first now. Francesco's story occurs both after George's narrative and (in extensive flashback) before. If you read George's half of the book first, there is a suggestion that the other half is George's school project to imagine the life of Francesco del Cossa – though this is never confirmed. 'How To Be Both' is extremely clever, intricate and fascinating, though it can also be a bit annoying. There is an excessive use of “he said, she said” throughout, which feels like a stylistic device that might work better in print than it did in the audio book. And this is not a novel for lovers of plot – it is a book of characters and ideas. George's pedantry, in relation to grammar and tenses, alerts the reader that every word has been carefully considered and there are beautiful layers of meaning and ambiguity in the text (like tiles layered upon a roof).


Monday, January 26, 2015

Milton Keynes Sinfonia workshop - 'Symphonic Dances from West Side Story' by Leonard Bernstein

26 January 2015

I really enjoyed taking part in the Milton Keynes Sinfonia workshop days on 'The Rite of Spring' by Igor Stravinsky (reviewed here in May 2013) and the 'Sinfonietta' by Leoš Janácek (reviewed here in April 2014). So I was looking forward to this year's workshop at the Open University in Milton Keynes last Sunday. This time our focus was the 'Symphonic Dances from West Side Story' by Leonard Bernstein. Bernstein died 25 years ago this year and, as our conductor David Knight welcomed us and introduced the specialist jazz trumpeter who had joined us for the workshop, I was reminded of that amazing documentary of Bernstein conducting the 1984 studio recording of 'West Side Story' with Kiri Te Kanawa and José Carreras (which you can watch in full at: I played the 'Symphonic Dances from West Side Story' with the Northampton Symphony Orchestra in 2008 (reviewed here in March 2008) so I was fairly familiar with the piece. It was great to play it again on Sunday, with an army of fantastic percussionists behind us, a wonderful brass section and some beautiful solos from every section of the orchestra. I'm not sure our 'Mambo' quite matched that famous performance by the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra at the BBC Proms in 2007 (see: but it was great fun.

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