Thursday, November 30, 2006

'Margrave of the Marshes' by John Peel and Sheila Ravenscroft

30 November 2006

John Peel had only completed the first part of his autobiography before he died suddenly in Peru in October 2004. ‘Margrave of the Marshes’ was completed by his wife, Sheila, and is very much ‘a game of two halves’. After reading the introduction by their four children I was worried I was going to find the whole experience too sad and tearful but once you get into the book it is fascinating, entertaining and very funny. You can really hear Peel’s distinctive voice in his writing and his rambling style and constant digressions mean that, although his part of the narrative finishes in 1964 (as he heads towards a Mexican brothel!), he manages to include many more recent anecdotes. It is actually quite refreshing and revealing to then get Sheila’s perspective – embellished with quotes from John’s diary. There are some great ‘Zelig’ moments – with John standing in the background at various historic events. There are also some very familiar old friends – like the story of the Bay City Rollers on an island in a lake in Mallory Park. This is the story of popular music through the second half of the twentieth century. This is the story of the development of music broadcasting. This is the story of the trials and tribulations of Liverpool Football Club. This is the story of a slightly portly, bearded, balding gentleman in a comfortable pullover. But above all this is the story of an enduring, loving marriage.


Monday, November 20, 2006

'Ys' by Joanna Newsom

20 November 2006

There has been a lot of praise in the press for ‘Ys’ – the second album by Joanna Newsom – the 24-year old harpist/singer/songwriter from California. I caught up with her first CD ‘The Milk-Eyed Mender’ earlier this year. It’s a bizarre but strangely uplifting experience. Newsom sings beautiful melodies with incomprehensibly pretentious lyrics with an often squealing, screeching voice, accompanying herself on the harp. Impossible to categorise, she blends elements of folk with the pomposity of prog rock in an atmosphere more like classical chamber music. At first, her music can seem almost completely unlistenable but perseverance opens up a captivating beauty. ‘Ys’ builds on the remarkable experience of ‘The Milk-Eyed Mender’ by lengthening the songs (the CD contains just 5 long tracks) and added gorgeous string arrangements by Van Dyke Parks. The result is hard to describe but the word ‘masterpiece’ springs to mind: Joanna Newsom is an acquired taste – but one well worth acquiring!

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Milton Keynes Sinfonia concert

20 November 2006

Another week, another Shostakovich symphony … On Saturday I was playing with Milton Keynes Sinfonia in a concert including Shostakovich’s 9th Symphony – a shorter, lighter and less angry work than the 10th – Shostakovich more in music theatre mode – with wonderful solos in the 2nd and 4th movements for clarinet and bassoon (wonderfully played on this occasion!). But the concert was dominated by an amazing performance of the Sibelius Violin Concerto by Bálint Székely. Bálint was born in 1977 in Marosvásárhely (Tg.-Mures), Transylvania and came to London in 1993 to study at the Purcell School of Music and the Royal College of Music. He is a very quiet, bashful young man but a jaw-droppingly brilliant violinist. At our rehearsal last Thursday he played the virtuoso passages of the concerto with ease, effortlessly improvising and trying a host of different approaches as we tried to raise our game to keep up. I have never known a rehearsal where an orchestra applauded a soloist so often and with such fervour! His performance on Saturday was stunning – particularly a mesmerising cadenza in the 1st movement. The Sibelius Violin Concerto was already one of my favourite pieces of music but I’ve fallen in love with it all over again in the last week – the slow movement must be one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written. It was a real privilege to accompany Bálint Székely – note the name and watch out for him!

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Friday, November 17, 2006

'Gulag Orkestar' by Beirut

17 November 2006

I am grateful to reviews of the CD 'Gulag Orkestar' by Beirut that caught my attention in both the Observer and the Guardian. Beirut is 20-year-old Zach Condon from Albuquerque, New Mexico. In 'Gulag Orkestar' he has taken the raucous but controlled mayhem of the Balkan brass sound (a particular favourite of mine), added an odd assortment of instruments including ukulele, accordion and primitive Casio keyboard, and created a great album of pop songs. There are traces of the quirky vocals of David Byrne and the swirling repetitive melodies of The Blue Nile - with the omnipresent Balkan mixture of upbeat dance music tinged with melancholic foreboding. But the sum of these parts is like nothing you've heard before. Wonderful.

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Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert

14 November 2006

Our latest Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert on Saturday included the Dvorak Cello Concerto - one of the great romantic concertos - and Symphony No. 10 by Shostakovich - a long, dark and angry work which reflects on the reality of living in Stalinist Russia. I suspect some Shotakovich symphonies are much more fun to play than to listen to - the 10th is certainly not easygoing for an audience - but it is an exciting and impressive work and we had a substantial and enthusiastic audience for it on Saturday.

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Friday, November 10, 2006


10 November 2006

I've just discovered the new British spoof news website, 'Newsbiscuit':

They add at least one new story each day which means there's some very topical stuff - I liked the piece 'Euphoria fades as British observers unsure what US results actually mean'. You can also see breaking news stories (or even add them yourself if you like). As an Archers enthusiast I was shocked to see that "Fans have been stunned by the revelations that the new plot line will see members of the cast involved in activities such as farming, both agricultural and horticultural, and other countryside issues." Newsbiscuit is not quite the Framley Examiner (still my favourite) but very promising and well worth a look.

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Thursday, November 02, 2006

'Follies' by Stephen Sondheim

2 November 2006

We’ve been really looking forward to the reopening of our favourite local theatre – the Royal Theatre in Northampton. Just after we moved to the area in 1999 the Royal – a small but lovely Victorian proscenium arch theatre was taken into joint ownership with the Derngate (a large 1970s concert hall/theatre immediately next door). This enabled the company to maintain an eclectic mix of theatrical productions and concerts, with large scale commercial productions subsidising the more experimental. The Royal and Derngate was one of the few places in the country to be able to stage Alan Ayckbourn’s ‘House’ and ‘Garden’ – two interlinked plays performed simultaneously with the same cast – actors running between the two theatres to make sure they made their cues.

We enjoyed the development of a programme of innovative in-house productions at the Royal over the last few years under the guidance of the exciting artistic director Rupert Goold. These included a great ‘Othello’, ‘Paradise Lost’ and an amazing interpretation of ‘Doctor Faustus’ which interwove the Marlowe text with a contemporary story about the Britart enfants terribles, the Chapman brothers, defacing Goya paintings. When the theatre closed for a major refurbishment 18 months ago the final production was ‘Hamlet’ set in a disused theatre – the curtain opening to reveal a set which was the precise mirror image of the actual Royal auditorium. During the closure they were unfortunately unable to hang on to Goold (Northampton’s loss was Oxford’s gain and he recently made his directorial debut at the RSC in Stratford) but his place has been taken by Laurie Sansom (who was previously at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough).

After 18 months the Royal and Derngate opened again (on time!) a couple of weeks ago. We made our first visit last Saturday and it’s a fantastic transformation. The public spaces (foyer, bars etc) of the two theatres have been completely combined to create a huge, lofty and open entrance hall with numerous levels and raised walkways. There is a new education/outreach centre (with its own children’s entrance). Both auditoria have been completely refurbished while preserving their distinctly different characters. The Royal has been restored to its 1884 glory – providing a breathtaking contrast when entering from the very modern foyer. It all looks lovely and it was very exciting rediscovering the building after its transformation.

Sansom’s opening production in the Royal is Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Follies’ – a musical about an old theatre about to be demolished. This tale of a reunion of the Follies girls 30 years on was an ambitious undertaking – requiring a huge cast. There are numerous ‘ladies of a certain age’ who revisit the dilapidated theatre and perform their party pieces one last time – shadowed by their younger selves. The masterstroke in this production was to cast local amateurs as the aging Follies girls (with a professional cast playing the leads and the ‘ghosts’). They had a dozen of the stars of the amateur dramatic and operatic societies from Northampton and Kettering – each of whom was fantastic. They each got their moment in the spotlight as the musical gives each ‘girl’ a showpiece number (including ‘Broadway Baby’ and ‘I’m Still Here’). Talking with friends in the interval I was delighted to discover that they had not realised some of the cast were amateurs and could not see the joins.

There were some wonderful song and dance numbers and the choreography where the young ‘ghosts’ shadow the performance of the aging stars was really slick (particularly in the tap routine ‘Mirror, mirror’). I was very pleased to see that the show got a four star review from Michael Billington in The Guardian (on a rare excursion outside London). Overall it was an excellent example of professional/amateur collaboration, a wonderful demonstration of the quality and strength of local amateur theatre and a super way to relaunch the venue. It was great!

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