Thursday, May 31, 2007

Fanfare Ciocarlia

31 May 2007

Regular readers will know about my enthusiasm for Balkan Gypsy brass music. 2007 looks like being a vintage year for British fans of Balkan brass with Kocani Orkestar, the Boban Markovic Orkestar and Fanfare Ciocarlia all visiting the UK. On Wednesday I was at the Barbican in London to see the award-winning Romanian Gypsy brass band, Fanfare Ciocarlia. Fanfare won a BBC Radio 3 Award for World Music last year (reported here in April 2006) and are great friends of my former colleague at Making Music, Jackie Grant. Thankfully they had not brought a goat with them on this occasion but they did bring a host of guest performers that resembled a 'Who's Who' of Balkan Gypsy music.

In 2000 the Barbican held its first '1000 Year Journey' festival of Gypsy music and Fanfare Ciocarlia made their mark with an amazing performance on the free stage in the Barbican foyer that went on into the small hours of the following morning. Seven years later they were back - this time in the sold-out main Barbican Hall. There was a buzz around the building well before the performance started: this felt like a major 'event'. There was wonderful support from American duo 'A Hawk and a Hacksaw' creating their own blend of traditional Hungarian Gypsy music with their collaborators, Hungary's Hun Hangar Ensemble. Then Fanfare Ciocarlia and their guests commanded the stage for more than two hours. Wow! Never before have eleven mostly balding, middle-aged men, wearing their bright-coloured short-sleeved shirts outside their sensible slacks to disguise their widening midriffs, played so energetically, so frantically, so furiously and so loudly! Fanfare Ciocarlia play fast - very fast - no, really very fast! Fanfare Ciocarlia are 'The Flight of the Bumble Bee' on speed - going down a very steep hill - in a runaway train - with a strong tailwind. When they pause between pieces to gather their breath you wonder for a second whether the next tune might be a contrasting slow one - then the percussionist looks at his colleagues, raises his sticks and rapidly beats 'tap tap tap tap' and they're off again at breakneck speed. Exciting as this is it can get a little monotonous and I was grateful for the variety provided by a galaxy of co-stars.

Fanfare Ciocarlia's patriarch, Ioan Ivancea died late last year and their new CD 'Queens & Kings' is a tribute to him, featuring legendary Gypsy musicians from across Europe. At the Barbican this week Fanfare Ciocarlia were joined by the gorgeous Romanian singer Florentina Sandu, French trio Kaloome, Romanian dancers Aurelia and Tantzica and Bulgarian rocker Jony Iliev (who had hurt his back and had to be helped to hobble across the stage to take his place on a chair with microphone in hand - at which point he came alive and gave a lively, soulful performance). Also appearing was the amazing Hungarian Gypsy singer with the bizarre squeaky voice Mitsou (whose band Mitsoura were one of my highlights at last year's WOMAD festival - reviewed here in August 2006).

But the star of the show was undoubtedly the 'Queen of the Gypsies', the legendary Macedonian singer Esma Redzepova. Esma has had an amazing life - performing across the globe in front of adoring crowds and heads of state including Nehru and Tito, adopting 46 children from the streets of Macedonia, campaigning against poverty, and being nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize - twice! She still has a wonderful voice and led a rousing finale with all the performers (and several members of the audience) returning to the stage to hop and spin to the frenetic beat. Fanfare Ciocarlia's CD 'Queens and Kings' is out now on Asphalt Tango Records - go on, you know you want to ...

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Tuesday, May 29, 2007

'Romeo & Juliet' by Northern Ballet Theatre

29 May 2007

We've been meaning to get around to watching some ballet for ages. We finally took the plunge at Milton Keynes Theatre last Saturday where we saw Northern Ballet Theatre's 'Romeo & Juliet' and it was great! I think it helped that we had chosen a story we knew well, set to familiar music (by Prokofiev). Having played the concert suites I was intrigued to see how sections of the music were repeated throughout the ballet as 'motifs' for particular characters etc. It was also interesting to see how interpreting the plot through dance (choreography by Massimo Moricone and original direction by Christopher Gable) stretched time in different directions. Complex plot development scenes which are quite substantial in the Shakespeare play were over in the blink of an eye in the ballet, while the dance lingered understandably much longer on expressions of feelings between the characters. I am not convinced that I would have been able to follow all the intricacies of the plot without knowing the play well (I don't see how you could dance/mime Friar Laurence's explanation that the potion will only induce a death-like sleep - if you didn't already know this you would probably get quite a surprise when Juliet wakes up!). And I still think some of the 'silent movie' exaggerated mime moments sit uneasily within the seriousness of the story and the dance - there were too many 'silent scream' moments with dancers waving their hands in mock surprise! But the dancing was lovely and very moving. I particularly liked Pippa Moore's child-like Juliet and Hironao Takahashi's swaggering Mercutio. 'Romeo & Juliet' was definitely a hit and I think more ballet beckons ...

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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

'Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus' by Mary Shelley

22 May 2007

'Frankenstein' seems such a familiar story but it's been fascinating to read Mary Shelley's original 1818 novel for the first time. I knew that most of the film versions took great liberties with the plot but it was interesting to discover how, in doing so, they really lost the point of the story. Mary Shelley wrote 'Frankenstein' (famously inspired by a 'waking dream' while staying with her husband and Byron at Lake Geneva) while pregnant and its main themes are to do with birth, creation and death. It is heavily influenced by Milton's 'Paradise Lost' (quoted on the title page) - the source of inspiration, more recently, for Philip Pulman's 'His Dark Materials' trilogy. The science of 'Frankenstein' is pretty shaky and largely glossed over. Mary Shelley is much more interested in the social interactions between the monster, his creator and other people. Much of the plot is, even within the fantastical world of the novel, remarkably implausible - teaching himself to talk, the monster becomes unbelievably articulate in a very short space of time - and Victor Frankenstein seems to come very much from the naive "hiding under the duvet should protect me from anything nasty" school of thought! Nevertheless the story's premise is powerful enough to allow you to overlook some of these imperfections. The narrative structure is quite complex, consisting of several 'nested narratives' - at one point we are reading the monster's story as told by the monster to Victor Frankenstein as told by Victor to Captain Walton as told by the Captain to his sister! But even this is symbolic - Captain Walton's sister is Margaret Walton Saville and it is no coincidence that she shares her initials with Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, suggesting that the whole story is a found narrative discovered by Mary Shelley rather than her own creation. The edition of the novel I read included as an appendix an 1823 dramatisation called 'Presumption or The Fate of Frankenstein' by Richard Brinsley Peake which radically simplified the story, making the monster mute and removing all the complexities of his arguments with his creator. This play seems to have been the source for many of the later treatments including the Universal films that now form our main reference for the 'Frankenstein' story. The original novel, while not a great work, is much more thoughtful and thought-provoking than much that it inspired - and truly scary!


Monday, May 14, 2007

'Little Shop of Horrors' by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken

14 May 2007

Last Saturday we were in London to see the Menier Chocolate Factory production of 'Little Shop of Horrors' which is now at the Duke of York's Theatre in the West End. It was an incredibly enjoyable evening - great music in an all-girl-group early rock and roll style, some wonderful comedy, fantastic 'skid-row' set design and a giant man-eating plant (realised here through the amazing puppetry of Andy Heath). I was a big fan of the 1986 film but had never seen the original stage musical (which itself was based on the classic 1959 Roger Corman B-movie). I hadn't realised that the happy ending of the 1986 film was a Hollywood-imposed change - the musical has a much more satisfyingly macabre finale! It was written for a small off-Broadway theatre and works well on the intimate stage at the Duke of York's. Alistair McGowan was great in the show-stopping part of Audrey's sadistic boyfriend (played by Steve Martin in the film) as was Mike McShane as the voice of the plant. His biography in the programme says that McShane "has never played a vegetable, although he's been known to party with them upon occasion." 'Little Shop of Horrors' is a very silly show from which you come out smiling. But remember, "whatever they offer you, don't feed the plants!"

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Tuesday, May 08, 2007

'A Matter of Life and Death' adapted by Emma Rice and Tom Morris

8 May 2007

On Monday we were at the National Theatre in London to see 'A Matter of Life and Death' - a joint production with Kneehigh Theatre adapted by Emma Rice and Tom Morris from the 1946 Powell & Pressberger film starring David Niven.

It's a long time since I saw the film but the stage version definitely felt like a more realist, modern approach to the story. We still saw our hero fall to earth (as his plane is destroyed by German fire while returning from a wartime bombing raid) and then emerge seemingly unscathed to meet and fall in love with the radio operator he thought he had spoken his last words to. But now it is clearly suggested that the 'explanation' that he survived because the 'conductor' who was supposed to escort him to 'the other world' missed him in the fog exists only within our hero's damaged brain. And when he prepares to appeal to the heavenly court to be allowed to carry on living we can see that this is his internalisation of the fight to defeat the brain tumor for which he is undergoing a crucial operation back in the real world. This all seemed remarkably like John Simm's plight in 'Life on Mars' - indeed, here too the surgeon performing the operation makes a decisive appearance in the 'dream world'. But this is probably because both these dramas were actually referencing 'The Wizard of Oz' (how many times did Gene Hunt call Sam Tyler 'Dorothy'?).

There were a couple of places where the tone felt a bit wrong - the pathos of the many personal stories or wartime deaths was strangely missing when a wounded airman's suicide was presented as a comic incident. But nevertheless 'A Matter of Life and Death' was an amazing spectacle - making full use of the Olivier's enormous stage. While not quite a musical, it featured some great song and dance routines as well as aerial movement, burning beds, back projection and table tennis!

At times it felt like there was too much being thrown together - all that what lacking from the stage was the proverbial kitchen sink - but I was happy to excuse the production's excesses as it drew itself together towards a moving conclusion. And the amazing mix of elements was great fun: how many plays have you seen recently that feature two ukuleles, a camera obscura, a team of hand-bell ringers, an acrobatic Norwegian magician, a square tango and seven nurses on bicycles?!

Definitely worth £10 - I'm actually tempted to see it again ...

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Friday, May 04, 2007

Northampton Symphony Orchestra Concert

4 May 2007

It was a watery programme for our latest Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert last Saturday - including Respighi's 'Fountains of Rome' and 'La Mer' by Debussy. I must admit I thought I didn't like Debussy but having worked on 'La Mer' for the past few weeks I am a convert. It is a wonderful piece on a symphonic scale which really gets under your skin. And the moment when the slow triplet brass chorale re-enters towards the end of the last movement is just gorgeous. I think we gave a pretty good account of it on Saturday and I've really enjoyed the rehearsals leading to this concert. I've also been enjoying a new recording of 'La Mer' by the Hallé Orchestra and Mark Elder which got a five star review in The Guardian in March.

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