Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert

29 April 2008

The latest Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert took place on Saturday at Christ Church in Northampton. We started with the 'Swedish Rhapsody No. 1' by Hugo Alfven - a strange mixed bag of a piece with a very well-known jaunty main theme. It contains some lovely moments - occasionally sounding very like Dvořák to me - but doesn't seem to be able to make up its mind what it wants to be - slipping too often towards the twee. We then tackled the lovely 'Violin Concerto' by Erich Korngold: a lush, tuneful work with many of the qualities of Korngold's best film scores (and showing how he influenced many later film composers - I think John Williams must have been a fan). But also a fiendishly difficult piece with constantly changing time signatures. Although it had gone very well in our final afternoon rehearsal, the performance was a bit hair-raising - particularly in the slow movement - and it is a great credit to the soloist, Thomas Gould, that he didn't catch the orchestra's nervousness and managed to pull us through to the finale. As we embarked on Sibelius' 'Symphony No. 1', our nerves were soothed by an assured opening clarinet solo by Naomi Muller and I think we gave an effective account of the symphony. It was very interesting, having played a couple of Tchaikowsky symphonies recently, to be immersed in Sibelius - a complete contrast in styles and, particularly, in orchestration. The Sibelius symphony is like a jigsaw puzzle where you need all the parts before you can see the whole wonderful picture.

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Friday, April 25, 2008

‘Welcome to Everytown’ by Julian Baggini

25 April 2008

Julian Baggini is the editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine and a leading proponent of popular philosophy. I really like his pieces for The Guardian and a few years ago I went to see him speak at the Edinburgh Book Festival. On that occasion he explained that one of the difficulties of becoming known as an articulate spokesperson for the liberal intelligentsia was that he was often being asked to appear on Radio 4’s Today Programme but then proved unable to satisfy their requirements for a polarised debate because he kept finding that he could see both points of view: sometimes he was just too reasonable for his own good! This struck a chord with me – I often feel that I should probably have stronger opinions on key topics up my sleeve. I think I also relate to Baggini as we are a similar age: I knew I was on comfortable ground when I started to read his excellent guide to the meaning of life, ‘What’s It All About’ and discovered a quote from ‘The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ on the first page. Julian Baggini’s latest book, ‘Welcome to Everytown’, which I have been reading this week starts with a quote from Alan Partridge. In ‘Welcome to Everytown’ Baggini sets out to uncover the English character by spending six months living in England’s most typical town – which, from demographic analysis, turns out to be Rotherham (or, more precisely, the S66 postcode area). His immersion in working class life, mainstream media and local culture produces a challenging and thought-provoking analysis – both of the people he encounters and of his own liberal, middle class attitudes and prejudices. Never poking fun, he is honest, frank and respectful – apart from his vitriolic dislike of the Daily Mail. I found his observations on mass culture especially interesting in relation to Arts Council England’s recent work on segmenting the population according to their cultural participation. Fascinating and important stuff.


Thursday, April 17, 2008

'Elevate' by Fiona Mackenzie

17 April 2008

I've been enjoying 'Elevate' - an album by Scottish folk singer Fiona Mackenzie. Apart from the three Gaelic songs this is more acoustic pop than folk. The opening track 'When The Sunny Sky Has Gone' sounds like it could be by Jack Johnson. Fiona Mackenzie's voice has some of the childlike fragility of Joanna Newsom (reviewed here in November 2006) - though without the more strident moments. 'Elevate' is a gentle, likeable collection of songs.

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'This Earthly Spell' by Karine Polwart

17 April 2008

A new album by Karine Polwart (reviewed here in November 2005 and April 2006) is always a pleasure: I've been enjoying her recent CD of traditional songs, 'Fairest Floo'er', but the new collection of her own compositions, 'This Earthly Spell', is even better. Karine's thoughtful, poignant lyrics, distinctive voice, catchy tunes and lush vocal harmonies are a compelling mix. She creates an air of melancholy with a subtle hint of optimism - and then throws in a laid-back swing number ('The News') that could have been by Fairground Attraction.

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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

'Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell' by Susanna Clarke

15 April 2008

When it came out in 2004, some reviewers suggested that Susanna Clarke's incredible debut novel 'Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell' was "Harry Potter for grown ups". This epic tale of two magicians in 19th century England certainly has some similarities with Harry Potter but it's much more than that. Clarke creates a world that is both historically accurate but surreally magical - a parallel universe more like those of Philip Pullman's 'His Dark Materials' novels. But she has also written a 19th century novel - with explanatory chapter titles, plate illustrations, peculiar (but wholly consistent) spellings and masses of footnotes. The footnotes are essential reading - filling in a comprehensive back-story of several centuries of 'English magic'. In case this all sounds a bit scholarly, I should emphasise that 'Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell' is a very funny book - with some of the 19th century whimsy of 'Three Men in a Boat'. It has a great cast of characters and intricate plotting worthy of Dickens. At more than 1000 pages it is a mammoth achievement - with some seeds planted very early on which satisfyingly flourish as the tale reaches its climax. I am wary of saying anything about the plot as part of the joy of the book was having no idea where it was heading - or even what period it was going to cover. There are some great 'Zelig' moments where the magicians brush against actual historical events - though more in the fashion of 'Doctor Who'. But best of all is Clarke's ability to judge the fine line between dropping clues to the direction of the story and risking signalling it too obviously. For me she was just about spot on: time and again I had the satisfaction of realising that I had seen something coming without having guessed it too early. 'Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell' is an amazing, wonderful book - it is very long but I really didn't want it to end and now I want to read it all again. Brilliant!


Monday, April 07, 2008

'As You Like It' by William Shakespeare

7 April 2008

On Saturday we made a first visit to the Watford Palace Theatre to see 'As You Like It'. The Palace is currently celebrating its centenary: it reopened following a substantial refurbishment in 2004 which restored the period splendour of the auditorium while creating a gleaming modern foyer - much like the development of the Royal Theatre in Northampton. 'As You Like It' is the first Palace Shakespeare production since 1976 and it was a very enjoyable evening. Well cast and well acted throughout with some great mugging from Lisa Jackson as Rosalind and a show-stealing scene from Claire Prempeh as Phebe. We'll definitely be revisiting Watford soon.

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Friday, April 04, 2008

'Hotas' by Tsuumi Sound System

4 April 2008

Regular readers will know of my enthusiasm for all things Finnish: this week I've been listening to 'Hotas', the album by Finnish folk/rock group Tsuumi Sound System. At first it's almost a Celtic sound - could easily be a Scottish group - but the occasional unexpected rhythms and time-shifts betray its Scandinavian origins. The tunes are dominated by frantic, furious fiddles backed by accordion, guitar, bass, drums and pleasingly unobtrusive soprano saxophone. It's a nicely varied set of tunes but maintains a cheerful optimistic air throughout. Fiona Talkington called it "a lesson in how to make the perfect album".

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Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Milton Keynes Sinfonia concert

2 April 2008

On Saturday I played in a concert by Milton Keynes Sinfonia which included Tchaikowsky's fourth symphony - a fantastic work-out! Tchaikowsky is great for developing your stamina and a wonderful crowd pleaser - and we had a packed audience at the Church of Christ the Cornerstone in Milton Keynes, though I suspect quite a few were there primarily to see Peter Bussereau play the first violin concerto by Bruch. We started the concert with the overture 'Les Franc-Juges' by Berlioz - not a particularly memorable piece other than for the tune that was used for John Freeman's 'Face to Face' interviews which, coincidentally, I had been thinking about a lot last week after watching Ken Stott as Tony Hancock in BBC Four's 'Hancock and Joan'.

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