Monday, March 23, 2009

‘Cider with Roadies' by Stuart Maconie

23 March 2009

Having enjoyed ‘Pies and Prejudice’ – Stuart Maconie’s exploration of the North of England (reviewed here in June 2008) – I was keen to read his earlier book ‘Cider with Roadies’. This is Maconie’s memoire of growing up in Wigan, failing as a rock star and succeeding as a music journalist – and a chronicle of the changing face of popular music over his lifetime. Very much in the Nick Hornby mode, it’s an entertaining, self-deprecating and very funny tale. Inevitably the best bits were where Stuart Maconie’s musical experiences coincided with my own but his main childhood enthusiasms were a bit before my time and his discoveries as a music journalist came mostly after my own enthusiasm for pop music had waned. Nevertheless I found much to reminisce over and his brushes with stardom are so modestly dealt with they never feel like mere name-dropping. If you like this kind of thing I would also recommend ‘Lost in Music’ by Giles Smith.


Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert

17 March 2009

On Saturday I played in the Northampton Symphony Orchestra 'Film Night' concert at the Derngate in Northampton. It was fitting that an event showcasing storytelling music had so many stories to tell itself. Dr Peter Robertson played viola in the NSO for more than 30 years. When he died last year he left a bequest to the orchestra which funded this ambitious concert in his memory. The occasion also marked the start of violinist Harold Colman's 50th year playing in the orchestra: Harold was presented with a framed copy of the programme from the first NSO concert in which he performed - in 1960. And Saturday's concert was the NSO debut for our new conductor, Alexander Walker. Alex is an exciting, young, professional conductor who is a regular guest conductor with the Russian State Symphony Orchestra, works regularly at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and is a regular guest conductor with the Mikkeli and Lappeenranta City Orchestras in Finland, and of the Esbjerg Ensemble and the Vestyjsk Sinfonieorkester in Denmark. This film music programme, including 'Superman', 'The Dambusters', 'Indiana Jones & The Temple of Doom', 'Back to the Future' and 'The Great Escape' was a different kind of challenge for Alex. During his first rehearsal, in January, he peered at the score for 'Themes from 007' at one point and commented "it says 'medium rock tempo' - not a phrase I have encountered much in my professional career!". But Alex and the NSO rose to the challenge and it was a wonderful evening - including what I thought was a particularly impressive performance of 'The Sorcerer's Apprentice' by Paul Dukas. It was very exciting to play to an enthusiastic audience of what must have been nearly 1,000 people. A magnificent, overdue return to the Derngate.

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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

‘Seya’ by Oumou Sangaré

11 March 2009

It’s fascinating how, despite the universality of music, some countries produce a disproportionately vibrant musical culture: it must be something to do with a happy coincidence of tradition, conditions, politics etc. With centuries of musical tradition, Mali in West Africa is today one of the most musical places on Earth. One of the stars of modern Malian music is the Wassalou singer Oumou Sangaré, whose new album ‘Seya’ I have been enjoying this week. Oumou Sangaré is an amazing person – superstar, political campaigner and entrepreneur. Her music is beautiful, joyous and extremely funky. Using a combination of traditional African and modern Western instruments, she is less experimental than fellow Wassalou diva, Rokia Traoré (reviewed here in December 2008) but manages to create a sound which is contemporary without becoming bland Western pop music. And whereas Rokia Traoré’s vocals are almost whispered, Oumou Sangaré’s voice soars over the music. ‘Seya’ is varied, catchy, moving and distinctively Malian.

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Monday, March 02, 2009

Mahler's 5th Symphony in Leighton Buzzard

2 March 2009

Keith Saunders is a keen amateur violinist who plays with Milton Keynes Sinfonia. As he approached his 50th birthday Keith wanted to do something special to mark the occasion and decided to take part in a sponsored Everest Base Camp Trek to raise funds for the British Heart Foundation. On Sunday, to give a focus to his search for sponsors and to fulfil another ambition on his birthday itself, Keith and his friends gathered together, at Vandyke Upper School in Leighton Buzzard, a massive orchestra made up of players from Milton Keynes Sinfonia, Bedfordshire Symphony Orchestra, Northampton Symphony Orchestra, Buckinghamshire Chamber Orchestra and others to play Mahler’s 5th Symphony. Mahler 5 is a wonderful, mammoth, crazy, challenging work which would stretch the forces and ability of most amateur orchestras. At the end of a one-day workshop, conducted by David Knight, we managed to produce a very passable informal performance. It was great fun – a lovely day with excellent catering by Keith’s family and a rare chance to get to grips with an amazing piece of music. You can contribute to Keith’s British Heart Foundation appeal at  

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'Brief Encounter' adapted for the stage by Emma Rice from the words and music of Noel Coward

2 March 2009

Had the phrase ‘kitchen-sink drama’ not already been used to mean something else I would have been tempted to employ it in relation to the brilliant Kneehigh Theatre whose productions tend to involve everything and the kitchen sink! On Saturday we were at the Royal Theatre in Northampton to see the Kneehigh production of Noel Coward’s ‘Brief Encounter’. Very much as she did (with Tom Morris) with the National Theatre/Kneehigh production of ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ (reviewed here in May 2007), director and adapter Emma Rice has taken an iconic film and created a stage production which draws out much more than you realised was in the original. Working with Coward’s screenplay, Rice has added an onstage band and a serious of music-hall turns – all featuring Noel Coward songs. The show also features an integration of live action and film, dance, puppetry, juggling and interaction with the audience – and, while there isn’t actually a kitchen sink, there is an ever-present coal fire smouldering at the back of the stage. Some comic touches reminded me of Patrick Barlow's stage adaptation of ‘The Thirty Nine Steps’ but Laura and Alec’s heart-breaking relationship at the centre of ‘Brief Encounter’ is played straight. The familiar strains of Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto are used very sparingly – creating a very powerful effect when the achingly romantic theme is finally heard in full. Inventive, entertaining and extremely moving – a great theatrical experience.

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