Monday, June 22, 2009

Milton Keynes Sinfonia concert

22 June 2009

It was good to be playing again with Milton Keynes Sinfonia on Saturday in a concert that included 'Danse Macabre' by Saint-Saens and an impressive performance from Jacqueline Johnson of the 'Cello Concerto' by Lalo. The main attraction, however, was the mighty 'Symphonie Fantastique' by Berlioz - a 'big' work in every sense: five long movements requiring a massive orchestra. (Berlioz stipulates, for example, that it should be performed with "no fewer than six harps": we only managed to find two harpists but they did sound wonderful!) It was interesting, however, after having been playing Mussorgsky/Ravel and Richard Strauss for the past few months, how 'classical' the 'Symphonie Fantastique' feels - very much closer to Beethoven's symphonies (though this is Beethoven "turned up to 11"!). It's also a very programmatic piece (originally entitled 'An Episode in the Life of an Artist') with movements including a 'Ball', the famous 'March to the Scaffold' and the 'Witches Sabbath'. It's a very exciting piece to play - albeit one requiring a high degree of concentration - with a (literally) breathtaking ending. It was great fun and I think we gave a very good account of this challenging work. The concert was dedicated to the memory of Mrs Zillah Knight (the mother of the orchestra's conductor David Knight) who sadly passed away in the early hours of Saturday morning.

Labels: ,

Friday, June 19, 2009

Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert

19 June 2009

Last Saturday I played in a great concert with the Northampton Symphony Orchestra. The suite from ‘Der Rosenkavalier’ by Richard Strauss was a real challenge but lots of fun – a wonderful piece of music. I enjoyed (as a spectator) the ‘Violin Concert No. 3’ by Saint Saens: soloist David LePage created a wonderfully rich sound so that every delicate harmonic seemed to fill the room. We finished with a very exciting performance of Mussorgsky’s ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’. It was a really enjoyable evening.

Labels: ,

Thursday, June 18, 2009

‘Notes on an Exhibition’ by Patrick Gale

18 June 2009

‘Notes on an Exhibition’ by Patrick Gale is another novel that owes something to Jonathan Franzen’s ‘The Corrections’. Gale’s family portrait of elderly parents and their three grown-up children has much in common with ‘A Spot of Bother’ by Mark Haddon (reviewed here in June 2007) but particularly reminded me of 'The Promise of Happiness' by Justin Cartwright (reviewed here in January 2008) – perhaps because of its Cornish setting. ‘Notes on an Exhibition’, however, starts with a death and uses an episodic, non-linear, structure to gradually fill in the family’s story (which also reminded me of 'The Time Traveller's Wife' by Audrey Niffenegger (reviewed here in September 2005)). Looking back over the life of abstract painter Rachel Kelly, Gale writes chapters which are each loosely based on one of her artistic works and show key events through the eyes of different members of her family. As the jigsaw picture begins to become clearer there is much satisfaction in anticipating the various revelations in her story. But Gale avoids the book becoming too predictable by laying a few false trails and impressively avoiding ending the novel where you would expect – with subtle restraint rather than melodramatic dénouement.


Belgium and The Netherlands

18 June 2009

We had a lovely week in Belgium and the Netherlands, spending a couple of days in each of Bruges, Ghent and Utrecht. All three are charming, medieval, towns with cobbled streets and tree-lined canals. Bruges is beautiful but more of a tourist trap than the other two and feels like an historic theme park. Ghent has a much younger feel with a big student population. The historic centre of Utrecht has more residential accommodation and the narrow streets were much busier: it’s quite an effort to avoid being mown down by thousands of bicycles as you stroll along! We enjoyed a concert of music by Monteverdi given by the Anima Vocalis choir in Bruges, an exhibition about the wonderful Belgium impressionist painter Emile Claus in Ghent and a big band concert in Utrecht. We also loved the museum of automatic musical instruments in Utrecht ('Museum Van Speelklok tot Pierement: From Musical Clock To Street Organ') – fascinating guided tour and demonstrations.

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

'The Moonstone' by Wilkie Collins

2 June 2009

Having been enthralled by Kate Summerscale's 'The Suspicions of Mr Whicher or The Murder at Road Hill House' (reviewed here in April 2009) I turned to one of the fictional works the case inspired. 'The Moonstone' by Wilkie Collins was the first great English detective novel and it's ambitious, inventive, entertaining and amusing. It's no simple re-telling of the Road Hill case - the crime here is theft rather than murder and, despite the familiar country house setting we seem to be in quite a different story. But every now and then, as a film director might pay homage to classic movie by recreating an iconic scene, Collins inserts a recognisable element of the Road Hill case. I found 'The Moonstone' surprisingly readable - much easier-going than Collins' contemporary and friend, Charles Dickens. The narrative structure tells the story through a series of accounts written by some of the principal characters and the lack of an authorial voice occasionally made me forget I was reading a Victorian novel rather than a modern work set in the 1840s. At times this style of first person narration reminded me of Adam Thorpe's 'Pieces of Light' (reviewed here in July 2008) for example (though this might also reflect Thorpe's skill in recreating an authentic period voice). Collins' detective, Sergeant Cuff, plays an oddly peripheral role for much of the book - not yet really the hero of the story - but the scenes in which he and the family steward, Betteredge, investigate the crime (seen through Betteredge's eyes) were a clear precursor of Holmes and Watson. 'The Moonstone' is gripping, intricately plotted and very funny, never going quite where you expect it to: a real gem!


Monday, June 01, 2009

'Educating Rita' by Willy Russell

1 June 2009

The Open University at Walton Hall in Milton Keynes looks remarkably like a typical, leafy university campus, with one major exception - there are no students. Apart from a few postgraduates, OU students never actually visit the university's headquarters, giving you the impression, as you stroll between the faculty buildings, of a permanent vacation. Nevertheless Walton Hall does its best to resemble any other university - with sports facilities, bars, a refectory and a host of university societies, including a choir and amateur drama group. The Open University is currently celebrating its 40th birthday and I can think of few better ways to mark the occasion than to watch the Open Theatre Group in the Old Lecture Theatre performing Willy Russell's 'Educating Rita' - as we did last Friday. Once derided by some at the OU as poking fun at the Open University, 'Educating Rita' is now seen more as a celebration of the kind of universal access to further education that the OU was established to provide. And it's a fantastic play. As someone with just a vague recollection of having seen the film starring Julie Walters and Michael Caine, I was impressed by how substantial, complex, funny and moving the play is. The Open Theatre Group production was excellent with brilliant performances by Laurie Lazard and Richard Walker.

Labels: ,