Thursday, October 28, 2010

'The Habit of Art’ by Alan Bennett

28 October 2010

Last Friday we were at Milton Keynes Theatre to see the National Theatre production of Alan Bennett’s latest play ‘The Habit of Art’. My expectations were high, as I had been looking forward to seeing how Alan Bennett and director Nicholas Hytner would follow their success with ‘The History Boys’, but I’m afraid I was a bit disappointed. ‘The Habit of Art’ deals with a meeting between WH Auden and Benjamin Britten in their later years to discuss Britten’s new opera, ‘Death in Venice’. But this is actually a play within a play as ‘The Habit of Art’ is set within a National Theatre rehearsal room, showing the actors who will play Auden and Britten rehearsing their lines. This allows for constant interruptions from the stage manager, other actors and the play’s fictional author which creates some clever ambiguities as the ‘actors’ move seamlessly in and out of character. There’s plenty of the dry humour you expect from Bennett and the complexities of integrating this framing device are impressively achieved. But I found the result a little too self-conscious and a bit lacking in plot to drive it forward. In ‘The Lady in the Van’ Bennett famously put two ‘Alan Bennetts’ on stage: in ‘The Habit of Art’ it seemed like there at least four Alan Bennetts vying for our attention (the ‘author’, Auden, Britten, and their biographer, Humphrey Carpenter). Nevertheless, the cast were excellent, particularly Desmond Barrit who had great fun playing Richard Griffiths as ‘Fitz’ as WH Auden.

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Thursday, October 21, 2010

Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert

21 October 2010

It is the proud boast of the Northampton Symphony Orchestra that the composer Sir Malcolm Arnold played trumpet in the orchestra as a schoolboy in Northampton. So it was particularly fitting for us to be invited to perform in St Matthew’s Church last Saturday as part of The Official Malcolm Arnold Festival 2010. We joined forces with the Abingdon Choral Society under the baton of our mutual conductor Alexander Walker to tackle Arnold’s rarely performed large-scale choral and orchestral work ‘Return of Odysseus’. Perhaps not his greatest work but it was a very interesting experience, and featured some impressive solos from members of the choir. We also performed the Concert Suite from Malcolm Arnold’s ballet ‘Sweeney Todd’. This was also a new piece to me and seemed more quintessentially Arnold with some great tunes, dramatic effects and tongue firmly in cheek. ‘Sweeney Todd’ combines dark menace with the cheery spirit of music hall: it was an effective and exciting performance that seemed to be greatly appreciated by an enthusiastic audience of Malcolm Arnold aficionados.

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Friday, October 15, 2010

'Hedonism' by Bellowhead

15 October 2010

I was very excited to get hold of a copy of the new album from the brilliant English folk big band Bellowhead (reviewed here in October 2006 and February 2009) this week. ‘Hedonism’ is the band’s third album and it doesn’t disappoint. Bellowhead continue to push the boundaries of their own peculiar sub-genre, enlisting the help of experienced rock music producer John Leckie, and ‘Hedonism’ has a more varied and experimental feel than its predecessors. But the characteristic Bellowhead swagger is still strongly in evidence and the best tracks sound engagingly familiar, even on the first listen. I’m not sure all the diversions into jazz and funk completely work (strangely the semi-spoken rendition of ‘the Hand Weaver and the Factory Maid’ reminds me of ‘Shopping for Clothes’ by The Coasters – not typical territory for an English folk song!). But the best of ‘Hedonism’ is Bellowhead at its best: the impossibly catchy opening track ‘New York Girls’ is a perfect example. Tap, whistle, stamp, sing, dance: you know you want to!

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Friday, October 08, 2010

The Brickhill Messiah

8 October 2010

The area just to the South and East of Milton Keynes is known as the Brickhills. Long before the development of Milton Keynes, these villages boasted a strong choral tradition linked to the local churches. In 2007 a group of local residents, many of whom take part in amateur music groups in Milton Keynes and Northampton, established Music in the Brickhills to present live music in the Brickhill villages in order to raise money for local and national charities. On Saturday we were at St Mary’s Church in Great Brickhill to see the fourth annual Brickhill Messiah. Handel himself developed the idea of charity performances of his oratorio, perhaps the best known of which were his annual fundraisers for the Foundling Hospital. So we felt part of a venerable tradition as we joined an enthusiastic local audience last weekend to raise money for nearby Willen Hospice. I had never been to a full performance of the Messiah before (well there are no parts for French horns!) and it was fascinating to discover such a well known work for the first time. It’s a mammoth undertaking and the Brickhill Messiah was a very impressive achievement. Even with quite a few cuts, the performance lasted more than two and half hours (including an interval). All the soloists were amateurs, drawn from the chorus, and it was lovely to see them taking their opportunities to shine: it would be unfair to single anyone out but there were some really fantastic singers on show. The powerful chorus, including singers from the nearby Danesborough Chorus and Milton Keynes Chorale, created a wonderful sound and the final chorus (“Worthy is the lamb”) was a stunning finale. The band of local musicians was also of a very high standard. The performance was extremely enjoyable, its few rough edges merely reminding you what a challenge the Messiah is and making the many magic moments all the more special.

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