Thursday, June 30, 2011

Wimbledon 2011

30 June 2011

We had a wonderful day at Wimbledon on Wednesday. We had seats on Court Number One where we saw two of the men’s singles quarter finals. Novak Djokovic against Bernard Tomic was a thrilling match with the teenage Australian qualifier looking out of his depth in the first set but finding his form to take the second. It was a fascinating encounter which at times seemed like a game of chess as the players tried to work out how to beat each other. Some of the rallies were superb with both players finding incredible angles. Djokovic’s experience saw him through in the end but there were several times in the third and fourth sets where I genuinely had no idea who was going to prevail. So many top tennis matches have an air of inevitability about them but this was excitingly unpredictable. Rafael Nadal against Mardy Fish was more one-sided but not without excitement with Fish fighting back to take the third set. The result was never really in doubt but it was absolutely fascinating to see Nadal live for the first time. He is an amazing player to watch – serious, focused, twitchy and powerful. He hits the ball harder than anyone I have ever seen and seemed in a different class, not just from Fish but also from Djokovic. We ended a wonderful day of tennis with the bonus of seeing a seniors’ doubles match in which Lindsay Davenport and Martina Hingis beat Gigi Fernandez and Natasha Zvereva which was great fun. After many years of visiting Wimbledon I think this was one of the best days of tennis I have seen.


‘Eden End’ by J B Priestley

30 June 2011

Last Monday we were at the Royal Theatre in Northampton to see Laurie Sansom’s production of ‘Eden End’ by J B Priestley. This family drama set in 1912 plays with the poignancy of its characters hopes for the future when we know they will shortly be engulfed by the First World War. The prodigal daughter, Stella, who fled the family home eight years earlier for a life on the stage, returns unexpectedly to disrupt the life of her younger sister who had stayed at home to look after their widowed father. An excellent production, wonderfully cast with outstanding performances by Charlotte Emmerson as Stella, Daisy Douglas as her sister Lilian and Nick Hendrix (making his professional stage debut) as their younger brother Wilfred. There was a lovely invention between two of the scenes where Wilfred and Stella’s actor husband Charles (Daniel Betts) appear in front of the curtain to perform a music hall song and dance number which both evokes the life on stage chosen by Stella (and adored by Wilfred) and perfectly evokes the men’s night out in the village pub from which they return rather the worse for wear in the following scene.

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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert

28 June 2011

It’s been more than two years since the Northampton Symphony Orchestra last played at the Derngate in Northampton (March 2009). It’s a wonderful hall for orchestral music but extremely expensive to hire and a major financial risk for the orchestra as we need to sell considerably more tickets than for our other concerts just to break even. Our programme for last week’s concert was designed to attract the biggest possible audience and included two of the eight most popular requests from BBC Radio 4’s ‘Your Desert Island Discs’. Holst’s ‘The Planets’ is one of the best known pieces of classical music but the vast resources it requires mean that it is not that often performed. I’ve played it three times now and it’s a much more sophisticated work than is often assumed. I think our performance in the Derngate was of a very high standard with some truly thrilling moments. Sitting in the middle of the horn section as we played the undulating arpeggios in ‘Jupiter’ it was hard to understand why every composer since Holst hasn’t written for six horns! In the first half of the concert we played Elgar’s ‘Cello Concerto’ with NSO principal ‘cellist Corinne Malitskie as the soloist. It’s a passionate, emotional work and Corinne gave a wonderful performance which brought the house down. It was a great concert and we attracted a fairly large audience: I hope we’ll be back in the Derngate soon.

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Thursday, June 16, 2011

Music in the Brickhills concert

16 June 2011

"Voluntary arts group does some voluntary arts activity" doesn't seem like much of a story: makes you think of the old adage about "Man Bites Dog". A friend of mine claims genuinely to have seen the headline "local choir to put on concert" in a local newspaper in Bedford last year, but I'm not sure I believe him. The sad thing is that the somewhat understandable reluctance of the media to jump at the chance to report on voluntary arts groups doing what they do is a story of missed opportunities, because the real story is often much more fascinating and complex than we make it seem. Voluntary arts groups seem to fall into a trap of formality in their publicity, maybe mistakenly trying to seem 'professional', when what are most likely to attract media interest - and audiences - are the real human stories about what they are doing. Music in the Brickhills is a small organisation based in the Brickhill villages just to the South of Milton Keynes. Last Sunday Music in the Brickhills put on a concert of chamber music in the church in Little Brickhill: four things make this unremarkable fact fascinating. Firstly, until the development of Music in the Brickhills there were very few live music performances in these villages: local residents had to travel to Milton Keynes, Bedford or Northampton to see concerts. Secondly Music in the Brickhills deliberately programmes music which is not that often performed, bringing together local professional and amateur musicians who are attracted by the opportunity to play music they would rarely otherwise get the chance to perform and providing an opportunity for local audiences to experience it. Thirdly, rather than regular rehearsals Music in the Brickhills works on a project-by-project basis with a range of musicians and singers coming together for a few intense rehearsals before each concert - which makes it easier for busy in-demand individuals to commit to particular concerts. This has enabled Music in the Brickhills to attract some extremely impressive musicians to perform in these small villages: the musical standard of the performances is very high. Fourthly everyone gives their time and expertise free-of-charge and all money raised by the concerts goes to charity - each event supporting a particular local or national charity. This unique mixture is what makes Music in the Brickhills special and what attracted me last Sunday to hear the augmented Kaznowski Quartet play Schubert's String Quintet in C and an 'all star' wind ensemble perform Nielsen's Wind Quintet. The Schubert is seen by many as a high point in the history of chamber music. I'm not familiar with it but it is a long work encompassing great varieties of mood and a multitude of technical challenges. The Kaznowski Quartet gave a wonderful performance. I had not previously heard the Nielsen piece either: writing in the programme David Lack suggests that it is one of only a handful of masterpieces in the wind quintet repertoire. It is certainly a fiendishly difficult piece requiring virtuoso playing from all five musicians. Each instrument gets its (often completely unaccompanied) moment in the sun and at Sunday's concert these were all accomplished with confidence and panache. I loved the idea that, because Nielsen was writing for the Copenhagen Wind Quintet who he knew well, he introduced the characters of the individual players into the piece. (David Lack says in the programme "variation 5 does make you wonder about the relationship between the clarinettist and the bassoonist in the original ensemble!") It was a lovely concert - fascinating music, played to a very high standard with every penny raised going to the Parkinsons Disease Society: definitely a good news story.

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Friday, June 10, 2011

'Vertical Road' by the Akram Khan Dance Company

10 June 2011

On Wednesday evening we and the rest of the delegates from the International Congress on Active Cultural Participation in Europe were part of a packed and enthusiastic audience in the amazing old theatre of the Vooruit Arts Centre in Ghent to see the Akram Khan Dance Company perform ‘Vertical Road’. This was the first time I had seen Akram Khan’s much celebrated choreography. From the start it was clear that it was going to be a high-quality show. We started in pitch blackness, only very gradually beginning to make out the indistinct shape of a human figure behind a giant translucent plastic sheet. This membrane displayed elaborate ripple patterns across the stage when touched. Eventually the solitary figure emerged from behind the sheet to encounter six other dancers with whom he started to interact. The soundtrack, by Nitin Sawhney, began with primitive, natural sounds which grew into a variety of rhythmic and melodic pieces. The overall effect was brutal and uncompromising – occasionally very loud and using some strobe lighting – but there were also some very beautiful passages. At one point one dancer ‘discovered’ his ability to move one of the others like a marionette with invisible strings, lifting his hand to raise the other dancer’s head then thrusting it down to make his colleague writhe on the floor: the dancing, athleticism and physical co-ordination was incredible. Overall the show was very impressive but, not being very familiar with modern dance, I found it a bit too long (at 70 minutes) to sustain my interest without a clear narrative to guide me. Nevertheless it was a fascinating experience.

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Friday, June 03, 2011

'The Merchant of Venice' by William Shakespeare

3 June 2011

We returned to Stratford-upon-Avon last weekend to see the second RSC production created for the new Royal Shakespeare Theatre. After Michael Boyd’s Rottweiler production of ‘Macbeth’, Rupert Goold’s ‘The Merchant of Venice’ is a poodle of a show. Set in a Las Vegas casino, it’s completely over the top and incredibly entertaining. Rupert Goold is always inventive and ambitious: I still remember fondly his amazing productions of ‘Othello’, ‘Paradise Lost’, ‘Doctor Faustus’ and ‘Hamlet’ for the Royal Theatre in Northampton. Given the wonderful new RSC stage and a massive cast Goold is in his element with ‘The Merchant of Venice’, throwing everything and the kitchen sink at this notoriously difficult play. Making Launcelot Gobbo an Elvis impersonator allows for a series of big song and dance numbers. And a fancy dress party sets up a great sight gag when Shylock’s daughter Jessica flees from her father’s house dressed not as ‘a boy’ but as ‘The Boy Wonder’. Patrick Stewart’s Shylock is a still, series centre to the pantomime going on around him but ‘The Merchant of Venice’ is really Portia’s show and Susannah Fielding definitely steals it in this production. The inspired idea of setting the Belmont scenes (where suitors attempt to win Portia’s hand in marriage by choosing between three sealed caskets) as a TV gameshow (‘Destiny’) complete with video screens and ‘Applause’ signs is a triumph. It’s all lots of fun but ultimately it’s not Shakespeare’s best play and strangely I felt, given how fast and loose Goold plays with the setting, his failing was in being too reverential to the text which would have benefited from much greater cutting, particularly towards the end. It was very interesting to see the emphasis on a homosexual subtext to the friendship between Bassanio and Antonio, poignantly puncturing Portia’s success. ‘The Merchant of Venice’ very effectively shows off the capabilities of the new Royal Shakespeare Theatre but is probably not one for the Shakepeare purists.

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