Friday, November 25, 2011

’50 Words for Snow’ by Kate Bush

25 November 2011

It’s hard to think of any other serious musician whose reputation could not only survive but appear to have been enhanced by an Elvis impression, a washing-machine fixation and a duet with Rolf Harris (all on her 2005 album, ‘Aerial’). Those of us who grew up fascinated by Kate Bush’s voice would probably be happy to listen to her reading the telephone directory. We get close to this on her new album but, unfortunately, it is Stephen Fry’s voice, rather than Kate Bush herself, that is given the task of reverentially intoning 50 (made-up) Words for Snow to Bush’s musical encouragement on the title track. ’50 Words for Snow’ is a quiet, contemplative collection of songs, mostly accompanied by gentle piano chords. It’s a beautiful work, despite continuing to sail mischievously close to self-parody (including a sexual encounter with a snowman!). Kate Bush’s celebrity pulling power seems stronger even than that of Ricky Gervais, with Elton John the guest vocalist on ‘Snowed in at Wheeler Street’. Much as I have been enjoying ‘Ceremonials’, the new album from Florence + The Machine, which sounds a lot like Kate Bush in rock-mode (I particularly like the opening track ‘Only If For A Night’ with its bell-ringing descending scales), it is no substitute for the real thing. More please!

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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert

15 November 2011

Having been practising Mahler’s 6th Symphony almost every day since early August, it feels very strange now that our performance has been and gone. In the last few days leading up to Saturday’s Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert I found myself increasingly paranoid that I was going to trip and bang my lip or fall prey to some other mishap that would prevent me from playing the 1st Horn part. In the event I made it to the concert intact and I think it all went incredibly well – though it’s very hard to judge when you are in the middle of it. I know there were no major disasters – we didn’t have to stop and start again and I don’t think I missed any of my solo passages. Having worked so hard on my stamina I was pleased to get through the 80 minutes of the symphony and still to be able to hit the high notes towards the end. But even though I had ensured I was physically capable of playing my part, it’s amazing what an effect nerves can have. As you approach a delicate solo you become more and more aware of how fleeting the opportunity is to get it right. You are thinking how many times you have played the phrase perfectly over the past few months and how awful it would be if something went wrong in the one brief chance you have to play it for real in the performance. These mind games are pernicious: even half-way through a solo there’s a danger that you think to yourself “actually this seems to be going okay”, only to distract yourself and fall apart. It’s an incredibly draining challenge of physical stamina, mental strength and concentration. I’m sure our performance was by no means perfect but Mahler 6 was a fantastically ambitious undertaking and I think we managed to present a very reasonable account of it, which included some truly exquisite moments. It was certainly incredibly loud, with an enlarged orchestra, including a massive brass section, creating a deafening climax. It was wonderful to have eight excellent horn players alongside me and I think we made quite an impressive section. The show was somewhat stolen, however, by the ‘Mahler box’ constructed specially for the occasion by Nick Bunker. The final movement of the symphony (which lasts a mammoth 30 minutes on its own) is punctuated by three massive hammer blows of fate. Mahler specified that these hammer blows should be "brief and mighty, but dull in resonance and with a non-metallic character (like the fall of an axe)”. For our performance Nick made a large wooden cube which was struck, by percussionist Keith Crompton, using a heavy log attached to a long broom handle. It created an amazing sound – and resulted in the violinists sitting immediately in front of it jumping several feet in the air each time it was struck! There is quite a good example of a similar realisation of the hammer blow at: and you can see our Mahler box at The first half of our concert saw an excellent performance of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto by Charlotte Skinner who was confident, assured and lyrical. As I wasn’t playing in the concerto, sitting at the back of the audience to watch it was a relaxing way to prepare for the daunting challenge of the symphony. By the end of the concert I was exhilarated, proud, relieved and totally shattered. I’ve really enjoyed the experience of playing Mahler 6 but I’m pleased it’s now over and I’m looking forward to playing something slightly less demanding next!

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'La Bohème' by Giacomo Puccini

15 November 2011

We were at Milton Keynes Theatre last Friday to see the Glyndebourne on Tour production of La Bohème by Giacomo Puccini. This was the first Puccini opera I had seen and the music was wonderful – sumptuous, romantic, beautiful and, yes, sentimental – but none the worse for it. This revival of the 2000 Glyndebourne on Tour production, directed by David McVicar, is set in a grittily contemporary Paris, with an uncompromisingly urban set designed by Michael Vale. The grotty flat in which the four young men live looked strangely familiar – and when they are visited by their landlord in search of his rent I realised that we were watching an episode of ‘The Young Ones’, albeit with better singing! Writing in the programme, Nicholas Payne, suggested that ‘La Bohème’ is the perfect length. He says that “Puccini, and his librettists, Giuseppe Giacoso and Luigi Illica struggled for three years to find a coherent shape for their incidents chosen from Henri Murger’s novel ‘Scènes de la vie de bohème’” and that “with hindsight we can appreciate that it was Puccini’s pernicketiness which forged that unique mixture of the conversational and the lyrical that is the opera’s trademark”. I would agree that the opera does not overstay its welcome but it seemed to me that, by cherry-picking a number of incidents from the novel, the plot felt oddly unbalanced and disjointed. There are moments of great comedy that sit uneasily against the final angst and tragedy. And it seems a great shame to have constructed such a wonderful set-piece second act (in the Café Momus) which makes great use of a massive chorus and finishes with the show-stealing aria ‘Quando me’n vo’ soletta’ (gorgeously sung by Natasha Jouhl as Musetta in this production) only for the chorus to completely disappear as the opera moves to its bleak finale. Nevertheless the music was wonderful and the singing and playing (conducted by Jeremy Bines) was excellent.

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Friday, November 11, 2011

'The Go-Between' by David Wood and Richard Taylor, based on the novel by L P Hartley

11 November 2011

"The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there". I had heard of ‘The Go-Between’ by L P Hartley but I haven’t read the book or seen the 1970 film adaptation by Harold Pinter and, before going to see the new stage version at the Royal & Derngate in Northampton last week, I didn’t really know what it was about. Published in 1953, the novel describes Leo Colston looking back, in 1950, to his childhood experiences as the house guest of a wealthy family in Norfolk in the summer of 1900. His boyhood role as ‘postman’, passing messages between two illicit lovers, leads to a devastating conclusion that affected him for the rest of his life. The stage version, by David Wood with music by Richard Taylor, turns the story into a serious musical, almost sung-through, reminding me of Sondheim and not far from contemporary opera. The production, directed by Roger Haines, was a collaboration between the Royal & Derngate, Derby Live and West Yorkshire Playhouse and it was excellent. The cast were all strong and the singing was very impressive but the show was stolen by the two local boys, Adam Bradbury as Marcus and particularly William Miles as Leo who was on stage almost constantly. The story was carefully and effectively told in a very theatrical style which left much to the imagination. I particularly enjoyed James Staddon as the older Leo, shadowing the actions of his younger self while watching from the back of the stage. The music was provided by an onstage grand piano played by Musical Director Jonathan Gill. It was an entertaining, moving and extremely high-quality evening in the theatre.

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Friday, November 04, 2011

'Symphony No 6' by Gustav Mahler

4 November 2011

Mahler’s 6th Symphony is a mammoth work: it lasts 80 minutes and requires an orchestra of nearly 100 players. Rather than the usual 4 French horns, there are 8 horns and the 1st horn part is fiendishly difficult. In most orchestral works, as a horn player you can expect to spend a fair amount of time counting the rests before you next come in but in Mahler 6 the 1st horn barely has more than a few seconds break in the whole piece. There are pages and pages of extremely high and loud notes, interspersed with plenty of delicate, exposed solos. When the Northampton Symphony Orchestra decided to take on the gargantuan challenge of performing the 6th Symphony it was in the knowledge that the daunting 1st horn part would be in the safe hands of our excellent principal horn player, David Lack. When it became clear that Dave was sadly going to miss the concert through illness, I was persuaded to step up to the challenge. Tackling this incredible work is a very exciting opportunity but one that I would much rather have had in different circumstances. The symphony has been dominating my life for the past 3 months. Since 7 August, apart from a week in Paris, a week in Northumberland and the occasional night away for work, I have played at least one movement of the work every day. Wary of the need to build my stamina, every Saturday and Sunday I have tried to play through all four movements without stopping. Finding 80 minutes to sit down and practice has been hard enough but the physical endurance necessary to play all the way through the symphony took some weeks to build up. Fortunately I won’t need to play every single note in the performance. It’s common practice in larger orchestral works to have an additional horn player ‘bumping’ the first horn part, ie doubling the first horn to allow the principal horn player to save himself for the solo passages, and I know I’m going to need this. I now know Mahler’s 6th Symphony intimately: it seems to be playing in my head most of the time at the moment. I like to practice by playing along with recordings and thanks to Spotify I’ve been working through heaps of different recordings (Sir Simon Rattle’s interpretation seems to be the slowest, Leonard Bernstein’s definitely the fastest, but I think my favourite is Claudio Abbado with the Berlin Philharmonic). At this Wednesday’s rehearsal we had all 9 horn players together for the first time – boy, it’s going to be loud! It’s an incredible work – passionate, playful, sentimental, brutal, triumphant and tragic, with lots of cowbells. If you are anywhere remotely within range of Northampton next Saturday, 12 November, please do join us for what promises to be an amazing concert – also including the lovely Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, played by Charlotte Skinner. Full details and tickets available from – wish me luck!

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