Wednesday, May 16, 2012

BBC Young Musician 2012

16 May 2012

I have written extensively here before about the BBC Young Musician competition (in May 2006, May 2008 and May 2010) and I’m pleased to report that, compared to the dark days of 2008, the BBC coverage of the 2012 finals continued the return to a sense of dignity that I observed here in 2010. The TV coverage of BBC Young Musician 2012 was slick and modern but also serious and respectful. It’s just really sad only to see three concerto finalists rather than all five category winners getting the chance to perform at the Sage, Gateshead, with the Northern Sinfonia. Once again this year there was no brass concerto in the final concert. Apart from this, however, 2012 was a vintage year for the competition. The field seemed stronger than I can remember it and amazingly, after predicting the winner for the very first time in 2010, this year I knew Laura van der Heijden was going to win as soon as I saw her performance in the Strings Final. She was clearly something special and her performance of the Walton ‘Cello Concerto on Sunday was mesmerising. It is hard to believe she has only just turned 15. So well done Laura and well done BBC but how disgraceful that none of the national newspapers reported the result of BBC Young Musician 2012, see:

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Monday, May 14, 2012

'A Midsummer Night's Dream' by William Shakespeare

14 May 2012

We started Voluntary Arts Week 2012 on Saturday by making the short journey to the TADS Theatre in Toddington. TADS is celebrating its 50th anniversary – which it shares with the Royal Shakespeare Company – by presenting its first ever performance of a Shakespeare play. Sue Sachon’s production of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ has clearly been a major undertaking for TADS: the theatre has been transformed for the occasion, creating a central stage area with seating on two sides and the greenery of the Athenian forest covering the whole auditorium. This spectacular setting (designed by Grainne Allen) is perfect for a wonderful performance that makes you wonder why it has taken TADS 50 years to get around to Shakespeare. Setting the production in the Edwardian era gives the play an added poignancy. It feels like a last hurrah for the old way of life – in which an aristocratic father is prepared to condemn his daughter to death for refusing to marry his preferred suitor, while the deference of the servants already seems old-fashioned and outdated. The rude mechanicals are dressed as cloth-capped labourers and bring to mind Robert Tressell’s ‘Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists’. Amid the mirth and mayhem, the impending shadow of the Somme hangs over these “hard-handed men”. There were some great performances: Michael Collins stood out as a mercurcial Irish Puck, Dave Corbett was powerful as Oberon and Steve Loczy and Cameron Hay show an impressive range of emotions as Lysander and Demetrius. Lea Pryer completely inhabits the part of Titania – convincingly amorous with the ass-headed Bottom though it is probably only fair to point out that he is played by Lea’s husband! Steven Pryer is a great comic turn as Nick Bottom but the show is stolen by the tiny young actor, Harry Rodgers: his performance, in a wig of flowing golden locks, as the bellows mender Francis Flute playing Thisbe (in the play-within-the-play) is hysterically funny. All of which reminds you what an excellent amateur theatre group TADS has become – and what a wonderful play ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ is: a triumph.

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Friday, May 11, 2012

‘I, Partridge: We Need to Talk About Alan’ by Alan Partridge with Rob Gibbons, Neil Gibbons, Armando Iannucci and Steve Coogan

11 May 2012

I’m not a great one for celebrity autobiographies and I wasn’t sure how much I would enjoy the ‘autobiography’ of a fictional celebrity but I thought that ‘I, Partridge: We Need to Talk About Alan’ might be an undemanding bit of light relief. Once I got started with the unabridged audio book, read by ‘Alan Partridge’ himself, I realised that I was in for a treat. ‘I Partridge’ is a really clever and incredibly funny book. I found myself laughing out loud at least once a chapter. The book, written by ‘Alan Partridge’ with Rob Gibbons, Neil Gibbons, Armando Iannucci and Steve Coogan, is exactly how Alan Partridge would have written his autobiography. It is painstakingly accurate (or pleasingly pedantic) in its references to Alan’s broadcasting career, taking in all the incidents that I remember clearly myself having followed Steve Coogan’s comic creation from its inception. Indeed you quickly realise that Alan Partridge has now been around so long and appeared in so many incarnations, since his debut on Radio 4’s ‘On The Hour’ in 1991, that he has grown into a rounded character with a substantial ‘real’ history. But the historical events familiar to us from Alan’s various radio and TV shows are recounted in the book very much from the Partridge point of view, and with the benefit of hindsight, and may not always be exactly as you remember them. ‘I Partridge’ is not a ‘greatest hits’ exercise, merely replaying old jokes, it actually adds a further layer of hindsight humour. There’s also a lot of playful meta-textual stuff, with Alan being careful to warn us when he is about to shift to a first person, present tense, narration for effect, and pointing out which passages his publishers have insisted he includes. This talking directly to the reader, together with the confusing nature of having a fictional character reading the audio version of a book written by a fictional character about events that, though fictional, we actually remember from more than 20 years ago, gives the book a strangely sophisticated feel. The inclusion of a (very funny) birth scene in the first chapter made me think of Laurence Sterne’s ‘Tristram Shandy’, perhaps intentionally as Steve Coogan starred in Michael Winterbottom’s 2005 film of Sterne’s novel, ‘A Cock and Bull Story’. ‘I Partridge’ is much harder to describe than it is to read: I found myself picking it up at every available opportunity and loved every minute.

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Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert

11 May 2012

I’ve played in loads of amateur orchestras and performed in countless concerts over many years. As a French horn player, I have particularly enjoyed playing music by the great Romantic composers of the 19th and early 20th centuries. But I have played hardly any music by one of the most popular and most romantic of all composers, Giacomo Puccini. Puccini was primarily a composer of operas and wrote very little for the concert hall. Our latest Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert last Saturday was ‘A Night at the Opera’ – a programme of overtures, interludes and arias from some of the best known operas. This provided a rare opportunity for the orchestra to play some Puccini, specifically ‘Un bel di’ from ‘Madam Butterfly’, ‘Nessun Dorma’ from ‘Turandot’ and ‘Vogliatemi bene’, the Finale to Act One of ‘Madam Butterfly’ which I particularly enjoyed – it’s gorgeous music to play. We were joined by two operatic soloists, the soprano Sally Harrison and the experienced tenor John Hudson. John is a former Principal with English National Opera who we were incredibly lucky to secure as a last-minute replacement when our original tenor came down with flu the day before the concert. The singers were both great and very entertaining and it was interesting for the orchestra to experience the very different discipline of playing for opera. Because each aria is literally telling a story, accompanying the singers is quite different from playing with a concerto soloist. The ebbs and flows of speed and volume are different every time you play the piece and you need to pay incredibly careful attention. By contrast, Verdi’s overture to ‘La forza del destino’, with which we opened the concert, felt like a very conventional orchestral piece. The programme also included pieces from Bizet’s ‘Carmen’, ‘Cosi fan tutte’ by Mozart and ‘The Merry Widow’ by Franz Lehar, finishing with ‘Brindisi’ from Verdi’s ‘La Traviata’. It was a fun concert which went down well with the audience and we returned to Puccini for an encore of ‘Vogliatemi bene’.

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Wednesday, May 02, 2012

'Silver: Return to Treasure Island' by Andrew Motion

2 May 2012

It was interesting reading Andrew Motion’s novel ‘Silver: Return to Treasure Island’ immediately after Robert Louis Stevenson’s original story. ‘Silver’, which I read as an unabridged audio book, narrated by David Tennant, tells the story of Jim Hawkins’ son and Long John Silver’s daughter returning to the infamous island to recover more of the treasure. Initially the story appears to follow a parallel path to ‘Treasure Island’ but with very little of the original’s menace. I think you can tell this is the work of a poet – beautifully written with every word carefully chosen – but it feels a bit slow and lacks the thrill and adventure of its predecessor. Once we arrive at the island the narrative twists in a new direction and becomes less predictable and much more interesting – less ‘Treasure Island’ (reviewed here in April 2012) and more ‘The Lord of the Flies’ (reviewed here in June 2006). ‘Silver’ is a clever, thoughtful book but whereas Stevenson continually ratcheted up the levels of evil, Motion’s tale feels too safe to be truly scary or thrilling.


'Wonderful Town' by Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green

2 May 2012

Since visiting New York last year (which I wrote about here in April 2011), I have become much more aware of quite how many films, books, plays and musicals are set in Manhattan – and much more interested in the geography of these narratives. So it was fascinating to discover Leonard Bernstein’s ‘Wonderful Town’ which forms the centrepiece of his trilogy of New York musicals and is, to some extent, the missing link between the more celebrated shows, ‘On The Town’ and ‘West Side Story’. The new production of ‘Wonderful Town’ – a collaboration between The Royal Exchange Theatre, The Hallé Concerts Society and The Lowry, directed by Braham Murray, which I saw at Milton Keynes Theatre – is a rare revival of a largely forgotten work. While the story is very slight and the songs didn’t escape to take on a life of their own, nevertheless it was a very enjoyable experience. And it was really interesting to spot little ideas and motifs that were recognisable precursors of ‘West Side Story’. The music was great – though I am sorry I didn’t have the opportunity to see the show at The Lowry in Salford where it was accompanied by the entire Hallé Orchestra, conducted by Sir Mark Elder: that must have been something to behold. I am glad I spent some time listening to recordings of the music beforehand so that it felt reasonably familiar. There were some wonderful big production numbers with great dancing, choreographed by Andrew Wright. For me, the showstopper was ‘Pass the football’ sung by Nic Greenshields as Wreck – an unusually structured chorus, “like nothing you have ever seen”. ‘Wonderful Town’ had a lot of similarities with ‘Guys and Dolls’ (reviewed here in February 2007) in its set, characters and score. But it was the hints of what was to come, not just in ‘West Side Story’ but also in ‘Candide’ that made it particularly compelling.

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