Thursday, March 21, 2013

Milton Keynes Sinfonia concert

21 March 2013

The viola is the often the poor relation amongst orchestral instruments, the butt of many jokes, the unglamorous middle of the string section. So it was interesting, last Saturday, to take part in a concert that positively celebrated the musical possibilities of the viola. I was playing with Milton Keynes Sinfonia in a programme which began and ended with fine viola solos by the orchestra’s principal viola player, Julian Pentz, in Elgar’s ‘In The South’ and Vaughan Williams’ ‘Symphony No 2 (A London Symphony)’. The filling in this viola sandwich was William Walton’s ‘Viola Concerto’ – a wonderful but fiendishly difficult work, impressively performed by Emma Sheppard (who was, until last year, the principal viola for English National Ballet). It was a lovely programme and a very enjoyable concert, with some great playing throughout the orchestra and a host of exquisite solos by a variety of players – but this time the limelight belonged to the viola.

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Friday, March 15, 2013

'How Music Works' by David Byrne

15 March 2013

In 1985 a school friend lent me his copy of the Talking Heads LP ‘Little Creatures’ – the album that contains ‘Road to Nowhere’ and ‘And She Was’. I listened to the record a couple of times and quickly returned it, saying I thought there were a couple of good songs but I didn’t like the singer’s voice. Ah, the foolishness of youth! A year later I went to see David Byrne’s charmingly quirky film ‘True Stories’, bought the ‘True Stories’ Talking Heads album and was completely hooked. Since then, the music of David Byrne has become an essential part of the soundtrack of my life. I was blown away by his 1989 Latin album ‘Rei Momo’, and his 2001 masterpiece ‘Look into the Eyeball’ is one of my all-time favourite records – though only narrowly beating its 2004 successor ‘Grown Backwards’. So I had been very much looking forward to reading David Byrne’s new book, ‘How Music Works’ (which I have just finished reading as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Andrew Garman). ‘How Music Works’ is part memoir – reminiscing about the early years of Talking Heads, the recording of most of Byrne’s studio albums and the experience of particular live shows – and part Reith Lecture. He looks at how the buildings in which music is performed have influenced compositional style, the process of musical collaboration, the economic models of the music business and the earliest human origins of music. I was particularly interested in his description of the process of developing his disco song cycle about the life of Imelda Marcos, ‘Here Lies Love’ (a collaboration with Fatboy Slim, reviewed here in April 2010). He talks about music education, citing our mutual Brazilian friends AfroReggae, El Sistema in Venezuela and the work of Youth Music in the UK. He also provides a fascinating encyclopaedic history of recording technologies and their effect on the writing, performance and consumption of music. Then, just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, David Byrne devotes a whole chapter to amateurs. He says:

“The act of making music, art, clothes, or even food, has a very different and possibly more beneficial effect on us than simply consuming those things. And yet, for a very long time, the attitude of the state toward teaching and funding the arts has been in direct opposition to fostering creativity among the general population. It can often seem that those in power don’t want us to enjoy making things for ourselves. They’d prefer to establish a cultural hierarchy that devalues our amateur efforts and encourages consumption rather than creation.” 

He goes on to suggest that: 

“by encouraging the creativity of amateurs, rather than telling them that they should passively accept the creativity of designated masters, we help build a social and cultural network that will have profound repercussions”. 

‘How Music Works’ is a little rambling at times, undoubtedly idiosyncratic and very much in David Byrne’s unique voice, but it’s a brilliant book – highly recommended. 

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Friday, March 08, 2013

Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert

8 March 2013

The Northampton Symphony Orchestra was back in the magnificent auditorium of the Derngate in Northampton last Saturday for an evening of ballet music, compered by Angela Rippon. We played an extensive range of ballet excerpts including popular favourites (Tchaikovsky’s suite from ‘Swan Lake’, the ‘Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia’ from ‘Spartacus’ by Khachaturian and the ‘Clog Dance’ from ‘La fille mal gardée’ by Ferdinand Hérold) and the achingly beautiful ending of Prokofiev’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’. We finished the concert with the suite from ‘The Firebird’ by Stravinsky – a challenge for any orchestra but one which I think we rose to. Towards the end of the suite there is a moment, after the violence of the famous ‘Infernal Dance’ has subsided and the haunting bassoon melody of the ‘Berceuse’ has died away, when sparse string chords fade away to silence. Then, out of nothing, comes the horn solo that ushers in the finale. It’s a beautiful moment but I can now tell you from personal experience that it is incredibly nerve-wracking being the horn player waiting for what seems like an age to play that solo. It’s not a particularly difficult phrase (there were much more difficult solos earlier in the concert including those performed wonderfully by Kathy Roberts on oboe, Nick Bunker on trumpet and an amazingly beautiful harp cadenza) but, coming at the end of the most difficult piece at the end of a long concert was a bit like stepping up to take a penalty after playing extra time. I am relieved to say I didn’t blast the ball over the bar – it seemed to go okay and the concert ended on a high. 

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Friday, March 01, 2013

'The Beginners Goodbye' by Anne Tyler

1 March 2013

It's always a pleasure to get your hands on a new novel by Anne Tyler - one of my favourite authors. Her gentle, amusing and moving Baltimore tales of ordinary people flirting with live-changing events wear their cleverness lightly and manage to be both enjoyable and thought-provoking. I've just finished reading Anne Tyler's latest novel 'The Beginners Goodbye' (which I read as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Kirby Heybourne). 'The Beginners Goodbye' is familiar Anne Tyler territory - suburban Baltimore life, polite but strained family relationships and a quirky small business - but it's a very sad book dealing with grief at the loss of a spouse. As with Anne Tyler's previous novel 'Noah's Compass' (reviewed here in May 2010) I got the impression she was rewriting 'The Accidental Tourist'. There are some strong parallels between the two books with the male narrator left alone, moving back to his family home with eccentric sibling(s) and making his living from publishing a series of guidebooks. As with 'Noah's Compass', 'The Beginners Goodbye' feels like a more mature work than 'The Accidental Tourist' but this time I yearned for more light-relief. There is humour and the usual lightness of touch but I missed the comic set pieces of some of her earlier novels.