Thursday, April 25, 2013

'So He Takes the Dog' by Jonathan Buckley

25 April 2013

I had not heard of the author Jonathan Buckley before reading a piece about him The Guardian a few weeks ago which described his 2006 novel ‘So He Takes the Dog’ as a masterpiece. Intrigued I got hold of the unabridged audio recording of the book (narrated by Richard Burnip). It’s an interesting novel which tells a relatively straightforward tale in a slightly odd way. ‘So He Takes the Dog’ recounts a murder investigation in a small North Devon town. It is more of a police procedural than a murder mystery. We follow the detectives as they piece together a picture of the life of a homeless man whose body is found on the beach. Searching backwards through the dead man’s life to understand how he came to be homeless and the origins of his odd behaviour reminded me of ‘Stuart: A Life Backwards’ by Alexander Masters (reviewed here in August 2010). As the novel progresses, however, you begin to wonder whether it is really about the murder or whether the main story is that of the police officer narrating the tale. And I gradually realised that the odd tone (possibly even more noticeable in the audio version) was due to the fact that his first person narration seems to deliberately avoid ever using the words “I” or “me”. The police officer tells us his name and is happy to refer to himself and his colleague as “we” but never talks about himself in the first person. I began to suspect that this was going to prove incredibly significant but, unless I missed something, we are never told why he has chosen to tell the story in this odd way. I’m not sure I would call ‘So He Takes the Dog’ a masterpiece but I enjoyed reading it.


Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert

25 April 2013

The Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert last Saturday included two very contrasting works. Dvorak’s ‘Symphony No 9 (From the New World)’ is incredibly well-known and instantly likeable but shines through its familiarity. I think our performance brought out both the warmth and the excitement of the work – with an excellent Cor Anglais solo from Simon Cooper. Bartok’s ‘Concerto for Orchestra’ is a much more complex and challenging piece and was much less familiar to the orchestra or its audience. By our final rehearsal we were just beginning to make sense of the music and I there was an intense air of concentration during our performance but I think we managed to demonstrate the magnificence of the piece.

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Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Heliotrope Chamber Ensemble concert

17 April 2013

For an orchestral musician, playing chamber music can be a scary experience. In a small group there is nowhere to hide and you don’t get the lengthy breaks that brass players are used to in the symphonic repertoire. But chamber music is rewarding in a different way to larger works. It is satisfying and enjoyable being part of a small team, where every individual is vital to the whole, everyone gets their moment in the spotlight and everyone has a degree of control over the performance. I was, therefore, both delighted and terrified to have been invited to join the Heliotrope Chamber Ensemble for their concert at Abington Avenue United Reformed Church in Northampton last Saturday.

We were tackling a new piece for double wind quintet by the American composer Jeff Scott. ‘Sacred Women’ was first performed at the Nevada Flute Association Conference in Las Vegas in August 2012 and ours was to be the first performance outside North America. ‘Sacred Women’ celebrates three female deities – the Egyptian god Isis, Caribbean Iemanja and African Mawu. It is a fiendishly difficult piece – tuneful, atmospheric and rhythmically complex. All ten parts are incredibly challenging and it was very hard work trying to fit it all together.

We were fortunate that Frank Jordan and the other regular members of the Heliotrope Wind Quintet had assembled a very impressive group of musicians and we were grateful for the services of conductor Stephen Bell to help us pull it together. We also benefited from working with the recording of the work’s Nevada premiere and some of our group managed to talk to the composer after a recent recital at the Wigmore Hall in London. By Saturday evening, however, it still felt a bit touch and go. Concentration levels were high and nerves were jangling but I think we had all come to really like the piece and we were looking forward to trying to do it justice.

The concert got off to an excellent start with Kimberley Chang playing the lengthy, haunting, opening alto flute solo beautifully. While we may have been guilty of a few missed entries and wrong notes, most of the performance went really well – with several excellent cadenzas, sensitive playing and rhythmic neatness. Even the most complex, multi-layered passage of competing rhythms in the middle of the last movement finished with us perfectly together.

As we approached the very end of the work, however, I was aware that my most difficult solo line was still looming. Out of silence the first horn is required to play a series of unaccompanied notes rising to a long, held, top ‘C’. Top ‘C’ is a note which is theoretically possible on a French horn but rarely called upon. I knew I could manage to hit it but whether I would, at the end of a complete performance of the piece, in the pressure of the live concert atmosphere, was another matter. In the passage leading up to this solo we found ourselves playing at a faster, adrenaline-fuelled, pace than we had rehearsed and by the time we reached the silent pause I could feel my heart pumping fast. I took a deep breath and went for it. I was aware of the top ‘C’ emerging, but it sounded weak and squeaky and I realised I was running out of breath. As I tried to hold the note for its full length, my head began to ache and I could feel that I was close to passing out. I managed to hit the following notes and grab a lungful of air. Then I realised that the others were waiting for me to continue with the next part of the tune. I pushed my way through to the end of the line and recovered sufficiently during the following rests to be able to join in with the final bars of the piece which finished triumphantly.

I am not sure what the audience made of this odd, squealing interlude towards the end of the piece – I hope it sounded worse to me than to anyone else – but overall I think our performance of ‘Sacred Women’ was fairly presentable, with some really excellent playing. I was completely drained at the end – and in awe of those of my colleagues who went on to play two further pieces. I enjoyed the rest of the concert from the audience, discovering two other incredibly tuneful chamber works that were completely new to me.

Eric Ewazen’s ‘Roaring Fork’ is a contemporary wind quintet that conjures up the Rocky Mountains with a feel of Aaron Copland’s American soundscapes. And the ‘Nonet’ by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, written in 1894, is a gorgeous piece for oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon, violin, viola, ‘cello, double bass and piano. It was a lovely concert and I really enjoyed the experience of working with the Heliotrope Chamber Ensemble towards our performance of Jeff Scott’s ‘Sacred Women’, but I’m looking forward to returning to the relative safety of my position in the ranks of the Northampton Symphony Orchestra.

You can hear extracts from the Nevada premiere of ‘Sacred Women’ at and

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Friday, April 12, 2013

'Parks and Recreation'

12 April 2013

Mock documentaries are hardly a new phenomenon: Rob Reiner’s seminal ‘This Is Spinal Tap’ was released in 1984. But, in recent years, the success of ‘The Office’ (on both sides of the Atlantic) has led to a rekindling of the mockumentary sitcom. For some people the high cringe factor of ‘The Office’ made it almost unwatchable – it was often painfully funny. Greg Daniels’ new US TV series ‘Parks and Recreation’ is much gentler and I’m completely hooked. Leslie Knope, Deputy Director of Parks and Recreation in Pawnee, Indiana (wonderfully played by Amy Poehler) is typical of the naïve, self-deluding, somewhat stupid protagonists of most mockumentaries – but, unlike David Brent, Leslie Knope is a really sympathetic character and we are completely on her side. She’s also slightly more knowing than she first appears, often realising afterwards what a stupid thing she has just done. Actually the whole cast of regular characters in ‘Parks and Recreation’ are pretty likeable: they all have their faults but they are basically nice people. ‘Parks and Recreation’ is also laugh-out-loud funny in quite an old-fashioned way despite the modern mockumentary approach. It creates ridiculous situations (the penguin gay marriage) and treats them seriously. The tone is more Laurel and Hardy than David Brent – and there’s some nice slapstick too. Best of all the nature of the documentary that appears to be being filmed is never mentioned: all the characters give knowing looks to camera but no-one ever explains why there are cameras in someone’s living room. All of ‘Parks and Recreation’ series 2 is still on BBC iPlayer: if you haven’t tried it yet I would recommend taking a look. Who knew local government could be so funny and charming!

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Thursday, April 04, 2013

'Mr Whatnot' by Alan Ayckbourn

4 April 2013

I’ve always loved comedy dancing – providing it is done with straight-faced seriousness like Laurel and Hardy in ‘Way Out West’ – and there was some great serious comedy dancing in the Northampton Royal and Derngate production of ‘Mr Whatnot’ by Alan Ayckbourn which we saw on Wednesday. Ayckbourn is known for his realistic dialogue and characters but this very early work (this production marks its 50th anniversary) displays neither of these traits. ‘Mr Whatnot’ is a celebration of mime and comic caricature – and it was laugh-out-loud funny. The Northampton production is directed by Cal McCrystal who was Physical Comedy Director for the National Theatre production of ‘One Man, Two Guvnors’ (reviewed here in October 2011) and has previously worked with the marvellous Spymonkey (reviewed here in February 2012). He has created a wonderful combination of physical theatre, mime, dance and slapstick which is charmingly silly. ‘Mr Whatnot’ is a stage cousin of the silent film comedy genre with a character at its heart that could have been played by Buster Keaton or Norman Wisdom. Though there is some dialogue, most of the action is conveyed by mime, involving perfect co-ordination with an extensive range of sound effects. The speechless hero (played here by Juanma Rodriguez) is a loveable chancer with a twinkle in his eye and a strong sense of mischief. There is very little plot, some remarkably over-the-top acting and it’s all terribly childish, but on Wednesday it had a packed audience laughing uncontrollably all the way through. ‘Mr Whatnot’ is not what we have come to think of as an Alan Ayckbourn play but this production was great fun.

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'The Virgin Suicides' by Jeffrey Eugenides

4 April 2013

I really enjoyed Jeffrey Eugenides’ 2002 novel ‘Middlesex’ and its successor ‘The Marriage Plot’ (reviewed here in August 2012) but I have only just got around to reading the book that made his name, his 1993 debut novel ‘The Virgin Suicides’ (which was later filmed by Sofia Coppola). The concept of a story about five teenage sisters committing suicide hadn’t seemed very appealing but the book is much funnier than I was expecting. There is a macabre black humour throughout that is extremely entertaining without ever belittling the seriousness of the events. The novel is beautifully written and very witty (“[he] arrived every morning with the hopeless expression of a man draining a swamp with a kitchen sponge”). The story is told by nameless neighbours of the doomed girls through their first-hand observations of the tragic happenings and a series of interviews – many years later – with members of the family and the wider community. Eugenides builds a detailed picture of a neighbourhood containing a host of idiosyncratic characters which reminded me of John Steinbeck’s ‘Cannery Row’. And the way the narrative is constructed through interviews with the ageing protagonists long after the events they are describing made me think of ‘Citizen Kane’. ‘The Virgin Suicides’ does exactly what it says on the cover – but it’s a much more entertaining and enjoyable journey than you might expect.


Wednesday, April 03, 2013

'Rutherford & Son' by Githa Sowerby

3 April 2013

One of the highlights of our visit to the Edinburgh Fringe last August was Hannah Davies’ one-woman show ‘Githa’ which told the story of the early 20th century playwright Githa Sowerby and the amazing success of her first play ‘Rutherford & Son’ in 1912. So I was delighted to see that Northern Broadsides are touring a new production of ‘Rutherford & Son’, directed by Jonathan Miller, edited (and relocated from the North East to Yorkshire) by Blake Morrison and starring Northern Broadsides Artistic Director Barrie Rutter as the patriarchal tyrant John Rutherford. We saw the play at Watford Palace Theatre on Saturday and it didn’t disappoint. It’s a grim tale of a ruthless industrialist who has built a successful family firm (a glassworks) and rules over both the firm and his family with a fierce uncompromising determination. The plight of the women in the family in particular – whom Rutherford barely deigns to talk to – is emphasised by the gloom of the barely lit set. But the Northern Broadsides production manages to find humour amongst the desperation. And ‘Rutherford & Son’ has a very clever and well-plotted twist. An excellent play by a pioneering but largely forgotten female playwright.

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North York Moors

3 April 2013

Despite me telling everyone that the last week in March invariably heralds the first warmer weather of the year, our week on the North York Moors proved to be incredibly cold. We were lucky, however, in that we avoided the severe snow that beset many other parts of the country and, while we had some light coverings of snow during the week, our travel wasn’t impeded at all. We loved the North York Moors national park – stunning scenery in a relatively compact and self-contained area. We stayed in a little village called Houlsyke on the North edge of the moors, near to the North York Moors Visitor Centre at Danby. We did some great walks – over Ainthorpe Rigg into Little Fryup Dale, along the coastal path into Robin Hood’s Bay and up Roseberry Topping. We visited Whitby, Scarborough and Filey. It was an area I had never visited before and we will definitely return – but it felt more like Christmas than Easter!