Friday, May 31, 2013

'The Ninth Life of Louis Drax' by Liz Jensen

31 May 2013

There's a rich dramatic sub-genre based within the mind of someone suffering from a coma. The dreamlike possibilities have inspired surreal worlds between the living and the dead, for example in 'A Matter of Life and Death' or 'Life on Mars'. One of the best of these coma-dramas is 'Vent' – a dark radio comedy by Nigel Smith which ran for three series on BBC Radio 4 between 2006 and 2009. 'Vent' is a wonderfully inventive, poignant, funny and moving drama with an excellent cast, including Neil Pearson, Fiona Allen, Josie Lawrence and Leslie Ash. The use of sound-effects, music, flashbacks and dream sequences create an experience that could only have been achieved on radio. And the fact that Nigel Smith was writing from his own experience of being in a coma makes the whole thing even more fascinating. 'Vent' is currently being repeated on BBC Radio 4Extra. I was reminded of 'Vent' while reading Liz Jensen's novel 'The Ninth Life of Louis Drax' – an enjoyable macabre psychological thriller. As well as exploring the possibilities of a character in a coma, Liz Jensen uses sections of first person narration in the naïve voice of a young boy which made me think of Mark Haddon's 'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time' but she combines this with a chilling plot that explores the relationship between a mother and her son that also reminded me of 'We need to talk about Kevin' by Lionel Shriver (reviewed here in August 2006). 'The Ninth Life of Louis Drax' is a clever, gripping and sinister thriller.

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Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Freiburg Baroque Orchestra concert

21 May 2013

A heart-meltingly exquisite rendition of the final gentle aria from Handel's oratorio 'Il trionfo del Tempo e della Verità' was a sublime way to end a lovely concert at St John's Smith Square in London last Saturday. This was the encore by soprano Carolyn Sampson with the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, directed from the violin by Anne Katharina Schreiber, at the end of a concert of music by Vivaldi, Handel and Telemann with a seagoing theme. The concert was the final event in this year's Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music. The Freiburgers play standing up and were fascinating to watch – their choreography demonstrating the excitement of baroque music that can sometimes seem too restrained. Carolyn Sampson is a stunning singer – particularly in the quieter arias – and got a rapturous reception from a packed and knowledgeable audience. 

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Thursday, May 16, 2013

‘Little Shop of Horrors’ by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman

16 May 2013

Wikipedia describes ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman as a “comedy horror rock musical” – which, if you examine the links closely is actually two genres “comedy horror” and “rock musical”, each of which have their own Wikipedia entries. I’ve always had a soft spot for ‘Little Shop of Horrors’, having discovered it while at university, when the 1986Frank Oz film came out. It was ‘The Rocky Horror Show’ for those who were uncomfortable without the overt sexuality and transvestism. It was ‘Sweeney Todd’ with catchy 1960s girl group songs. So I was looking forward to seeing the new production of ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ by our award-winning local amateur theatre group, TADS, in Toddington last weekend and I wasn’t disappointed. I think the two lead actors were both new to TADS and I suspect they had been headhunted for this production. Barry Hyde made Seymour a suitably nerdy, naïve and sympathetic hero and Leanne White was excellent as Audrey – with an impressively consistent over-the-top New Yoik accent. But the star of the show was Audrey II – the man-eating, soul-singing flytrap – constructed for Sue Sachon’s TADS production by Jake Dudley, David Sachon and Gobstoppers in Berhamsted, operated by Mark Normoyle and voiced by Jonathan Alexander Sachon. Remember, “whatever they offer you, don’t feed the plants!”.

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16 May 2013

We had a lovely few days in Brussels last week. Our hotel was a few minutes’ walk from the Grand Place – the historic centre of the city. The narrow lanes and enclosed arcades around the Grand Place are very pretty and contain a host of very expensive chocolatiers. I particularly enjoyed the Musical Instrument Museum which is housed in a wonderful Art Nouveau former department store on the Mont des Arts. The museum provides infra-red headsets which allow you to hear each of the historic instruments playing as you approach them. I was fascinated by the bizarre seven-bell trombone created by Adolphe Sax (see: We also visited the magnificent Museum des Beaux Arts which boasts  an extensive collection of 17th and 18th century Flemish paintings including works by Brueghel and Hieronymus Bosch. Brussels is renowned for its restaurants and we had some wonderful meals. 

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Friday, May 03, 2013

Milton Keynes Sinfonia workshop - 'The Rite of Spring' by Igor Stravinsky

3 May 2013

Stravinsky’s ‘The Rite of Spring’ may no longer shock in the way it did at its first performance (almost exactly one hundred years ago, on 29 May 1913) but it is still a powerful and emotional work whose supreme challenges attract orchestras like the Matterhorn attracts mountaineers. It is rare for an amateur orchestra to have the opportunity to scale such perilous peaks so it was great to discover that Milton Keynes Sinfonia was planning a one-day Rite of Spring workshop. Last Sunday morning I was among nearly one hundred amateur musicians who assembled in the Hub Theatre in the Open University campus in Milton Keynes to spend a very enjoyable day trying to conquer Stravinsky’s complex and confusing rhythms. ‘The Rite of Spring’ requires a mammoth orchestra including 8 horns, 2 Wagner tubas, 6 trumpets, a bass trumpet, alto flute, 2 contra-bassoons and all manner of unusual percussion instruments. Starting with a nervous ‘play-through’ at 10.30 am, by 4.00 pm we were ready for a complete ‘performance’ which went surprisingly well. This is a great tribute to the skills of our conductor, David Knight, whose enthusiastic and encouraging coaching pulled all the strands together. 

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