Friday, October 25, 2013

'An Alpine Symphony' by Richard Strauss

25 October 2013

It feels somewhat indiscreet to start by revealing a lady’s age, but my good friend Catherine Rose has hardly made any secret about achieving her first half-century. Rather than hiding away and pretending it wasn’t happening, Catherine chose to celebrate her fiftieth birthday by realising her ambition to conduct ‘An Alpine Symphony’ by Richard Strauss. Last Sunday I was part of an orchestra of 125 players which assembled in the hall of Bedford School to spend an incredibly enjoyable day tackling the Alpine peaks of this rarely performed work. The musicians were mainly drawn from three local amateur orchestras (Bedford, Milton Keynes and Northampton) together with professional orchestral players from across the country. The Alpine Symphony requires massive forces, including a wind machine, pipe organ, four Wagner tubas, cow bells and a heckelphone. Perhaps someone should have advised Strauss that this is not a recipe to get your work performed regularly. Nonetheless the Alpine Symphony is a piece held in great affection, particularly by horn players (including Catherine and myself). Instead of the usual four French horns, Strauss asks for eight on-stage players plus twelve offstage horns. On Sunday we managed to assemble a total of fifteen horn players and it was a fantastic experience to play as part of such a huge section. The Alpine Symphony is a glorious piece with some stunning, joyful climaxes. It must be amazing to be commanding such enormous forces by wielding the conductor’s baton – though it must also be completely terrifying. We ended the day with a performance of the symphony to an audience of family and friends. I think it was a pretty impressive rendition – particularly on a single day of rehearsals. It was a wonderful day – which also raised a significant amount of money for Catherine’s three chosen charities. A great way to celebrate a landmark birthday.

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Friday, October 18, 2013

'One Summer: America 1927' by Bill Bryson

18 October 2013

Bill Bryson write two kinds of book – the travelogues which detail his first-hand encounters with countries, communities and people across the world, and his extensively desk-researched explorations (of Shakespeare, science, domestic life etc). I think my favourite Bryson is his childhood reminiscences 'The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid' (reviewed here in 2007) which (just about) fits into the second category. I particularly enjoyed his ability to conjure up the characters of a different era. So I was looking forward to Bill Bryson's new book 'One Summer: America 1927' which looks at five remarkable months in which America changed the world. Reading 'One Summer: America 1927' as an unabridged audio book, narrated by the author, I was initially a little underwhelmed. While there was nothing wrong with Bill Bryson's narration, I had just finished listening to the stunning performance of Julian Rhind-Tutt reading Jonathan Coe's novel 'Expo 58' (reviewed here in September 2013) and I'm afraid anyone would have sounded a bit flat after that. Also Bill Bryson's excessive use of statistics is particularly hard to take in without seeing the numbers in front of you. But once he got beyond the statistics and started to build pictures of the key individuals in his story I became gripped. The summer of 1927 in America was witness to an amazing array of events and an incredible cast of characters. Charles Lindbergh became the first person to fly non-stop across the Atlantic. In baseball Babe Ruth was breaking every record in the books. The boxing match between Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney drew the largest crowd to any sporting event ever. The lazy President, Calvin Coolidge, (about whose death Dorothy Parker would later ask “How could they tell?”) decided not to run for office at the end of his (unelected) term while future President Herbert Hoover built his reputation co-ordinating the relief effort after the great Mississippi flood. Al Capone presided over an empire of corruption and extortion in Chicago. Henry Ford ended production of his Model T and embarked on a spectacularly unsuccessful attempt to create a rubber-producing city in the Amazon (Fordlandia). And talking pictures arrived with Al Jolson in 'The Jazz Singer'. It was quite a summer. Bill Bryson takes us chronologically through those summer months – with digressions to fill in the before and after to many of the stories. Lindbergh, Ruth and some of the other main protagonists provide overarching narratives which hold the book together. It's a powerful evocation of an era of prohibition, gangsters, anarchist terrorists, adventurers and celebrities. 


Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Jeremy Hardy

16 October 2013

We first saw Jeremy Hardy in about 1997 in Lowestoft. I’ve written here before about that performance (in March 2007): “while on holiday in Suffolk, we were surprised to see the enormous old seaside theatre in Lowestoft advertising an evening with Jeremy Hardy. This theatre, which had Ken Dodd the previous week and Jimmy Tarbuck the following week – seemed an odd setting for a left-wing political alternative comedian. We booked our tickets and, on the night, found ourselves lost in a sea of empty seats with only about a dozen other people but Jeremy Hardy dealt with a potentially embarrassing situation extremely impressively. Quickly abandoning his prepared material he probably worked harder than ever that night and completely won his tiny audience over – one of the most impressive comedy performances I’ve seen.”  Last week we caught up with Jeremy Hardy again at Kettering Arts Centre, as part of his 30th anniversary tour, and he was even better. He is a very assured performer. Not needing to rely on any theme, props or onstage persona, he simply walks onto the stage and talks continuously for nearly two and half hours (with a 20 minute interval). His delivery sounds like a seamless stream of consciousness, mainly focussing on politics and current affairs. If you look closely you can detect a few prepared sections but mostly it feels improvised rather than scripted. Jeremy Hardy’s politics are uncompromising but his thoughtful, logical, self-deprecating style is very winning, and incredibly funny. It felt like he could have gone on all night, and we would have been delighted if he had.


Thursday, October 10, 2013

'Floating Letters' by Tsuumi Sound System

10 October 2013

I'm very much enjoying 'Floating Letters', the new album by Finnish folk/rock group Tsuumi Sound System. I reviewed 'Hotas', the previous Tsuumi Sound System album, here in April 2008. Their music is cheery and inspiring with a rhythmic complexity that demands syncopated toe-tapping. At first it sounds a lot like Scottish folk but the instrumentation, harmony and style continually shifts. Hard to categorise but easy to enjoy. The playing is slick and impressive but always wearing a smile. Here's a taster:

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Thursday, October 03, 2013

‘Life and Death: Pompeii and Herculaneum’

3 October 2013

Almost a year ago we visited Pompeii for the first time and were bowled over by the scale of the site and the size of the preserved buildings. So we had been looking forward to seeing the exhibition ‘Life and Death: Pompeii and Herculaneum’ at The British Museum. It was so difficult to get tickets for the exhibition when we booked, in May this year, that we ended up going on the final day last Sunday. There were huge crowds waiting for a last chance to see the well-preserved relics of Roman life and, even with the timed ticket system, you had to be very patient to get close to each of the exhibits. The excellent audio guide proved a very useful way to pass the time while queuing. ‘Life and Death: Pompeii and Herculaneum’ wasn’t a very big exhibition but that meant it was possible to explore everything it contained – and this took us a good ninety minutes. The exhibition was laid out in rooms equating to the rooms of a typical Roman villa, making sense of the context of the many artefacts. The quality of preservation of the wooden objects from Herculaneum was amazing. We were also struck by how overtly sexual (by modern standards) many of the pictures and sculptures were. There was one particularly explicit piece (if you’ve seen the exhibition you will know the one I mean!) that was located in a small side room with a notice by the entrance suggesting it wasn’t suitable for children. While I was there one father was getting exasperated by the enthusiasm of his young son (who must have been 7 or 8 years old) to see whatever it was his dad didn’t want him to see. In response to the boy’s pleading “why?” the man eventually shouted “because I’m your father and I’m exercising moral judgement!”. The casts of the bodies of some of the volcano’s victims, captured in agonising poses at the moment of death, provided an eerie and moving end to the exhibition.