Thursday, November 28, 2013

Milton Keynes Sinfonia concert

28 November 2013

On Saturday I took part in a concert with Milton Keynes Sinfonia which celebrated the centenary of the birth of Benjamin Britten with two works which opened and closed the performance. Britten’s ‘Sinfonia da Requiem’ is a serious, complex, challenging piece – both to play and to listen to. It required huge concentration from the orchestra and our tight, clear performance was a significant achievement which owed much to our conductor, David Knight. We concluded the concert with a very different piece of Britten, his joyous ‘Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra’ with its variations on a theme by Purcell culminating in a glorious fugue and triumphant finale. In between the two works by Britten were a stunning performance of the Elgar ‘Cello Concerto by Jacqueline Johnson and Holst’s ‘Ballet Music from The Perfect Fool’ – a lively, tuneful piece with a playfully lopsided 7/8 rhythm. It was an interesting and varied programme which brought an enthusiastic response from a packed audience. 

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Friday, November 22, 2013

'Crimson/Red' by Prefab Sprout

22 November 2013

I've always had a soft spot for Prefab Sprout, the 1980s band that gave us 'Faron Young', 'When Love Breaks Down' and 'The King of Rock 'n' Roll'. The new Prefab Sprout album 'Crimson/Red' could be described as completely stripped down. Frontman Paddy McAloon has now dispensed with all the other members of the band and plays all the instruments himself. And yet it still sounds exactly the same – distinctive, melancholic, symphonic pop that could have come from 1988, whilst simultaneously sounding refreshingly, inventively new. All the more remarkable when you learn that McAloon now has impaired hearing and vision. 'Crimson/Red' is a classic Prefab Sprout album – catchy, beautiful, poignant and clever. Caroline Sullivan's review in The Guardian called it “a kind of truculent, Geordie Pet Sounds”. I've been struck by the similarities to another of my favourite 1980s bands The Blue Nile and the influence both may have had on The Divine Comedy (reviewed here in September 2005, July 2006 and June 2010).

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Friday, November 15, 2013

Bellowhead at Bedford Corn Exchange

15 November 2013

As I wrote here in February 2009, “you can’t beat a band that dances to its own tunes”. That band was the amazing English folk big band, Bellowhead (who I have also written about here in October 2006, July 2008 and October 2010). I am pleased to report that they are still dancing and their infectious enthusiasm is still whipping audiences into a frenzy. On Thursday night I was among a standing audience of over 1000 people in the cavernous  Bedford Corn Exchange to see a stunning performance by Bellowhead. About to celebrate their tenth anniversary, Bellowhead have always been a very slick band, mixing inspired lunacy and chaos with strict rhythmic precision. Many of the eleven members of the band play multiple instruments and all participate in dance moves clearly derived from Morris traditions. The mix of musicians from folk, jazz and classical background and the unusual instrumentation (including fiddles, cello, oboe, saxophone, trumpet, trombone, helicon, bagpipes, melodeon and concertina) make for a unique signature sound. Bellowhead rarely put a foot wrong and seem to bring a smile to everyone’s face. Go and see them live if you get the chance – they are truly brilliant.

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Thursday, November 14, 2013

Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert

14 November 2013

The Northampton Symphony Orchestra’s November concert invariably coincides with the weekend of Bonfire Night and/or Remembrance Sunday. This year we made the most of this coincidence with a remembrance-themed concert at St Matthews Church in Northampton. The music was interspersed with war poems by Wilfred Owen, George Fraser Gallie and Konstantin Simanov, beautifully read by three members of the orchestra – Virginia Henley, Maria King and Nick Bunker. As Virginia stepped forward to start the concert with Owen’s ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, the church bells rang the half hour and she waited a moment for the sound to die away before reading “What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?” – it was a perfect opening to the evening.

The first piece of music was the beautiful pastoral work ‘The Banks of Green Willow’ by George Butterworth – a charming piece with an aching poignancy in this context as Butterworth was killed at the Battle of the Somme at the age of 30. Another delicate, pastoral English work completed the first half of the concert as the orchestra’s leader Stephen Hague gave a stunning performance of ‘The Lark Ascending’ by Ralph Vaughan Williams. That some of the desperately quiet passages were interrupted by the explosions of fireworks outside only served to emphasise the contrast between the peaceful idyll of the countryside and the brutal reality of war.

In the second half of the concert we played the mighty ‘Leningrad Symphony’ by Dimitri Shostakovich. Shostakovich’s seventh symphony was composed during the Siege of Leningrad in 1941-42 and powerfully evokes the horror of the 872 day isolation of the city which saw almost a third of the population (around a million people) die of starvation. Despite being offered the opportunity to escape the siege Shostakovich decided to stay in the city to work on a one-movement symphony which he wanted to dedicate to Leningrad. I can imagine the look on Mrs Shostakovich’s face when he later announced that it now felt like the work actually needed four movements! Shostakovich did complete the composition elsewhere but after the premiere of the symphony by the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra in March 1942, there was a determination to stage a first performance in Leningrad itself, while the siege continued. With many of its players dead or away fighting the war, The Leningrad Radio Orchestra could muster only 14 musicians. Extra players were brought back from the front line and posters were displayed around the city appealing for anyone with a musical instrument to join in. At the end of July an orchestra of professionals and amateurs played the symphony in the Leningrad Philharmonic Hall with the performance broadcast on loudspeakers throughout the city. In a show of defiance there were speakers relaying the concert to German troops stationed outside the city. The NSO concert programme notes suggest that the senior Russian officer on the front was issued with a copy of the score so that he might order his troops to cease fire during the quieter passages!

The Leningrad symphony is a mammoth work, lasting 70 minutes and requiring a large orchestra. In our performance in Northampton, conducted by Alexander Walker, I was one of nine horn players, alongside six trumpets, six trombones, tuba and extensive percussion. This was the first time, as an orchestral musician, that I have genuinely regretted not wearing earplugs for a performance. It was incredibly loud and immensely dramatic – a realisation of the brutality of war in music, though the conflict is contrasted with passages of delicate beauty. There were a host of great solos by Andrea Patis (flute), Kimberley Chang (piccolo), Kathy Roberts (oboe), Simon Cooper (cor anglais), Naomi Muller (clarinet), Peter Dunkley (bass clarinet), Sian Bunker (bassoon) and Nick Bunker (trumpet). And the side drum playing of Matt Butler through the long, relentless, repetitive march that dominates the first movement was truly amazing – controlled, precise and devastating all in its path. For me that famous tune still conjures up childhood memories of the 1978 BBC TV adaptation of John Buchan’s ‘Huntingtower’, but heard in the heart of the symphony it evokes the horror of war, starting as a simple fife and drum melody then growing ever more insistent and grotesque until the bombardment is overwhelming. It was a stunning, moving, exhausting performance and one I will remember for a long time. 

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Friday, November 08, 2013

'I Am The Secret Footballer: Lifting the Lid on the Beautiful Game' by The Secret Footballer

8 November 2013

When you hear an interview with a retired politician it's remarkable how often they seem suddenly more knowledgeable, reasonable and sensible than they ever did when they were in office, regardless of where they come from in the political spectrum. The modern media age has bred a generation of people in the public eye who work hard to never say anything of interest. Perhaps the most extreme example of this is the post-match interview with a professional football player who has been extensively trained in the art of clichés and platitudes. Even retirement is no guarantee of openness in the football world as Sir Alex Ferguson's recent, very guarded, memoirs demonstrate. So it is a refreshing change to read an insight on the sport which is genuinely honest and candid. 'The Secret Footballer' started as an anonymous column in The Guardian, exposing the inner workings of the professional game through the eyes of someone still playing at the highest level. The anonymity of the columnist has so far survived investigation, rumour and clue-hunting. Reading the book 'I Am The Secret Footballer: Lifting the Lid on the Beautiful Game' the anonymous author gives a fascinating view of what it is actually like to 'live the dream'. I loved the fact that, when he joined his first professional club, nobody told him that he was only required to train from 10 am – 12 pm each day. At noon he was sitting along in the dressing room waiting to be told what to do next, not realising everyone else had gone home. His perspective on the incredible financial rewards that football brings to a select group of young men, counterbalanced with the insecurity, boredom and depression prevalent within the profession are fascinating. Occasionally the disguise necessary to keep the author's identity secret makes anecdotes quite hard to follow but this is a small price to pay for such an unusually frank read.

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Friday, November 01, 2013

'Symphony No 4 (Arctic)' by George Lloyd

1 November 2013

I'm grateful to Alan Garriock for drawing my attention to the work of the British composer George Lloyd (1913 – 1998). I hadn't previously heard of Lloyd – a symphonist and opera composer whose lush, accessible, melodic music seems to have been overlooked (particularly in the 1950s and 60s) by a musical establishment more interested in the avant garde. I've been listening to George Lloyd's fourth symphony, 'The Arctic', which he finished in 1946. It's a lovely piece – tuneful, delicate, rousing and heroic. The style is romantic and a little old-fashioned for the period, recalling earlier British composers such as Holst, Bax and Bantock. It's a very enjoyable work and I'm looking forward to seeking out other pieces by George Lloyd.

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