Friday, February 28, 2014

'The Goldfinch' by Donna Tartt

28 February 2014

Life is catastrophe” – that certainly seems to be true for Theodore Dekker, the hero of Donna Tartt's third novel 'The Goldfinch'. Theo is 13 years old when a visit to the Metropolitan Museum in New York changes his life, as a terrorist bomb destroys a section of the museum and kills Theo's mother. Theo emerges from the wreckage carrying a famous painting, Carel Fabritius' 1654 masterpiece 'The Goldfinch'. Theo's future becomes intertwined with the fate of the painting, and his journey from New York to Las Vegas and Amsterdam, through a succession of guardians, finding and losing friends and soulmates, is thrilling and emotional. 'The Goldfinch', which I read as an unabridged audio book narrated by David Pittu, is an epic work, even longer than 'The Luminaries' by Eleanor Catton (reviewed here in December 2013). If Eleanor Catton was channelling Wilkie Collins, Donna Tartt is definitely a contemporary Charles Dickens. I felt her wonderful second novel 'The Little Friend' – one of my favourite recent American novels – created a Dickensian cast of characters. 'The Goldfinch' continues this approach, combining slightly exaggerated but entirely believable characters with a Dickensian coming of age plot. The orphaned Theo Dekker is a modern day Pip, David Copperfield or Oliver Twist. His best friend, Boris, is his Herbert Pocket – or maybe The Artful Dodger. Donna Tartt writes beautifully with the adult Theo's first person narration reflecting on his childhood in a way that makes you feel exactly what it must have been like for him. This is often a harrowing experience as you really feel Theo's pain, loneliness and despair. Tartt creates empathy rather than sympathy so that, even when Theo commits indefensibly stupid, cruel or criminal acts, you feel you would have done exactly the same in his position. But 'The Goldfinch' is not a miserable novel – it has a slow-burning thriller plot that builds to a terrifying climax. And there is a wonderful twist about three quarters of the way through, which I was terribly satisfied to have spotted when the seeds were planted much earlier in the story. 'The Goldfinch' is a long, and sometimes deliberately slow, novel but expertly constructed, beautifully written and well worth investing your time in.


Thursday, February 20, 2014

Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert

20 February 2014

Marking the weekend of St Valentine's Day with a concert about death (the theme was actually love and death, but frankly it was mostly death) didn't appear to be the Northampton Symphony Orchestra's wisest marketing strategy. But we managed to attract a reasonable size of audience who really seemed to appreciate our weighty, romantic repertoire. I think this was the most ambitious programme we have attempted for some time and it was incredibly enjoyable to play. Rachmaninov's symphonic poem 'Die Toteninsel' ('The Isle of the Dead') was inspired by a black and white photograph of a painting by Arnold Böcklin which shows Charon, boatman of the Underworld, rowing a coffin across the river Styx to a lonely island. The relentlessly hypnotic 5/8 rhythm disconcertingly shifts from patterns of 2+3 to 3+2 as the boat shifts in the flow of the river. It's a gently emotional meditation on death. We were then joined by the Australian soprano Helena Dix to perform Mahler's song cycle 'Rückert Lieder' – five settings of poems by Friedrich Rückert. The five songs are each very different, varying from the playful to the dramatic to the achingly beautiful. There is a style and a beauty in several of the 'Rückert Lieder' that is echoed in the 'Four Last Songs' by Richard Strauss, written nearly 50 years later. The second half of our concert started with the 'Prelude and Liebestod' from Wagner's 'Tristan und Isolde' with Helena Dix signing the part of Isolde – the apogee of romantic music, a heart-rending climax of ecstasy and tragedy. After which we had to dig deep in our reserves of emotional stamina to perform the Richard Strauss tone poem 'Tod und Verklärung' ('Death and Transfiguration'). This remarkable piece, representing the dying hours of a man reflecting on his past life before the soul leaves his body, was written when the composer was barely 25 years old. When we started rehearsing 'Tod und Verklärung' I mistook references to 'the Superman motif', assuming that this somehow related to Nietzsche and his concept of Übermensch from Also Sprach Zarathustra (itself the subject of a tone poem by Richard Strauss). I soon realised I had been somewhat over-intellectualising and that we were actually talking about the bit that sounds remarkably like John Williams' theme for the 1978 film 'Superman'! This heroic phrase, with its glorious, drawn-out octave leap provides a stunning climax in the middle of 'Tod und Verklärung' and then becomes the basis for an ethereal, haunting, slow canon as life begins to seep away. It was an emotionally exhausting performance that I thoroughly enjoyed being part of.

Labels: ,

Friday, February 14, 2014

'Through the Eyes of the Sun' by Belonoga

14 February 2014

The peculiarly beautiful vocal harmonies of Bulgarian choral music gained widespread attention in the UK in 1986 with the release of 'Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares' - a Grammy award winning album of Bulgarian folk songs performed by the Bulgarian State Radio & Television Female Vocal Choir. I first encountered this magical sound in 1989 when Kate Bush featured the Trio Bulgarka on her album 'The Sensual World'. The songs 'Deeper Understanding' and 'Rocket's Tail' make gorgeous use of those strange scrunchy Bulgarian harmonies. My favourite example of the Bulgarian vocal sound is the 2003 album 'Bulgarian Soul' in which the classical opera singer Vesselina Kasarova revisits Bulgarian folk songs, backed by the Cosmic Voices from Bulgaria – it's a really beautiful set of songs. More recently I discovered the Eva Quartet – four young singers from the Mystère Des Voix Bulgares choir. This week I have been listening to 'Through the Eyes of the Sun' by Belonoga – a solo project by Eva Quartet member Gergana Dimitrova. This album uses the Bulgarian singing style in a sparse, new-age musical environment, mixing wordless vocals with electronic and acoustic instruments, a variety of percussion and even a didgeridoo! The effect is gentle, laid-back, mysterious and beautiful but I missed the close harmonies of the multi-voice choirs and the tunes are not so immediately catchy as the Bulgarian folk songs featured in the earlier albums. Nevertheless this is an interesting and very different collection of music.

Labels: ,

Friday, February 07, 2014

'Tin Star' by Lindi Ortega

7 February 2014

A Canadian singer of Mexican and Irish descent might not seem an obvious candidate to become a major star of American country music but on her new album ‘Tin Star’, Lindi Ortega manages to sound both like the "love child of Dolly Parton and Johnny Cash" and a Nashville version of Amy Winehouse. She has a distinctive voice with a compelling mix of power and vulnerability. ‘Tin Star’ is a country rock album that encompasses a variety of styles from gentle country ballad to jaunty rockabilly (‘All These Cats’) to powerful rock’n’roll that has more than a hint of Arctic Monkeys about it (‘I Want You’). This is instantly likeable music that also seems to have staying-power. 

Labels: ,