Sunday, June 15, 2014

Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert

15 June 2014

I don't think I've ever opened an orchestral concert by playing an unaccompanied horn solo, before last Saturday's Northampton Symphony Orchestra performance - and it's not an experience I am particularly keen to repeat! Have a listen to the start of Leonard Bernstein's Symphonic Suite from the film 'On The Waterfront' on Spotify or YouTube and you might appreciate the terror I experienced on first seeing the music. The solo horn passage occurs three times in the piece and I can take some comfort from the fact that I think I played the second (slightly easier) solo perfectly, but my high notes in the other two solos came out strained and warbled. This being the opening piece of the concert, I can't blame any lack of stamina - it was pure nerves. I was slightly embarrassed to be asked to take an individual bow at the end - particularly as there were several other people (including Mara Griffiths, Kathy Roberts, Simon Cooper, Sian Bunker, Stephen Hague, Peter Dunkley, Ben Drouit and Naomi Muller) whose far more impressive solos in Saturday's concert did not receive such recognition. 

Fortunately, my trials and tribulations were completely overshadowed by a remarkable performance by the stunning young Latvian pianist, Arta Arnicane, whose playing in two Gershwin pieces, 'Rhapsody in Blue' and the 'I Got Rhythm' Variations for piano and orchestra, brought the house down. Her encore, 'The Serpent's Kiss' - a Rag Fantasy by William Bolcom drew gasps, laughter, rapturous applause and a standing ovation. Do take a look at this recording of Arta Arnicane playing 'The Serpent's Kiss' to get an idea of what we experienced on Saturday:

The American composer Ferdy Grofé is best remembered for being the orchestrator of the most commonly played version of Gershwin's 'Rhapsody in Blue' and for his lovely 'Grand Canyon Suite'. I first discovered the 'Grand Canyon Suite' in 2002 when we were driving from Washington State in the North West corner of the United States, through Idaho to Montana, with nothing to listen to in the car. We stopped at a service station and bought a cassette of American orchestral music which we played over and over on this long journey. Although it wasn't the terrain Grofé was writing about, I will always associate the 'Grand Canyon Suite' with the stunning scenery of Montana. We finished Saturday's concert with an impressive performance of the 'Grand Canyon Suite' with the donkey leading us 'On The Trail' recreated by a violin, a bass clarinet and two halves of a coconut. 

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Friday, June 13, 2014

'A Small Family Business' by Alan Ayckbourn

13 June 2014

On Thursday we were at Cineworld in Milton Keynes to see the NT Live broadcast of Adam Penford's National Theatre production of 'A Small Family Business' by Alan Ayckbourn. This performance, live from the stage of the Olivier Theatre in London, was simultaneously broadcast to 1100 cinemas in 40 countries around the world - the largest audience yet for a NT Live screening. We first saw 'A Small Family Business' about 20 years ago in an amateur production at Uppingham Theatre, produced by our friend Brian Stokes who had himself taught the young Ayckbourn. The National Theatre production faithfully recreated 1987 period details which felt all the more real in the close-ups on the cinema screen. The kettle, phone and other household items were incredibly recognisable and nostalgic. Though surrounded by a large cast, this is Nigel Lindsay's play. Lindsay, who we last saw as Henry Bolingbroke in Greg Doran's RSC production of Richard II (reviewed here in December 2013), demonstrated a very believable descent, in the space of the week in which the action of the play takes place, from honest upright citizen to criminal Godfather. There appears to be a rule that all professional productions of Alan Ayckbourn plays have to involve Matthew Cottle. We have seen him in Ayckbourn’s ‘Just Between Ourselves’ at the Theatre Royal in Bath in 2002, in the same play at the Royal Theatre Northampton (reviewed here in May 2009) and in Ayckbourn’s ‘Neighbourhood Watch’ at the Palace Theatre in Watford (reviewed here in March 2012). In the National Theatre production of 'A Small Family Business' Matthew Cottle played the incredibly creepy private detective Benedict Hough - it was an uncomfortably sleezy performance. The other standout performance was Alice Sykes, perfect as the stroppy teenage daughter. Like many of Alan Ayckbourn's plays 'A Small Family Business' starts with the appearance of a straightforward farce but gradually reveals a much darker, more serious tone. The final poignant image, as the lights fade to black, has stuck in my mind from that Uppingham production 20 years ago and was just as affecting this time.

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Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Toumani and Sidiki Diabaté

11 June 2014

I wrote here in May 2008 about the Malian kora virtuoso Toumani Diabaté who represents the 71st generation of a line of griots that has passed on songs forming the oral history of the Mandé Empire of West Africa from father to son. Last Thursday I was at The Stables in Wavendon to see this remarkable hereditary process in action, as generations 71 and 72 performed together – Toumani playing kora duets with his son Sidiki Diabaté. Sidiki is already a star in his own right – a hip hop performer who regular plays to crowds of 20,000 or more in football stadia in Mali. But he is also a very accomplished kora player and the interplay between father and son was fascinating. The 21-string kora is a delicate, mesmerising instrument but recordings sometimes feel a bit tame compared to the excitement generated by a live performance. I had been listening to the new 'Toumani & Sidiki' album but seeing them playing the pieces at The Stables was a completely different experience. Toumani is an extraordinary performer – surely one of the greatest musicians in the world today. The concert ended with a standing ovation – it was a stunning performance.

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Wednesday, June 04, 2014

'Glow' by Ned Beauman

4 June 2014

I'm a big fan of the young novelist Ned Beauman: his second book 'The Teleportation Accident' (reviewed here in July 2013) was my Pick of the Year for 2013 and I also really enjoyed reading his debut 'Boxer, Beetle' (reviewed here in September 2013). So I eagerly pounced on his latest novel 'Glow' as soon as it was published last month and I have just finished reading it (as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Jamie Parker). It felt wonderful to be back in the company of Beauman's idiosyncratic authorial voice and it was great to spot some similar themes and characters from his earlier books. 'Glow' is set mainly in contemporary London and is a complicated tale of recreational drugs, a pirate radio station, appallingly powerful multinational companies, unusual sleep patterns, fakes and replicants – and foxes. The prose is careful, precise, complicated and very funny and there are numerous plot twists and an excessive number of underlying themes. 'Glow' is more of a straightforward thriller than the previous books but is still a complex read. I loved it while I was reading it but, on reflection I don't think it was quite as successful as his earlier novels. If you haven't experienced Ned Beauman yet I would urge you to start with 'The Teleportation Accident' but I'm really looking forward to whatever he writes next.


Miles Jupp

4 June 2014

I was familiar with the comedian Miles Jupp from his numerous BBC Radio 4 appearances and his role in Tom Hollander and James Wood's excellent BBC Two sitcom 'Rev'. On Sunday I got a chance to see his stand-up show at the Alban Arena in St Albans. He performed a very slick, polished set, playing on his posh accent and public school education. Self deprecating, with constant asides and digressions, he focused mostly on domestic, observational humour and was very impressive, building to a nice set-piece finale.

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'Dealer's Choice' by Patrick Marber

4 June 2014

I first saw Patrick Marber's debut play 'Dealer's Choice' in an excellent student production at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2000. It's a cleverly constructed drama with the muscular masculinity of Harold Pinter, tempered with humour and poignant sadness that could have come from an Alan Ayckbourn play. It was great to re-encounter 'Dealer's Choice' last weekend in Michael Longhurst's new production at the Royal Theatre, Northampton. The play gathers six men around a poker table to explore dreams, addiction and friendship. This production had a universally strong cast who made you care about a set of characters who, on the face of it, are not the most likeable. In particular Cary Crankson gave the irrepressibly cheerful Mugsy a loveable vulnerability and was very funny.

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