Monday, December 14, 2015

Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert

14 December 2015

The Northampton Symphony Orchestra's annual Christmas Cracker Concert always feels like the start of the festive season. It's a lovely family-friendly Sunday afternoon celebration of Christmas music, which each year seems to feature the orchestra wearing ever more ridiculous attire. The prize this year must go to my fellow horn player Ian Frankland who played the entire second half of the concert dressed as a giant Christmas cracker! Sunday's concert was the first Christmas Cracker for our new regular conductor John Gibbons, who also took on the role of compère. Our theme was 'Christmas in the Toy Box' – a programme including Leon Jessel's 'Parade of the Tin Soldiers' and music by Randy Newman from the film 'Toy Story'. We also played Malcolm Arnold's 'Fantasy on Christmas Carols' and the 'Sleigh Rides' by Frederick Delius and Leroy Anderson (finishing with a pair of braying trumpets to surprise our regular audience). But the main attraction was 'Paddington Bear's First Concert' – one of the best works for orchestra and narrator – in which Herbert Chappell creates an extensive theme and variations from his signature tune for the old BBC TV 'Paddington'. Michael Bond's story is quintessential 'Paddington' and our performance on Sunday was brilliantly brought to life by former NSO conductor Graham Tear whose Paddington, Mrs Bird and Mr Gruber were spot on!

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Friday, December 11, 2015

'Robin Hood: The Arrow in the Oak' by Sue Sachon

11 December 2015

On Saturday we were back at the TADS Theatre in Toddington for the amateur theatre group's annual pantomime. Each year they present a wholly original pantomime, written by a member of the company. This year the show was Sue Sachon's 'Robin Hood: The Arrow in the Oak'. All the usual pantomime elements were incorporated into a story that drew on some lesser known legends of Robin Hood as well as turning the famous archery contest into an X-factor-style talent contest. The cast were great. I particularly enjoyed the performances by Elizabeth Hall and Emily Venn as the Sheriff of Nottingham's henchmen – they looked like they were having a ball! The whole thing was great fun but the best moment was in the kitchen scene where the chef sneezed and a small child in the audience automatically, quietly and very politely said “bless you”.

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'A God in Ruins' by Kate Atkinson

11 December 2015

Kate Atkinson's novel 'Life After Life' (reviewed here in June 2013) was a family saga with a twist, following Ursula Todd through a series of interrupted versions of her life with a Groundhog Day structure. Though Ursula's life, spanning most of the twentieth century, is the focus of the book, it is the love story of her younger brother Teddy and his childhood sweetheart Nancy that forms the emotional heart of the novel. Kate Atkinson has now returned to the Todd family with 'A God in Ruins' – a sequel or companion piece to 'Life After Life' (which I have just finished reading as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Alex Jennings) which tells Teddy's story. Kate Atkinson is an ambitious novelist whose beautifully written prose creates very easily accessible books that play mischievously with the form of the novel. In 'A God in Ruins' she abandons the tricksy stop-start format of 'Life After Life' in favour of painting a picture of Teddy's life which jumps forwards and backwards in time, only gradually filling in the gaps. This jigsaw plot wrong-foots the reader as many of our assumptions and theories are disproved. Atkinson also pulls the rug from under fans of the previous novel by showing Teddy to have had a fairly dull life, his romance with Nancy proving not to have been quite so perfect as Ursula thought it. 'A God in Ruins' is dominated by Teddy's wartime service as a bomber pilot: the descriptions of bombing missions over Germany are detailed and harrowing and this experience colours all of Teddy's later life and relationships. 'A God in Ruins' is a uniformly melancholy book and often feels quite slow (and maybe over long) but I can forgive it much for its ending – do read right to the end for a satisfyingly clever twist. 'A God in Ruins' is sad, slow, frustrating but also rather brilliant.


Friday, December 04, 2015

The Polka Dots

4 December 2015

On Saturday we were at the Abbey Theatre in St Albans to see The Polka Dots – a female vocal trio who sing close harmony swing in the style of the Andrews Sisters. Their material includes songs from the 1920s, 30s, 40s and 50s as well as more contemporary repertoire (including Sade, Amy Winehouse, George Michael and Caro Emerald songs) but all sung (to backing tracks) in big-band arrangements. The Polka Dots are very impressive singers and their between-songs patter and banter are charming – with three strong personalities shining through. With the addition of some slickly co-ordinated dancing this added up to a very entertaining evening. And it seemed like most of the enthusiastic, packed audience were Polka Dots regulars.

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