Monday, March 14, 2016

Milton Keynes Sinfonia concert

14 March 2016

Another week, another stunning young Russian pianist: on Saturday I played in a Milton Keynes Sinfonia concert where the undoubted star of the show was Ilya Kondratiev who gave a thrilling performance of the spectacular 'Piano Concerto No 1' by Prokofiev. Ilya is an amazing pianist and was clearly having a great time, beaming from the moment he walked in, finishing the concerto with an exaggerated flourish and beguiling both audience and orchestra with two brilliant encores. Conductor David Knight and the Milton Keynes Sinfonia then faced the daunting challenge of following this bravura performance but, fortunately, we were armed with the substantial might of Shostakovich's 'Symphony No 10'. I played this symphony with the Northampton Symphony Orchestra nearly ten years ago (reviewed here in March 2006) and I was surprised how well I remembered it. It's a long, complex work that manages to be bleak, angry, powerful and beautifully delicate. Our performance on Saturday went really well and featured many excellent solos but I will particularly remember the piccolo solo by Andrea Patis at the end of the first movement and Kate Knight's horn solo in the slow movement which were both wonderful. We opened the concert with the ‘Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia’ from ‘Spartacus’ by Khachaturian – still better known as the theme from 'The Onedin Line'. Having recently read Julian Barnes' novel about Shostakovich, 'The Noise of Time' (reviewed here in February 2016), it was interesting to see, in the concert programme, a rare photograph of Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Khachaturian together. Their stories are intertwined with each other, and with the story of 20th century Russia. It was fascinating to play music by all three on Saturday, in what was a great concert.

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Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert

8 March 2016

For horn players, tackling a Mahler symphony is the equivalent of running a marathon. It requires extensive training to build your stamina. And like preparing for a marathon, it is difficult to find the time and energy to practice doing the whole thing before the day itself. Regular readers may remember me writing here in 2011 about preparing to play Mahler's 'Symphony No 6' with the Northampton Symphony Orchestra. The First Symphony by Gustav Mahler is not quite such an enormous undertaking as the Sixth but it is still a monumental challenge. I've played through the final movement almost every day for the past few weeks in an attempt to build enough stamina to survive its glorious finale. Last Saturday was the day of reckoning, with the NSO concert taking place at St Michael's Church, Northampton, conducted by John Gibbons. The concert also featured the beautiful 'Piano Concerto' by Alexander Scriabin in which we accompanied the amazing young Russian pianist Vavara Tarasova. It was a stunning performance of a lovely piece which has much in common with the piano concertos of Chopin (and, I thought, some echoes of Rachmaninov). Our performance of Mahler 1 seemed to go really well, with beautifully delicate woodwind solos, some fine off-stage trumpet fanfares and a great double bass solo by Matthew Jackson at the beginning of the slow movement. And then we reached the finale and it was thrilling to be one of eight horn players standing with bells raised for the final bars. In the end it felt like we just about managed to fall over the marathon finishing line, exhilarated, exhausted and gasping for breath. It was a brilliant experience but one I would be happy not to repeat for a while!

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Friday, March 04, 2016

'Hangmen' by Martin McDonagh

4 March 2016

The Irish playwright Martin McDonagh has carved out a reputation for violently black comedy. Hi stage play 'The Leiutenant of Inishmore' and his screenplays 'In Bruges' and 'The Guard' share a bleak humour. His latest work 'Hangmen' is another great example of this style. Set in Lancashire in the mid 1960s, the play deals with one of the last hangmen as he comes to terms with the abolition of capital punishment. The scenes in an Oldham pub felt like a particularly funny episode of Coronation Street – albeit with more swearing. Matthew Dunster's Royal Court production (which we saw at Cineworld in Milton Keynes as a NTLive broadcast from Wyndham's Theatre in London) stars David Morrissey as the hangman Harry Wade. He is joined by a fabulous cast of comic characters. Although there is some hysterically funny dialogue, much of the comedy comes from the well-drawn characters and their believable reactions to a dramatic turn of events. Morrissey is a master of the double-take: you can almost see his brain processing information while he is mistakenly ranting at someone and he then manages to turn his mood on a sixpence. 'Hangmen' has plenty of McDonagh's trademark wince-inducing moments of violence which shouldn't be funny – but really are. And Johnny Flynn is both menacing and creepy as a very out-of-place crude but erudite Londoner – an unexplained stranger who the Guardian review of the play wittily described as a 'Pinterloper'.

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Thursday, March 03, 2016

'The Noise of Time' by Julian Barnes

3 March 2016

The composer Dmitri Shostakovich certainly lived in interesting times. Julian Barnes' new novel 'The Noise of Time' (which I have just finished reading as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Daniel Philpott) fictionalises the remarkable true story of an artist constantly challenged by the controlling interest in his art taken by the Soviet state. In 1936, when Shostakovich's opera 'Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk' (described by Pravda as “muddle instead of music”) is banned, apparently at Stalin's behest, the composer assumes it is only a matter of time before he will be forced to surrender his life. Reluctant to flee into exile (as Stravinsky had done), and concerned for how his actions will impact upon the lives of his family and friends, Shostakovich finds himself a reluctant collaborator with Stalin's regime. Is he coward or pragmatist? It is scary to wonder how we each might have behaved in a similar situation. Julian Barnes suggests that the composer's yearning to continue living and composing steers him away from martyrdom but leads him into uncomfortable compromises. In 1948 when Stalin asks the composer to represent the Soviet Union at the Congress for World Peace, Shostakovich arrives in New York shortly after a Russian woman has defected by jumping out the window of the Russian Consulate building. A protester on the street outside the building holds a placard imploring “Shostakovich! Jump thru the window!” but, of course, he doesn't. 'The Noise of Time' is a fascinating book but feels more like a biography than a novel. Although Julian Barnes has imagined Shostakovich's point of view and describes particular scenes in detail, the book presents a fairly factual account of his life. The narrative structure, built around three key moments, each twelve years apart, and featuring several recurring themes and motifs, has the feel of a piece of music – a literary symphony. But it's a melancholy refrain about an imperfect man coping badly with an impossible situation. Shostakovich lived until 1975 and, towards the end of his life, made increasing use, in his string quartets, of the musical instruction 'morendo' (dying away). As Julian Barnes says: few composers finish their lives with a major chord played fortissimo.