Tuesday, December 20, 2016

'The Secret Place' by Tana French

20 December 2016

It was earlier this year that I first discovered Tana French’s superior detective novels featuring the Dublin Murder Squad. Having enjoyed ‘Broken Harbour’ (reviewed here in May 2016) I was looking forward to ‘The Secret Place’, which I have just finished reading as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Stephen Hogan and Lara Hutchinson. Set in an expensive girls’ boarding school outside Dublin, ‘The Secret Place’ is told through the eyes of Detective Stephen Moran who first appeared as a minor character in one of French’s earlier novels ‘Faithful Place’. Although characters recur and there are references to previous cases, each of the Murder Squad novels works as a stand-alone story. ‘The Secret Place’ takes place on a single day as Moran and his new partner Antoinette Conway question girls at the school about the murder of a teenage boy a year ago. In-between chapters narrated by Stephen Moran we also get flashback chapters revealing events leading up to and following the murder, which gradually bring us back to the present day investigation. It’s a beautifully written novel: when the detectives first enter the headmistress’s room Moran notices a “heavy framed oil painting of a nun who was no oil painting”. And when he observes a tension between Conway and the headmistress, who have met before, he notes “history there, or just chemistry”. Said in a different accent these phrases could pass for Raymond Chandler. ‘The Secret Place’ is a meticulous police procedural, cleverly plotted, carefully constructed and exquisitely written. As with ‘Broken Harbour’, alongside the murder mystery the novel is as interested in the new partnership between the two detectives – each weighing the other up as potential long-term colleagues. I’m really looking forward to reading Tana French’s new novel ‘The Trespasser’ which features the same two detectives but shifts the point of view to Antoinette Conway.


Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert

14 December 2016

The annual Northampton Symphony Orchestra ‘Christmas Cracker’ concert always feels like the proper start of Christmas. This year’s Sunday afternoon performance had an animals theme, featuring ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’, ‘The Pink Panther’, ‘The Thievish Magpie’, ‘The Teddy Bears’ Picnic’ and ‘The Flight of the Bumblebee’. We always include a narrated piece  and this year locally based actor and director Dan McGarry gave a splendid debut performance with the orchestra in Prokofiev’s ‘Peter and the Wolf’. As you may know, the French horns portray the wolf in the story but when we played an extract at the start for the young members of the audience to guess which animal we represented, we were slightly perturbed to hear someone shout out “an elephant”! The programme also saw us revisiting two of the British composers we featured in concerts earlier this year, with performances of John Barry’s music from the 1991 film ‘Dances with Wolves’, and the ‘Christmas Overture’ by Nigel Hess. It was a lovely concert – a Christmas Quacker!

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The Blockheads

14 December 2016

Regular readers will know we are fans of The Blockheads (reviewed here in July 2007, December 2012, November 2014 and April 2015 – if you missed it do look up the story of my encounter with Ian Dury). On Friday night we were at the MK11 venue in Kiln Farm, Milton Keynes to renew our acquaintance with this wonderful band. Their show is always much the same but I love the band’s enthusiasm: they all look like they are having a ball. Songwriter Mickey Gallagher – one of the less demonstrative Blockheads – sits quietly at the back of the stage behind his keyboards wearing a cheeky grin throughout the performance, whereas bass player Norman Watt-Roy is in constant movement and must lose pounds of weight at every concert. Reasons to be cheerful!

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Friday, December 09, 2016

London Symphony Orchestra concert - John Adams at 70

8 December 2016

On Thursday I enjoyed a real musical treat – watching the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican celebrating the 70th birthday of the American composer John Adams. Adams conducted pieces by Bartok and Stravinsky, illustrating some of the traditions in which his own very modern musical style is rooted. You could hear distinct echoes of John Adams in both Bartok's folk music-inspired 'Hungarian Sketches' and Stravinsky's eerie evocation of ancient Greece in the music from the ballet 'Orpheus'. But the main attraction was the performance of Adams' latest composition 'Scheherazade.2' - a piece for solo violin and orchestra, premiered in 2015. Adams explained to the audience that, rather than calling the work a concerto, he had taken the idea of a 'dramatic symphony' from Berlioz and had created four movements which follow a rough narrative, telling the story of a modern, feminist Scheherazade who "speaks truth to power".  Instead of charming her captive to avoid death, this Scheherazade stands up to her tormentors, falls in love, defends herself in a trial and flees to sanctuary. The piece was written for the Canadian violinist Leila Josefowicz and it was a privilege to see her perform it, conducted by the composer. Adams described Josefowicz as "the Lisbeth Salander of the violin" and she definitely displayed a punk-like flair, her restless energy causing her to pace back and forth while waiting to play. Her violent playing sometimes seemed to pull her feet across the stage. This was the violinist as rock star, her stance reminding me of the defiant pose of Martha Wainwright (reviewed here in July 2008). Like much of Adams' music, the symphony was incredibly entertaining – complex and quirky but never inaccessible, with some beautifully serene moments. The narrative structure, unusual soundscapes and character soloist reminded me of Jan Sandström's 'Motorbike Concerto' which I saw Christian Lindbergh perform with the Halle Orchestra about 20 years ago (if you don't know it do look it up on YouTube). Thursday's LSO concert was a similarly wonderful experience that will also live long in my memory. You can see John Adams and Leila Josefowicz talking about 'Scheherazade.2' at: https://youtu.be/kN5SEJSqknc.

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