Thursday, June 29, 2017

'Small Great Things' by Jodi Picoult

29 June 2017

Jodi Picoult's novel 'Small Great Things', which I have just finished reading (as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Noma Dumezweni, Jeff Harding and Jennifer Woodward), is a very impressive exploration of racism in contemporary America. When Ruth Jefferson, an experienced and highly respected nurse working in a hospital in Newhaven, Connecticut, is removed from caring for a newborn baby because his white supremacist parents do not want an African American touching their son, she is understandably angry and upset. When the baby then dies suddenly and unexpectedly, Ruth finds herself suspended and charged with murder. But 'Small Great Things' resists the melodrama this plot suggests and focuses instead on the prejudices, explicit and implicit, of everyone involved. Telling the story through the eyes of Ruth, her white liberal lawyer and the baby's skinhead father, Picoult alternates narrators, often overlapping different views of the same scene. She makes all these characters very real and believable - even making the fascist father almost sympathetic. Ultimately she shows the unconscious racism of well-meaning people like the liberal lawyer to be as damaging as the more blatant prejudice practised by the baby's parents. I was struck by her distinction between 'equality' and 'equity' - suggesting that treating everyone the same is often not enough to redress the balance. What appears, initially, to be a fairly grim thriller turns into a thought-provoking examination with well drawn characters and some beautiful writing.


Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Aegon Birmingham Classic Tennis

27 June 2017

On Saturday we were at the Priory Club in Edgbaston, Birmingham to see the semi-finals of the Aegon Birmingham Classic tennis tournament. It was great to see the former Wimbledon Champion, Petra Kvitová, returning to form following an enforced absence from the game after being attacked and injured by an intruder in her home at the end of last year. It was a shame her semi-final was cut short by an injury to her opponent, Lucie Šafárová, but still good to see her playing so well. The second semi-final was a thriller, with Garbiñe Muguruza – last year’s French Open winner – losing in three sets to the young Australian doubles specialist Ashleigh Barty. It was one of those tennis matches where you genuinely couldn’t tell who was going to win. Even at 5-1 down in the final set Muguruza looked as if she still might triumph. It was a really exciting match. We finished the day with an entertaining, if fairly one-sided, doubles semi-final won by Chan Hao-ching and Zhang Shuai. We had been looking forward to seeing Ashleigh Barty again in the doubles but her semi-final was a walkover after one of her opponents pulled out through injury. The problem with a pre-Wimbledon tournament is that anyone who feels the slightest twinge is clearly not to going to risk missing Wimbledon. Nevertheless we had a really enjoyable day of tennis in Birmingham.


Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert

20 June 2017

One of the first things you are taught about classical music is not to clap between the movements of a piece. I can remember my primary school teacher telling us, before we attended a schools concert at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester that, even if every other child in the audience applauded at the end of the first movement, we should not. My former boss, Robin Osterley, while he was a music student, attended an early music concert at the Royal Albert Hall at which he felt he was the only person not clapping between movements – only to discover that this mid-piece applause was a deliberate part of the authentic recreation of early classical music. As a performer, audience applause that is a genuine response to the exciting conclusion of a movement (rather than a polite ripple because the audience feels it is expected) is always welcome. I fondly remember such a spontaneous reaction to the end of the first movement of Grieg’s ‘Piano Concerto’ performed by Peter Donohoe in a concert I played in as a teenager at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester. So when, in our Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert last Saturday, the thrilling climax of the first movement of the Tchaikovsky ‘Violin Concerto’, played by the incredible young Polish violinist Kamila Bydlowska, drew rapturous applause, it felt like fitting appreciation of a stunning performance. Admittedly the concert programme failed to mention how many movements there were in the Concerto – so some audience members might have been anticipating an early interval glass of wine! But nobody seemed disappointed when we embarked on two more movements that showcased the breathtaking skills of this stunning young soloist. We started the concert with Hubert Parry’s ‘Symphonic Variations’ – an interesting missing link between Brahms’ ‘St Anthony Variations’ and Elgar’s ‘Enigma Variations’ which really grew on me over the weeks we rehearsed it. I was also intrigued to get to know the ‘Overture to King Lear’ by Hector Berlioz – an exciting piece with two great tunes that seems to have far too happy an ending for Shakespeare’s great tragedy. The concert concluded with the latest in our season of Fifth Symphonies, Mendelssohn’s ‘Reformation Symphony’. I watched the symphony from the audience, as there are only two horn parts, and really enjoyed the orchestra’s performance. This concert programme was another interesting mix of the familiar and lesser-known repertoire from Conductor John Gibbons. We will complete our exploration of Fifth Symphonies next month with perhaps the most famous of them all, Beethoven’s Fifth.

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Thursday, June 15, 2017

'Tribute to Ndiouga Dieng' by Orchestra Baobab

15 June 2017

My interest in ‘world music’ stems from reading Robin Denselow’s glowing review, in The Guardian on 6 September 2002, of ‘Specialist in All Styles’ - the spectacular reunion album by the legendary 1970s Senegalese band, Orchestra Baobab (see: Inspired by this five-star review I bought the album and then took the opportunity to see Orchestra Baobab live at the Derngate in Northampton. At that concert I bought a copy of Songlines magazine (which included a major feature on Orchestra Baobab). I soon became a Songlines subscriber and then a regular attender of the annual WOMAD Festival. I owe Orchestra Baobab a huge debt of gratitude for opening up a world of music to me. I have a particular soft spot for their retro fusion, and that of the other great big bands of the 1970s such as the Rail Band of Mali and Bembeya Jazz of Guinea. Their re-appropriation of Cuban salsa – which itself stemmed from an adaptation of traditional West African music – created an infectiously danceable mix. This week I have been listening to the new album from Orchestra Baobab, ‘Tribute to Ndiouga Dieng’, which honours one of the band’s original singers who died last November. This is an interestingly varied album with the classic Orchestra Baobab sound (guitars, percussion, brass) augmented by the inclusion, for the first time, of a kora – the West African 21-string harp-lute. The album also features guest vocals from some other stars of West African music, Cheikh Lo and Thione Seck. It is a confident, assured, laid-back set of songs from one of the great African bands.

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Wednesday, June 07, 2017

'White Tears' by Hari Kunzru

7 June 2017

Having really enjoyed Hari Kunzru’s brilliant debut novel ‘The Impressionist’ (reviewed here in September 2013), I was looking forward to his latest book, ‘White Tears’, which I have just finished reading (as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Jonathan Todd Ross). ‘White Tears’ starts as a tale of two young, white record producers in contemporary New York who create a fake recording purporting to be an authentic 1930s blues track. They decide to call their imaginary black blues singer Charlie Shaw but are disconcerted when they are approached by someone who claims to have met Charlie Shaw in 1959. As the novel progresses boundaries between the present and past get increasingly blurred as we struggle to work out what is ‘authentic’. ‘White Tears’ at times feels like a ghost story, with the mythical singer seeking vengeance for the wrongs done to him a lifetime ago. The book uses magical realism to create a dreamlike atmosphere which reminded me of Kazuo Ishiguro’s ‘The Unconsoled’. But unlike that often deliberately frustrating novel, ‘White Tears’ does eventually arrive at an explanation, of sorts. The first half of the book, with its its New York setting and two young partners in crime, reminded me of Donna Tartt’s ‘The Goldfinch’ (reviewed here in 2014). ‘White Tears is an interesting and ambitious undertaking and Hari Kunzru is clearly a very accomplished writer but I’m not convinced it fully worked. The book was slow to get going and felt far too long. It was hard to sympathise with any of the main characters and, although the denouement was cleverly satisfying, it was hard work getting to it.


Friday, June 02, 2017

'Double Acts' by John Finnemore

2 June 2017

It is wonderful to see the return this week of John Finnemore’s ‘Double Acts’ (Wednesdays at 6.30 pm on BBC Radio 4) – a series of 30-minute comedy dramas, each featuring a different two actors. As with his first series, originally broadcast in 2015, John Finnemore has attracted an amazing cast and each of his short plays is beautifully constructed, invariably with a twist you really don’t see coming – often playing on the radio listener’s actual inability to see visual clues. This week’s opener, ‘The Queen’s Speech’ starring Stephanie Cole and Kerry Goldiman, was a fairly gentle start to the second series which you can listen to at I am really looking forward to the next five weeks.

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