Friday, November 25, 2022

'Klara and the Sun' by Kazuo Ishiguro

25 November 2022

I’ve long been an admirer of the novels of Kazuo Ishiguro. A few years ago I was lucky to see him at the Royal Festival Hall, in conversation with another of my favourite novelists, David Mitchell (reviewed here in February 2016). As well as Kazuo Ishiguro’s wonderful 1989 Booker Prize winning novel ‘The Remains of the Day’, I also really enjoyed 'When We Were Orphans' and even the impenetrably surreal dreamworld of 'The Unconsoled'. I have just finished his latest book, ‘Klara and the Sun’. Set in the near future, this is the tale of an artificial intelligence android, developed to serve as a child’s companion or Artificial Friend (AF). The story is told in the first person by the AF, Klara, a naive narrator whose voice reminded me of the child narrators of ‘The Trouble with Goats and Sheep’ by Joanna Cannon (reviewed here in January 2022) and Mark Haddon’s 'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time'. This technique allows the reader gradually to piece together how this future world differs from the present day. There’s an ominous feeling throughout, as you quickly realise that Klara’s optimistic vision of the world is likely to be unravelled once she has experienced more of it. ‘Klara and the Sun’ reminded me most of the dark future reality of Ishiguro’s 2005 novel 'Never Let Me Go' (reviewed here in September 2006) but I don’t think it worked as effectively, not achieving the same level of emotional connection with the characters and their plight.


Friday, November 18, 2022

'The Banshees of Inisherin' by Martin McDonagh

18 November 2022

Last Friday we were at the Curzon cinema at Milton Keynes Gallery to see 'The Banshees of Inisherin', the new film written and directed by Martin McDonagh. If you are familiar with McDonagh's previous plays and films, including 'The Lieutenant of Inishmore', 'Hangmen' (reviewed here in March 2016), 'In Bruges',  'The Guard' and 'Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri', you will have an idea of what to expect. 'The Banshees of Inisherin' is a very black comedy - incredibly funny but with some brutal violence. Set on a small island, off the coast of Ireland, the film reunites the stars of 'In Bruges', Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, together with a terrific performance from Kerry Condon (who was in 'Three Billboards'). Farrell and Gleeson play two friends who spend every afternoon together in the village pub, until one day Colm (Gleeson) decides, for no obvious reason, that he no longer likes Pádraic (Farrell) and doesn't want to speak to him ever again. Pádraic's attempts to understand and reverse this change of heart lead to a series of increasingly violent confrontations between the two former best friends. (Warning: animals never fare well in Martin McDonagh stories.) The film is beautifully shot, laugh-out-loud funny, shocking and moving. I enjoyed it as an absurdist black comic tale. But when I belatedly (on the journey home from the cinema) spotted an underlying allegory (which I won't give away here) I began to wonder whether this is Martin McDonagh's masterpiece. Much as I felt about the enigmatic film 'Caché' by Michael Haneke (reviewed here in May 2006) I now want to see 'The Banshees of Inisherin' again immediately to test my theories on what it's really about.


Friday, November 11, 2022

‘De Todas las Flores’ by Natalia Lafourcade

11 November 2022

Natalia Lafourcade is a Mexican singer/songwriter who, over the past 20 years, has become one of the most successful singers in Latin America - having won 2 Grammy Awards and 13 Latin Grammy’s. I’ve been listening to her new album ‘De Todas las Flores’ - a collection of original songs that draw on Mexican traditional music but also incorporate gentle dreamy pop music and jazz. There’s a laid-back Brazilian bossa nova feel to several tracks. The album was recorded entirely on analogue tape and unrehearsed. The acoustic instrumentation, slick arrangements and quiet vocals suggest a group playing late at night in the corner of a classy bar. Here’s a sample of the album:

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Thursday, November 03, 2022

‘To Be Taught if Fortunate’ by Becky Chambers

3 November 2022

Becky Chambers writes gentle, charming science fiction novels that imagine a multi-species universe where everyone is mostly kind and polite to each other. Through showing how beings with completely different metabolisms and methods of communication can manage to understand each other and get along, she makes us think about issues of diversity and inclusion closer to home. I would recommend her Wayfarer series of novels (starting with ‘The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet’), each of which is a completely different type of story in a completely different setting, subtly linked to the rest of the series by one or two common characters. I’ve just finished reading ‘To Be Taught if Fortunate’ - her lovely bite-sized stand-alone novella which focuses on the human crew of a spaceship on an exploratory mission which takes them many light-years, and therefore many decades, from Earth. Becky Chambers doesn’t write conventional SciFi battles, mystery or horror: she is more interested in science than fiction, thinking plausibly about how life might arise and develop on different worlds. She creates likeable characters and places them in challenging situations where they need to work together to survive.


Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert

25 October 2022

Last Saturday I played in the first Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert of the orchestra's 2022-23 season - a wonderfully varied programme which attracted a packed audience to St Matthew's Church in Northampton. The concert opened with 'An American in Paris' by George Gershwin, which NSO last played in 2010 (reviewed here in April 2010). Hearing the piece again also brought back happy memories of Christopher Wheeldon's brilliant stage adaptation (of the Vincente Minnelli film) in London in 2017 (reviewed here in April 2017). It was a bright, cheerful performance with a great trumpet solo by Terry Mayo and a perfect lugubrious tuba solo towards the end by Nick Tollervey.  We followed this popular work with another perennial favourite, Sergei Rachmaninoff's 'Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini', with the Ukrainian pianist Dinara Klinton. Dinara previously played with the Northampton Symphony Orchestra in 2017 when she dazzled in the ‘Piano Concerto for the Left Hand’ by Maurice Ravel - a performance that no-one who was at the concert will ever forget (reviewed here in November 2017). Famous for the slow, lush, romantic 18th variation, the 'Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini' is a challenging piece to pull together, full of fast variations with flurries of piano notes punctuated by precisely placed orchestral stabs. So it was worrying when we discovered, during our final rehearsal on Saturday afternoon, that our pianist's train had been delayed and she might not arrive in time to run through the piece with the orchestra. We started to play it through without the piano solo and, while we were playing (and unseen by conductor John Gibbons) Dinara Klinton ran up the central aisle of the church, threw herself onto the piano stool and instantly joined in the music, just in time to launch into a cadenza - without having removed her backpack from her shoulders. She gave a stunning performance in the concert, taking much of the piece at a dramatically fast pace and lovingly playing with the tempo (and our expectations) in the slow passages. It was a privilege to be accompanying her. We finished the concert with 'Symphony No 9' by Ralph Vaughan Williams - celebrating the composer's 150th anniversary this month with his final symphony. It's a serious, dramatic work, not very well known and not the easiest piece to understand, but it really grew on me as I got to know it over the past couple of months. And it was interesting how much better it seemed to work in performance than rehearsal - perhaps needing the additional concentration and pin-drop silences that you only get in a live concert. Among many fantastic solos, the stand out moments for me were Dan Newitt's gorgeous flugel horn solo in the second movement, the violin solo by orchestra leader Emily Groom and the distinctive saxophone passages, excellently played by Eva Jennings and Vicki Reamsbottopm. It was a great concert which felt like our most complete performance for some time.

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Thursday, October 20, 2022

'Towards the End of the Morning' by Michael Frayn

20 October 2022

Michael Frayn's 1967 novel 'Towards the End of the Morning' depicts a bygone era of Fleet Street newspaper offices - young men in suits spending their days staring out of the window, the slow manual compilation of nature notes and crossword clues, a mysterious unseen Editor, long liquid lunches and the dream of escaping the dead-end of print journalism through appearances on radio, or even television. It's a gentle, poignant satire punctuated by some brilliant set-piece farce scenes. The whimsical tone reminded me of Jerome K Jerome's 'Three Men in a Boat', daydreaming through slow, endless days and never taking itself too seriously. 'Towards the End of the Morning' is a slight novel but Michael Frayn manages to draw sympathetic, likeable characters who may be flawed, and ultimately doomed, but feel like friends.


‘John Gabriel Borkman’ by Henrik Ibsen

20 October 2022

On Saturday we were at the Bridge Theatre in London to see Henrik Ibsen’s 1896 play ‘John Gabriel Borkman’ in a new version by Lucinda Coxon, from a literal translation by Charlotte Barslund. This story of a disgraced former banker, imprisoned for speculating with his investors' money, feels all too topical. It’s a play with three leads - the titular banker, his wife and her sister - and Nicholas Hytner’s production boasts three star performances, from Simon Russell Beale, Claire Higgins and Lia Williams. Simon Russell Beale’s Borkman bears a striking resemblance (both physically and behaviourally) to a recent UK Prime Minister, and ends up looking like a blatant audition for King Lear. (Regular readers may remember I am patiently waiting for Simon Russell Beale to play Lear - see my review of his Prospero in ‘The Tempest’ here in November 2016.) I particularly liked the comic exchanges between Borkman and Vilhelm Foldal (Michael Simkins) which were wittily scripted and delivered in perfect dead-pan. But I felt Lia Williams stole the show with her performance as Ella. I had a feeling we had seen her on stage before and I now see I reviewed her super Rosalind in ‘As You Like It’ here in November 2005. I really enjoyed ‘John Gabriel Borkman’, more so for not having seen it before and discovering the unravelling plot for the first time.

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Friday, October 14, 2022

‘All’s Well That Ends Well’ by William Shakespeare

14 October 2022

On Saturday we were at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon to see the RSC production of ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’ directed by Blanche McIntyre. I had only seen ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’ once before - in a Royal Exchange Theatre production at Upper Campfield Market in Manchester in 1996. It is sometimes described as one of the ‘problem plays’, with an uncomfortable plot that is essentially: girl falls in love with boy - boy rejects girl - girl persuades king to force boy to marry her against his will - boy runs away - girl stalks boy across Europe, tricks him into sleeping with her by pretending to be the girl he actually loves and thereby forces him to return to her. It is also one of those Shakespeare plays that feels like he is trying out ideas that he will use to greater effect elsewhere. The imprisonment, blindfolding and humiliation of Parolles, for example, has a clear connection with the treatment of Malvolio in ‘Twelfth Night’. Blanche McIntyre gives the play a contemporary setting, with social media feeds projected across the back of the stage - which does prove useful in clarifying some of the main off-stage plot developments. The acting was impressive and entertaining, with a great central performance by Rosie Sheehy as Helena. But it’s not a great play.

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BBC Young Musician 2022

14 October 2022

One of the lesser-noticed impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic was how it broke my proud record of having reviewed here every one of the biennial BBC Young Musician competitions since 2006. The 2020 competition was interrupted by lockdown, with the Concerto Final eventually going ahead in May 2021. I did manage to watch it - and percussionist Fang Zhang was a worthy winner - but it took place while we were away on holiday and I wasn’t able to post my review. I am delighted to say that normal service has been resumed in 2022, and even more delighted to say that the television coverage of this year’s BBC Young Musician was the best I can remember. Wonderfully the BBC bowed to the inevitable and asked Jess Gillam (a finalist in 2016) to present the coverage, as a double-hander with the equally impressive Alexis Ffrench. And remarkably (and I like to think this must be in part a result of my moaning here since 2008) they have finally reinstated a final that features five full concertos - rather than cruelly depriving two of the five category winners from their moment on stage accompanied by an orchestra, as has happened since 2010. It was brilliant to watch the live broadcast, on Sunday evening, of five full back-to-back concertos - a thrilling, incredibly varied and fantastically moving concert. I was very smug at having correctly predicted all five finalists from watching their category finals (which moved me to tears several times). But I must admit I was completely wrong-footed by the decision to award the overall title of BBC Young Musician 2022 to the percussionist Jordan Ashman. He was brilliant, and gave a very impressive performance of the spectacular Percussion Concerto  by Jennifer Higdon, but I really thought the choice was going to be between two of the other finalists. Nevertheless the whole competition was really enjoyable and very fully and respectfully presented. Finally BBC Young Musician is once again as good as it used to be!

You can read all my previous posts about BBC Young Musician at:

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