Tuesday, May 17, 2016

On the Move

My new home on the web will now be at robspence.org.uk
This blog will continue there, and you'll also find some of my writing and current projects.
See you there!

Monday, April 25, 2016

Brand New Orchestra

This review was originally written for North West End and is available here.

The Brand New Orchestra is a thrice-yearly showcase event at the RNCM, where the student composers are given the chance to have their work performed by their colleagues on the instrumental side. Given the huge number of talented musicians studying at the RNCM, the forces available to the composers are immense, and they make full use of them, in the generous space of the RNCM’s main hall.

The event was free, and very informal, which was fine, but to be so laid-back as to not even bother with a programme made it a reviewer’s nightmare. With so many family and friends among the audience, a programme would have been a great souvenir. One side of A4 is all it takes! Instead, we had a spoken introduction to the evening by someone – an academic, I assume, but he didn’t say who he was – who told us that there would be nine pieces, each to be introduced by the composer.  So before each piece the composer stepped up to the microphone and did just that. Naturally, some of them were quite nervous, and several were clearly rather diffident about speaking in public – which meant that their names were not always easy to catch, especially as some of them had rather exotic monikers. This review will therefore break the first commandment of reviewing by not getting all the names, and probably getting some wrong. My kingdom for a programme!

The pieces premiered at this warm and upbeat event were very varied, suggesting that the future of classical music composition in this country is in safe hands. In an eclectic programme of short orchestral pieces, played by a very large band, the audience was treated to a really wide-ranging array of sounds, rehearsed, if I understood our MC correctly, in just two days, which made the ensuing excellence all the more remarkable.

We started with a piece by (probably) Phillipos, who was interested in translating electronic soundscapes into orchestral mode, using strings. The piece, which had a seascape theme was dreamily evocative at times, though some passages sounded like they might have accompanied Janet Lee in the shower.  A student who introduced himself as Peter from Italy presented us with a remarkably cinematic piece, which began with the percussionists whirling tubes (they’re called bloogle resonators) around their heads to produce an eerily unworldly noise, taken up by the violins, and eventually developing into a big orchestral sound. Lushly romantic at times, and stridently brassy at others, it faded to almost silence as the whirly tubes, defying health and safety regulations, took over again.

The third piece, possibly by someone called Charlotte, was quite different in tone from anything else we heard. The composer is working on a musical version of one of Terry Pratchett’s novels, and presented four songs from it. This was probably the most mainstream item of the night. I was reminded of Sondheim, and then of Lloyd Webber. The female singers were excellent, and convincingly in character. Don’t be surprised to see this hit the West End in the not-too-distant future.

Alex Simcox was one of two composers who presented a piece based on a poem. In his case the poem was by a colleague, and he was really inspired by just the final line, which gave him his title ‘Loops of Letting Go.’ This used the full forces of the orchestra, as well as the RNCM organ. The dense texture of the piece was relieved by sparkly lighter passages with woodwind and xylophone prominent. The other poetically-inspired piece was by William Marshall, and his starting point was Yeats’s well-known ‘The Second Coming’ whose first line gave him his title, ‘Turning in the Widening Gyre.’  The mysterious nature of the poem was evoked well in a piece that was slow and rather mesmeric, punctuated by the ominous tolling of the bell.

Daniel Ryan’s piece ‘Amygdala’ is named after the part of the brain that looks after emotions, survival instincts, and memory. It explores the subconscious through a series of often quite unsettling and heavily percussive passages, which then modulate into more sprightly, jaunty sounds. In contrast, Denis introduced his piece ‘Paris 13.11.15’ as his personal response to the terrorist attacks. This was adapted from a string quartet, and this time used the massed ranks of the strings to evoke the sadness of the theme. This was delicate, atmospheric and meditative, creating exquisitely the devastation wrought on that day.

Nevada (I think) offered a bright, lively springtime piece, which wore its heart on its sleeve. ‘A New Spring’ was quite traditional, and none the worse for that, making subtle use of the orchestral palate to suggest the regenerative powers of the season.

We finished with a remarkable piece which combined the full orchestra with the choir of the Fo Guang Shan Buddhist temple. Entitled ‘Pāramitā’ from the Sanskrit, and meaning the state of perfection or completeness that Buddhists aim for in their journey of spiritual development, the piece used brass, woodwind, strings and percussion to create a wall of sound verging on cacophony before the voices of the fifteen-strong choir broke in, quietly at first, and then increasing in volume until they had dominated the orchestra, which fell silent at the end, leaving us with just the chants of the choir. It was an unusual and memorable end to an excellent evening of new music by some very talented composers and players. But please let’s have a programme next time!

Friday, April 08, 2016

Shiny New Books 9

The new edition of Shiny New Books is now available online, containing reviews of many exciting and intriguing books.  A few of my reviews are in there, including the entertaining and scholarly account of the British in Malaya, Out in the Midday Sun, by Margaret Shennan; Laura Feigel's fascinating follow-up to The Love-Charm of Bombs, this time investigating artistic life in Germany after the war in The Bitter Taste of Victory; and Howard Jacobson's latest novel, a volume in Hogarth's reinterpretations of Shakespeare series, in which the Mancunian author tackles The Merchant of Venice in Shylock is my Name.

There's lots more, including a new literary guide to Venice that is definitely accompanying me next time I go; Volker Weidemann's book about Zweig and Roth; the latest Julian Barnes biofiction, this time on Shostakovich; a new-to-me detective in Elly Griffiths's The Woman in Blue; and a book to feed my recently-acquired taste for espionage fiction, Helen Dunmore's Exposure.

As always with SNB, lots to read, lots to explore. Once again, a pleasing mix of the familiar and the new. Have a browse, why don't you?

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Così Fan Tutte

The title of Mozart’s opera is one of the few that are never rendered into English when the piece is performed. “Women – they’re all like that” would be a close translation, and that maybe grates on twenty-first century ears. It also suggests that the comedic tone will be coarser than it actually is. Opera North’s lively production, now touring, steers a clever course, avoiding slapstick on the one hand, and sentimentality on the other.

The visually startling set, designed by Thomas Hoheisel,  is a key element in establishing this production’s atmosphere. As the curtain rises, we are presented with what seems to be a giant wooden box, with huge cutout lenses, which we soon realise is a camera obscura. This opens out to reveal a monochrome interior, which is where all the action takes place. At the beginning, Don Alfonso, played with wry humour by William Dazeley, stands outside the construction, and invites the orchestra to play: he is the detached observer of the mind games that will be played out within the box.

The two sisters, Fiordiligi (Máire Flavin) and Dorabella (Helen Sharman) are indistinguishable when we first see them, but soon we note their differing personalities as they find themselves the unknowing guinea-pigs in Don Alfonso’s experiment to prove the fickle nature of women. Their soldier lovers, Gugliemo (Gavan Ring) and Ferrando (Nicholas Watts) are nicely distinguished too, with Ring giving Gugliemo a brash bravado, and Watts providing Ferrando with a plaintive vulnerability. The role of the maid Despina was brilliantly handled by Ellie Laugharne, whose energy and humour drove the action forward, particularly when she is disguised as the doctor as part of Don Alfonso’s deception. In her maid’s outfit, she wears a red hairpin, sticking out like horns, and hinting at the devilment she urges on her employers.

With Mozart’s glorious tunes, and Da Ponte’s witty libretto (here sung in English, in an equally witty version by an uncredited translator), it’s difficult to see how Così Fan Tutte can fail. That it succeeds as well as it does here is tribute to a sparkling cast, directed with vigour by Tim Albery, working hard for each other in a series of vibrant set pieces, particularly the sextet in the first act, where the disguised soldiers return to woo the women, and the finale, where all of them agree to accept the vicissitudes of life.

Tim Albery’s production, whilst providing many comic moments, nonetheless manages to explore the darker recesses of human nature hinted at in Don Alfonso’s philosophy. Fiordiligi’s second act aria in which she begs forgiveness is rendered with real poignancy by Máire Flavin, and Ferrando’s despair when he discovers that Dorabella has been tempted is invested with genuine emotion by Nicholas Watts.

The Opera North orchestra, conducted by Anthony Kraus, performed with plenty of attack, complementing the busyness of the action.  Charlotte Forrest’s fortepiano in the recitative was a delight, really highlighting the characters’ words, and helping to propel the narrative.

The sublime pairing of Mozart and Da Ponte will always provide marvellous entertainment, but this production works well on every level, helped by a consistent and highly original vision of the late eighteenth-century world.  This is a genuine treat for any fan, and would surely convert many who find opera too remote.

This review was originally written for North West End

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

The New Iconocasts

My latest on Medium is here.

Friday, March 04, 2016

Forty Thousand Years Wide

To the Manchester Jewish Museum again, for the latest in their series of innovative concerts. In the last couple of years, the museum has showcased the work of Manchester University lecturer Richard Fay, who runs a klezmer module in the music department. The students play as a group, or kapelye, and also with Richard's ensemble. We have been to a couple of these concerts, and most enjoyable they were: the students are very proficient, and they play with skill and zip. This year, a more ambitious programme was presented. The Jewish presence in Manchester is mirrored by the Irish: both originally poor communities of immigrants who arrived in the booming Cottonopolis of the nineteenth century seeking a better life. The areas of Manchester where they lived were close to each other, so Richard imagined how it might be if the sounds of one community floated across the Irk to intrigue the ears of the other. For this, he needed an Irish group, and, in what is definitely a bit of a coup, he recruited none other than Manchester Irish music legend Mike McGoldrick, last seen by me on the stage of the Royal Albert Hall in Mark Knopfler's band.
Richard's programme was called "Amid the Mirk over the Irk," and while the pedant in me would want that third word to be "Murk", it described the context very well. A little scene-setting spoken word introduction quoted contemporary accounts of the filthy slums crowded around the "pestilential effluvia" of the River Irk around Red Bank (where the Jews had gathered) and the ironically named Angel Meadow, where the Irish had set up home. Then we were treated to a series of tunes where one or the other side would take the lead, with their counterparts joining in, and collectively they produced some glorious music. It actually seems relatively unlikely that there was much crossover at the time, but it's a nice conceit, and allowed for some vibrant fusion.
McGoldrick brought along Dezi Donnelly, with whom he played all those years ago in Toss the Feathers, and the very accomplished banjo and guitar player Angela  Durcan. Mike called the shots when the two units played together, a nod of the head or a raised eyebrow being enough to convey his instructions. The former student group, L'chaim Kapelye, acquitted themselves brilliantly. We had seen some of them before in previous concerts, and once again were impressed by their virtuosity. They have a potential star in bass player Lucie Phillips, who again pleased the crowd with her renditions of  the jaunty "Der Rebbe Elimelech" and the old favourite "Yiddishe Momme," both of which she sang last time. I would love to hear her sing the Kurt Weill repertoire - she would give Ute Lemper a run for her money.
The gig was covered by local writer Mark Davoren, and his very detailed account is already available. I won't add more except to say I was intrigued by the final spoken word passage, entitled "Our Ancestors Forty Thousand Years Wide" which seemed very mysterious. I thought it might be an oblique reference to the idea that art is generally agreed to have become a human activity about forty thousand years ago. It turns out that it's the name of a traditional klezmer tune which features on this album by Frank London's Klezmer Brass All Stars. Frank London, I discover, is a member of the fabulous Klezmatics. The tune has no lyric, other than a "ya-da-da" which we all sang along to as the final piece in the concert. A quick encore led by Mike McGoldrick, and we were off into the rainy Manchester night. Another excellent night at this venue, which is really working hard to make itself a destination in this most multicultural of areas. 

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Big in Japan 10

We loved our trip to Japan, and had a wonderful time exploring its culture, history and geography. But like Prof. Macfarlane (remember him?) we felt that we had merely managed to skim the surface of the country, and that that we could spend a lifetime trying to truly understand it. We discussed this in Hiroshima, with someone who had lived there for twenty years, and he confirmed that feeling at home in Japan is a very elusive thing for a foreigner.

That shouldn't put anyone off, however, so I thought I would offer some of our insights, in no particular order, aimed at the potential traveller to Japan.

1. Travel at least once on the Shinkansen. It is a wonderfully relaxing way to get from A to B. The Japan Rail Pass is a bargain, and if you intend to move around on your holiday, it's essential.

2. Be prepared for some surprising experiences when you go to the loo. In hotels and restaurants, you will often find an all-singing and all-dancing loo with switches for various types of warming or cooling bidet-style water jets, and music or birdsong to accompany your actions. Like this:

3. Don't worry if you are vegetarian. We imagined that we would struggle, but certainly in the cities there are loads of ethnic restaurants that are fine for veggies, especially Italian. And of course, in Hiroshima, there's the possibility of a vegetarian okonomiyaki. One possibility we had considered before travelling was to eat at the temples, where you can sometimes get vegan food from the kitchen. Once in Japan, we found that the temples are now quite chic destinations for foodies, and that the kitchens are not open to the public that often, and the prices are sky-high.

4. Try to use some Japanese, even if it's only "Hello" and "Thank you." The people will really appreciate that you made some kind of effort. English isn't spoken that widely, but we found that in the cities at least, most people had some basic English vocabulary.

5. Bow. On greeting people, and leaving them, or when some sort of transaction is going on, like a shop purchase or a hotel check-in, bow. It becomes a habit, and it's a little acknowledgement of the more formal way of doing things in Japan.

6. Be prepared to be ordered about, very gently, by people you come across. Japan's economic culture encourages long-term employment security above short-term economic gain, so people are employed in functions which would not be seen as necessary in England. For example, we often saw a smartly uniformed man or woman at the entrance to multi-storey car parks. Their job was to usher in the cars as they approached, and to hold up pedestrians who were crossing in front. Another instance was in hotels, where, rather than allowing the customer to approach the reception desk on their own, a group of employees would intercept you, and direct you to the right counter. A similar process obtained at the Japan Rail office at the airport, as I mentioned. This is related to their love of paperwork and bureaucracy. You will get receipts for everything.

7. Use the Metro to travel around Tokyo. Tickets are cheap, the network is extensive, and if you avoid the obvious rush hours, the trains don't get too crowded. We never saw anything like this:
8. It's not as expensive as you might think. Because the Japanese economy has been stagnating for so long, prices are actually pretty reasonable from an English perspective. We paid no more for food and services than we would pay at home - maybe London prices in Tokyo, but nothing ridiculously expensive.

9. It's safe. People can walk around late at night without fear. Street crime is very rare. Obviously, it's sensible to take precautions, but we never felt the edginess that you get in British cities at night.

10. It's clean. Litter and rubbish are not tolerated. I've never come across city streets so free of detritus anywhere I've travelled.

These Japan posts have, I hope, been of interest to my reader, but they've also helped me to process the experience, and to relive some great moments. We have very fond memories of our trip.