Megazoid (Scottish Comedy Festival @ Nightcap: Aug 15-18, 20-26 : 20:30: 45 mins)

“An extremely charismatic, likeable performer.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Outstanding

There’s a joy to ridiculousness. It’s like Sudocrem for the general psychic onslaught of existing. Innately, I think there’s something worth celebrating in the ridiculous, and Megan Shandley’s Megazoid is certainly evidence of that fact.

A homegrown Edinburgh talent, Shandley’s approach to comedy is that of a temperamental muscle car: smooth riding for the most part, with occasional and unexpected jolts to high speed. It’s easy to be lured into a false sense of security by her sheer laidback-ness, but there’s a wonderful weirdness hiding just underneath, waiting to express itself in an unexpected punchline.

The material is, as you might expect, varied. Shandley embraces the tried-and-tested “scattershot topics, barely-there theme” approach carved out in comedy clubs since before time, and it works. This isn’t a show that needs to be slick or tightly woven together. It’s hanging out with a cool mate who drinks wine from a bag, and has a lot of thoughts on the Lion King – and honestly? That’s all it needs to be. The comedy is relatable enough to keep you anchored and odd enough to keep you guessing, but never volatile or needlessly edgy. Shandley is unabashedly a feelgood comic, even if she doesn’t set out to be.

But even good works are not without fault. It’s a bittersweet criticism in that this was a show which left me wanting more. Though fantastically relatable, Shandley’s easygoing demeanour sometimes meant otherwise excellent jokes were let down by a lack of pointedness in their delivery. Constantly, Shandley gives teases of over the top physicality, high-energy and clownish expressiveness, but pulls back before things can reach their most pleasing apex. Fringe slots are tight but nevertheless, this is material in want of greater variance in pace.

Perhaps my disappointment was amplified by the quality of what was one display, and wondering what it could be. Shandley has some fantastic material at her disposal: unexpected, bright and even surprisingly intricate. Arcs and connected punchlines surface with joyful abandon, constantly layering and re-layering.

It’s clear that there’s a wealth of material bouncing around Shandley’s brain – even the explanation of the show’s title suggests as-of-yet unseen country, full of unexpected turns and left-field observations, waits somewhere underneath her blonde bob, and ultimately I found myself wishing I could’ve taken a longer safari. This is, as before, bittersweet: for although it limits how much I can rate the show, there’s no limit to how much I liked this show. Shandley is an extremely charismatic, likeable performer, and with revisions this is an act that could really seriously turn heads.

Megazoid is a wonderful 45 minutes of staring through the world through slanted binoculars. Despite the shortcomings of her act, Megan Shandley is undeniably one to watch – in person, as well as in the long span of time.

outstanding

StarStarStar

Reviewer: Jacob Close (Seen 13 August)

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Ensemble 1880, Wagner and Brahms, Institut francais d’Ecosse, 13 August 2019

Image result for ensemble 1880

“By the end of the evening the smiles were huge, the applause loud, and happiness was in the air. “

Editorial Rating:3 Stars

There are many myths and half truths circulating around composers with interesting if not scandalous private lives, and Wagner, along with Liszt, is probably at the top of the list.  An uncompromising man of great passion, he was by no means a modern day commitment phobe and the work we heard tonight, along with its backstory, gives ample proof of this. It is, in fact, a consummation.

Cosima, Wagner’s first wife and twenty four years his junior, was the illegitimate daughter of Franz Liszt, herself born of passion.  Married to Hans Von Bulow, a student of Liszt and a celebrated conductor, far too young at 18 and bearing him two children, feeling increasing coldness from her husband, she fell first for Wagner’s music, and then him, having met when the Von Bulows stayed with Wagner for the weekend.  There followed a long term affair siring three children out of wedlock before Von Bulow relented and the couple married.

At the time of writing Siegfried Idyll in what has to be the ultimate birthday present, the musicians settled on the stair that led up to his wife’s bedroom inside their Swiss villa on the birthday morn so they could perform a symphonic poem that Wagner had written as a celebration of her birthday as well as to mark the joyous occasion of the birth of their son Siegfried the year before.  Cosima awoke to the sound of music wafting into her bedroom and at first she thought she was dreaming. Beats being woken up by the radio alarm, doesn’t it?

Why I had always thought this story improbable is that most people hear the work played by a full orchestra of a hundred or so players,or at least a full string orchestra.  How could they all fit on the stairs? Much revised, the version was originally written for an ensemble of fifteen as we heard it tonight (albeit 13 desks, close enough), so the story begins to ring true.  For proof, read Cosima’s diaries.

I tried to get all this into my head when listening to our band this evening, Ensemble 1880.  On paper a supergroup with several principals and past principals of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, this particular band has an esoteric approach to the music, neither contemporary nor original instruments, but trying to approximate the sound at the time of early recorded music.  One really has to question this approach; while period instruments and arrangements have their place, who is interested in early recordings with all its sonic limitations, especially in this day of remastering? Moreover, Siegried Idyll was first performed in 1870 and Brahms Serenade No 1 in 1858.  Director Alec Frank-Gemmill explained this approach while showing us his 1920 horn.  The first shellac disc came out in 1895. Is this not all a faux concept?

The reversal of playing order should have been a signal.  Everybody had come to hear the Wagner, hence it was originally put on last.  We were told we were to hear it first. It was thoroughly disappointing and under rehearsed.  Individual playing was competent, but there was no feeling of ensemble, a complete absence of legato with wind and brass in particular failing to gel.  The two horns struggled to hit the note first time, oboe jerky, and the patient trumpet who had to sit there for the first fifteen minutes was too loud when he did make his entrance.  Too much of the heavy lifting of the theme was taken by the first violin, using inappropriate glissando. Only in the closing two minutes of the piece did we get an idea of what this group was capable of.  With the end in sight they relaxed and played in a smooth, together style which one had wished we had experienced from the start.

Had there been an interval I would have left, but I was glad I didn’t.  Now a nonet to reflect the original scoring of the work, the ensemble gave a superb, confident nay exemplary performance of the Brahms Serenade No 1 with some frankly virtuoso playing in particular by Alec Frank-Gemmill on horn and Georgia Browne mastering the tricky wooden flute.  The strings played together like they did every day. Forty minutes of joy.

Such is the nature of live music, a fickle creature.  Something wasn’t working even in rehearsal in the Wagner, I suspect, hence the playing order swap and the look of restrained relief on the players’ faces when it was over and somewhat brief muted applause from the audience.  By the end of the evening the smiles were huge, the applause loud, and happiness was in the air.

 

Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: †Charles Stokes (Seen 13 August)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

The Seven Second Theory (TheSpace on North Bridge : Aug 8-10, 12-17: 12:30 : 1hr)

“A highly creative and well acted piece.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars Nae Bad 

Outside of automobile tragedies and prom night, there’s not a huge amount you can do in seven seconds. You can run until you’re nearby rather than right here, and if you’re fast you can even stretch it to just over there. You can half unbutton a coat, and, if you’re anything like me, you can get 1/75 of the way towards choosing which brand of soda to buy.

Or, if you’re rapidly leaving the breathing population, you can relive all the mistakes you’ve made. So that’s a comforting thought.

The Seven Second Theory is an interesting but fairly self-explanatory premise: a man named John Doe (Theo Antonov) is about to have his life support switched off, and goes on a journey through his own memories in the brief seven seconds before brain death. His memories include those of his best friends Aaron (Joe Davidson) the infuriatingly spelt Jenni (Megan Good), as well as the love of his life, Katherine (Sophie Hill).

The main cast are undoubtedly talented performers. Antonov makes the feat of being onstage for the show’s duration look (almost) effortless, and his machine-gun delivery adds a facet of charm and vitality to his John Doe. Good, pulling double duty as writer and actress, creates a highly empathetic and relatably charming stage presence as Jenni, layering a good heart with a layer of acid which is hard not to be charmed by. Sophie Hill, despite the occasional lull in physical engagement with the scene, does an excellent job at portraying the struggles of success, embodying the constantly-working Russel Group brainchild to a tee. My standout, however, is Davidson: constantly empathetic, always reacting in the background, and all-around a rippingly strong portrayal of a character who is stung by despair amidst joy.

Supporting characters rotated amongst a chorus (Sabrina Miller, Emma Rogerson and Charlie Graff), who were simply delightful. Despite a few quick character vignettes which, forgivably, seemed underdeveloped, they make a wonderful team. Many of the show’s best lines come from their corner of the acting ring, and their range is something to be respected.

With the above in mind, I remind you that The Seven Second Theory is a comedy. Blacker than black, but comedy nonetheless – and for the most part, the show quite handily succeeds in that regard. Most of the jokes are dropped with precise and well-rehearsed timing, with just enough punch behind them to punctuate the scene. The material isn’t particularly groundbreaking stuff as far as the general regrets of mortality are concerned, but it’s certainly enough keep you waiting for the next one liner. Antonov in particular is sharp as a pin, though every cast member shines.

As for the narrative, without giving too much away, it’s the same story as the above. The framing device is dramatically succinct, the banter and conversations sounds realistic and endearing, and each scene beat feels exactly in its place. However, don’t come in looking for surprises: much like its comedic material, the messages and narrative themes (whilst undoubtedly well executed and well conceived) remain fairly pedestrian. The Seven Second Theory has some really interesting stuff to say about the foibles of human want, but it’s nothing you wouldn’t expect to hear.

And whilst its separate components of comedy and tragedy work well enough on their own, The Seven Second Theory seems to have real difficulty in the switch-between. In trying to cram so many different emotional beats into what is a fairly modest runtime, what emerges is a kind of tonal soup. There is no spared moment to settle into the despair, to come down from the laughs. This is a show that would greatly benefit from slowing itself down, and learning not to fear silence.

The great tragedy of these tonal problems is that, coupled with an unfortunate case of “shouting means drama” syndrome, when emotional pay-off arrives it can come off as mawkish or forced. As a production that relies so much on the internal lives of its main characters, this seriously undercuts the comedy’s dramatic counterweight.

To end positively, though, a place where The Seven Second Theory shines (literally) is in its stage design. I am enamoured with it: dramatic, effective and imaginative. The use of lanterns both as a light source and guiding prop is inspired, and goes a long way in giving the minimalist set design a real feeling of boundary and weight. Their use and presentation in the show elevates the sense of magical-realism which is always gnawing at the sides of the narrative, and lends it an appropriately dream-like atmosphere.

The Seven Second Theory is a highly creative and well acted piece, held back by elements of its direction and themes. For better and for worse, it’s a show that leaves you wanting more. Is it worth your time? Entirely, but it won’t change your life. The process of staging new writing is constantly transformative, and this is no exception – with revisions, Megan Good’s work could be something truly special.

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Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Jacob Close (Seen 6 August)

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EIFF: “She’s Missing”

“A captivating tale.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

The American southwest clearly possesses an almost mystical charm that has again and again proven magnificently well-suited to the film medium. From Wim Wenders to David Lynch to Tarantino and beyond, filmmakers have been venturing down south and to the left to capture the inimitable feeling of the region for many years, to fabulous results. Now, with She’s Missing, Alexandra McGuinness adds another entry into the southwest canon, with a film that pays dutiful tribute to this tradition while spinning a rather captivating tale in the process. 

One might expect, from the bluntness of the title, a fairly run-of-the-mill mystery that rests more on its leading performances rather than its writing. The missing-woman narrative has not only been done countless times before, but is indeed a theme in a number of the films in this very festival, and promises few exciting possibilities without something particularly inventive thrown in. Thankfully, McGuinness does have a wild card to play, in her selection of leads; Lucy Fry, as the shy wallflower Heidi, and Eisa González (instantly memorable from her standout turn in Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver) as the much bolder, more ambitious, and more striking Jane. 

It becomes rather clear early on that while the narrative of She’s Missing begins trawling in unfortunately low-energy subject matter, the leading actresses are simply too good to let the film slip into mediocrity. González does very well in only a few initial scenes to establish her character’s magnetism, unpredictability, and indisputable dominance over the more accommodating Heidi, while Fry imbues Heidi with a curious devotion to Jane that oscillates between gentle, amicable affection and outright servitude. McGuinness, who wrote and directed the film, intelligently sets up their dynamics with a series of impressive show-don’t-tell choices, principally within scenes in which Heidi defers to Jane obediently, while Jane sees herself as generously guiding Heidi through a dangerous world. The opening shot, in particular, really tells us all we need to know, as Jane regally rides through the New Mexico desert astride a tall horse, and Heidi walks on foot beside them, leading the horse and doing most of the work, both seeming content with Heidi filling the more submissive role. In a prepared statement issued before the film, McGuinness suggested that to her, the film explores the complexities and toxicities of female relationships, and on that front, She’s Missing certainly accomplishes just that. 

Well, it does until the plot kicks in. As the title so unsubtly suggests, one of these ladies goes missing. It is not hard to spot early on which one it will be, and which will devotedly take it upon herself to drop everything and find her friend. When the investigation gets underway, however, the film becomes unfortunately stagnant and unfocused, with various intriguing but irrelevant subplots popping up and disappearing without much justification. One in particular, in which a somewhat suspicious cowboy type (Christian Camargo) romances Heidi with a mixture of pushiness and genuine charm, is certainly layered and results in some solid observations, yet fades away without having much to contribute to the established storyline beyond pithy insights into the complexities of the American southwest and southern male masculinity.

In this regard, notably, McGuinness deserves credit for portraying this American tale without lazy finger-pointing and condemnations; various Americana is portrayed with a refreshing nuance, as McGuinness’ camera explores local rodeos, gun stores, attitudes towards the Mexican border, southern music, and the ever-present mysticism of the desert with aplomb. To be clear, the cowboy adds a commendable layer of detail to the portrayal of the region, but nevertheless seems added in to let McGuinness make a legitimate but somewhat superfluous series of points given the film’s prevailing narrative. 

The major issue, again, comes when the aesthetics cannot make up for a rather limp plotline. Nothing really comes of the central story after the midway point, except some unearned leaps in narrative that introduce some quirky characters (including an entertaining turn from Josh Hartnett) but nothing particularly memorable or inventive. She’s Missing becomes rather easily divisible into three parts; the first, rich in aesthetic and narrative craft, the second, still striking a well-crafted mood but becoming less compelling, and the third, slipping away into the unshakeable feeling that McGuinness didn’t know how to end her ultimately unremarkable storyline. 

Perhaps the film’s original title, Highway, would set us up for a more realistic expectation of what the film offers: a sense of a region and set of characters in transit and transition, with interesting oddities flashing by but never lingering on any to great effect. Thankfully, Fry and González are with us for most of the film, so the ride is enjoyable essentially from start to finish, even if the attractions become conspicuously less inspired down the road. 

 

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Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller

 

EIFF: “The Souvenir”

“A rich and layered portrait.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

The agony involved in being privileged is a frequent subject for films like The Souvenir. And like the existing canon of sad-little-rich-girl narratives, moments in it are irritatingly haughty in style and substance. Yet the familiarity of its achingly austere production design and composition are set apart in some manner by the film’s insistence that it knows this luxuriousness is all a bit much. Unfortunately, one is left without enough weight to the film to decide whether the approach was all worth it. 

Protagonist Julie (Hope Swinton Byrne) is hoping to direct her first feature film, a Truffaut-reminiscent poverty drama that equates a young boy’s love for his doomed mother with the lamentable decline of Sunderland. The proposition, as her film school professors remind her often, is a clear departure from her lived experience as an awfully wealthy young woman from London, and in serious danger of becoming a regrettably opaque view of something she does not understand.

Not so for director Joanna Hogg, whose delicate touches imbue The Souvenir with an undeniable sense that she understands her subjects deeply and affectionately. With the help of a memorable performance by Tom Burke as Julie’s occasionally charming, occasionally insufferable lover Antony, this film depicts a rich (both literally and figuratively) and layered portrait of high-class ennui and unrest. To call it intimate, however, would be a stretch. Hogg employs a pale, muted color palette, and an unobtrusive, still visual approach, which result in some deeply pleasant aesthetics but a dour sense of distance from the goings-on. 

As for the goings-on, there are not terribly many. This is not a problem in itself — of course a film can be intriguing without much plot or action — but The Souvenir opts to show the bare minimum of conflicts, confrontations, and even conversations that cause shifts and developments in Julie and Antony’s lives. In a trite but informative scene during one of Julie’s film school lectures, she and her professor excitedly discuss the visual trickery and intelligence involved in Hitchcock’s Psycho — with particular enthusiasm for his choice to leave all the “action” offscreen, and simply display “the results.” It was not immediately clear that this was meant to serve as a treatise on this film’s own approach, until a number of narrative leaps occur in its second half that are almost completely left off-camera, and to our imagination. Unfortunately, the power Hitchcock was able to find in the offscreen twists of Psycho is not replicated by Hogg; few moments in the dramatic developments of The Souvenir demand much emotional response, and ‘the results’ are more often twee than they are intriguing.

That is not to say the film fails to elicit any reactions. Some lines, in particular ones Burke delivers with his almost amphibian inflection, are not only funny but very interesting, achieving a rare sort of dialogue that is both familiar and excitingly creative. The most involving scene by far, however, is stolen completely by the already-renowned Richard Ayoade, who cameos as a contrived artisan friend of Antony’s who waxes on about film as lifeblood and nosily picks apart Julie’s personality with armchair philosophy. Ayoade is not only a master of tone and delivery in this scene, but a remarkably grounding presence, as at that point the film is somewhat in danger of listing into monotonous luxury — Ayoade’s chain-smoking jerk in a furry leopard-print coat is a most welcome disruption, even for only a few minutes. 

Similar interruptions of the austerity are charming and well-crafted. The musical selections are both fun and informative of character. Julie seems content to put on The Psychedelic Furs or Joe Jackson as much as she is to listen to Antony’s selections of opera or her mother’s beloved record of “Moonlight Serenade.” Many details shine brightly; the specificity of Julie’s parents country home, and their references to political and interpersonal realities and expectations in the film’s early-1980’s setting, are intriguing in many ways. The biggest name involved, Tilda Swinton, adds many tics and layers to her character of Julie’s mother that remind one what a gifted actress she is. She plays Julie’s mother with masterful grace and graciousness — though perhaps it is not surprising their onscreen relationship works so well, Tilda being Hope’s real-life mother. 

The headlining trio of Swinton Byrne, Swinton, and Burke are all clearly impressive actors. The attention to detail and consistency of aesthetics are also, undoubtedly, impressive. What is less impressive is the difficulty the film has maintaining its relevance. The film lists between ideas, likely an intentional reflection of Julie’s own inability to get the ball rolling on her projects, but nevertheless a needlessly languid approach that feels drawn out too far. One minute Julie is the focus, then Antony, then Antony’s vices, then Julie’s muted reactions to those vices, then her film school experience, then privilege, family, money, terrorism, Venice, the nature of art, and more assorted topics one might find discussed over a wine-drunk meal in Knightsbridge (of which there are many in this script). Again, the variety of topics is not an issue, but the lack of depth, to most of them, is. In particular, the topic of Julie’s privilege is discussed only twice, early in the film, very explicitly, then never revisited at all. One might almost think Hogg believed if she straightforwardly acknowledged, early on, that this is a film about rich, perplexingly discontent young people — who are mostly causing their own problems — and get that out of the way, it would assuage any reservations about the topic and let her ignore the complexities of privilege from then on. 

In a way, this is successful; it was not until the film ended that I felt a creeping unease with the unapologetic snootiness of it all. But looking back, there seems little reason to keep it all so uptight. Hogg’s film is sure to please those with an affection for austere glamour, but will likely repel those who find the issues on display middling and dull, and who find films like these more arrogant than artistic.

 

Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller

 

EIFF: “Strange But True”

“Had my eyes positively glued to the screen.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller here, back for a second time covering the EIFF! Glad to be back. More films more fun.

The suburban noir genre gets a capable but fairly average new entry in Rowan Athale’s Strange But True. The story, written by Eric Garcia from a novel by John Searles, follows the fallout of a bizarre meeting between a young pregnant woman and a grieving family. In the grey, quiet suburbs of New York, a very pregnant Melissa (Margaret Qualley) visits the home of mild-mannered, withdrawn Philip (Nick Robinson) and his mother Charlene (the always talented Amy Ryan). She knows them under tragic circumstances; she was dating their son Ronnie when he suddenly died on prom night five years earlier. Which makes matters particularly strange when she informs the two of them that she believes the baby inside her is Ronnie’s.

This forms the catalyst for the film’s spiraling developments. Charlene dismisses it as offensive and delusional hokum, though eventually considers certain ways it might just be true. Philip does some sleuthing on his own, even working around his broken leg to get to the bottom of whether Melissa is attached to any form of reality or not. The film takes some care to illustrate Philip’s detective skills; his passion for photography and his extensive memory of his brother come in handy as he stalks around asking former classmates and contacts what to do. Their tinkering ends up involving Philip’s father and Charlene’s ex, Richard (Greg Kinnear), whose initial introduction as a shallow opportunist is intriguingly deconstructed as he tries his best to unravel the mystery. The story makes clear that while the mystery is the priority, the characters’ painful and unforgotten histories and misunderstandings are key to working out who to trust and who is withholding important truths.

The key question on many of the characters’ minds is essentially whether Melissa is nuts or not. She insists she has not been with anyone else who could have left her with child, and seems, to all who know her, to be of sound mind. Yet as the film and its characters sink deeper into the underlying tensions in their quiet town, everyone from gracious neighbors like Bill (Brian Cox) and Gail (Blythe Danner) to local psychics and law enforcement get involved in unearthing some uncomfortably dark secrets. 

If darkness and secrets are your thing, this will likely entertain you. Strange But True is by no means a bad film, it is simply quite a self-serious one, which often leans more towards suspense than entertainment. Athale achieves some suspenseful sequences that are brilliantly tense, yet many other moments meant to be suspenseful are too languid and irrelevant to have an effect. Certain scenes towards the end, in particular, present some head-scratching twists that unfortunately fall into a common trap with twisty noirs: they come out of nowhere, and make no sense. A montage near the end is both impressive and puzzling : whilst it ties together multiple timelines and flashbacks quite well,  it really doesn’t provide much in the way of new plot developments. On another note, though perhaps I have seen too many noirs myself, but one ‘major’ twist towards the end was teased so heavily around the midway point that it greatly reduced the intended shock of its eventual reveal. It’s the kind of scene that makes you go “Oh, so they did it” — and you would be right.

Beyond the plot, there are also some intriguing choices elsewhere, for better and worse. The cast is undeniably an impressive bunch; Ryan and Cox in particular turn in performances that serve as effective reminders of their talent. Yet everything, from the acting to the visual craft, feels a few steps away from being truly cohesive or impressive. Kinnear and Danner are fine, but produce nothing particularly memorable; Robinson is a blank face for most of the runtime; Qualley is good at her expressions but less so on her delivery. Numerous shots are simply too dark, too fast, or too muted to leave an impression, and though some of the suburban scenery is captured well, momentarily, Athale rarely lets his camerawork breathe. Again, his approach also results in some winning moments, including a climactic sequence that I admit had my eyes positively glued to the screen. Yet the power of these infrequent moments (and, unfortunately, the limp and regrettable ways they often tie back into the overly twisty plot) mainly highlight the many missed opportunities in the rest of the film.

Unlike theatre of course, one cannot recommend a film try something different in a future performance. But if Strange But True had a chance to rework some elements, and tightened up its visuals and its performances with more practice and focus, this could be a genuinely engaging piece. As it is, however, it is a fairly run-of-the-mill thriller that could use more strange, more energy, and more thought. 

nae bad_blue

Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller

 

NYOS: Chan, Osborne (Usher Hall: 12 April ’19)

Image result for National Youth Orchestra of Scotland 

“I have never heard Pictures played so well.  Ever.  By anyone.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

 

There is much talk in educational, local political and musical circles about youth and classical music today and where it is going.  I have a slightly different take to those who wish instrument teaching to be free for all, who I think miss the point.  Musical appreciation for all certainly at the infant and possibly early primary stages, but nothing is more likely to put someone off its joys than to learn something because they have to rather than because they want to.  Instrumental technique requires commitment, dedication and practice.  Money that is freely spent on other leisure pursuits can usually be redirected if wanted.

 

Serious youth music is channelled by the National Youth Orchestras of Scotland, which is not so much an orchestra as a movement, comprising three orchestras and two jazz combos, with illustrious patrons such Sir James MacMillan and Nicola Benedetti.

 

It is greatly to the RSNO’s credit that they devote such commitment to youth music, the more so because they integrated the orchestra’s 40th season into their own along with the creation of a new partnership.   The young people had the privilege on the night of being under the baton of the RSNO’s Principal Guest Conductor, Elim Chan, and of accompanying the uber talented Steven Osborne in Rach3.

 

As the players came on stage and warmed up full of brio I knew we were going to be in for a fun evening, even if fuelled on enthusiasm alone.  I was dismayed that the house was only half to three quarters full, but of course every conceivable parent, grandparent and sibling was there.  Often youth orchestras are capable of the very highest standard of delivery.  We would see.

 

Accompanying a soloist requires a different type of playing than when it is an entirely orchestral piece, the dynamics are more accentuated, you have to play quieter than you would wish a lot of the time.  The NYOS clearly understood this under the accessible and supportive conducting of Elim Chan, but perhaps they hadn’t reckoned with the bravura playing of Steven Osborne in Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 3 In D minor, Op. 30To my utter astonishment, notwithstanding what I have said about Chan’s supportive style, she took the work really fast.  The tempo for the first movement is Allegro ma non tanto.  Clearly Chan forgot or chose to ignore the non tanto.  Boy!, it was fast, and Osborn played both fast and loud.  Very loud, it was an absolute virtuoso performance, but this meant the orchestra/soloist balance was often wrong with the orchestra playing too quietly apart from some confident solo instrumental passages.  As everybody settled in after the mammoth first movement the strings came into their own in the Intermezzo: Adagio with some exceptional pizzicato from the double basses (one of their proud parents was right in front of me and gladly pointed him out).  In the final movement Alla breve everyone had a good time as they brought this monumental, demanding work to a glorious conclusion.  Osborne rose from the piano stool, modestly took no bow alone and immediately referenced the orchestra.  He then treated us to something “quieter and slower”, one of Rachmaninov’s glorious preludes.

 

It transpired, after the interval, that this would be a “concert of two halves”, my slight reservations about some of the playing in Part One swept aside as the band was given their head in a full on performing, rather than accompanying role.  First up was Andrea Tarrodi’s (b. 1981) short orchestral piece Liguria, inspired by the composer’s 2011 visit to six of its small villages.  Dramatic from start to finish it showed off the orchestra’s credentials, enjoyable to listen to in the modern idiom, if somewhat derivative.  The waves depicting Onde reminded me of Debussy’s La Mer.

 

The final work in the programme was Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an ExhibitionThis is a work guaranteed to bring the house down, and what impressed me was the joy, yet discipline and sheer musical accomplishment that the young orchestra brought to it.  Not a hint of vulgarity, clear, taut delivery, and the full gamut of strings, wind, brass (including two bass tubas), percussion (including tubular bells and two harps) giving us the full big orchestra experience.  I slept on this before finally convincing myself of the veracity of the happy note that I wrote before leaving the auditorium:  “I have never heard Pictures played so well.  Ever.  By anyone.”  Well done NYOS, you are a testimony for youth music.

 

 

nae bad_blue

Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 12 April)

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