ASMF: BELL: USHER HALL: 19 JAN 20

Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, with Joshua Bell, center, in a dual role on Wednesday at Avery Fisher Hall.

“Oh glorious 1713 Huberman Stradivarius in the hands of Joshua Bell”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars Nae Bad

The Usher Hall have done a great feat of marketing with their Sunday Classics International Concert Series.  It utilises concert downtime, offers below premium rates to hirers and audiences alike, and thereby enables second tier orchestras from around the world to perform in a city with the musical cachet of Edinburgh.  And by second rank I am not being pejorative.  How often do you get to hear the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, Swedish Philharmonia, or St Petersburg Symphony (not Philharmonic)?

Moreover, the repertoire offered is accessible, and as a consequence of all of the above the Hall is usually sold out except for the Gods, mostly by the elderly not especially musically literate or regular concert goers, and, by the sound of things, after a good lunch.  The queues from the Box Office tailed back into the cold January air. There was a real buzz.

On the question of sound of the non-musical variety I again criticise the audience for their indiscriminate coughing.  January and February concerts are of course the worst for this, and I have again asked the Usher Hall to put a note in the programme such as do the Royal Festival Hall advising patrons to cover their mouth with a hankie when coughing is inevitable as it reduces the sound by 90%.  Compared with the discipline of the audience last night in Berlin who remained silent throughout and for 20 seconds after the conclusion of the BPO’s Bruckner 4, this lot were an ill-behaved bunch that would have got chucked out of any self-respecting German or Austrian concert hall.

End of rant.

In the context of the above, to have perform on a Sunday afternoon the Academy of Saint Martin’s in the Fields, undoubtedly one of the finest chamber orchestras in the world with probably the longest pedigree, alongside top soloist and their Music Director for over eight years, Joshua Bell, the mould was truly broken and I felt we were in for a real treat.

Only so-so.  The playing throughout was technically perfect, but the works were not over demanding.  The tempi were fast, not uncommonly so, but particularly in the two Bach pieces there was no time for the emotion to come through. You have to work to get the emotion in Bach, but it is surely there.  Both the Violin Concerto in A Minor and Brandenburg Concerto No 3 showed a pleasing brilliance of tone – oh glorious 1713 Huberman Stradivarius in the hands of Joshua Bell, what a privilege to hear its singing, pure, transcendent tone – but both were textbook readings of these pleasant pieces you could have found on a budget price label.

It was the glorious Mahler arrangement of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden Quartet No 14 in D minor that made the case for the band.  Whether Schubert or Bach is spiritually deeper would keep musicologists arguing for days, but the combination of Schubert and Mahler was formidable.  From the opening bars it was immediately obvious that we had gone up several notches in terms of interpretation, even allowing for, once again, the tempo being slightly on the fast side.

Why Astor Piazzolla’s (1921-1992) Four Seasons of Buenos Aries was chosen as the final and part of the programme beats me, other than for its superficial entertainment value.  A selection of tango inspired pieces with some virtuoso violin playing but in the the-dansant style delighted the audience, but classical music it was not, nor meant to be.

The overall impression of the afternoon was of a top-class band entertaining us, but without unduly stretching our critical faculties.  As such it was hugely popular with the audience.

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 19 January 2020)

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“The Monstrous Heart” (Traverse Theatre, 22 Oct – 2 Nov : 19:30 : 1hr 15mins)

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Photography by Mihaela Bodlovic

” Elegant and attentive direction”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars Nae Bad

An obvious symbol lies on a table at the centre of the stage.

A dead beast as the first actor of an analogy game that unfolds itself like a Russian nesting doll – the monstrous, the wild, the Other, the Mother, the Daughter. A metaphor and, ultimately, a show that rushed like hot blood within a febrile body: hastily.

During a storm in the Canadian mountains, the prodigal daughter visits her mother after a long time to seek answers and amend past decisions.

The attempted analysis of the human passions and post-freudian determinism (which of course condemns women first) with clear romantic allegories (Frankestein, connection between nature and sentiments through sound and light design) fails along the way. A good idea, but unfortunately without resolution.

Director Gareth Nicoll’s taste for Shakespearean, abrupt violence and the delicate language of gestures are as easily seen in this production as his others. But even elegant and attentive direction and fairly competent acting cannot save a flat plot and circumspect script.

A neatly conducted rhythm at the first part of the dialogue becomes a self-explanatory, polarised monologue. Rather than raise drama or empathy, the self indulgent storytelling leaves one wondering if one character is listening to the story or the actress is simply waiting to say her speech.

There’s a lack of tension all the way through the script: the position of power remains always the same, embodied by the daughter, whose acting is quite hectic and leaves no room for audience expectancy at the beginning. Nevertheless, her physical characterisation is superb. The restraint of the mother was sometimes staggered by little details (dramatic hand tics in particular), but the character blossoms once she downs a dram and the actress allows herself to relax.

In short, this is a strong initial concept that craves revision. I hope that it’s returned to, for the simple reason that the idea, the discourse, the creative team’s work and the cast have so much to offer – but, unfortunately, cannot be cured from the restraints of the substandard playwriting.

Maybe the magnificence of a living bear cannot be portrayed if the insides are not beating guts, but soft stuffing.

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Helena Salguiero (Seen 23 October)

Michael Odewale: #BLACKBEARSMATTER (Pleasance Courtyard, 1-25 Aug, 17:30, 1hr)

“Clearly an adept writer and jokester.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

Your reaction to Michael Odewale’s chosen title for his new stand-up hour, #BLACKBEARSMATTER, will likely indicate how amusing you will find the ensuing comedy. The joke, like much of the hour, is witty, but somewhat surface-level, and raises a few more questions than laughs. That being said, Odewale is clearly an adept writer and jokester, whose talents certainly shine from time to time, in between slightly weaker setups and punchlines.

The venue, a small dark Pleasance space, suits his winking, confrontational approach well, letting Odewale lock eyes with audience members who react with mixtures of amused discomfort and pearl-clutching giggles, to good comic effect. His material ranges from daring jabs at consumerism and privilege, to more self-deprecating observations on Black masculinity and some of his own morally dubious personal habits. Each of these topics elicits a good belly laugh or two over the course of the show, including some truly tickling insinuations that terrorism benefits the running shoe industry, and a darkly hilarious story about the etiquette of discussing peanut allergies on a date. 

Many of Odewale’s bits, rest assured, are certainly amusing, but just as many make one feel some more fine-tuning is in order, and perhaps a rethink of comic timing. The comedy is not quite consistent or energetic enough to elicit the kind of enthusiasm needed to make an audience thoroughly recommend this hour to their friends — like the title, a great deal of his jokes are creative, but without much spark. Odewale’s persona, however, of a sardonic, witty, and flawed Black male shrewdly navigating the parameters of modern society, has much potential, and I personally would happily see his next show, assuming the punchlines get tighter, the segments more focused, and Odewale’s energy more palpable. A performer to remember, but a show that could use more bite and verve for now. 

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

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller

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Little Shop of Horrors (theSpace @ Surgeon’s Hall: Aug 19 – 24 : 17:45: 1hr)

“A faithful, fun adaptation of a well loved classic.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

I’ve always had a weakness for Little Shop. Call me puerile, but there’s a lot of musicals that’d benefit from a giant, bloodthirsty jazz plant. Fiddler on the Roof is an amazing show, but imagine Sunrise, Sunset with Levi Stubbs scatting in the background. It was with glee, then, that I saw a production was to be brought my doorstep.

For those who don’t know, the premise of Little Shop of Horrors is classic black comedy: a nerdy schmuck finds an alien plant that changes his life for the better – the only catch being that Audrey II demands human blood in exchange for continued success. Think Faust, if Faust was a rock opera set mostly in a flower shop.

Bob Hope Theatre stays true to this narrative whilst squeezing the original work into a tight hour – and, in that respect, it’s a real success. As someone who is shamefully familiar with its predecessors, places where material was cut and fused for time was surprisingly seamless, incorporating the dramatic flow into the changes with masterful attention to inter-scene connection. Though a few scenes (especially those reliant on emotional revelations) felt a little pressed for space, it’s a necessary evil of the Fringe business.

Performances are strong across the board, with every player slipping into Little Shop’s caricature cut-out roles with aplomb. Whilst not doing anything particularly new with the roles, there was no place where the demands of the characters were not met. Richard Cooper is wonderfully nebbish as Seymour, in stark contrast to Sarah Leanne-Howe’s Audrey – straight out of the pages of a 1950s Good Housekeeping. Kris Webb’s murderous Audrey II, whilst lacking the booming presence of his predecessors, brought a pointedly creepy smoothness to his role. Managing to look vaguely threatening in a big frond costume is tough, but honest to God it happens.

MVP of the production must go to Andy Moore, with his standout performance as Orin Scrivello. Energetic, gleefully sadistic and uncomfortably charismatic, Moore keenly captures not only the essential energy of the play, but also the essence of what makes his character such a joy to watch. Praise for energy also goes to Paul Stone as Mushnik. Though his accent takes certain peaks and troughs during the performance, he immediately lights up the stage with each appearance.

However, Little Shop demands more than theatrical chops. Rock Opera is a hard beast to wrangle, especially on the small stage. And don’t think for a moment that the singing performances in this show are not incredibly worthy – they are, especially in the case of Chiffon, Crystal & Ronette. However, technical mastery is just one facet of this kind of performance, and unfortunately, the necessary punch and energy required to really hammer home the intensity and spectacle of a rock opera simply wasn’t there. The songs had heart, but (apart from a select few) nothing every really comes in for the killing blow. Tension doesn’t range high enough, sorrow cannot go low enough. This is a cast with the potential to hit the audience like a sledgehammer, and it’s disappointing to see it miss.

It’s deceptively hard to pull off an established show, especially with a smaller budget and Fringetastic time constraints. The performance by Bob Hope Theatre, whilst not bombastic, is nevertheless a faithful, fun adaptation of a well loved classic.

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Jacob Close  (Seen 20 August)

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Will Gompertz: Double Art History – The Sequel (Underbelly Bristo Square: Aug 19 – 25 : 15:35: 1hr)

“A fun hour.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

It’s a fairly uncontroversial opinion to say I like art. Art is pretty neat. Van Gogh, Edward Hopper and Monet have pride of place in my apartment, but as far as really knowing anything about art goes, I’m basically like if someone put a dog in a high school class. Will Gompertz, of Tate and Guardian fame, assures me that he can change that in an hour.

Double Art History – The Sequel is a straightforwardly constructed piece: a humorous lecture wherein Gompertz teaches the fundamentals to a crowd of mostly drunk Fringe goers, with a ‘big exam’ as the dramatic raison d’être. There aren’t many shows where I find myself holding a tiny pencil, wondering if a joke is going to be on the test – though, it’s not as distracting as one might think.

And, overall, it works. It works better than one might expect, and that’s not simply down to the demureness of Edinburgh’s day drinkers. Gompertz proves to be a compelling core for a one man show, and brings an energy that’s seldom seen on the Fringe stage. It’s difficult to describe: somewhere south of nervousness, east of smug, and altogether interpersonally compelling. Evidence of his knowledgeability is widely documented, and this show merely adds to the pile. The way he handles the material, the genuinely loving lilt of his voice when describing a form of expression he clearly holds dear to his heart. Whether or not you even like art, Will Gompertz probably likes it enough for the both of you.

And, to his credit, I like art a little more after Double Art History. There’s a wealth of material presented in the short hour, and it’s presented well. Gompertz’ approach is highly accessible, aided by the bare smattering of tech, and almost lulls you into a false sense of ignorant security. If you’re irritatingly curious like I am, you’re guaranteed to have your attention held.

However, this is a show that leans harder on the “lecture” side of its composition, as opposed to the “Fringe show” side. The theatrical elements feel more like artifice than fully integrated parts of the production, and whilst lectures are by no means bad, that visible separation sometimes proves genuinely jarring. Key moments of audience interaction felt as if they had no reason to be happening, other than a misplaced sense of theatrical convention. Whilst playing up the cartoonish theatricality of the whole thing is a boon for marketing, I often found myself wishing I could have just listened to Gompertz talk shop for an hour, rather than listen to setups involving an art teacher who doesn’t exist.

That’s not to say the show isn’t charming. It is, and aggressively so. Gompertz and his crew create an atmosphere where, whilst everything doesn’t go right, it’s not for lack of earnestness. There is a fundamental joy about art at the heart of this show, and it shines clearly.

Double Art History – The Sequel is a fun hour, sitting in the presence of someone who knows their field inside out. Whilst it’s not likely to get your pulse pounding, you might come away with a better appreciation for what it means to make art.

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Jacob Close  (Seen 20 August)

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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