SCO: Ticciati. Atkins. Cargill. (Queen’s Hall: 11 January ’18)

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Jean-Fery Rebel (1666-1747)

” A consummate synergy of soloist and orchestra.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars:  Nae Bad

Thursday’s 2018 Season opener by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, “Chaos and Creation”, was one of the most creative, surprising and varied concert programmes that I have ever come across – with the exception of the Haydn. But more of that later.

 

Do you know Jean-Féry Rebel? No, he is not a rock star or DJ, but was a composer (1666-1747) at the French Court at the time of Louis XV and a favourite of Madame de Pompadour. He came of a dynasty of court musicians, lived a long and successful life and wrote Les Elemens at the age of 72. It is a most extraordinary piece, with a sort of full on slam-dunk opening that reminded me of Honegger, 250 years later. Special effects were very much the thing in European Baroque and we were treated to a bird warbler at the rear of the auditorium, a whoop whistle reminiscent of Oliver Postgate’s The Clangers, and a wonderful theorbo – basically an oversized lute – whose fretboard must have been at least four feet long. At times I thought I was listening to the soundtrack of The Magic Roundabout. Violin bodies were used as percussion, the conductor did a dance with the principal violist, and everyone had a good time. I never knew Baroque could be so much fun.

 

A darker form of intensity followed with principal violist Jane Atkins taking the solo spot in Martinu’s Rhapsody-Concerto for Viola and Orchestra (1951). She acquitted herself well, aided by her confident and lively persona. Although less celebrated now than his compatriot, Antonin Dvorak, Martinu was a successful composer and America took to him. The work is steeped in the Bohemian folksong style with a deep romanticism breaking away from his earlier neo-classical style. Atkins brought everything out of the work, producing rich melodic tones and light dance-like flashes that engaged us throughout. A consummate synergy of soloist and orchestra.

 

There was no let up in the treats Robin Ticciati and his band had in store for us after the interval. The Czech genre continued with Dvorak’s Biblical Songs. (1876). Scottish Mezzo Soprano Karen Cargill gave an assured and rewarding performance of the ten songs, commendably handling the Czech language without difficulty. Cargill has memorably sung Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder at the 2017 Proms with Sir Simon Rattle, and we were lucky to have her. I firmly believe this accomplished Mezzo, winner of the 2002 Kathleen Ferrier Award, to be on the verge of being one of the greatest Mezzos, and listening to her was a privilege.

 

The evening concluded with Haydn’s Symphony No. 96 (1791), wrongly called the Miracle Symphony for reasons we need not concern ourselves with here. Played with zest and not a hint of tiredness after a demanding programme, the orchestra acquitted itself well under Ticciati’s baton in this microcosm of Haydn’s symphonic genre, the first of his London Symphonies. But why it was included in the programme is open to question. It was  out of kilter with the other more esoteric works of the evening. Nonetheless it made an enjoyable finale.

 

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Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 11 January)

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How To Disappear (Traverse: 8 -23 Dec.’17)

Owen Whitelaw, Robert, with Kirsty Mackay as Isla.
Image: Beth Chalmers.

“Help yourself to creative energy …”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars Nae Bad

 

You don’t associate Elgin with hoodies, or Percy Pigs come to that. Go see Morna Pearson’s How To Disappear, however, and you will. The broad Doric may be less surprising and – at this time of year – why not put Narnia, downsized and upstage, through a cupboard in a bungalow?

If this sounds funny, it is, but it is not light-hearted. Far out, maybe. Imagine finding a squashed pot of Angel Delight in your Christmas stocking and you’re some way there. Or, because this is a play of alternatives, you’ve been given 2 DVDs: ‘I, Daniel Blake’ and ‘Room’. Great films but nonstarters in the Ho Ho Ho! stakes.

That’s a deliberate choice of films, of course. Robert, 28, lives on benefits that the Department of Work and Pensions wants to relieve him of. He has not left his room for twelve years, near enough. He has not been outside since he was eight. In the absence of their parents his kid sister, Isla (14-ish) looks after him as best she can, so it helps when she is excluded from school. A benefits assessor, Jessica, has come to ask Robert some questions.

But that’s barely the half of it. There’s a glowing blue portal and a stage revolve to expose the full story. Exactly when it turns is, for the audience, quite exciting; for Robert it’s an obsessional, skin picking quest, but for his pet tarantula it’s an unfortunate accident; and for Jessica it’s spew and ‘Wow!’ all the way.

Help yourself to creative energy then. Certainly Robert does. Copies of ‘New Scientist’ are stacked up against the walls so there’s not much space for him to move around and check his various alarm clocks but this is one clever ‘mannie’ who – all innocent of the metaphor  – dumps his benefits assessment into his bedpan. Owen Whitelaw is excellent in what could be a raw and painful role but is actually agile and sympathetic. His sister, Isla, is more aware, more aggrieved and angrier with what – on the face of it – is a distressing existence. Kirsty Mackay has that awkward dual role as ‘adult’ carer and S4 pupil who is still getting mercilessly bullied at school. (Note for school Guidance staff – you get a mouthful). Jessica (Sally Reid) is a paper shuffling caricature to some extent but with Robert as her ‘client’ is happily saved.

There is redemption here, which is good for a Christmas production. It’s in the near constant humour for one thing and in the marvellous sense of release, of stepping out of the room that comes at the end. But it’s not an easy given and director Gareth Nicholls keeps the action pretty edgy, using plunging lighting effects (exemplary from Kai Fischer) and sound from Michael John McCarthy that begins, it seemed to me, with a nod to ‘Big Country’ and then funnels down to close in on Becky Minto’s box frame of a set.

We need plays with moral outreach and How To Disappear is definitely out there to bring us in. We’re with Robert because he wants to help his father be with his mother, which is where the plot line folds into the mystic portal and you wonder where you are. Just hang on to the fact that he shares his Milky Way with his sister. We’re with Isla because she won’t get lost and hangs onto her brother because she loves him. We’re even with Jessica because she too is a strung out case who does what she can to help people and, like Robert, she loves the ‘Hot Tub Time Machine’, which says it all really.

Star ratings get done over in the wash in this one: 3, 4, 3, 4 … ?

Isla         ‘D’you kain whit number the washin machine goes on at?

Robert  Nut.

By the end, it’s 4* from me for an original and entertaining play. Fabric conditioner for the soul!

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Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 8 December)

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Oliver! (Pleasance Theatre: 28 Nov-2 Dec ’17)

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Cast of Oliver! Photo by Andrew Perry.

“FSELRES_382c628d-c6dd-48a3-859b-dfb8d567e430SELRES_d4a5f1dc-f027-48ef-8ada-6aca7f57b286SELRES_d0508c34-80ff-4d1c-9452-b9a4c366ffeaSELRES_007f217a-44d6-4932-8fa1-3d14d5861ee5FFull of EUSOG’s trademark heart and powerful vocalsSELRES_007f217a-44d6-4932-8fa1-3d14d5861ee5SELRES_d0508c34-80ff-4d1c-9452-b9a4c366ffeaSELRES_d4a5f1dc-f027-48ef-8ada-6aca7f57b286SELRES_382c628d-c6dd-48a3-859b-dfb8d567e430

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Nae Bad

Lionel Bart’s classic musical, Oliver! is an iconic story of cruelty, deceit and murder set in Victorian London, and features some of the best-known songs in musical theatre. Edinburgh University Savoy Opera Group (EUSOG) first performed this show in 1988, and almost 30 years on they’re back with a fresh, youthful take on the traditional tale.

While some of the company’s creative and casting choices in this revival absolutely do work in keeping the show relevant to today’s young people, unfortunately others are over-reached and not as well realised. Early on, the choreography and staging seem unnecessarily stompy and frantic, while some of the fight and chase scenes come across as a little under-rehearsed and clumsy.

But let’s start with the positives, of which there are many. In no particular order, Grace Dickson’s Nancy is a real highlight of the show, and her human, emotive rendition of As Long As He Needs Me deservedly gets the biggest cheer of the night. Rebecca Waites shines as Charlie with terrific energy throughout, and Ashleigh More is also excellent as the Artful Dodger, with a commanding stage presence and exquisite voice and physicality. In fact, the whole Consider Yourself scene More leads is the first where everything – choreography, vocals and direction – really falls into place to present the kind of show-stopping number that EUSOG are so good at.

What student productions – and EUSOG in particular – also tend to do very well is unearthing a script’s hidden comedy, especially with smaller characters. In this production, Kirsten Millar stands out as the Sowerberrys’ maid, Charlotte, bringing life and humour to each of her scenes, while Richard Blaquiere gives a hilarious geeky awkwardness to the role of Mr Bumble. Ewan Bruce as Mr Brownlow and Niamh Higgins as Mrs Bedwin also deserve a special mention for bringing a sense of calm maturity and experience to their older characters – a pleasant contrast from the energy of some of the other scenes.

In addition to casting females in some of the other main parts, EUSOG also opt for a female Fagin, which, unfortunately doesn’t prove as successful. Kathryn Salmond certainly gives it her all in this challenging role, though the songs (in particular You’ve Got To Pick A Pocket or Two) are very low in her register, meaning a lot this character’s authority is lost and at times it’s a struggle to follow the dialogue. I almost wish the company had gone one step further to make Fagin a female character to see what dynamic that would bring to proceedings. Yann Davies pleases in the title role with a purity and innocence to his voice, though something about the way this show is put together makes it seem like the character of Oliver is almost a bit part – his presence often gets lost in among everything else going on on stage.

Overall this show is full of EUSOG’s trademark heart and powerful vocals, with some wonderful individual performances, but lacks some polish and pace to be a truly spectacular production.

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 29 November)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

 

Pomona (Summerhall: 21 -25 November ’17)

Oliver Beaumont as Zeppo, Lauren Robinson as Ollie & (masked) Eilidh Northridge as Keaton
Photography by Andrew Perry.

“Provokes incredulity, fascination, and applause”

Editorial Rating:  4 Stars:  Nae Bad

It’s brownfield land with serious history in central Manchester. It’s a Metrolink tram stop. It’s also Alistair McDowall’s award winning play set in a ‘hole in the middle of the city’ – ‘hole’ as in a rank pit. Pomona (2014) provokes incredulity, fascination, and applause. Without the applause you’d have a WTF play, so it’s a risky business doing this one.

All credit, therefore, to Edinburgh University’s Theatre Paradok for taking Pomona on and finding the perfect venue in Summerhall’s Demonstration Room. The fairy lights on the approach are a fortuitous joke. Little could be less seasonal than the bare grey walls, tiered wooden seating, electrical trunking and peeling paint. As the play requires a ‘concrete island’ in amongst ‘cracked asphalt and weeds’ we’re all set. Not forgetting the open box of cold chicken nuggets and the octopus monster mask.

Ollie (Lauren Robinson) meets zany Zeppo (Oliver Beaumont at stunning top speed). They could be at the tram stop. You might consider a post-apocalyptic situation, with The Road re-surfaced as the M60 Ring, but, no, property is still owned – much of it by Zeppo – and there’s odd but respectful mention of the police. Still, Ollie does not want police help to find her sister. Directions to the likeliest neighbourhood will do. That’ll be to creepy Pomona Strand then.

Indirection more like. For the play twists and turns and the different characters come and go within a looping time frame. Rubik cubes befuddle and provide a handy metaphor for the mixed-up story. It is puzzling but it is doable. There’s Moe (Liam Bradbury) who has had it with people, mainly because he beats them up for a living. There’s Fay (Abi Ahmadzadeh), a sex worker, whose husband hurt her and their child. Moe and Fay share a rare tender moment. Then Fay steals a laptop and valuable data from overseer Gale (Megan Lambie), but it’s all to the good, despite the ‘Kill’ order on Fay’s head. One figure, Keaton (Eilidh Northridge), seems to have the presence to sort it all out but she could just as well be a character out of Charlie’s (Tom Hindle) role playing game box. Charlie really is a bit of a droll card, complete with wacky, sticky fantasy and roaring daftness as and when the dice roll. Zeppo’s back at the close, but this time as a vengeful seagull.

For all his interest in, and skill at, spiel and character McDowall does supply an explanation of what’s going on inside the security fence on the ‘island’ and it’s gross and melodramatic and sensibly left unexplored; no doubt contributing to Moe’s feeling that he’s ‘drowning in an ocean of piss’.

Pomona is fitful and outlandish with no comfortable ‘Home’ for Ollie to navigate to, which very probably explains its appeal to a student audience, who loved its waywardness. Tom Whiston, Director, and Madeleine Flint, Movement Director, work the play with a stylish and disciplined assurance that is easy to underestimate and the cast respond in kind. Personally, I’d rather have Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town as music to leave by but that was 1978 and students have moved onto more uncertain and contemporary ground. Go occupy.

 

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Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 22 November)

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Edinburgh Quartet: Queen’s Hall (12 Nov.’17)

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Janacek’s “Intimate Letters’  to Kamila Stosslova

“The Edinburgh Quartet go on tour to all four points of the compass, to build lasting relationships with communities in the North, South, East and West of Scotland”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

 

I have not reviewed the Edinburgh Quartet since March when they played a combination of Mozart, Beethoven and Shostakovich as part of their “Revolution” series. They have been busy since, including a fascinating mixed media “Dance” performance reviewed in June by my colleague Steve Griffin. The Quartet are not a conventional, formal concert giving band, and have a clear market and music focus: different themes for every season, and outreach to the local community, including incorporating artists, makars, dancers, and, tonight, student musicians. Sunday’s 3pm matinee was one of only a few conventional concert hall offerings this season. Otherwise there are rush hour concerts, lunchtime concerts, free concerts and concerts all over Scotland including as far afield as Lerwick. It is almost as if ‘Edinburgh’ is a misnomer. Their publicity rightly states that “the Edinburgh Quartet go on tour to all four points of the compass, to build lasting relationships with communities in the North, South, East and West of Scotland”.  They are a quartet for the nation.

With this creative and outward looking disrespect for inertia we also have had change in the line up almost to the point of it being a band of session musicians, Mark Bailey on cello apart. This does not trouble the band, and nor should it us. The vacant seats give an opportunity for up and coming musicians to try out their playing in a quartet as opposed to an orchestra or solo role, and it brings something new for each concert, where all the different line-ups I have reviewed deliver a surprising homogeneity.

Yet the move from homogeneity to synergy requires players in total empathy with one another and second guessing them, often for years, which is why great quartets are always better than star studded put-together ensembles.  Only the first violin seat remains to be filled, probably, I understand in the New Year. On balance, this is to be welcomed.

The programme took us from Haydn, through Tchaikovsky and Janacek to a new work by Scottish composer Tom Harrold.

Haydn’s String Quartet in F minor Op 20 No5 is part of his ‘Sun’ series, but this stupid name, based on a cover illustration, belies an austere work that is satisfying rather than uplifting. It was competently and confidently played.

The Janacek String Quartet No 2 “Intimate Letters’ was written 150 years later (1772, 1927 respectively) and in style probably quite demanding for the largely elderly Sunday afternoon audience. Written in the last year of Janacek’s life it reflects upon the woman for whom he fell head over heels, Kamila Stosslova, nearly 40 years his junior and to whom he wrote over 1000 letters, 300 in his last eighteen months*.   Certainly all manner of feeling was in this work, amounting to a conviction piece that, while not easy listening by any stretch, was as rewarding as it was demanding. That the relationship was reciprocated only platonically no doubt contributed to his and the music’s angst. The Quartet despatched its considerable demands with ease. So much so that when the work stopped in order for second violin Tom Hankey to return to the anteroom to pick up the rest of his music nobody minded, such is the quartet’s informal rapport with their audience.

Following the interval the quartet was joined with a “shadow” quartet of students from St Mary’s Music School: Briona Mannion and Marie-Sophie Baumgartner on violin, Rachel Spence and Finn Mannion on viola and cello respectively. They were playing the world premiere of Tom Harrold’s short piece “Elegy”. Harrold described the work as simple but the timings were very difficult (and which the shadow quartet managed very well) and there was a considerable amount of pizzicato to handle. Intensely quiet at the opening the piece developed into a pleasing, romantic work in the modern vein.

The evening ended with Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet No 2 in F, Op 22, a great, classical work relatively unknown outside of the musical world, for being within the chamber music genre, I suspect. Contrast it with the hugely popular Piano Concerto No 1 in B flat minor, Op 23. Both have the honour of being dismissed by Rubenstein: the Quartet “not really chamber music”, and the “Concerto “unplayable” It took considerable reserves of energy and musicality to deliver a work of this substance at the end of a long but engrossing Sunday afternoon. The elusive first violin seat was on this night guested by Nicolas Dupont from Belgium. He had most of the heavy lifting to do, ably supported by his colleagues. Whoever takes the first violin seat permanently has a lot to live up to.

 

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 * For those who want to know more about this extraordinary 11 year ‘non romance’ I recommend “Notes for a Hausfrau: Intimate Letters: Leos Janacek to Kamila Stosslova”, edited and translated by John Tyrell and published by Faber in 1994 at £25.  It may be out of print, so go to the excellent review in the Independent by Michael White that gives the gist of this extraordinary muse:  http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/book-review-notes-fof-a-hausfrau-intimaye-letters-leos-janacek-to-kamila-stooslove-ed-trs-hohn-1410383.html

 

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Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 12 November)

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RSNO: Oundijan; Vogler; Wang. Usher Hall. 3 Nov.’17

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Jan Vogler

“Great if you like twelve-tone. Not so great if you don’t”

Editorial Rating:  4 Stars

 

Combined concerti for violin and cello are relatively rare, and on Friday at the Usher Hall we got two, separated in composition by 128 years. Such was the nature of the new work, however, that it was more like a comparison of the Viennese Salon of the 1890s and the 1930s’ Second Viennese School.

 

As is his custom, conductor and Director of Music Peter Oundjian gave us an introductory talk alongside cello soloist and this year’s Artist in Residence Jan Vogler. Not unreasonably, the majority of the talk was about the UK premiered work Duo Concerto by Wolfgang Rihm. Rihm was born in 1952 in Karlsruhe and is a professor of composition at the University of Music there. The work was commissioned by the Friends of Dresden Music Foundation to celebrate ten years since the reopening of the Frauenkirche and received its world premiere in Purchase, NY and in Europe in Dresden in 2015. It was written for performance by Vogler and tonight’s violin soloist, Mira Wang. Vogel’s association with the work, and his being the orchestra’s Artist In Residence, explains its choice on tonight’s programme in addition to its legitimacy as a composition.

 

The work lasts for 25 minutes in one movement. The soloists are in play almost the entire time, and the work has a heavy texture and is written in the twelve-tone technique. “Great if you like twelve-tone”, said Vogler. “Not so great if you don’t”. The work in fact had momentum, good orchestration, and a particularly demanding part for violin soloist Mira Wang. It was, perhaps, down to the limitations of twelve tone that it sounded remarkably similar to Schoenberg albeit composed seventy years later.

 

Our hardworking soloists carried straight on into the Brahms Double Concerto in A minor. Brahms is the master of melody, and we were into a glorious cello theme just four bars in. Whereas Wang did most of the heavy lifting in the Rihm, this work was Vogel’s and in fact a case could be made for writing out the violin part altogether, taking nothing away from Wang’s fine playing and   interplaying with Vogel beautifully when the score allowed it. The orchestra played with excellent phrasing and balance and were clearly very comfortable in their skin, supporting the soloists with all effortlessly harmonised under Oundjian’s baton.

 

After the interval we returned for Beethoven’s Symphony No 6 in F major, the ‘Pastoral’. What can a music writer add to the reams that have already been written about this glorious work? Well, you could feel the hall relax as we snuggled into this closing number, the orchestra were on top form, fully rehearsed and sure of foot, and familiarity did not disappoint. One notable difference in interpretation were the strings playing of the first subject in the final movement (Shepherd’s Song), Oundjian holding them back just a little so we could hear more of the supporting wind. He bought them back to the fore before the finale.

 

And did you know the Shepherd’s Song was used as music in the TV commercial for Lentheric’s Tweed fragrance in the 1960s? Now, you will find that degree of historical research only in Edinburgh49.

 

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Reviewd by Charles Stokes (Seen 3 November)

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Our Fathers (Traverse: 24 – 28 October ’17)

Rob Drummond (l) & Nicholas Bone (r)
Photo by Mihaela Bodlovic

“‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ this is not, as a caustic version makes clear.”

Editorial Rating:

4 Stars: Nae Bad

Yet this is a kind piece, just possibly milder and more forgiving than its writers first intended. Rob Drummond and Nicholas Bone got together – which is a mighty draw in the first place – and offer Our Fathers as a sincere appraisal of their own lives as the doubting sons of clergymen. Their text – for this is a messaging service too – is Edmund Gosse’s celebrated memoir Father and Son (1907) with its epigraph, ‘Belief, like love, cannot be compelled’.

 Written and performed by Rob Drummond and Nicholas Bone, I should add, which is testament to the play’s personal and affecting quality. Whilst they take the parts of Philip Gosse (Drummond) and Edmund (Bone), they are also themselves, appearing friendly and unassuming, and only getting cross with one another rather than with the world. If anyone disappoints, and it is as sorrowful as it is a raging disappointment, it is the God of their fathers, who has definitely messed up. ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ this is not, as a caustic version makes clear.

Gosse the father was a biologist as well as an evangelical churchman, putting him squarely in the round hole of being a Christian scientist. He could write Evenings at the Microscope (1859) and still find plenty of time to rubbish the idea of evolution. One of his vivid illustrations of a jellyfish is revealed in the church hall cupboard, upstage right. Karen Tennent’s jewel of a set, so precisely lit by Simon Wilkinson, is particularly successful at focusing attention. The Victorian underslip is puzzling (a beloved dead mother?) but the fossils next to the plain wooden cross speak volumes. And there’s the fishbowl in which to dunk the book – [Told you that they get cross]. There’s an available reference to Prospero, promising to drown his learning [Like hell he will!] but then you could see it as some inventive gloss on baptism, which Drummond is especially keen to dish and seeks audience support to do so.

In Chapter 1 of Father and Son Edmund Gosse writes, ‘Several things tended at this time to alienate my conscience from the line which my father had so rigidly traced for it’. That ‘line’ is in the severe  clerical dress, the chalked up 5th commandment, and in the earnest hymn singing, but there’s also the sheer size of Philip (Drummond) alongside the much slighter Edmund, who draws up his little chair to his father’s big table. So it’s amusing that it’s Nicholas Bone who stands firm against Rob Drummond’s pleading to ‘play’ the son and it’s sad when young Edmund’s prayers fail and his looked-for faith is nowhere to be seen.

But all told Our Fathers is an easeful piece. Drummond makes light of the ribbing he got at school for ‘being the son a preacher man’. Hopefully it was good-natured, for let’s presume that he was, indeed is, ‘the sweet talking son of a preacher man’. Both men – tricky to call them actors at this affectionate point – hold up photographs of their fathers, whose recorded voices we hear.

On reflection, which is very much the point, I’m with the storyteller of Genesis 1:31: ‘God saw everything that he had made [including sons], and, behold, it was very good.’ This original, deceptively modest work, is also very good at what it asks and does.

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Reviewer: Alan Brown  (Seen 25 October)

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