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 In the grey, quiet suburbs of New York, a very pregnant Melissa (Margaret Qualley) visits the home of mild-mannered, withdrawn Philip (Nick Robinson) and his mother Charlene (the always talented Amy Ryan).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

 

The Duchess (of Malfi) (Lyceum: 17 May -18 June ’19)

Adam Best as Bosola & Kirsty Stuart as the Duchess.
Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic

“A swingeing attack against inequality and injustice … with gouts of blood”

Editorial Rating:  4 Stars: Outstanding

Observe the bold italics: ‘The Duchess (of Malfi)’ after John Webster. Zinnie Harris’s compelling adaptation of the Jacobean tragedy has all its drive and grip, most of its heritage schlock, and some – but not much – of its superb, excoriating language. Never mind, Harris’s script is smart and disturbing in its own cause. Webster may turn in his grave but it would be a satisfied, pleasurable shift rather than a squirm of revulsion.  The great roles are there, just beneath the modern skin: the blameless Duchess; the depraved Cardinal; Bosola, the loyal creature  – all in the service of raging truths.

 

Yes, twin babies are gently rocked in their parents’ arms but the lullaby is ‘a slightly fucked-up version’ and love is defenceless. Back in Webster’s script of 1614 Bosola tells the Cardinal that

‘When thou kill’d’st thy sister,
Thou took’st from Justice her most equal balance,
And left her naught but her sword’.

Harris’ plot and Harris’ direction do the same, losing moderation, going on a swingeing attack against inequality and injustice. The bad comes first and it’s really bad. The Duchess, Giovanna, remarrries. Her two brothers, the Cardinal – utterly depraved – and Ferdinand – psychopath – find out and destroy her as ‘soiled goods’. Antonio, her husband, would avenge her but merciless killing is not for him. That’s more in Bosola’s line. However, watch the brooding Bosola, listen to him, for it’s a rewarding exercise and when the good comes out he’s your man. It is an extraordinary ‘turn’, beyond even Webster’s philosophical villain, and very well done by Adam Best.

 

If Bosola surprises, the Duchess inspires. She opens the play alone, centre stage, in front of a microphone and her audience. Her own story closes in around an excellent performance by Kirsty Stuart. Amused but all too aware of her brothers’ appalling misogyny, she is mischievous and loving with Antonio, craving and then burping  apricots during her pregnancy, and heroic – immortal – at her end. The two other female parts, Cariola (Fletcher Mathers), Julia (Leah Walker) suffer, fall – and rise – with her.

 

George Costigan as the Cardinal & Angus Miller as Ferdinand

 

The ghastly Cardinal is played by George Costigan, whose command of his lines is probably only matched by the respect he has for them. It would be a virtuoso performance except that to assign ‘virtue’ of any description to this demon would be too much. At least Angus Miller as the sick and puerile Ferdinand has howling lunacy on his side.

 

While she lives the Duchess has precious little freedom. If her brothers cannot control her, they can certainly contain her. Tom Piper’s set is a high undressed space, bleached stone white, with a gangway across its width. Sliding grillwork enforces the impression of prison and the basement bathroom provides a convenient torture chamber where standing mikes are used to address the prisoner. High voltage jolts frazzle the nerves throughout. Two songs offset the fear but still seemed out of place; worse, for me, was some foot stomping and an immediate association with the comic gospel strains of  ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’, which was unfortunate.

 

There are inevitable moments of jarring tone and effect, when modern idiom and thought collide with the Jacobean. “I’d kill the bastard who did this to you, the fiends” could be left unsaid but I’m all for the gouts of blood, the powerful re-writing, and the electric challenge of the closing caption.

 

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 21 May)

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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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SCO: Leleux (Queen’s Hall: 29 Mar.’19)

Image result for lelaux oboist

Francois Leleux – Oboist and Conductor

“Leleux….. has an engaging conducting style relating to, rather than directing, the orchestra.”

 

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Nae Bad

My mother spoke little of her life before her children were born, but it was clearly an interesting one.  The youngest of six children of a Northamptonshire shoe manufacturer and general bigwig, the first of her family to go to Oxford (and a woman to boot) and a wartime spent at Bletchley Park.  But what I remember most clearly, as we were both musical (at Oxford she sang in Ted Heath’s Bach Choir), was her telling me of her experience kissing an oboist whom she went out with for a while at University.  She told of his incredible muscular lips (by virtue of the necessary embouchure of blowing two reeds together) which made the embrace distinctly unusual.  As a result oboists – and the oboe (I love its clear, piercing tone, as did she) – have held a particular fascination for me, although I have never kissed one, reserving my affections quite by chance for the string section.

 

Consequently the SCO’s appointment of premier oboist Francois Leleux as an artist in residence for the 2018/19 season was a must-see.  I could not get to the first two gigs but enjoyed Thursday’s “Three Serenades” Concert enormously.

 

Generally, I have reservations about soloists who migrate into conductoring, even of the musical standard of Ashkenazy and Rostropovich, as it is a bit like film stars wanting to be directors: they rarely cut the mustard.  However, it has to be said that Leleux, either with baton or more restrained with instrument in mouth, has an engaging conducting style relating to, rather than directing, the orchestra.

 

Our first work was Hugo Wolf’s Italian Serenade, played in a splendidly happy rendition that clearly showed a bond between conductor and orchestra.  Good tempi, very together for so early on in the evening, a surprisingly enjoyable piece from this manic depressive composer written before the dark times took over his life.

 

Next up was Dvorak’s Serenade in D minor, Op.44. A wind ensemble of ten, including contrabassoon, accompanied by cello and bowed double bass, all standing save the latter two; this time with Leleux taking the oboe lead as well as directing.  Leleux’s tone was clear, fresh without being over bright, at times soaring over the rest of the ensemble.  In the third movement Andante con moto he engaged in charming interplay with the clarinettist opposite.  It was good to get our fix of the great man.

 

After the interval we heard by far the most substantive work of the evening, Brahms’s Serenade No 1 in D major, Op.11 with the full 40 strong orchestra on stage, quite an upgrade from its original conception as a nonet.  Albeit written earlier on in his career alongside the Piano Concerto No.1 this is a mature work with a great deal more roundedness and depth than the rustic Bohemian fare we received earlier.  In six varied movements ranging from close harmonies in the brass to full on orchestral romance, pretty little wind passages accompanied by the put-put of the bassoon and a mad rush to the finish, one was reminded of the near chaotic finish to the Academic Festival Overture.

 

Perhaps my only regret of the Leleux season was that he played only one concerto throughout, the Haydn.  One would have wished for the Mozart with its glorious third movement Rondo.  Never mind, it is always best to be left wanting more.

 

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

Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 28 March)

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Local Hero (Lyceum, 14 March – 4 May ’19)

Katrina Bryan as Stella, with that telephone box at her elbow.
Photography by Stephen Cummiskey

“Expert and smooth”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Nae Bad

 This is one to admire, less with wonder perhaps than with unbounded appreciation: a musical with perspective and high-flying credits to match. With its ‘Book’ by pre-eminent film maker Bill Forsyth and David Greig, new music and lyrics by Mark Knopfler, and directed by John Crowley, this Local Hero is pitched at anyone who has seen Forsyth’s film, which after 36 years is a lot of delighted people, and at anyone who would put the planet above getting filthy rich. By now, of course, Local Hero is circling above and beyond Scotland. Al Gore, American vice-president and author of An Inconvenient Truth, reckoned on Oprah that it was up there as his favourite film. This is generational stuff that could be set on an interstellar trajectory. Next point of passage, London’s Old Vic.

… Houston, We Have a Problem

Once upon a time it was boom time for the black, black, oil and Knox Oil and Gas of Houston, Texas, is looking to build a refinery in Ferness on the north west coast. Young exec. ‘Mac’ MacIntyre – of Hungarian descent naturally – flies in to make the deal, effectively to buy out the village, lock, stock and lobster pot. Down on the beach, old Ben holds out for more. By sly congruence, he’s called Knox too. Ben is one laid-back negotiator who would tell you how many grains of sand that he can hold in one hand but what really counts are his astronomical records, sightings of events that go back a hundred plus years. There’s no limit, it appears, to an oil bonanza until you factor in the beauty of the Northern Lights and celestial messengers. And then, down on earth and in the MacAskill Arms there’s kindred folk and community, the love of a hard but beautiful land.

 

By rock and water and that iconic telephone box it could be wistful and charming and a homage to a great soundtrack. However, today we have Spotify Connect, of control and play, and whilst this production is very easy to listen to, with a proper fusion score where Dire Straits meets ceilidh, yearning and lament, it’s the neat switch to solid musical theatre that is most impressive. It may be a long haul: ten numbers in each half, no duds, with the whole show lasting 2 hours and 25 minutes – but it is expert and smooth, with standout lighting and atmospheric projection where the sky’s the limit, literally. Ferness is a tiny line of houses arranged along a curve of the harbour wall. The 15 strong cast has a wide dance floor to work with and the band is nearly always backstage,  invisible (regrettably) within an outsize grey ‘hillside’.

Lets get ‘Filthy Dirty Rich’

Character is in plain sight. Mac (Damian Humbley) may have an option on a new Porsche but he is always going to fall in love with Furness and an ardent blow-in from Glasgow. She, Stella (Katrina Bryan), is the principled romantic whilst flexible Gordon (Matthew Pidgeon) could launch himself onto the 54th floor of any oil company. Viktor (Adam Pearce), the burly Russian trawler skipper with share portfolio, is vigorous and fun. Ben (Julian Forsyth) is especially heroic as he’s wrapped in a tartan rug in his armchair and withstands his removal to a retirement home by the village lovelies.

 

The company sings ‘That’d Do Me’ in anticipation of the good folk hitting pay dirt. The prospect of being served langoustine rather than packing them is rather fine. And then, with Mac and Stella and Ben, you’re gently steered onto a kinder, Greener, more responsible course. That was always the tricky bit of make-believe, now advanced by nostalgia. Still, the fond passion and dollars of Knox Oil president Felix Happer give Ben a backstop and Furness is saved, again, which has to be counted a blessing. When that telephone rings is it Mac calling or Heaven?

 

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 26 March)

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White (St Cecilia’s Hall: 23 – 25 Mar.’19)

Image may contain: 2 people, people standing

“An incredibly important production”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars Outstanding

Ah, racial politics. Anxiety-studded star of a few hundred conversations in coffee shops and pubs. It’s not that the constant deluge of injustice and anger in the world is depressing, it’s that it’s utterly depressing. Talking about it at all, let alone making comedy out of it, is like trying to tapdance your way through a minefield. One false slip and you’re either offending, rehashing or – perhaps worst of all – inadvertently punching down. And even if the comedy’s coming from a true, honest voice, the risk of creating “zeitgeist-y” work with little staying power looms ever present. Needless to say, the prospect of reviewing James Ijames’ “White” filled me with tentative hope and cautious apprehension: what I got in return was a wonderfully slanted commentary on modern sociopolitics, and enough comedy to keep me from realizing I was learning until it was far too late to stop.

Based on a true series of events surrounding the 2014 Whitney Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary Art, White tells the story of white artist Gus (Levi Mattey), who hires African American actress Vanessa (Anna Phillips) to present his work as her own, thus defaming an exhibition he was unable to qualify for. From this fairly simple starting point comes a flurry of emotionally charged and often absurd vignettes, examining the morality of racial curation and the various chasms which still exist at the intersections of ethnicity, sexuality, gender and identity.

First and foremost is the skill and timeliness of Ijames’ writing. White, in many ways, is a clever sleight of hand: the charged subject of race never leaves the stage, and yet seems to disappear beneath illusory hand waves of wit and stinging turnaround. Before you know it, you’re considering your own place in the debate, unconsciously picking apart what is satire and what isn’t. It’s the kind of theatre that is sorely needed in a climate that often seems paralysed in the face of despair.

That illusory quality is helped vastly by the show’s comedic direction: energy is the word of the day, and Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller has packed it like gunpowder in an old rifle. Despite the open elliptical shape of  St Cecilia’s Hall, this production turned into bouts of verbal tennis, firing jokes so quickly across the room that distance seemed almost to help it. Of course, with a base of clear talent, it’s easily done: Mattey does an extremely laudable job at portraying a character who seems to flip between main antagonist and protagonist with every sentence, and yet still seem jaw-clenchingly consistent. In a similar vein, Phillips’ pulls triple-duty in a trio of roles (one a role within a role), rolling them out chameleon like: same silhouette, but vastly different vibes and patterns.

Supporting, we have Bradley Butler as Gus’ boyfriend Tanner, and Jess Butcher as museum curator Jane – though to relegate them to ensemble would do them injustice. The production would not be half as good without Butler’s caring, vibrant foil to Gus’ ironclad self-interest; and to say too much about Butcher’s portrayal of Jane would ruin some of the best scenes going – I can say only that themes of duality and hypocrisy are shiningly represented.

So, in such a shiny show, what didn’t go so smoothly? Unfortunately, a few stylistic kinks along the way are enough to turn what could be a smooth ride into something bumpier. Though the comedy seldom suffers from the almost breathless pace of the dialogue, there are times when certain lines, actions or even reactions could have done with more time to breathe. Especially in the third act, when things get heavier than ever, I found myself wanting to wait a little more in the questions before being whisked off to more one-liners.

And it’s that same breakneck paceyness which turns some of the show’s more surreal moments into missed opportunities. Without spoiling too much, part of the joy of this show is how left-field the ending is. But buoyed on its own wild momentum and without enough time to properly clock what was happening, genuinely interesting satire ended up feeling more muddled than biting. Without room for contrast, the energy seems to dip without ever getting lower, like getting used to the temperature of shower water.

And while scenes of sexual intimacy are intimate and very well done, the same cannot be said of the show’s flirtation with day-to-day romance. A very certain scene makes it abundantly clear that Mattey and Butler can play off each other wonderfully, but there seems to be an odd sterility to their interactions in the wider world of the play. The words are right but it lacks passion and force.

So what does this all add up to? And, maybe more importantly, how does this all play into a rating? Put shortly, this is an incredibly important production, marred by a few key flaws. Even if there are elements that could be improved on, White is a show that I wildly encourage everyone to see whilst it’s here – and to endeavour to seek out when it’s not.

The best theatre is the kind that leaves you fundamentally, and almost unwillingly, questioning yourself. By that metric, White certainly doesn’t disappoint.

outstanding

StarStarStar

Reviewer: Jacob Close (Seen 23 March)

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SCO: Swensen, Lewis (Usher Hall: 14 Mar.’19)

“Elegiac, more like a tone poem, with the baton-less Swensen using his hands more like a magician than conductor”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Nae Bad

 

Thursday’s Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s gig played to a larger and more diverse audience than at their normal Queen’s Hall venue, and the audience showed their appreciation with a near full house, enthusiastic applause, restraint with seasonal agues such as coughing (your beleaguered writer included!) and respectful post performance silences following the conductor’s upraised baton at the end of the quieter pieces.  It was a joy to be among the cognoscenti.

 

The programme was a contrast of early and late Romantic works, with composition dates ranging from 1787 to 1924. Curiously, three of the works comprised several years in their gestation, and the remaining Coriolan Overture was written for no apparent purpose at all other than composition for the sake of it (not that there is anything wrong with that, but it is more of a 20th rather than 19th century idea, in a past age of mostly commissioned music). Beethoven spent 11 years finalising his Concerto No 2 in B flat, Op 19 (which was in fact his first concerto), and Sibelius the best part of a decade on his last two symphonies.  That is, I have calculated, about 3 minutes music per year in the case of the latter, one minute in the case of the Beethoven.  I guess that they had one or two other things to attend to as well?  Even George R R Martin is doing better than that with the concluding ‘Game of Thrones’ book.

 

Was the deliberation in terms of timescale worth it? In the case of the Beethoven I would say yes, for Sibelius, I would be less sure.

 

Conductor Joseph Swensen bounded on to the podium to start off the proceedings with Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture, Op 62.  An amiable great big bear of a man, heavily bearded, of mixed Japanese and Norwegian heritage, he kicked off the playing without ado and drove us through ten minutes of classical gothic music without reference to a score.  The orchestra responded well to his enthusiastic conducting (no baton) and we experienced a fluent, well played opener that lifted our spirits.

 

Next up the wonderfully adept Paul Lewis took us through the Beethoven Piano Concerto no 2.  Only last week Can Cakmur gave us a spellbinding interpretation of the third with the RSNO in the very same hall.  The second was a completely different work, of almost a different world, mature Mozart rather than Beethoven at the height of his powers, eleven years separating their composition. To compare them would be comparing chalk with cheese. Lewis played with consummate ease and brought everything out of the work that he should have.  After the long, tautly played orchestral opening Lewis entered with bright, clear tone, good intonation and phrasing.  The well known third movement Rondo: Molto Allegro was a delightful, reassuring romp.  Enthusiastic applause but alas no encore, the more surprising in view of the relatively short duration of the programme.  Never mind, mustn’t be greedy.

 

Two Sibelius symphonies filled the second half of the programme, No 6 in D minor, Op 104 (1923) and No 7 in C, Op 105 (1924).  This was the programme feature of the evening, and one wondered what our charming rather enigmatic conductor, with his Scandinavian roots, would make of these relatively unknown works compared to the over popular 2nd and 5th symphonies

 

The 6th is constructed in conventional four movement style and lasts approximately 25 minutes.  Too much, in my opinion, has been made of the fact that Sibelius was studying Palestrina when he wrote it.  More telling, I suspect, was that it was rather overshadowed by the fifth symphony being written at the time.  Sibelius himself said that it reminded him of snow falling.  A sublime, ethereal string orchestra opening followed by woodwind calling.  Elegiac, more like a tone poem, with the baton-less Swensen using his hands more like a magician than conductor.  The second movement built up the tension and the third was a return to the more plaintive; the final Allegro Molto a return to the brass we know so well.  I wanted to rush home and listen to it again and again.  A privilege to hear this “Cinderella” of Sibelius symphonies being done by so rightly by a deeply sensitive conductor and orchestra.

 

Finally to the final Sibelius symphony, No 7.  A single movement work of a little under 25 minutes, more of a tone poem and originally entitled Fantasia Symphonica No 1, Robert Layton has described it as “completely original in form, subtle in its handling of tempi, individual in its treatment of key and wholly organic in growth”.  Moreover ‘New Grove’ describes it as “Sibelius’s most remarkable symphonic achievement”.   Hmm.  It does grow and deliberately lacks the shape of a symphony. I suppose one should regard it as a musical development, even if one does not always know where it is going.  A string opening very much in the tragic genre, with the brass making its presence felt and gradually taking over.  Bruckner does brass with forcefulness and aggression, Wagner with foreboding, but Sibelius does brass with soul!  The work, much favoured by many, made for an intriguing essay in related sounds and passages conjuring up imaginings of mystical Finnish folklore.

 

 

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Charles Stokes(Seen 14 March)

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