9 to 5 (Pleasance: 5-9 Feb.’19)

“A damn good show .. poetry in a big, shiny sequined dress”

Editorial Rating:  4 Stars Nae Bad 

 

l-r: Anna Sheen as Violet, Jemma Lowcock as Judy, & Alice Hoult as Doralee.
Images: Andrew Perry

Dolly, Dolly, Dolly. What is there to say about the undisputed Queen of Country that hasn’t already been said? Other than the fact it’s what I blast during weightlifting 80% of the time (so now if you see me, congrats, you know!), it’s hard to come up with praise that hasn’t been done to death. I thought I’d get lucky when I got to talk about something Parton-adjacent, but unfortunately for me and very fortunately for everyone else in the audience, the praise vocabulary has a lot of overlap.

9 to 5 tells the story of Violet (Anna Steen), Judy (Gemma Lowcock) and Doralee (Alice Hoult): three embattled women struggling to stay strong in a world designed to keep them down. That world is typified by their boss, Franklin Heart Jr, neatly summed up as a “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot”. After a chance encounter with the devil’s lettuce, the three heroines find themselves in far deeper than they intended, but with a chance to change both their lives, and the lives of their co-workers, for the better.

From the outset, I need to make it clear: this is a damn good show, with damn good performers. If the star rating wasn’t enough to tip you off, Footlights’ production of 9 to 5 is one to be proud of. The lynchpin of that success was the central trio of Hoult, Lowcock, and Steen. It’s not often that I get to see talent on the student stage that would fit seamlessly into a professional production, but then again, it’s also not often that you see not one but three vocalists who can not only sing to character, hit notes right in their centre zone and (as my opera teacher used to say) throw their voices out so hard you could hammer a nail with them. Even better is the obvious talent at play outside the soundtrack: Steen balanced great comedic sensibilities with an unexpectedly genuine reflection of the struggles faced by powerful women; Lowcock threw levels of vulnerability and hidden nerve into what could’ve easily been a cookie-cutter “beaten down protagonist in a musical” role; and Hoult could basically get a job as a Dolly Parton impersonator – sometimes it was genuinely difficult to tell the difference from sound alone.

‘Around Here’

And that’s even more satisfying when supported by a keenly talented secondary cast. Daniel Stansfield’s Franklin is a wonderfully grotesque, gurning gargoyle of a man, whose revelry in his own personal toxicity is almost a treat (almost); Mhairi Goodwin’s fawning office drone Roz was not only a brilliantly half-sympathetic secondary antagonist, but probably had my favourite performance in the entire production (you’ll know it when you see it); and special props go to Brett McCarthy Harropin a stunningly chameleonic performance as both a dancer, and the show’s sleeper comedy MVP, Josh. Honestly, most of this review could just be praise for the acting. Even if you are not mentioned here, please rest assured: I noticed you, and you were glorious.

Of course, what’s an actor without blocking? And although certain productions on the Pleasance Stage have erred towards A-Level Drama sensibilities in the past, this is certainly a welcome break. I was unable to find a fully-titled choreographer, but whoever in this production created the movement should be very proud of their work: the dancework has the precision of a watch movement. Every part of the stage had its own novel and interesting motions, fully cohesive to the overall pitch and wave of the beat. Darn good to watch, especially the opening number.

To round off the positives, many that there are: this is a musical. Not just a musical, but a Musical. If you’ve watched one or two, you’ll be very familiar with the emotional beats, levels and general plot. But parts of this show felt like I was seeing the familiar tropes for the very first time. When this production gets going and finds its stride, it’s poetry in a big, shiny sequined dress.

Doralee enjoys a Cowgirl’s Revenge

However, this gem is not without flaws. These seem most glaring behind the scenes: whoever was on sound needs to review their operations. The levels between the band and singers were usually abysmal for the first half of most songs, which makes it feel as if whoever was on script watch was distracted. In between the constant volume switching, and a feedback boom in the first half that could have blown fillings out, it ultimately came off as sloppy and far less than what a production like this should be capable of. Although fixed by due diligence, it was disappointing that such a big feature was handled so poorly.

That said, my one large criticism of what I was seeing directly onstage was that the opening number didn’t set my expectations high. I can’t tell if it’s a comparative lack of rehearsal or some mistake on the night, but the all-important 9 to 5 number sounded off key, off time and sluggish for maybe half of the time. Luckily the show recovered soon after, but I distinctly recall being viscerally afraid the rest would be much like it.

I wish I could’ve given the show an ‘Outstanding’, but these two issues  – mostly the former – marred it enough that the entire experience didn’t reach the heights I knew it could have, given the rest of its parts.

However, the above flaws should be fixable, and even if not, I would still recommend this show. The sheer spectacle of a good musical is really hard both to organise and act in, but the levels of talent at play here are exactly what Edinburgh’s come to expect from the university’s Footlights in recent years. Despite the factors holding it back, 9 to 5 is a credit to the cast and team that have brought it to Pleasance, and it deserves every seat sold. In a world that’s all takin’ and no giving, this production definitely bucks the trend.

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

Reviewer: Jacob Close (Seen 6 February)

Go to 9 to 5 at the Edinburgh University Footlights

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Touching the Void (The Lyceum: 25 Jan – 16 Feb. ’19)

l to r. Patrick MacNamee, Josh Williams, Fiona Hampton, & Edward Hayter

A hell of a ride

Editorial Rating: 2 Stars Nae Bad 

 

I’m what you’d call a “small-time climber”. I used to get drunk on Arthur’s Seat a lot, and am occasionally known to change lightbulbs and hang things using a cheeky ladder or two. But despite my solid credentials, I haven’t got the first inkling as to why someone might upgrade from ‘Ladder’ to ‘Pile of rocks .. and death’, and although Touching the Void certainly gave me an insight into those who do, I can’t say I left as a Gore-Tex convert.

Touching the Void, from director Tom Morris and based on the book by Joe Simpson, follows climbers Joe (Josh Williams)  and Simon (Edward Hayter), who face true calamity on their descent of the Siula Grande mountain in the Peruvian Andes. The plot is fairly complex from a “Who’s doing what, when?” perspective, but the most basic synopsis without spoilers is:  things don’t go amazingly well. What follows is an excruciating story of sweat and almost supernatural human will – and even if the details tell you how it ends, it’s still a hell of a ride.

What works in this show is incredibly clear from the get-go: it’s a spectacle. The Carroll-esque flock of chairs floating above a neon jukebox, the unnerving dark abyss created only by light and sheets, the climbable, rotating metal strut cliff face. As just something to watch, this show is an utter delight. Actors, obviously trained to the point of safety, almost seem a dynamic part of the scenery as they scrambled, hung and climbed over places I’d never even seen lit on a Lyceum stage before. Forget the plot – the performances told an unspoken story of sweat and suffering before the play even began.

The theme of spectacle returns once again if we concentrate on the acting. Each of the four characters had at least one moment where it was abundantly clear why they had been chosen for the role. Fiona Hampton (as Sarah, Joe’s sister)  even got some tears from my theatre partner that night, using nothing but an empty stage and a letter. My personal MVP goes to Josh Williams, however, if only for the sheer grit it must’ve taken to drag himself around the stage and still emote realistically for a solid forty minutes. All good news for the theatre-going public.

However, as this show quite emphatically demonstrates, for every climb there is a fall. And unfortunately, there were a few trenches that this production did not seem to have the will to climb out of.

I wanted to like this show. I liked the ideas at play, I loved the staging – but I have never seen a show so willing to undercut its own potential excellence for seemingly no reason. The source material is jaw dropping and the actors are clearly talented, and the play is full of moments which if left to stand on their own, within their moment, are powerful. But for some reason it seems like it doesn’t have enough confidence that they will stand, and so things are extended, or repeated or just simply cluttered up and sabotaged by so many different elements that the simplicity and effectiveness of the particular is lost. This happens consistently: one of the most frustrating examples includes a tense and exciting scene of Joe and Simon battling a storm on a cliff face, which was then overlaid with Patrick McNamee’s soothing, folksy twang, quipping merrily around like he’d spent his time offstage pounding hash and Ordnance Maps.

Or, even worse, a legitimately good scene just simply goes on too long. A painful scene of a man dragging his broken body across a rock ridge is harrowing for ten minutes of sobbing and inching, but after twenty with little more than a weird song (we will get to those), it feels a lot more like filler than chiller.

But most frustrating of all were the dances and choral spoken word. In amongst what is clearly a physically capable and dedicated cast with choreographers who can achieve so much in other areas, it baffles me why numbers like an unexpected spoken word rap about Ice Axe technique could not only mismatch tonally but also feel as if they’d barely been choreographed at all. The use of repetition and spoken word material has the potential to be well done, but at best it breaks the play’s natural flow, and at worst is actually a little boring after the third chorus of “Because it’s [F -ing] there”.

More than anything else, this was a disappointing show. All the more so because those glittering moments of excellence weren’t just in my privileged reviewer dreams but are there on stage – for just a second. It feels as if this production could have been much more than it was, and didn’t trust the talent it had and the story it adapted. Looking at other reviews it seems I’m quite lonely here on my Portaledge. Maybe I just don’t get it, but knowing that less is definitely more for Alpine Climbers, I found myself longing for it to be the same of theatre adaptations as well.

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Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Jacob Close (Seen 25 January)

Go to Touching the Void at the Lyceum

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Education, Education, Education (Bedlam: 14 – 17 Nov.’18)

” It’s funny and fast, dances to a 90s soundtrack, and skewers English education.”

Editorial Rating:  4 Stars:  Nae Bad

“Willkommen, Tobias. Boys and girls, please welcome Tobias from Berlin who will be helping out in the Modern Languages department”. And Tobias has the lunatic misfortune of arriving at Wordsworth comprehensive school on ‘Muck Up Day’ when the Year 11 (S5) pupils go off into the fabled ‘mists of Study Leave’. Run-up activities include include pinging shag bands, playing basketball in the corridors and placing a live chicken in the library. The finale will be an Achievement Assembly with a suicidal child on the roof.

Welcome, also, by happy coincidence to May 2, 1997 when Labour wins a record-breaking 419 seats to form its first government since 1979. The manifesto promise of ‘Education, Education, Education’ is all over the staff room. The teachers are excited, jumpy, and the febrile atmosphere is only fanned by the breakout of Cool Britannia. Noel Gallagher of ‘Oasis’ will be at a Downing Street reception on the 10th, but Tobias (Max Prentice) is friendly and unassuming, a ‘Take That’ kind of guy. You’ll like him immediately and come to trust him, which is handy because where there’s perspective and order, there’s Tobias. Elsewhere, on this important day, the school is a frenzied, entertaining mess.

Education, Education, Education won a ‘Fringe First’ in 2017 for the Wardrobe Ensemble. It seems, to my mind, a perfect choice for student performance. It’s funny and fast, dances to a 90s soundtrack, and skewers English education. Headteacher Hugh (Fergus Head) has all the moves – watch him go in D:ream’s Things Can Only Get Better – wants the best for all his pupils but all his enthusiasm cannot remedy the fact that his school is falling apart and has porta-cabins for classrooms. His Deputy, Louise (Kelechi Hafstad), is trying to hold it all together with discipline and an imaginary semi-automatic, which is dodgy, surely. History teacher Paul (most convincing by Lewis Foreman) has seen too many awkward kids to bother with them anymore. Tim (Giorgio Bounous) is the gormless PE jock and Sue (Becca Chadder) is the dedicated English teacher who inhabits that lovely world where she would share Malory’s Morte d’Arthur with 14 year olds but without the resources of Games of Thrones. No wonder then that Tobias marvels at it all whilst quietly enjoying a confiscated cheestring.

A serious narrative is provided by Lauren’s story. Lauren Robinson is spot on as the difficult, challenging, pupil who shouldn’t be expelled but who probably will be. It’s good to learn, within Tobias’ retrospective account, that it’s Lauren who comes out to Berlin to visit him and to see a grown-up European country. Director Tom Whiston ensures that your sympathies go where they should.

It’s those twenty years, 1997 to 2017, that give the play its bite. Its frenetic pace and half daft characters are contained within a frame that exposes the optimism of that Labour promise. Jack Whitehall’s Bad Education (BBC 3 2012 -14) was brilliant and ridiculous. As a 60 minute stage show this production of Education, Education, Education cannot be telly but it’s a riot of understanding and good sense, which ain’t easy.

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

Reviewer: Alan Brown  (Seen 14 November)

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The Unreturning (Traverse: 24-27 October ’18)

“The third storyline takes place in a (presumably Brexit-induced) war-torn futureworld, where everyone’s information is publicly displayed by the government, people are wanted for ‘Dissent,’ and everything has completely gone to hell.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

The effect of armed conflict on the already fragile male psyche is a deeply fascinating subject. Anna Jordan’s The Unreturning takes a timelessly important issue — the return of the soldier from war — and creatively explores touching and interesting variations on what these returns mean and have meant through time. Told through three constantly overlapping and intersecting storylines, the play paints a gripping and tragic picture of the collision of memory, trauma, and men who will never exist the same way again — for whom a true ‘return’ is impossible. Performers Jared Garfield, Joe Layton, Jonnie Riordan, and Kieton Saunders-Browne take on the production with intense spirit, and compellingly elevate Jordan’s impactful choice of subject matter. One will truly feel moved by the real-life implications of the play’s content, such as meditations on the legacy of war crimes, the role of friends, family, and average people in the return of discharged members of the military, and how truly detached so many of us are from the experience of war. 

This play is produced by Frantic Assembly, a group both admired and infamous for the wall-to-wall physicality of their shows. The Unreturning plays to their strengths in many respects; the extensive and balletic movement all four performers put themselves through over the course of the three stories are a marvel to watch, and embed the stories with clever visual connections. The structure of the show is at its best when the three stories overlap in direct parallel to each other, such as a sequence near the beginning when all three board or initiate their respective transports ‘home’ — home in each case being Scarborough. George (Garfield), boards a train; Frankie (Layton) sits in a cramped plane next to sunburnt tourists; Nat (Riordan) barters with Norwegian boatmen to smuggle him into a war-torn United Kingdom. The parallel is revisited in a breathtaking setpiece following the three men as they wander around the area, each distraught for their own reasons, and deliriously visit Scarborough monuments and landmarks; they stand next to each other onstage, separated by time but alike in their disconnection from what is meant to be their home. George, you see, is returning home after armistice in 1918; Frankie has been discharged for committing a hate crime in Afghanistan in 2013; Nat is searching a bombed-out Scarborough for his brother in 2026. 

Yes, 2026. The third storyline takes place in a (presumably Brexit-induced) war-torn futureworld, where everyone’s information is publicly displayed by the government, people are wanted for ‘Dissent,’ and everything has completely gone to hell. For all the immense emotional intelligence at work in The Unreturning, this aspect of Jordan’s script, along with director Neil Bettles’ over-reliance on the overcomplicated revolving set, render a great deal of the actual stage time irritatingly silly. For although the subject matter is compelling, the tone and pace of the Frantic Assembly approach are a poor match. The breakneck energy, high-bravado set-changes and head-spinning multi-roling repeatedly jar against the profundities of the story, producing deeply unfortunate moments like a floating hat and dress cartoonishly symbolizing George’s lovestruck wife, or the discordant wiggling the company members return to over and over when George experiences haunting flashbacks or Frankie succumbs to substance abuse. 

The show has a lot of wiggling. This is not always a bad thing, of course, though it seems to be Frantic Assembly’s bread and butter. To evoke a shaky memory, the actors wiggle. To show the passage of time or space, the actors wiggle. To recreate a pub or a discotheque, the actors wiggle drunkenly. All this wiggling is finely choreographed and expertly executed, but the main result of it all is a simple: why? Why take so much focus away from the intriguing narrative elements to just move around like spaced out dancers? It is pleasant, impressive movement, but mostly has very little to do with the gravity of the situation — like if a bunch of mourners started breakdancing at a wake. Sure, it’s impressive, but is now the time?

When the wiggles pause, and moments of achingly tender performance are allowed to play out, the talent is notable. Garfield, in particular, imbues George with a brilliantly measured depth, wherein he visibly wrestles with both his wartime experience and anxiously rethinks every aspect of the rest of his life. Jordan’s script detracts from itself, especially early on, by piling far too many profound statements on top of each other in nearly every line, yet Garfield turns most of them into affecting ruminations rather than fortune-cookie-esque dictums — his parable about the Christmas day truce near the middle of the show is the performative high point of the piece, without a doubt. Layton is also an electric performer, who displays expert timing and delivery every time he is onstage; while Frankie has much less multi-dimensionality than George (the supposed ambiguity of his character’s racial crimes are a weaker element of the script), Layton nevertheless leaves a lasting impression as a versatile actor. This is not as true for Riordan, who is outmatched by his fellow actors; the 2026 storyline he leads is, again, incongruously silly, and Riordan deserves credit for the desperation and consistency of his take on Nat’s miserable trajectory, but overall he does not bring enough verve to a storyline already lacking justification. Saunders-Browne, playing various supporting parts, does a solid job bouncing around so many characters and time periods, and in his case, the future-set monologue he delivers late in the show is thankfully not so opaque as the rest of that storyline to overshadow his well-measured delivery. 

Overall, The Unreturning is a curious example of a potentially mismatched writer and company. Yet, aside from the more incongruous choices onstage, the performances are memorable and affecting, the treatment of the subject matter is mostly excellent, and one can easily overlook the weaker elements in favor of a truly noble intention.

 

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

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 24 October)

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Arctic Oil (Traverse: 9-20 Oct.’18)

Photo: Roberto Ricciuti

“An intelligent piece from an ambitious team.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

In the genre of ‘home drama’ (call it neo-kitchen sink realism), blood relatives screaming devastating jabs and hurling haunting revelations back and forth feels oddly natural; what kind of play would deny an audience their fair share of soul-baring conflict and painful familial reconciliation when there is literally a functioning washbasin onstage? Claire Duffy’s new play Arctic Oil both soars and drops as it follows this particular approach to dramatic storytelling. It goes high, with its airtight atmosphere and its dialogue’s sweeping scope, and achieves a good deal. 

However, Duffy’s script, while clever and relevant by all means, flaps a few times too often, mixing stale melodrama into its more striking twists, and thereby takes the air out from under it. Not much harm comes of this, for actors Neshla Caplan and Jennifer Black are very capable of holding the audience’s attention and heartstrings as necessary, and imbue their respective characters with internal torments and desires. 

Caplan is Ella, an activist and young mother struggling with existential guilt for staying at home to raise her baby, Sam, rather than fight the forces of capitalism alongside her more daredevil comrades. Black is Margaret, Ella’s entirely different-minded mother — or so it initially appears — a woman so concerned that her daughter’s activism will cause irreversible damage to herself and her son that she takes her worry to uncomfortably strict lengths. Set on “a remote Scottish island,” it’s all contained within a pristine bathroom, in which Margaret has chosen to lock Ella and herself so that Ella does not pursue what might be a fatal mission protesting an oil rig. As with any home drama worth its salt, while the characters spar and try to explain their side, accusations of abandonment, betrayal, and shoddy parenting fly, harrowing family secrets are uncovered, and certain thematic topics are eventually revealed to have been proxies for familial resentments and personal demons. Climate change gets a number of notable and nod-worthy statements, but the political discussions melt away fairly quickly into allegories for generational divide and reconciliation with past wrongdoing between mother and child. The effect is literary, but rather loses the environmental focus of the first half.

Director Gareth Nicholls builds the rage and personal angst but once the initial shock of the play’s claustrophobic setting has worn off, and apart from one or two sharper later moments, a sense of what is important goes missing. In particular, one ill-measured fakeout sequence near the middle is so hammed up that whatever energy the play had been coasting on is visibly squashed for no discernible reason, other than melodrama.

Visually, Nicholls does well to trap the viewer in this oppressive box of anger and anxiety, with considerable credit due to his and Kevin McCallum’s cleverly imposing set design, a warped construction of a modern bathroom that looms over both the characters and audience to morbid effect. Duffy’s script also generously offers moments of levity that land well, most memorably in the head-turning line: “The truth? You wouldn’t know the truth if it farted in your face.”

Less successful is the uneven and unnecessary musical underscoring. The soundtrack mostly consists of glum electronic hums and whirs, which does set the tone at the beginning, layering the fateful onto the domestic surfaces. Frustratingly, these sounds are brought back again and again and again, undercutting some interesting dialogue and generally siphoning the clarity out of the show . The use of music seemed like a safeguard against the audience possibly not understanding that a conversation was ‘Important’, but in reality, Duffy’s characters and the skilled performances are capable enough on their own without the heavy-handed signaling. 

Arctic Oil uses mother and daughter in conflict to cut through to political topics of current consequence. Its conversations are difficult and compelling but do force inconsistencies into the drama.  It is, regardless, an intelligent piece from an ambitious team.

 

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

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 11 October)

Go to Arctic Oil at the Traverse

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Scottish Ensemble (St. Cecilia’s Hall 9 Oct.’18)

St Cecilia’s Hall, University of Edinburgh.

“I kept returning to my notes and underlining the words “Rich tone.” It was an aural joy”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Nae Bad

 

What do Edinburgh’s New Club, Cameo Cinema, and Usher, Queen’s and St. Cecilia’s Halls all have in common? They are all hosts to the most glorious live music, and this most fortunate of music writers has had the privilege of attending five concerts within just six days in these various venues. My conclusion after living here for approaching four years? Edinburgh is a world class music city, with some world-class music being performed here. We are very lucky.

 

There aren’t many new concert halls being built these days, although there are plans for one in Edinburgh, so the inspirational redevelopment of St Cecilia’s as a museum of musical instruments (you simply must see their fantastic harpsichord collection, many still playing) and enchanting, bijou oval 200 seater auditorium with central chair and perimeter soft bench seating is a delight. Only problem with the venue? No bar. However, the instrument showcases make for an adequate non-alcoholic distraction.

 

Notwithstanding the building’s eighteenth century origins (built for the Edinburgh Music Society in 1762) the concert style was modern. Ipads instead of music, standing instead of sitting in the custom of Chris Warren-Green and the LCO (all bar the cello!) and sleek modern tieless black rather than evening dress.

 

Four members of the Ensemble were playing on the evening, Music Director and first violin Jonathan Morton, Cheryl Crockett on second, the fabulously lively Jane Atkins, principal violist of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Alison Lawrence on cello. Star soloist on clarinet was Matthew Hunt guesting from the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie. The standard was remarkably high, and while it is a well-known adage that a string quartet can sound as loud as an orchestra, what struck me about tonight’s combo was not so much their volume but more their rich tone. Time again during the evening I kept returning to my notes and underlining the words “rich tone”. It was an aural joy.

 

We started with the Brahms Clarinet in B minor Op.115 (1891). Less easily accessible than the Mozart (being held back, one suspects, for a lollipop finish), the players brought a generosity of spirit and a refreshing lushness of tone, particularly in the second movement Adagio, to what is quite a dry, late Brahms work, making it one of the most enjoyable renditions that I have heard. The intensity of sound from the strings, with the clarinet (Clara Schumann described it as “wailing”) soaring above them in full, unforced tone. It never wavered.

 

After the interval we were treated to an extraordinary amuse-bouche, Mclaren Summit by contemporary composer John Luther Adams, written in Alaska some five years ago and played by the quartet alone. Entirely on open strings and harmonics it was a strangely melodious work that reminded me of near namesake John Adams.

 

The uber popular Mozart Clarinet Quintet in A Major, K.581 (1789), which one might have expected, because of its chronology, to be the concert opener, was held back until last, a bit like a rock star ending with their biggest hit. One felt almost a sense of reassurance by the familiar opening and the playing of first violin Jonathan Morton really came into its own. The second movement Larghetto, matched only perhaps by the Adagio from the Gran Partita as one of the most beautiful pieces of woodwind and string music ever written, more than met our expectations with a degree of perfection often found only on recordings, clarinet and first violin calling and answering each other with a breathtaking poignancy. The third and fourth movements took us on a joyous romp home. In the final movement I was surprised to be reminded of the final movement of Schubert’s Trout Quintet, the players almost teasing us with their phrasing, deliberate pauses, and changes of tempo.

All in all a delightful evening’s music. I have to confess it was the first time I have heard the Scottish Ensemble. I want to hear more.

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

Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 9 October)

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SCO. Mazzola, Frang. (Usher Hall: 27 Sept’18)

Vilde Frang
Photo: Marco Borggreve/Warner Classics

 

“It was a joyful, uplifting evening’s music.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars Nae Bad

 

A braw Autumnal evening met me as I walked across the Meadows to the Usher Hall for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s 2018/19 Season Opening Concert. The programme contained Nielsen and Sibelius and I braced myself for an evening of bleak Scandinavian forests, folklore and darkness.

I could not have been more wrong. It was a joyful, uplifting evening’s music.

Of course, Robin Ticciati was not on the podium. His replacement, Maxim Emilyanychev, was not either (he comes back next week), but instead Enrique Mazzola, Artistic and Music Director of the Orchestre National d’Isle de France and Principal Guest Conductor of Deutsche Oper in Berlin returned to take up the baton. Essentially a bel canto and opera conductor, how would he cope with this Romantic and late Romantic fare? He did fine.

The more I thought about the evening’s programming the cleverer I thought it was. How many of you have heard Sibelius’s third symphony? Two and Five, of course, but this was an interesting choice. Moreover, Nielsen is known principally for his symphonies and concerti, but an overture? Cleverer still was the positioning of the star attraction, Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, along with the soloist of the evening, Vilde Frang, in the second half. So often it’s a bit of a downer when the soloist goes home before the interval and the rest of the evening feels rather flat.

First off was Nielsen’s Helios Overture. Nielsen himself said that the work needed no introduction and indeed it was a predictable (none the worse for that) evocation of sunrise somewhat in the classical genre. After the pianissimo double basses, four horns braved the introduction and were just a tiny bit shaky on their damnably difficult to play instruments, so exposed. The orchestra very quickly found its feet with all sections playing confidently with some magnificent strings, wind and brass before it drew to a close as it had started, with pianissimo basses again. It was a pleasant relief to experience the audience sitting on their hands as Mazzola held up his hand to restrain applause rather longer than one might have expected. When it came, it was enthusiastic.

On to Sibelius’s 3rd Symphony in C. Who would dream of calling a Sibelius symphony “jolly”? But it was, and none the worse for that. In the first movement there was calling woodwind, responding strings, melodious horns, all at each other’s beck and call, ending with shades of the horn call of the 5th symphony. In the second we heard melodious flutes and unalloyed joy yet in the Sibelian mode. Come the third and a darker, sombre theme with nuances of Finlandia. A useful, unusual addition to one’s knowledge of this fabulous composer.

After the interval Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D, written a hundred years earlier than the previous two works. Nielsen was of course a Dane, Sibelius a Finn and while Beethoven undoubtedly German his interpreter tonight was another Scandinavian, the Norwegian violinist Vilde Frang. Yet this was proving to be no Scandi Noir, Frang perhaps making the point by wearing a light coloured floaty dress rather than more conventional evening colours. The work has a long orchestral introduction and to be honest Frang looked a little spare as she awaited her entry, which she then executed extremely competently and was very much in charge for the rest of the performance as she drew a great deal of tone and volume out of her modern-ish 1864 Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume. The work is so well known there is little new for the music writer to contribute, save to say the performance was fresh, committed, with gusto, a thoroughly enjoyable 45 minute’s worth from start to finish.

Throughout the performance conductor Enrique Mazzola showed quiet authority and got everything he could and should have out of the works and the players, who responded only too happily. All done with the minimum of podium histrionics.

 

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

Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 27 September)

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