RSNO. Sondergard, Williams: Beethoven, Mahler, Sibelius (Usher Hall: 21 April ’17)

Image result for Sibelius pictures

Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)

“Their playing of Sibelius’s Finlandia was one of the best, if not the best, I have ever heard, live or recorded. “

Editorial Rating: : 4 Stars: Nae Bad

One of the excitements of live music is that you never know quite how it is going to turn out on the night. You think you’ve got it at rehearsal, but performance is something different. Only a very few orchestras turn out a consistently really high standard, time after time.

After two years in Edinburgh I am becoming increasingly impressed by the quality of the local bands, and Friday’s concert contained some excellent playing in a well chosen, thoughtful programme that while relatively well supported was deserving of a larger audience. Clearly the Florida sun has sown benefits. It was a very good concert indeed.

The RSNO’s opening numbers are sometimes a little shaky before they get into their stride. Not so tonight. Their playing of Sibelius’s Finlandia was one of the best, if not the best, I have ever heard, live or recorded. The opening chords of the brass were well rounded and melodic whilst still conveying the angst of the Russian threat to the mother country in this highly nationalistic piece. Not a trace of blaring or vulgarity. The mournful strings provided a similarly well-rounded tone in what was a very well executed opening number, convincing and moving. Applause was loud and long. Deservedly.

It was a very interesting choice to follow with Mahler’s Der Knaben Wunderhorn, a less austere work than Kindertotenlieder, or, for example, Das Klagende Liede.   Five songs were selected from the original 24 settings, covering nature, folklore and soldiers’ tales. Baritone Roderick Williams gave a well-executed performance in which the orchestra again shone, but perhaps a little too brightly. There were issues of balance between soloist and orchestra and one would have preferred the soloist not to have referred to his music.   This notwithstanding, the intriguingly named “St. Anthony of Padua’s Sermon to the Fish” was sung and played beautifully, and was well balanced. Also, “Where the Fair Trumpets Sound” was the star of the set with gentle orchestral backing, melodic singing.

After the interval it was back to Sibelius and The Oceanides. I confess I had not heard this 11 minute miniature before and I loved it. It started with a most unusual but effective piece of string writing that reminded me of sea mists and tides, to be followed by the increasingly effective flute section before building to something stronger involving the whole orchestra evoking the ocean’s sheer vastness and permanence. Commissioned and first performed in America, one critic described the new work (1914) as “the finest evocation of the sea which has ever been produced in music”. Well, there is plenty of competition for that, not least Debussy’s La Mer, but it certainly stands the comparison.

Our evening was brought to a close by Beethoven’s Symphony No 1 in C Major. Critics have often categorised his first two symphonies as Mozartian, with the composer coming of age with the Eroica. I am not so sure. The first few bars’ shifting harmonic sands alone, quite startling in early 19th century Vienna, point to something more revolutionary, and although there is a classical theme overall  – such as can be found in both Mozart and Haydn –  as Tovey said, the symphony has “more of the 19th century Beethoven in its depths than he allows to appear on the surface.” This contention was certainly supported by Thomas Sondergard’s interpretation, which was mature and grounded in what was a hugely enjoyable performance by an orchestra that was clearly loving what it was doing. So did we.

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Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 21 April )

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A Number (Lyceum: 6 – 15 April ’17)

(L-R) Peter Forbes and Brian Ferguson
Photo: Aly Wight

“If a play can have a cell line, this is it”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Nae Bad

Presented in partnership with the Edinburgh Science Festival

Caryl Churchill’s A Number is 15 years old. It’s still Sci-Fi though, as opposed to science history. Yes, Dolly the sheep, the world’s first cloned mammal born on 5 July 1996, is now referenced as Exhibit Z.2003.40 in the National Museum, but there’s still no comparable human ‘display’. And if ‘it’ does appear – when it appears? – it might well provoke some distress amongst its close relations. So, there’s the scenario.

Bernard 2 (35) finds out that he is one of an unknown number of cloned Bernards. He’s not at all happy about it and his father doesn’t help by saying that he doesn’t know how many ‘things’ are out there either. Dad, for painful reasons, thought he’d signed off for one, not a whole batch. At which point you might idly recall Miller’s All My Sons or, better, Huxley’s Brave New World and the Bokanovsky Process that could, on average, produce 72 embryos from a single egg. However, Dad hasn’t read the book. No chance. Dad is far less interested in informed consent than in what an able lawyer can do for him, for them even, and he has a point …

A Number opened at the Royal Court Theatre in London on 23 September 2002. The public inquiry into unauthorised organ retention at Bristol Royal Infirmary and at Alder Hey hospital, Liverpool, had delivered its final report in January 2001. By early 2003 families of the victims at Alder Hey accepted an out-of-court settlement of £5 million. The Human Tissue Act (Scotland) followed in 2006.

If a play can have a cell line, this is it: 50 minutes of tightly sequenced work by two actors; five exacting scenes between father and son(s) played out within a small bare room beneath a naked bulb. It’s stark and clean, with wallpaper from the DNA Helix collection. There is no warm light until the appearance of the affable Bernard 3, aka Michael Black. Scenes divide suddenly as the ‘family’ multiplies.

As Balvennie in the James Plays Peter Forbes grabbed land and titles with all the appetite of a lesser man on the make. In A Number he’s the father, Salter, and he’s on the defensive in a sympathetic study of the ethically dispossessed. Brian Ferguson plays three differently consituted Bernards: searching, angry, and content. It’s a nimble and impressively disciplined act, even when toppling a chair across the stage.

Smartly directed by Zinnie Harris, this is a brisk and absorbing production of a play that always invites critical admiration. Churchill does not offer any way out of the cloning debate but she certainly moderates it. Next time that you shop for a Little Gem Lettuce you will – (!)cos of this play– examine it a tad more specifically, wondering not ‘How many?’ but ‘Is that me?’

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Reviewer: Alan Brown  (Seen 8 April)

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Casanova, Northern Ballet (Festival Theatre: 23 – 25 March ’17)

Giuliano Contadini as Casanova.
Photos. Guy Farrow, Northern Ballet.

“Sooo awesome!”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars: Nae Bad

Casanova is a brand new ballet on its world premier tour, choreographed by Kenneth Tindall in his first major work. This could have gone either way but be reassured: this is a really exciting piece.

The story itself is based upon the life of Giacomo Casanova, taken from Ian Kelly’s biography of Casanova. It starts with Casanova (Giuliano Contadini), a trainee priest, intent upon following his vocation when he meets musicians the Savorgnan Sisters, Nanetta & Marta (Abigail Prudames and Minju Kang). Together the sisters seduce the young priest and take his virginity. Upon discovery, Casanova is cast out of the seminary with only his violin and a book: a forbidden text given to him by Father Balbi (Jeremy Curnier), a renegade priest who, being hunted by Inquisition, offloads the book on to the young man.

What follows is a story of the rise and fall of Casanova, first in his native Venice and afterwards again in Paris after being forced to flee by the Inquisition. Casanova takes himself seriously: he is an intellectual, a mathematician and a social climber. Ultimately though it is a story of talent wasted through dissipation and through that, he loses the women who loved him and whom he loves in turn: Henriette (Hannah Bateman) and Manon Balletti (Ayami Miyata).

In the central role of Casanova, Contadini (almost literally) carries the entire production. This is an incredibly demanding performance, having to show a wide range of emotions, the intellectual acuity, the boredom of unending lust and upmost despair to the brink of self destruction. Contadini is a good choice: the proportions of his Italian frame adds a level of authenticity to the production. The role itself is incredibly physical, one of the toughest I have seen for a male dancer, so it is with little wonder that there was just the slightest sign of fatigue by the end. As Henriette, Bateman’s performance is very moving and, as the nun M.M., Ailen Ramos Betancourt is extremely seductive. The cast delivered their roles wonderfully in a fabulous ensemble performance. Casanova should be sexy and frankly this lot are sex-on-a-stick. Christopher Oram (Costume and Set design) really delivers on this point: creating dance costumes that invoked the 18th. Century while being as revealing as a Berlin cabaret. His set is extremely versatile, which along with the change in lighting (Alastair West) allows the action to be set in the grandeur of Venice, in the glitter of Paris and down in the dungeons of the Inquisition.

The whole production is driven, almost relentlessly, by the score written by Kerry Muzzey. Again the music is modern while being true to the roots of the period. For this writer it brought back memories Michael Nyman’s music for the film The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989). The music certainly is cinematic in quality, which is reasonable given this is Muzzey’s background. One audience member was heard to say afterwards “You could have watched that blind. The music!” Tindall is reported as saying that he approached Muzzey to create the music because neither of them have had the experience of creating a major production for ballet before. It shows, but not in a bad way. If one is used more to the Russian style, the choreography perhaps lacks the ostentation and even some of the elegance in comparison. However, the audience is instead offered something a lot more visceral and more approachable. During the interval I met a friend in the audience who had never seen a ballet before. Her eyes were glowing as she said “It is sooo awesome!”

In Casanova, Tindall has created a new ballet which is quickly going to be accepted as a modern classic.

 

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Reviewer:  Martin Veart (Seen 23 March)

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EUSOG, HMS Pinafore (Assembly Roxy, 21 – 25 March ’17)

Photos. EUSOG.

“Every member of the cast should be pleased with their committed, lively, fun and engaging performance that made for a great night out”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Nae Bad

It is a moot point whether the restraint of trade as practised, for example in the Middle Ages by the City of London Livery Companies, and more recently by some trades union through the closed shop, protects the integrity of the brand through quality control, or acts merely as an effective way of cornering the market, but the arrangement between Arthur Sullivan and W S Gilbert with Richard D’Oyly Carte, whereby the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company held exclusive performance rights to their entire operettic oeuvre for 90 years must be one of the most spectacular coups de theatre in the history of the genre. Of course, it was all about the money, including staging at the Savoy Theatre, and served both parties well.

The D’Oyly Carte licence expired in 1961 and unleashed a torrent of enthusiastic amateur productions while the D’Oyly Carte Company managed to maintain brand leadership amongst the professional shows. The relative ease of the music to play and sing, along with its catchy tunes (alas, poor Arthur Sullivan with his longing to be a serious composer: he actually wrote some quite good serious stuff)) gave the works a new lease of life. In 1962 this writer played the Sergeant of Police in a prep school production of the Pirates of Penzance, other G&S triumphs followed …..

So it would be some surprise to Gilbert and Sullivan that the Edinburgh University Savoy Opera Group would exist at all. However I am sure they would have been delighted, as was I, with the spirited and enthusiastic performance they are currently giving of HMS Pinafore at the Assembly Roxy.

Director Holly Marsden’s interpretation aims to criticise the British class system and to question what it is to be British through setting it in the modern era aboard a cruise ship. As she rightly claims, this mimics Gilbert and Sullivan’s original intentions, for they were ruthless satirists, but had such a light touch that their politically immune audiences considered it merely “poking fun”. Conceptually the production can bring nothing other than the enduring relevance of  “Englishness” and class, but that’s powerful stuff in a Scotland (re)considering independence and/or Brexit.  ‘Class’ may be an Edinburgh thing but it seems pretty resplendent around my way. Yet, and again to the director’s credit and in the spirit of the original, this was not some heavy handed student left wing rant, but a joyous fun filled romp played for laughs which came aplenty.

The orchestra struck up the familiar overture sounding small in number but large in enthusiasm, perhaps rather too like a ship’s orchestra before they settled in, and then the “ship’s company” took us through the opening ensemble “We sail the ocean blue” and we set off on a cruise of musical merriment that lasted the entire evening without a drop. The liveliness of the cast was engaging, honourable mentions going to Angus Bhattacharya’s wonderfully effete and arrogant Sir Joseph Porter, complete – naturally – with pelvic thrust, and to Talya Stenberg’s Buttercup, whose Californian accent was delightfully incongruous before she got under way. The most musical voice on stage that night belonged to Biomedical Sciences student Livi Wollaston, who should seriously consider switching to a degree in Vocal Studies at the Conservatoire.

The mentioning of a few should not disappoint the many who made such an effective contribution to the show.  Every member of the cast, and creative team,  should be pleased with their committed, lively, fun and engaging performance that made for a great night out.

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Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 22 March)

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Twelfth Night (Teviot House, 21 – 25 March’17)

l. Olivia Evershed as Viola; Francesca Sellors as Olivia and Ben Schofield as Orsino.
Publicity Photos taken at Gladstone’s Land by Gavin Smart.

“Thoughtful, fresh-faced and enjoyable.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Nae Bad

Is it possible to hitch up one’s doublet and hose? Indeed it is. It’s a slightly awkward procedure, quaint even, especially when you’re not used to wearing breeks. And in this play, when marrying ‘down’ means to wed a ‘yeoman of the wardrobe’, there are all sorts of dress signifiers going on. Crestfallen Orsino (Ben Schofield), Duke of Illyria, has a feather in his floppy hat, for instance; while Feste (Kathryn Salmond), in shiny booties, is a fly dude of a clown.

All credit to the University’s Shakespeare Company to have gone to town for its costumes. It provides for a lot of show and leg, swagger and poise. Sir Andrew Aguecheek may reckon his galliard would slay them on the dance floor but nothing in ‘Strictly’ comes close to his curly golden wig. Once upon a time – in 1601 say – it hung lank like ‘flax on a distaff’, but male grooming continues to come on in leaps and bounds. Sir Toby Belch’s (Thomas Noble) broad chest is festooned and Antonio (Benjamin Aluwihare) is a silver pirate. Meantime, across the divide, the Countess Olivia’s gown is lovely, Viola / Caesario is demure in a wee cape, and Maria (Isabel Woodhouse) is a sexy spirit in a homespun skirt. It is, all in, a colourful procession.

Unsurprisingly and fittingly it is individual performances that catch the eye. Callum Pope is blindingly good as an Aguecheek crossed with Mr Bean. Olivia Evershed embodies Viola’s virtue and predicament simply by standing still and speaking well. Charlie Ralph’s Malvolio is at its best when hurt and humiliated while Francesca Sellors’s Olivia is always believable, from her sharp and ironic, ‘Are you a comedian?’ asked of Caesario, to her wonderful ‘Oh!’ when Sebastian (Michael Zwiauer) is simply delighted to be ruled by her …

Thomas Noble as Sir Toby Belch and Michael Zwiauer as Sebastian.
Production photo by Gavin Smart.

This production almost suits its venue to a T. The University’s Debating Hall is grand and wood panelled and lofty enough to accommodate Aguecheek’s kickshawses and capers. A narrow gallery runs around three sides and director Lauren Stockless might have wondered how – in the absence of an upper stage – she could use the higher space. As it is, a musical trio plays against the left wall and a few scenes are played in the orchestra pit and there is frequent usage of entries (& exits) through the auditorium itself. Unfortunately the seating is not raked so sightlines are sometimes obstructed. On the stage itself – and in the best Elizabethan tradition – there is no furniture, only a large and dark oblong box, which kept having its white coverings rearranged by fussy ducal servants. Black drapes hang upstage with white sheeting in the middle for heads to pop through at just the right comic moment.

Charlie Ralph as Malvolio with Francesca Sellors as Olivia.
Publicity photo by Gavin Smart

‘A natural perspective that is and is not’, exclaims the dumbfounded Orsino upon seeing the identical twins, Viola and Sebastian, and that’s what you’ll observe, kind of. As it happens brother and sister are not dressed the same, which if you don’t know the play (Anyone?) can be tricky, but more to the point you will see Twelfth Night in period costume, laugh as ever at the gulled Malvolio, enjoy the confusion of identities – a bonus feature is Fabian (Tom Whiston) as a woman –  and still be none the wiser about Feste: superannuated Fool or proto-Leonard Cohen?

This is not as ‘brisk and giddy paced’ as its times and mood require – and that you must hope for from a professional company – but as a student production it’s thoughtful, fresh-faced and enjoyable. As you wonder what it’s all about, best to side with the ever fazed Sir Andrew and just enquire, mildly, ‘Wherefore sweetheart, what’s your metaphor?’

At the close, as the stars come out on the backcloth, I would have Feste’s prayer to boot, ‘Now, the melancholy god protect thee, and the tailor make thy doublet of changeable taffeta’.

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Reviewer: Alan Brown  (Seen 21 March)

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Hay Fever (Lyceum: 10th March -1st April ’17)

Rosemary Boyle, Susan Wooldridge, Charlie Archer. Photo credit – Mihaela Bodlovic

“Susan Wooldridge is sensational as Judith Bliss”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

The overarching theme in Noel Coward’s Hay Fever is one of contrast: theatre vs real life; keeping up appearances vs showing your true colours. And while capturing a lot of the inherent comedy in such situations, this latest production from the Lyceum Theatre Company and the Citizens Theatre, for me, goes one contrast too far in creating a production of paradox which ends up being somehow less great than the sum of its parts.

Without the traditional curtain opening at the start of the show, Tom Piper’s stark and stripped back set, which exposes a lot of the “backstage” area, is immediately visible. On first impression, it feels cheap and unfinished, leading me to worry I’ve walked into the theatre a week too soon. It does, however, create a rugged bohemian mood, which seems to make a lot more sense as the piece progresses.

When the action begins, much of it early on feels quite forced, with the first scene in particular a mass of very obvious stage directions with vases, cushions and sitting down. Thankfully, Rosemary Boyle as Sorrel allays many of my fears by capturing that much-needed sense of balance between theatricality and reality, with charming facial expressions, tone and timing all making her compelling to watch. In contrast her on-stage brother Simon (Charlie Archer) consistently leans towards being melodramatic, and it’s only in the final scene where his character starts to blend with the rest of his family that he feels like part of the same play as everyone else.

Indeed, this sense of mismatched acting styles also applies to the guests. Pauline Knowles brings a wonderful Jordan Baker coolness to Myra, with a clear journey in mood as she resists the madness around her, while Nathan Ives-Moiba (Sandy) seems quite content to bark his lines at anyone and everyone, with little subtlety or variation throughout.

Considering all of the above, perhaps what jars most about this production is how difficult it is to believe any chemistry or relationship between the family members and their guests. Susan Wooldridge, who is sensational as Judith Bliss in the second half of the piece, with commanding presence and vitality, is perhaps too old and withering to be believed as Sandy’s obsession, while Benny Baxter-Young’s frustrated and frumpy David seems the exact opposite of what Myra and Jackie would endure a trip to this house for. Individually the characters work, but together they don’t.

Hywell Simons and Katie Barnett. Photo credit – Mihaela Bodlovic

In saying that, there are some moments of brilliance. My personal highlights include the hilariously awkward arrival of Jackie and Richard – deftly played by Katie Barnett and Hywel Simons – which captures just how amusing British politeness can be to the outside eye, while Clara (Myra McFadyen) dazzles every time she sets foot on stage, particularly in the unexpected interlude. Even more unexpected (for everyone concerned) in this performance was the breakfast trolley’s stage direction to topple over, which though admirably covered by quick-fire improvisation, perhaps most deftly sums this production up: funny but off-balance.

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 14 March)

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THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED

A Step In Time (The Magnuson Centre, Edinburgh Academy: 10th & 11th March ’17)

“The group demonstrates all the qualities that make show choirs eminently lovable”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

In large part thanks to a popular American TV series from the 00s, being in a show choir has become a lot more socially acceptable – even “cool” in some circles – in recent years, so it was great to see a packed house for Edinburgh University Footlights’ latest show, and a stage full of diverse young people who love being there.

In A Step In Time the group demonstrates all the qualities that make show choirs eminently lovable: fun renditions of upbeat popular tunes, killer vocals, show-stopping choreography and smiles big enough to fill the room. But behind all the glitter and grapevines, did the performance itself deliver a knock-out punch? In my opinion, not quite.

Opening number Step in Time set the scene well as a lively and energetic introduction to the night’s proceedings with some clever, subtle changes in lyrics and arrangement to make the song feel like the choir’s own. Accompanied by full-on intricate choreography, it says something about the fitness and dedication of the group that they were even able to breathe for the next ten minutes, let alone perform song after song, complete with dance routines.

For me, it was a shame there was significantly more focus on the “show” rather than the “choir” elements of the performance, with complex choreography and numerous costume changes detracting from the vocals throughout. Harmonies and power were often lost in the frantic flailing of arms and apparel, and what remained was at times imprecise and unnecessary. The flow of the performance was also quite stilted, with some uncomfortable lengthy pauses between songs, hindering the overall enjoyment of the night.

However, it was in the simpler and more stripped backed numbers where the group really excelled: the 90s medley, Seasons of Love and the 00s medley in the second half really showcased the strength and depth of the choir’s vocal talents, and it’s a shame we didn’t see more consistent top quality vocals and arrangements like these from the choir as a whole throughout the show. There were also some beautiful stand-out solo and small group performances (specifically Believe, She Used To Be Mine and I Know it’s Today) which highlighted some really gorgeous individual voices.

I would have preferred more quality over quantity in terms of the choreography, using it cleverly in specific numbers to give wow-factor, with greater focus on the basics of group singing as the overarching emphasis. Overall I think the group tried to do too much too often, which left the lily not just gilded, but smothered in cream and cherries too.

Still, it was an entertaining performance from a talented bunch of young people, that was, on the whole, very enjoyable. I look forward to the next one.

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Reviewer: Steve Griffin (Seen 10 March)

THIS REVIEW HAS NOT BEEN SUBEDITED