RSNO: Remmereit, Bryan. Vaughan Williams, Martin Suckling, Ravel. (Usher Hall: 3 Feb ’17)

The Lark Ascending

“In Katharine Bryan we heard some of the finest flute playing around today”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

The RSNO chose interesting, offbeat fare for their Sir Alexander Gibson Memorial Concert on Friday night, by way of complete contrast to what will be an immensely popular Rachmaninov/Tchaikovsky melange this coming week. Good for them, and I am sure that the great man, who brought so much to the RSNO in his extraordinary twenty-five year tenure and yet died at the relatively young age of 68, would have thoroughly approved.

The first piece was not without controversy: Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending transposed for flute by the RSNO’s Principal Flautist, and soloist on the night, Katharine Bryan. This well known work – indeed, it is number one in Classic FM’s Hall of Fame (make of that what you will) – while for some overexposed, is to me almost sacred. I first heard it as a schoolboy played in a concert in Dorchester Abbey in Oxfordshire by one of my peers, Richard Deakin, who went on to teach music at the Royal Academy and found the Orchestra of St John’s Smith Square. An early summer evening by the Thames with the fading sun streaming through the Abbey’s stained glass windows … and the piece moved onto my spiritual and emotional hard drives for ever.

To transpose it to flute had me and a number of others worried. Yet for me, full of reservation, it was a triumph. The warmth and roundness of the flautist’s timbre brought a new dimension to the work outwith the capacity of the violin. Bryan’s playing was exquisite: her control of her breathing in long passages extraordinary, her phrasing superb, her control and precision utterly convincing. So much so that I shall buy the recording. Now there’s a compliment in this age of streaming and downloads.

Composer Martin Suckling came on next to introduce his world premiere performance of our next piece,  The White Road. Interesting as this prologue was, it later became clear  – as our flautist returned  in a shimmering white dress rather than her earlier red version –  that this was a fill in. No matter, it gave the next quite difficult fifteen minutes some context.

Notwithstanding the composer’s aspirations the work essentially was a back and forth between sharp musical bites from the flute echoed by percussion, with minimal brass, wind and string support and unconvincing body bops by the soloist to accentuate the to and fro with little added value from the microtones. Melody went missing until the end of the work and I found it unremarkable. Fairly typical of the modern genre, I suppose, but it really only came into itself at its close.

Our nerves were soothed by Bryan’s blissful rendering of Massenet’s Thais as an encore, accompanied only by harp. Luscious.

Following the interval we were treated to Daphnis and Chloe Suites No’s 1 and 2. This piece is a conductor’s nightmare in terms of its fluidity and apparent lack of time signature, so it would be timely to point out that the baton was being held on the night by Arild Remmereit standing in for the indisposed Peter Oundijan. A fine job he made of it (and for the rest of the evening, too). You never felt the orchestra were out of control and their disciplined playing impressed. The work opened with a flute solo and lo and behold, there was Katharine Bryan again, now in black dress, back in her familiar principal flute’s chair. The Danse Guerriere at the conclusion of the first suite showed real verve and the Lever de Jour opening Suite No 2 was well realised and convincing. Remmereit got everything he could out of the band in the Danse Generale which ended our evening with a – or rather, several – bangs.

So in conclusion,  this was a concert that entertained with the familiar, challenged with new takes on familiar themes, and also with new material. Sir Alexander would have been proud of his orchestra’s playing and in Katharine Bryan we heard some of the finest flute playing around today.

 

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

Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 3 January)

Go to the RSNO, Scotland’s National Orchestra

Visit Edinburgh49 at the Usher Hall archive.

Mack the Knife (Bedlam: 25 – 26 Jan.’17)

mack-the-knife

“Lady, ‘the hottest ticket in town’”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

There’s a virtual Hall of Fame in this show: Brecht, Weill, Lotte Lenya, to start with; and a few music greats – Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, Sinatra – and then Kevin Spacey as Bobby Darin with the title song. If you want more, there could be Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga’s The Lady is a Tramp and a passing literary reference to Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe.

Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller would channel them all through his play. It’s a clever and applaudable conceit but the interference is too much. Too many signals from too many sources.  A mellow jazz intro’ – nice – leads into Oh, Lady Be Good which given what follows is practically hilarious. ‘Lady’ sings that she’s ‘all alone in this big city’ but for all her lonesomeness she is plainly making out just fine. It helps that the competition in the other clubs is thinning out, alarmingly so in fact, and the police appear clueless.

Detective Foster (Paddy Echlin) likes his work. He’s had lessons in psychological profiling and Jack the Ripper is on his mind rather than Georgia but he’s a poor sap. He has the sharp trench coat and the 50’s trilby but is not the hard-boiled character that he thinks he is. More a marshmallow with a toy gun.  Deacon (Jacob Brown), Lady’s trumpet player, is more on the case and knows a set-up when he sees one but unfortunately his incredulous WTF’s don’t help him. As for Lady, ‘the hottest ticket in town’, Jo Hill enjoys herself. She’s sassy at the mike, sings confidently, and is audacious beyond reckoning.

And here’s the rub. Lady’s luck – call it ‘cool’ if you must – is something else. It turns tension into the comic macabre, not least when she kneecaps herself and stays on her feet. Maybe her aim was off but even a flesh wound must hurt like hell. Then there’s the absolute gift of a police detective who ‘packs heat’ like Clouseau on holiday.

Will Briant on piano and Vebjorn Halvfjierdvik on bass give the piece a tempo and style that if extended – for the Fringe, say – could lift the play into the lighter, skilful register that Brimmer-Beller is reaching for.

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

Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 25 January)

Go to Bedlam Theatre

Visit Edinburgh49‘s Bedlam archive.

Ten Years of Taylor Swift (The Mash House: 14 Jan ’17)

taylor-swift

“A fun and fantastic showcase”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

Not being a huge Taylor Swift fan myself I was slightly apprehensive before the show. However, I must admit I was very pleasantly surprised. This gig was set up by 16 year old Lisa Kowalski, who with some help from mum managed to put on an entertaining evening any event organizer would be proud of.  The three hour set – a good length! –  showcased a range of Taylor Swift’s material – from her younger country days to newer pop songs.

Before the show there was an excited buzz around the room and I could immediately tell I was surrounded by some devoted Swifties. There was not much in a way of an introduction before singer Matthew Gibb, together with the backing band, started off the night with his original version of ‘Blank Space’.

Soon it was clear to see that despite their young age these are all very talented singers and musicians including The 45 and Beth Swan. Although the backing band added an extra kick of enthusiasm to the night I was glad that there was an acoustic session in the middle, where you could clearly hear each performer’s voice.

Each act enjoyed great stage presence but there were three performers who really stuck out – Ashleigh Burns, Olivia Dawn Haggerty and Lisa Kowalski herself.

17 year old Ashleigh from Glasgow gave an impressive performance with her versions of ‘Love Story’ and ‘Trouble’. Her strong, soulful voice in combination with a charming presence and confidence on stage made it a great set. Olivia impressed with her beautiful ballad version of ‘All Too Well’ whilst Lisa was not only good at talking to and entertaining the crowd, but vocally she also did well, with a good range and a convincing ‘attack’. Although not pitch perfect at all times these girls have serious energy and potential.

All night everybody’s enthusiasm was so contagious that I couldn’t help bopping along and I even got caught up in the whole sing-along spirit of the night! I can only recommend this particular show if you are a big Taylor Swift fan but I really loved the whole idea behind it – celebrating an artist together with lots of like-minded fans. The whole event was brilliantly organized and you could clearly see the huge effort put in from all parties. It was definitely a fun and fantastic way to showcase young talent from across Scotland.

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

Reviewer: Iona Young (Seen 14 January)

Visit the Edinburgh49‘s Other venues archive.

Picnic at Hanging Rock (Lyceum: 13 – 28 January ’17)

hanging-rock-1

“It’s cool, it’s chilling and it shocks”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Nae Bad

Do you approach Hanging Rock expecting to see corsets hanging in mid-air? Well, in which case you will have noted that the excised last chapter of Joan Lindsay’s 1967 book provides this astonishing feature. Either that or you’re wandering in a Dreamtime of your own (adolescent) imagination, set about with eucalyptus trees and hot flushes from Peter Weir’s 1975 screenplay. Now here comes the wake-up call, a dramatic restorative, if you will.  It’s cool, it’s chilling and it shocks.

This Picnic at Hanging Rock is a stylish outing, to say the least, from Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre and Perth’s Black Swan Theatre Company. That’s Perth, Western Australia, and that’s a collaboration over 2170 miles, but who’s counting? This is Tom Wright’s adaptation but as in Lindsay’s story distance is of no consequence and time is suspended, ‘running out and spooling in’, between grey black panelling topped with brushwood. No rock is visible and there is no interval.

There is thunder and a blackout and five schoolgirls suddenly appear, side by side across the stage, in immaculate uniform ready for Speech Day 2017. They tell the story, their shared creepy story, of what happened on St Valentine’s Day, 1900, when a daytrip from Appleyard College went to Hanging Rock and four girls and one teacher disappear. One of them, Irma, is later found, close to death, and with absolutely no memory of what happened. It is, at its opening, a composed and perfectly disciplined account that you realise is the sure and safe way to rationalise the irrational, the unknown and the dangerous. It is a long introduction but necessary, for in this telling you understand that an ancient landmark is an abcess to be swabbed away for the sake of white Australians everywhere and young ladies from proper schools can never be too English. Whatever happened, dear, it’s really too, too bad that it happened in the state of Victoria.

hanging-rock-2

There are parasols to ward off the sun, a grand aspidistra to maintain respectability, and – figuratively – there must be ‘lino, asphalt, and axminster’ to hide the red earth. Mrs Appleyard, founder and Headmistress, remembers Bournemouth but dreams of the  intimate touch of her (?dead) husband. Irma, returns to the school before leaving for a stay in England and is viciously attacked by girls suffocating in their own propriety. Director Matthew Lutton works to challenge perceptions: angling the girls in contorted positions, immobilizing their movements in successive freeze-frame ‘shots’, subjecting the narrative to enigmatic surtitles over frequent blackouts. How else to refresh, even subvert, what has become an almost mythological text, complete with panpipes?

It is actually without humour – an unusual and tense achievement over eighty-five minutes – but the performances of the several characters are still appealingly unaffected and distinct. Amber McMahon cross-dresses as the young Englishman, Michael Fitzhubert, but there’s no caricature here. Elizabeth Nabben is Mrs Appleyard and builds a fragile role to its last despairing moment; Nikki Shiels suffers as Irma, whose fate it is to keep her nightmares under control, whilst Arielle Gray and Harriet Gordon-Anderson are in supporting roles that they make important.

Is an audience bushwhacked by theatrical device and intelligence? I think so, but it is performed with considerable respect for its source and the script is smart, spare and ingenious. Technically it works a treat with outstanding lighting and sound and this is probably one production where the ‘best’ seats, for the best effect, are probably at the front of the Upper Circle and you should definitely read the Director’s and Writer’s programme notes after the show because they’re too helpful. The play’s the thing.

[FYI. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band play at Hanging Rock on Saturday 11 February. You simply cannot keep a good place down!]

nae bad_blue

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

Reviewer: Alan Brown  (Seen 14 January)

Picnic at Hanging Rock at the Lyceum

Visit Edinburgh49‘s The Lyceum  archive.

Jekyll & Hyde (Church Hill Theatre: 22 – 25 Nov ’16)

Stephen Quinn as Jekyll (& Hyde) Photos: Erica Belton

Stephen Quinn as Jekyll (& Hyde)
Photos: Erica Belton

“The talent neither stops at the singing, nor at the bounds of the principal cast.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

I was part of an unfortunate, if very narrow, generation whose first encounter with Robert Louis Stephenson’s monstrous Mister Hyde was the opening of a terrible Hugh Jackman movie. As a result, questions of the duality of man, the nature of morality and the dangers of unrestrained passion didn’t really factor in for a while. It seems fitting therefore that EUSOG’s latest outing follows the pattern of contrast underscored by its source material: it’s a collection of both dizzying highs and curiously disappointing lows.

Jekyll & Hyde loosely follows Stephenson’s original work, with a few new emotional complications thrown in. It is a musical exploration of the ambition, suffering and fear associated not only with the fraught Henry Jekyll, but its effects on his friends, family and even the city of London itself. And to begin –  as usual – with the ability on display, it’s considerable. The singing talent in this show can’t be denied, ensemble included. Ellie Millar and Giselle Yonace in particular offer utterly breathtaking solos as Emma Carew and Lucy Harris, culminating in a duet that could shatter glass for precision.

And the talent neither stops at the singing, nor at the bounds of the principal cast. Special props go to Kirsten Millar as the world’s most entertainingly jovial prostitute; and to Jana Bernard, whose rare mix of graceful flexibility and natural showmanship lead to an array of angles that’d make an architect weep. Despite the occasional desync in a dance, the ensemble did their job with gusto and skill.

But any praise would be incomplete without hailing new face Stephen Quinn as the titular duo. Powerful voice aside, I found myself extremely taken with his portrayal of Henry Jekyll: he balances ambition, humanity and (perhaps most importantly) a genuine vulnerability during his two hour tenure as the good doctor, and it certainly stuck. Often, mild-mannered Jekyll is the more under-realised of the two, and it was refreshingly welcome to see such care put into his characterisation.

The question then, I suppose, is why this show only has three stars – and why have I personally left it unrated?

Despite the considerable strength of the cast, there are distinct elements of this show that detract from the overall fabric of the performance. Most glaringly, perhaps, is the way in which they handle Edward Hyde. At its core, there simply wasn’t enough contrast or intensity: often, the only difference between the two selves seemed to be his ragged choice of jacket, rather than any significant change in manner. The visceral glee, passionate brutality and utterly malevolent hedonism which typifies Hyde seems to get lost somewhere in the mix – and this is certainly not helped by fight choreography which is so floaty and strangely force-less that it occasionally comes off as comical rather than dramatic. Sitting next to the fantastic choreography of song numbers such as ‘Bring on the Men’, it seems worlds apart.

jekyllhyde3

And, most unfortunately, that fundamental element of violence and rage, which seems to be missing from much of the production, runs deeply through its other elements. Without that relish of cruelty, many scenes feel strangely bland for want of a contrast which just isn’t there. Combine that with mics which popped in and out more often than a first year halls cleaning lady and with variable volume levels, which would put Brexit indecision to shame, even when the show was at its strongest, then it was unsurprising that at times I could not hear a damned – or virtuous – thing.

That said, if you’re looking for a collection of entertaining and ear-pleasing song numbers, you’ll like what you get. However, if you’re wanting an exploration of human nature, brutality and debauchery, and a spot or two of vanquishing, then …. No. Upfront this is a strong production but it is let down by its emotional backdrop. For those who aren’t as pedantically focused on its content as I am, it’s certainly not going to sour your night – but walking home through the cold Edinburgh air I couldn’t help but think that Mister Hyde just didn’t show up.

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

Reviewer: Jacob Close (Seen 22 November)

Go Edinburgh University Savoy Opera Group

Visit the Church Hill Theatre archive.

RSNO. Jensen. Lugansky: Usher Hall 4 Nov ’16.

nd

Image result for prokofiev

“The RSNO is maintaining an extraordinarily high standard of repertoire and performance”

Editorial Rating:  4 Stars

The RSNO’s 2016/17 season continues apace with intelligent programming and excellent playing. On Friday we also had significant added value inasmuch as we heard not one but two piano concertos, in a splendid celebration of Russian music from the first half of the 20th century.

The orchestra led off with The Enchanted Lake by Anatoli Liadov. Liadov was an enigma with a somewhat mystical approach to life as well as music, delighted to maintain that “Art is a figment, a fairy tale, a phantom. Give me a fairy tale, a dragon, a water sprite, a wood demon – give me something that is unreal, and I am happy.”  And sure enough, The Enchanted Lake follows no clear story and is an impressionistic portrait of a magical lake populated by all manner of water nymphs and wood sprites. It is a gentle piece that has evocations of Delius’s Walk to the Paradise Garden written some eight years earlier in 1901. The RSNO’s playing was suitably, lyrically, intoned as we settled comfortably in our seats.

We were rapidly shaken out of them by Nicolai Lugansky’s bravura rendition of Prokofiev’s Fifth Piano Concerto. “Nicolai has been coming to us for twenty years” one of the RSNO staffers enthusiastically told me, and it is commendable that this orchestra has such long-standing relationships with star players. Clearly this is reciprocated, because Lugansky learnt the work by heart in a week before the concert.

The work is of mixed quality and rather bitty. Five movements in twenty-five minutes, but only the last two are of any substance. There is far more “music” in the first concerto, a 15-minute work but less slender, which came after the interval. Nonetheless Lugansky took hold of it, easily disposing of its demanding notation, with the orchestra providing enthusiastic support. The fourth movement Larghetto was the most melodic, at least at the start until it built into a strong climax. The fifth, appropriately named Vivo, provided a lively conclusion.

After the interval the indomitable Lugansky appeared again for  Prokofiev’s First Piano Concerto, the more rounded one. This 15-minute tour de force is an object lesson in less means more, and much as I enjoy the other four concerti this one stirs me most. From its confident three chord brass opening in D flat major the piano and orchestra belted out the near frantic theme in unison until the orchestra took off on its own with the soloist following in a series of bravura passages, pausing only for a few minutes’ reflection in the second section of what is really a one-movement work. It was a joyride: taut, together, highly effective orchestral playing under the confident and relaxed baton of Eivind Gullberg Jensen, with soloist Lubansky clearly a master of his art. The theme sang out again when the pace returned in the third section and ended in a blaze of glory with the addition of glockenspiel.

The evening was brought to a close by Rachmaninov’s Third Symphony, premiered in 1936 by no less than Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra, and by a short head the most recently composed piece of the evening. Rachmaninov was a master of the romantic genre and this work is close to film music, and none the worse for it. However, unlike the utterly romantic Second Symphony with its long melodic lines, this pleasing work is full of thematic variations that never really go anywhere, so you are subjected to a series of treats rather than an enveloping whole. The RSNO were completely at home with it, from the opening cello solo (the first movement is all down to the cellos), through the wistful horn and harp opening of the second, concluding with the zestful Allegro with the orchestra giving everything it had got. This is a more reflective, even introspective work than the second symphony, which nonetheless, and notwithstanding the stature of the second symphony, contains some of the most expressive and romantic classical music ever written.

The RSNO is maintaining an extraordinarily high standard of repertoire and performance, worthy of its pedigree and 125th Year Anniversary.

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

Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 4 November)

Go to the Royal Scottish National Orchestra

Visit Edinburgh49‘s Usher Hall archive.

Dr Johnson Goes to Scotland (Traverse: 1 – 5 Nov. ’16)

l to r. Lewis Howden, Gerda Stevenson, Simon Donaldson, and Morna Young. Photo: Kirsty Anderson

l to r. Lewis Howden, Gerda Stevenson, Simon Donaldson, and Morna Young.
Photo: Kirsty Anderson

“Comic effect knocks against an open coffin on Iona”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars

Would Samuel Johnson, heroic dictionary maker, essayist, critic, and celebrity wit ever have appeared on ‘Strictly’? Perhaps. He was, after all, prone to nervous shakes and tics and he would have been mercilessly brilliant at discombobulating the judges. Anyhow, in the last of the current season of a Play, a Pie, and a Pint, the big man is in polished boots and plaid and he steps up to a jig and seems to enjoy it.

And verily this is the same Dr Johnson, who noticed that ‘the whole [of Edinburgh] bears some resemblance to the old part of Birmingham’. Writer James Runcie continues his rehabilitation of the arch English nationalist by rowing him thoughtfully and fondly over the sea to Skye (and to Mull and Raasay). A Word with Dr Johnson – at the Traverse in October last year – was about the man, his wife, and his English dictionary; this time (1773) he’s in the boondocks and the heather and the Gaelic. For the proto London-centric it’s an ear-bending peregrination in a land where ‘you have more words than people’, which could well have been its chief attraction.

Lewis Howden plays Johnson sympathetically, of splendid girth and with orotund voice, and with a baffled interest in all things Scottish. An exploration of Fingal’s Cave, lantern in hand, leaves him only dimly enlightened but his enthusiasm for Thomas Braidwood’s school for the deaf and dumb is obviously sincere.  His companion throughout is, of course, the amiable James Boswell (admirable by Simon Donaldson), who treats us to evocative latin from Dunbar’s ‘Lament for the Makars’, whilst guarding his distinguished author friend from the sublime and local peril of being called a bampot.

So then, a pleasing trot through good old Scottish ways ? Runcie even brings on ‘Macbeth’ and the Bonnie Prince, which is fine until their comic effect knocks against an open coffin on Iona and a poem of freedom in earnest pursuit of the Scottish nation. Supporting roles by Gerda Stevenson and Morna Young are amusing and/or tuneful but my distinct impression was of looking in at the tartan themed windows of discount booksellers, The Works, on Princes Street. The learned Dr.’s eye would take in a remaindered copy of his  ‘A Journey to the Western Islands’; he would harrumph, say “I’m deeply obliged”, and move on.

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

Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 1 November)

Go to Dr Johnson Goes to Scotland at the Traverse

Visit Edinburgh49‘s Traverse archive.