Interview: Shine (Traverse 16 – 18 May ’19)

“The show has been like therapy to me…”

WHAT: “Kema’s 3 years old when his family move from Zambia to Newcastle.

It’s a story of new surroundings, about making a new life and then watching that life fall apart. A story about self-belief, trusting your head, your heart and always chasing your dreams.

Actor, rapper, singer, rising star and Live Theatre Associate Artist Kema Sikazwe (I, Daniel Blake), also known as Kema Kay, makes his powerful stage debut mixing a bittersweet coming-of-age story with an electrifying live soundtrack and heartfelt words.”

WHO: Kema Sikazwe, writer & performer

MORE? Here!


Why ‘Shine’?

The title of the show, Shine, is named after my name which means ‘one who shines’ in one of the Zambian languages. I hope people join me on this journey of finding out who we are, accepting who we are, and come away inspired to go find their shine! It’s never too late.

This is your life story. How have the people in your life and audiences reacted to its telling?

There are definitely find some parts in the show they can relate but you can never really judge how an audience will respond. There are a lot of questions that are left unanswered and I know people will want to know. The show has been like therapy to me and I just want the audience to keep fighting the good fight of life and find their shine!

What’s the one thing about Zambia that everyone should know?

It’s a beautiful country!

The Newcastle and Gateshead skylines are famous for their bridges. Which is your favourite?

The Millennium Bridge. I love when it lights up!

What’s the one thing you wish you’d known at the start of rehearsals?

I underestimated how emotional it would be. It’s been a real mixture of emotions. In rehearsals, I broke down a few times as I realised how much bottled emotion I’ve had in over the years. Also, I wrongly judged theatre in the beginning, but once I got a taste of it, I was hooked from then onwards. I’ve been a sponge since starting but I’ve learnt so much in a short space of time.

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Interview: The Lark (Bellfield, Portobello 4 – 8 June ’19)

“Latterly, I’ve become interested in the story of the woman who takes on the establishment and for a little while, is hailed as a hero. Until it no longer suits them and they decide to get rid of her.”

WHAT: “Joan of Arc. Saint, saviour or someone who heard voices?

Against the backdrop of one of the world’s longest wars, a 17-year-old peasant girl led an army of men into battle and carved a victory that defined France. She claimed God told her to do it; the church says she’s a witch and should be burnt alive.

Jean Anouilh’s classic play tells the tale of how Joan convinced the church, the state – and her dad – to let her tackle an apparently impossible feat. And then plays witness at her trial: a nineteen-year-old uneducated woman held to account for her successes by the world’s most educated men.”

WHO: Claire Wood, Director

MORE? Here!


Why ‘The Lark’?

I’ve always loved the story of Joan of Arc. I was brought up Catholic so feel as if I’ve always known the story. I didn’t realise how much of a cult comes with her story. Look up Joan of Arc tattoos on Pinterest – it’s incredible. I discovered the plays as an adult. At first I was interested in the story of a young peasant woman who claimed God was talking to her – much to the outrage of all the educated men in the church who assumed that only they had a direct line to the Lord’s intentions. Latterly, I’ve become interested in the story of the woman who takes on the establishment and for a little while, is hailed as a hero. Until it no longer suits them and they decide to get rid of her.

One of the characters in the play, Bishop Cauchon, who has his own darkly sinister agenda, says “when a man can keep his dignity and purpose in that loneliness, in that silence of a vanished God, that is when he is truly great.” Joan’s story is relevant to activists and political prisoners, religious or not, across the world.

The real Joan lived 600 years ago but looking at people like Greta Thunberg, Malala Yousafzai, the story also feels incredibly current. They’re both about the same age as Joan was, both doing incredible things in their field. This is a slice of history that has all sorts of messages about the courage and determination needed to hold your ground in the face of fierce opposition.

Do you see Joan as a revolutionary prime mover, fighting for the timeless cause; or was she simply a pawn on the familiar medieval chessboard promoting the self-interest of the real players?

She was both. Isn’t Greta Thunberg? Joan was fighting to get France out of the control of the English. Getting the rightful king crowned was a significant step towards that. At the same time – to my modern day mind! – she was fighting for the right, as a woman, to do the things she wanted to do. To wear what she wanted to – which wasn’t a skirt. To be listened to. To be taken seriously. To make a difference. Rather than festering away in skirts in her sleepy little French village.

Anouilh (and translator Gill Taylor ) do a brilliant job of condensing the history but if you look at what actually happened, it looks as if Joan’s confidence did finally outstrip her ambition. She started losing battles, her soldiers started abandoning her. She first attempted to march on Paris to drive the English out of France’s capital city – without the king’s permission. And then it all started going wrong. The history doesn’t all fit in the play necessarily – or we’d be there for hours!

But back to your question, at the same time as she was trying to achieve all these things, the establishment were busy there using her for their own ends. And this comes through really neatly in the script. The king’s mother-in-law, Yolande, trying to persuade the king to see Joan as she might help give him some much-needed celebrity sparkle. The Church’s various representatives greeting her with suspicion and then conspiring to squash her when their godly status has been affirmed. The army taking pains to point out that she’s nothing but a puppet soldier – albeit a puppet who achieved more than they had in fifty years of fighting. Few of the characters in Anouilh’s play have any interest in her as a person and are interested only in what Joan can achieve for them.

What makes Gill Taylor’s new translation of the original special?

It’s easy to tell this story in a way that’s very black and white. She was certainly hearing god talking to her. The church thought she was lying and burnt her. It’s my bugbear with the Shaw version of the story. I love Anouilh’s script for acknowledging the convenience of this girl turning up at a time when the country was in a political mess and had lost its sense of self. Joan gave them an opportunity to rediscover that. Where Christopher Fry’s translation from the 1950’s feels very much like a script from the fifties, Gill Taylor’s script does a brilliant job of highlighting how current the story is. Joan’s dad swaggers about cursing his daughter for the shame she’ll bring on the family with her claims of hearing voices – then calls her a slut for sneaking about in the fields meeting someone he’s certain is an illicit boyfriend rather than the holy St Michael. Gill’s use of the sort of language we use now to diminish women – particularly topical now as gender equality is so high on the public agenda – make the story that happened six hundred years ago feel really current.

What will a band and choir add to the mix?

At one level, we’re performing the show in a church – so it seemed rude not to have a choir. The shape of what’s now the performing space was perfectly suited to locating the choir in the balcony above what used to be the altar, acting as real live angels on high!

Looking purely at the words in the script, and getting your head around all the protagonists in the story and their respective agendas, it’s easy to lose sight of contemporary resonances. The pop music we’ve woven into the story is there as a reminder that these are all issues we’re still tussling with today.

What’s the one thing you wish you’d known at the start of rehearsals?

What a big story this is! Unusually for that time in history, we’ve inherited an enormously thorough record of her story as the transcripts from her trial still survive. The trial lasted for over 80 days, Joan was on her feet for 12 hours a day being quizzed by a conveyor belt of clerics trying to catch her out, and throughout her interrogation, her story remained remarkably, impressively consistent. The one thing she refused to tell the court was what her angels looked like. She said that was between her and god.

I would love to have known at the start of rehearsals whether Joan was really hearing God talking to her. Really hearing some sort of voice in her head. Or capitalising on prophecies that had been doing the rounds for several centuries – which she would have heard from travellers visiting their house as she grew up – about a virgin girl who would come from the countryside to save France.

There’s a fabulous podcast by an Italian professor called Daniele Bolleli (‘History on Fire‘) that sees him reviewing all of the evidence and concluding that we can’t possibly tell whether she was mad, whether she’s was God’s spokesperson on earth or whether her talent was putting herself in the right place at the right time – and consequently, having a ball doing all the things that women weren’t allowed to do at the time. I’ve been boring the poor cast with the history – as most of the cast are based on known historical figures – since we started rehearsals.

So I wish I’d known the answer before we set off. But I suspect that the reason Joan’s story continues to fascinate us – is precisely because we don’t know that answer. And that’s what makes it such a brilliantly intriguing tale.

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“So many people were killed to make Nero Emperor, it was kind of his destiny. He couldn’t opt out of it.” – Author Margaret George discusses The Confessions of Young Nero

“I’ve known a lot of Neros in my life, maybe I’m sort of a Nero too because I was lucky that I could write novels and make a living as an artist, but so few people can.”

WHAT: A mother’s deadly ambitions. A boy who would be sovereign. A name that would be infamous. This is the epic tale of Nero’s rise to power, a thrilling story of survival, betrayal, love, and the struggle for the Roman empire that would change history.”

WHO: Margaret George writes biographical novels about outsized historical characters: Henry VIII, Mary Queen of Scots, Cleopatra, Mary Magdalene, Helen of Troy, and Elizabeth I. Her latest subject is covered in ‘The Confessions of Young Nero’ and ‘The Splendour Before The Dark’. Her novels have been ‘New York Times’ bestsellers, and the Cleopatra novel was made into an Emmy-nominated ABC-TV miniseries.

Margaret especially enjoys the research she has done for the novels, such as racing in an ancient Greek stadium, attending a gladiator training school in Rome, and studying the pharmacology of snake poison.

MORE? Here!


Why Nero?

Why Nero? It’s because I think of all the Roman emperors, he seemed more like a person that you know. He seemed very modern. He reminded me of so many people I know personally who want to be artists. How many people do you know like that? Children want to go to film school, they want to become playwrights, they want to write novels, they want to play music and their parents say “No, I really think you’d better go to law school”.

So he was very modern in that way. It just happened that the law school his parent wanted him to go to was being the Emperor. That’s not something you can refuse by saying, “Well I don’t care to go to law school, I don’t want to be a doctor.” When that happens, most parents usually say, “All right then, go off to New York and if you don’t make it in five years, you’re going to come crawling back and we’ll see about law school.”

In this case, so many people were killed to make Nero Emperor, it was kind of his destiny. He couldn’t opt out of it. That was what really made him so interesting to me. It made his character alive in a way that say, Septimius Severus or even Julius Caesar or any of those people, who didn’t have that other side, couldn’t be. That is where I got the idea of the three Neros from. The Augustus one that did his duty, the artist in him and, last of all, the third one that had to facilitate the other two.

I feel as if I’ve known a lot of Neros in my life, maybe I’m sort of a Nero too because I was lucky that I could write novels and make a living as an artist, but so few people can.

Of course, this was a real life story so it wasn’t up to me to come up with a plot for the sequel that was as good as the first one, because history itself has provided me with that plot. It was a tragedy, of course. I must be drawn to tragic figures because when I think about it, Mary Queen of Scots was executed, Cleopatra and Nero committed suicide, Helen of Troy caused a war where many people were killed, and I’ve written about all of them. Life is sad even if you’re an emperor.

I like to write novels that cover a whole life. I think that you can’t understand the adult until you’ve met their younger self. The modern thing is to do just a slice of the life. When I started out I wanted to write about Henry VIII. At the time most of the books and plays just focused on a small part, usually the Anne Boleyn part and / or the Thomas More part – but I thought, “you can’t understand those out of context, you have to know the person, how he grew up, what formed him, you can’t just leap into the middle of his life.” That’s what people do now, because of space, I think, which is understandable, but I think you wouldn’t know the grown- up Nero until you knew the child.

How did you find writing the story in the shadow of Robert Graves’ I, Claudius novels?

I am thankful that ‘I, Claudius’ is told from Claudius’ point of view. Thank goodness Robert Graves didn’t get to do too much about Nero, because I find myself, especially from the mini-series, I just can’t get out of my mind the images I have of the actors that played those roles. Livia will always be Siân Phillips and of course, Caligula will always be John Hurt to me. Had there been a continuation with a grown-up Nero, I would certainly have had trouble in battling that image in my mind.

[DL: It’s interesting that neither you or Robert Graves haven’t got very much nice to say about Seneca.]

Neither of us do, do we? You know there’s such a difference of opinion about Seneca. He’s rather a mystery. It’s the old problem – stay within an institution and try to improve it, work from within and do what you can, don’t desert the field— or do you quit like Thomas More and say, “I just can’t have anything to do with this.” Seneca chose the first path, though he’s criticized a lot for that. You can make a case for the fact that he tried, he didn’t desert the ship. But you can also make a case that he stayed because he was getting so fabulously rich from serving Nero.

Is rehabilitating the reputation of Nero the ultimate act of iconoclasm?

I found that people are the most resistant to rehabilitating Nero. More so than they were to Henry VIII, which is kind of surprising because Henry was so much closer to modern times. What I found in some of the reviews, and some of the comments, is that people really prefer the villain. I have a friend who’s trying to rehabilitate Richard III, but it’s really hard because that colourful kind of villain is so attractive. Even in my Mary Magdalene book, Maureen Dowd in the ‘New York Times’ said that we prefer the golden-haired reformed prostitute because she’s so visual, she’s so easy to identify with. The disciple is not as interesting.

I was a little naïve in thinking that I could change many people’s judgment about Nero. I can see now how entrenched these ideas are about him. Public Broadcasting System recently did a programme, a kind of rehabilitation, called ‘The Nero Files’ and I braced myself. In it forensic scientists examined the case against the crimes of Nero and concluded was that he didn’t do a lot of these purported things and we can prove it by scientific evidence, for example, that plant-based poisons, which is what they had in the ancient world, worked slowly and could not cause someone to drop dead instantly, as Britannicus did. I wonder if many people watched the show and if some were convinced.

[DL: There is, of course, one crime that Nero’s associated with which is his kicking to death of his Empress Poppaea and her unborn child. She is perhaps the most famous victim of domestic abuse in history…]

Many modern historians don’t think that happened, and even the ancients fudged about it. But even if it wasn’t really true, it is so much in the popular mind that there had to be a version of it in the novel that involved Nero, but was involuntary. I couldn’t just get away with the modern view that she was ill and she had had a miscarriage. I had to acknowledge the belief that blamed Nero. But the only way to answer it, without being accused of just dodging the whole thing, was to have it happen but have it be an accident.

I say in my author’s afterword that Nero was not known to take physical action against people, striking them or abusing them. So it’s out of character if he did that, especially to his wife whom he loved very much, and they both wanted children. There’s even a papyrus, a poem written in Egypt afterwards, about Nero and Poppaea and their love, and no mention of his injuring her.

One of the problems of being a historical novelist is that a real historian can say here are the theories: one, two, three, four and he can lay them all out for the reader. But, if you’re writing a novel it has to be consistent, and you can only choose one, just one, not a list of alternative theories. So, that’s the way I handled it.

Other famous events in his reign you really cannot get away from, such as the fire in Rome and his killing Agrippina— those things really happened. The only way I can handle those them is to try to give the reasons they happened, not pretend they didn’t.

Do you have a role in selecting the narrators of the audiobook editions of your
novels?

Long, long ago when they still had cassette tapes, I would preview tapes for books from the library for a long car trip, because if I didn’t like the sound of the narrator I knew I couldn’t stand listening to it for hours. Sometimes the narrator just isn’t right.

After a certain point in my publishing career, I got the right to select the readers and that makes such a difference. If someone doesn’t sound like Nero or doesn’t sound like what I think he sounds like, I think that it just won’t capture the spirit of the book.

[DL: Why was Susan Denaker, the reader for the poisoner Locusta, so noticeably an American? Steve West, the reader for Nero, only once gives his new-found Americanness away with his pronunciation of ‘herbs’.]

I really wanted the main characters to be British – because everybody knows—ha ha— that the ancient Romans spoke with British accents. At least they do in all the movies! I think Susan sounded like an older, canny woman, the other two proposed readers sounded either really spacey or weird or else way too prissy to be like I pictured Locusta— a wise, older, and very level headed and practical person, so I hope it wasn’t too jarring that she had a different accent.

Since Peter Ustinov is unavailable, who would you cast to play your Nero?

People think of Nero as so much older than he really was. Every time I give a talk and I say, “you know he didn’t live long – he died when he was 30”, people are shocked. They had no idea. I’d like the young Robert Redford, but the current actor I came up with is Joe Alwyn. He’s 28, he looks like the young Nero, and of course, he’s British so he has the right accent.

I thought it was brilliant Zeffirelli cast ‘Romeo and Juliet’ with actual teenagers. You get older actors playing teenaged parts sometimes and it just feels ‘off’. Since the death of Luke Perry, ‘90210‘ has been back in the news. But the actors playing teenagers in it were not teenagers. One woman was 30 and Luke Perry himself was 26 so I think that if you really want to get the real Nero, you had better ask an actor who is that age, and so Joe Alwyn is my choice and I hope he is available! If he’s not taken up with Taylor Swift! But yes I think he’ll be perfect but we’ve got to do it right away or he’ll soon be too old.

[DL: Is there anything in the works to bring the novels to the screen?]

No not yet. I do have an agent in Hollywood who is working very hard to find a way of bringing it to the screen because the streaming services, like Amazon and Netflix and now Apple, are budgeting billions of dollars to bring out new series. So I’m hoping that in this climate there will be an interest in Nero because of course, a mini-series offers so much more scope than a two-hour movie. I don’t see how you could get Nero’s story into a traditional 2-hour movie format.

Did Nero’s rule produce any lasting achievements?

Ah, that’s a good question. I’m not trying to dodge this, but let me frame it a little, and consider whether anybody has real lasting achievements. It’s very rare because often the person’s accomplishments, at least within a couple of centuries, get superseded or wiped out. Nero had great diplomatic success with that treaty of peace with Parthia. That lasted 50 years.

Longer term, I would say the beginning of urban planning is his lasting legacy. He was the first one to tackle this, as he had a clean slate after the devastating Great Fire of Rome, so he had an opportunity to put green space in the rebuilding plan of Rome. He also dictated that the new streets had to be a certain width. They had to have fire fighting equipment in each house and the walls had to be at least a yard apart with no more common walls, and they had to build with a certain kind of stone that was fire resistant. Of course, people grumbled about these restrictions but he could mandate them because he was the emperor. Today we accept the necessity of city planning, but it was a radical idea then.

I have a new issue of ‘National Geographic’ examining planning cities – what did China do wrong in the last 30 years and Los Angeles in the last 15 years? How do you shape urban spaces in cities? How do we learn from past mistakes so that we have pleasant places to live? I’d say that urban planning is Nero’s one legacy which he would be very surprised about. He was proud of it but it came to him by accident because of the fire. It’s not that he set out saying, “I think I will redesign a city.” He was too focused on a different kind of art.

I would also say perhaps preparing the way for Hadrian was a legacy. Nero was a bit ahead of his time. Later, Hadrian could grow a beard and be a Grecophile and be gay, be all kinds of things that Nero did and was pilloried for.

If you could possess any one item associated with Nero, what would you have?

I would like to have his very own cithara, I could have it enthroned in some kind of shrine because none have survived from his time, and it was a very difficult virtuoso instrument to master. I’ve seen statues of Apollo holding it and that way it’s like 3D; you can walk around it and see how big and boxy and bulky it was but I’d like to see the real thing.

I do have some things from Nero’s time. I have coins which I have collected and I do have some jewellery from that era that is wearable. That I love having because I know someone wore it when Nero was emperor. I have learnt so much about history through my coin collecting. I did it with Cleopatra too.

If you could ask Nero any question what would it be?

I assume by your question that that means he’d have a retrospective vision. Because if he knows what’s happened since I would ask him for an honest appraisal of his art. Would he make the same choices knowing how posterity has painted him? To answer he would have to know how posterity painted him.

In the book I have him saying, “Do I care enough to throw everything over for my art?” If he cannot know what happened after his life, I would still ask him toward the end of his life: if you could go back and do it all over again, will you throw everything over for your art?

You’ve got a one way ticket to the Roman Empire for you and your family, you’re not coming back, when and where are you taking them?

I’m never coming back? Then I would go to England at the time when Hadrian was building his wall, and it would be okay for me to stay there because my ancestors were all there, so I’m going back to my roots. That’s one reason I want to go, seriously, but the Roman Empire in Britain fascinates me. It’s odd that Britain ever was in the Roman Empire, but it was for 400 years, so it’s a bit like the EU and Britain. Were they ever really and truly in their hearts, part of it?

I’d like to see Roman Britain at its height. I want to live in one of those heated villas but that’s so far from Rome it’s almost a mythological place. I remember my father saying years and years ago when I was writing Henry VIII, that I ought to do a novel about the end of the Roman Empire in Britain because they just upped and left and it must have been very strange to have this suddenly happen for both sides. So that’s what I would do but I’d better take some warm clothes.

You’ve got a solo return ticket for either a year on campaign with Julius Caesar; a fortnight with Hadrian and his entourage at Tivoli; or a day in the library of Alexandria. Which do you pick?

I wouldn’t take the library of Alexandria because I’ve spent so much time in libraries lately, I need a change of scene. And I’m sure I’d have a great time with Hadrian and his entourage, but I would choose the Julius Caesar campaign. Now I hope, because I’m being magically transported back in time, this would mean that I could keep up with the rigors of the campaign as I would be a ramped up version of myself.

I became fascinated by Caesar when I saw him through Cleopatra’s eyes as I was writing about them. He’s such an extraordinary character and I am curious about his genius on campaigns. But he also had the trait of being easy going and tolerant of his soldiers. When some of them ran away in a key battle, he grabbed them by the shoulders, turned them around and said calmly, “the enemy is this way.” He was unique and I would just like to watch him in action.

Also, his campaigns were the beginning of Europe, when it was wild and untamed. I would like to experience that moment in time. When Augustus, (Octavian) and Antony split up the Roman Empire, Octavian got the bad part, he got Europe, and Antony got the rich part, the Eastern part. How things have changed!

What are you working on now, what’s next for you?

I would love to stay in the ancient world and as I said I really am drawn to Britain and Roman Empire Britain. I haven’t quite decided who is calling me to go there. I hear a few voices, but I’m not sure which one is absolutely the loudest–or the most beguiling. So I will demur on that until I know for sure.

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Japan PO. Inkinen, Lill (Usher Hall 14 April ‘19)

“If the orchestra had been playing this piece as an exam they would have got 100%.”

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars

 

A decade ago my wife treated me to a weekend in Vienna, and thoughtfully procured tickets for the Sunday morning concert at the Musikverein.  I remember musicians of the highest calibre drawn from the Vienna Philharmonic playing easy on the ear classics supremely well, and afterwards watching the respectable citizens of that city go off to the Imperial Hotel for lunch.  It could have been straight out of Luis Bunuel’s 1972 classic Le Charme Discret de la Bourgeoisie.

 

Edinburgh offers the same kind of thing but with the concert in the afternoon, and with musicians sourced from all over the world.  The combination of well-known works played by orchestras from exotic places, the audience having lunched well, provides an attractive draw, although I am afraid post prandial snoring was evident in one or two places, and the informal dress code disgraced the locals compared to the Viennese, or the smartly turned out Japanese cohort present.

 

In addition to providing two works of easy familiarity, Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto and Sibelius’s Second Symphony, to their great credit and wisdom the band presented two accessible lesser known works, Rautavaara’s In the Beginning (referencing conductor Petari Inkinen’s Finnish nationality) and Takemitsu’s Requiem for Strings, for the Japanese.  Both works held their own in terms of seriousness, if not length, compared to the masterpieces.

 

Einojuhani Rautavaara’s In the Beginning, written as recently as 2015, his final work before his death in 2016, was very much in the Finnish idiom, plenty of close harmony and skilful orchestration of brass.  Enjoyable, not too austere, it showcased the orchestra’s talent across the entire instrumental bandwith in just seven minutes; a strong beginning.

 

Just as I am puzzled by the number of recordings available of well-known works so I find it hard to write something new about them when often performed.  All one can really write about is the interpretation.  It is perhaps helpful that I heard Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 just a month ago in the same hall with young Turkish pianist Can Cakmur with the RSNO.  The 21 year old Turk found new life in the piece and tore the opening phrases off the piano in the opening Allegro con brio, and gently coaxed the scales in the Largo.  The 75 year old Lill was more measured, and played an exemplary, much more classic interpretation that I expect hadn’t changed much in fifty years.  It found great favour amongst the many septua/octogenarians present, and was immaculate, considered, uber competent, but as if classical musical interpretation had stood still since the great recordings of the sixties and seventies under the baton of the likes of von Karajan and Klemperer.

 

Toru Takemitsu’s Requiem for Strings (1975) was a piece one could easily have mistaken for being of Western provenance, (the composer having been influenced by Western music for most of his life) and while I cannot agree with the comparison some make with Barber’s Adagio for Strings , the piece in my view being more reminiscent of Michael Tippett, it was a restful, well orchestrated example of the post war idiom, written but ten years after Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen for 23 solo strings.  Accessible, interesting and drawing one in, it faded into a beautiful ethereal ending.  The orchestra’s playing of their home piece was superb.

 

What to say of the finale, Sibelius’s Symphony No 2 in D minor, other than it is a glorious work and I don’t care how many times I listen to it?  The discipline, technique and intensely classical style of the orchestra ensured that we got a rendition that was free from schmaltz and true to the composer’s intentions.  It was a masterly performance, under the now obviously very talented baton of compatriot Finn Intiken, who drew everything out of the score from double bass, percussion and tubas to soaring strings, blaring brass and exquisite woodwind, notably the oboist.  If the orchestra had been playing this piece as an exam they would have got 100%.

 

It is a tribute to the Japan Philharmonic’s stamina that after this bravura rendition we were treated to seven minutes of peaceful wind down therapy with a beautifully played seven minutes of Sibelius’s Valse Triste as an encore. 

 

 

StarStarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 14 April)

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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.

 

 

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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.

 

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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?

 

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Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 26 March)

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