Monday, 15 December 2008

The South Bank Show/Messiah (5)

Our big day out with the Keighley Vocal Union. As tradition dictates this choir perform Messiah every Christmas at a small Methodist chapel in Freckleton, not far from Preston.

The chapel is warm and welcoming. Only an organist accompanies the choir as there isn't room for an orchestra, and besides, this Messiah is being performed (if that's the right word) as part of a Methodist service which these days is quite a rarity. It's a reminder of how much Messiah owes to the singing tradition embodied in Methodism although personally I much prefer it served up in a concert hall.

In between Part One and Two the elders at the chapel lay on a huge tea. It reminds me of those pristine spreads I would stare at with envy in Ladybird books from the seventies, all colour and cream. Afterwards everyone goes to the pub and carols are sung at full pelt. On the coach home everyone reverts to good old Abba, the Patron Saints of coach parties.

Saturday, 13 December 2008

John Shuttleworth/Bloomsbury Theatre

I saw John Shuttleworth for the first time at a charity gig in Brighton in the late eighties. His act has barely changed since then and I do wonder if this ever worries Graham Fellows, Shuttleworth's creator. I only ask because Shuttleworth and his audience (myself included) have built up such an affection for each other over the years that it's hard to know where Fellows can take John Shuttleworth next. Certainly nowhere too far afield, all his references (Kitkat wrappers, the Austin Ambassador) are simply too English for that. The non-plussed Spaniard sitting behind was assured by his friend that he would get more of the references with the other character on the bill, the morose brummy Brian Appleton. And sure enough he chortled away while Appleton lamented his missed opportunities as a prog-rock pioneer. By the time Shuttleworth reappeared to round off the show the Spaniard was pacing about at the back of the theatre like a caged animal. The rest of us sat back and basked in the nerdy warmody that is Shuttleworth's stock in trade, complete with silly tunes (actually infuriatingly catchy) and daft lyrics. No swear words either, or belly laughs, just a cosy night in.

Thursday, 27 November 2008

Triple Bill/Royal Ballet

White noise has never sounded so lyrical in Wayne McGregor's new work for the Royal Ballet, Infra. I haven't read the programme notes yet, probably won't, but I think it's about the bleaching out of emotions amid the hurly-burly of the everyday and yet underneath passion rages away. Graceful and lovely, it really was. So too was the first piece in this triple bill, Voluntaries choreographed by the late Glen Tetley. Set to Poulenc's Organ Concerto, Tetley matched the music's idiosyncratic ebb and flow beautifully, alluding to the organ's fair ground qualities (whether intended by Poulenc or not) with nods to the carousel, as did the large multi-coloured circle that loomed over the stage as the dancers burst into life below.

Friday, 21 November 2008

The South Bank Show/Messiah (4)

Another day on the road. Early start, arrive Leeds. We think we've got the Leeds Museum to ourselves but then David Miliband turns up with a huge entourage. We decamp to coffee bar. Stale croissants all round. Return just as Milipede is leaving. Interview Henry from the Sacred Wing who reminds us of the museum's past life as a civic theatre. He used to play the tuba here but discovered the joys of singing and has never looked back. Move on to Huddersfield where we take over David's house. David is the Huddersfield Choral Soc's longest serving member - fifty years no less! We'll catch up with him later at the Choral's rehearsal. We're moved to a different hotel, straight out of Alan Partridge. Odd, lots of avant-gardey musicians here from Holland - it's the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. Quaker school tomorrow. Lots of different stories - I think we'll be ok.

Thursday, 20 November 2008

The South Bank Show/Messiah (3)

Greetings from Hebden Bridge. This is our fourth trip up to Yorks for the above. Our initial plans go to pot almost the moment we arrive. We were supposed to spend the day with one of the tenors from Keighley Vocal Union. But soon after Sheffield we're told the poor guy is in hospital, ironic really given he's one of the younger members of the choir. Still, fleet footed as is necessary in this television business, we change course for the picturesque village of Bradley near Keighley where we meet Frank Smith, the KVU's choir master. He's just come down off the moor when we roll up and he is promptly sent back up again by yours truly so we can get some pretties of the surrounding area. It's stunningly beautiful. Frank does everything asked for him. It looks good although I'm worried it might come across as an advert for pensions. Later we film Frank and the choir rehearse Messiah. Nice and friendly. The next morning - this morning - we film Caroline from Huddersfield Choral teaching children from Denholme Primary School. She gets them to warm up with a the words 'chicken tikka chicken tikka'. I might suggest that one to Highbury Chamber Choir. Later, and quite unexpectedly, we're allowed to film at a former Methodist chapel in Keighley which is now a mosque. The elders there couldn't have been more helpful as we interview Ruth, one of KVU's sops, about her memories of hearing the Messiah in that building when she was a little girl. Gradually this programme/film seems to be acquiring a few themes and ideas that we can build on. Trouble is, do we have the time and budget?

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Eternal Light, Dance Rambert/Sadler's Wells

Howard Goodall's Eternal Light - A Requiem was commissioned for the twentieth anniversary of London Musici, Rambert Dance's associate orchestra. Seeped in the English choral tradition, as one would expect from an ex-chorister, Howard's Requiem calls on two choirs, two soloists and orchestra making it one of his longest and most substantial compositions to date. Whether its highly melodic accessibility is to every body's taste, Eternal Light will surely have no difficulties surviving as a stand alone piece in the concert hall. The problems arise with it as a vehicle for a dance company as demonstrated at Sadler's Wells last night. For hard as the excellent Rambert dancers tried, the music's soft-focus never really allowed the choreographer, Mark Baldwin, to dig deeper than the merely pretty. Bordering as it did at times on the cliched, the whole evening had a bit of a West Endy feel to it. Nothing wrong with that, but is that what Dance Rambert's for?

Sunday, 9 November 2008

The South Bank Show/Messiah (2)

Back in Yorkshire for the Messiah South Bank Show. Quite tricky this programme because I haven't yet got a clear idea of where it's going. There's nothing unusual in that and I enjoy the challenge. What I do know is that it will feature at least two choirs from West Yorkshire: Huddersfield Choral Society ('The Choral'), Keighley Vocal Union and, fingers crossed, the Sacred Wing, a gay and lesbian choir from Leeds. The latter is in some doubt because some of its members are reluctant to be on TV. I do hope they consent - I want to show how Handel's masterpiece speaks to everyone. We arrive on Friday evening and after a quick recce in Huddersfield's fine town hall , we make our way to Greenhead School where the Huddersfield Choral rehearse. What a sound they make. We film a good deal of the rehearsal that is taken by the excellent Joe Cullen. After the break we interview a small selection of chorus members - we picked the ones we thought gave the most illuminating answers to the questionnaire we sent out. It's good stuff - everyone we speak to has a different story about their experiences singing the Messiah. The next morning we're over in the Keighley area to film four couples who sing with the Keighley Vocal Union. The scenery contrasts nicely with Huddersfield. Everyone we meet greets us with tea and cake and charming reminiscences of singing Messiah. Lots of nice material but the next challenge is to develop this into a narrative that lasts 50'. Much to do.

Friday, 31 October 2008

The Sixteen/QEH

A wonderful and eclectic programme of choral music reaching back to the 15th century to the present day from this excellent group celebrating Mary, Jesus's mum. All the better for being sung in a concert hall where the sheer quality of writing could be fully appreciated. Don't get me wrong, this would have sounded glorious in a church too - most of this repertoire was written for it after all - but the acoustics of a vast ecclesiastical interior do tend to swallow up some of the finer nuances of music which can create a wall-papery effect. You'll be pleased to know that the Sixteen are returning to the QEH on Dec 12 for a Christmas themed concert. Join the choir afterwards for carols in the foyer. Please, don't request Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer.

Thursday, 30 October 2008

Nell Bryden/Cobden Club

I've never been sure how much appetite the UK has for this bluegrass-dixie-country sort of thing, but Nell Bryden is certainly worth more than a nod of interest.

Polka dot dress, red stiletto heels, Dorothy-esque moves, you wouldn't believe her last gig was entertaining the troops in Iraq. But go she did minus her usual band who were 'too afraid'.

So here she was back in London compete with new band (although you'd never have guessed it) headlining, if that's the right word, at the Hit Sheet Showcase at the Cobden Club. It's a pity more people weren't there to catch her brief stint. She's a good old fashioned rocker at heart (Janis Joplin came to mind actually) who was kind enough to share her meze with me beforehand, which was nice.

Saturday, 25 October 2008

The Irritators/Edinburgh Cellars

A spirited and oh so noisy set from this band at a Newington Green boozer. Two members are dads at my kids' primary school and fine players they are too. But it's the band's lead guitarist David I'd like to single out. You may have seen him busking at Oxford Circus tube, usually Hank Marvin and Eddie Cochrane sort of stuff, that never fails to raise the spirits. I wish the rest of the Irritators had given him the time and space to do the same thing this afternoon. Anyway, I'm a fan. Here's his website www.myspace/surfhiphop
I also promised to give his girlfriend's site a mention, could be useful...

Festival New Orleans/O2

To O2, or the Millennium Dome if you prefer. Far from being the large cavernous space I always thought it was, the Dome is in fact a huge shopping mall teeming with every chain food outlet you can shake a stick at. Its very American feel lent itself nicely to the first Festival New Orleans that took place today and yesterday. It features some of that city's best known musicians. I caught most of Marcia Ball's set in Matter, the O2's smaller music venue. Sat crossed-legged behind her keyboard, she and her band socked home some fabulous rhythm and blues, my favourite 'Peace Love and BBQ'. Allen Toussaint had already started his set by the time I'd relocated to the Louisiana Pavilion, a large outdoor area (although indoor if you see what I mean) complete with phony grass. All that was missing was a cool summer breeze and the smell of portaloos. Great music all round but I wanted some other reminders of New Orleans - where was the gumbo?

Wednesday, 22 October 2008


Ivanov (Kenneth Branagh) is having one hell of a mid life crisis. He doesn't know what to do about it, or more likely, he doesn't really want to do anything about it. Er, that's kind of it. Great performances though.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Joe Stilgoe/Ronnie Scott's

Here's someone to watch. Just signed to the Candid record label (Jamie Cullum began here), the breezy Joe Stilgoe delighted the crowd at Ronnie's on Monday despite the bigger attraction of Brad Mehldau at the Barbican. 'It's taken me ages to get here, it's a pity I'm going to throw it away with cheap gags.' In actual fact the gags were pretty good (his dad is Richard Stilgoe so no excuse) but it was his piano playing and rich tenor voice that really enthralled. His own compositions sat nicely among the usual standards - short and snappy and delivered in a curiously English manner that will appeal to many beyond the jazz world.

I guess he'll leap frog the Loose Ends type circuit pretty quickly. I don't know where he will land but I'm sure it will be somewhere interesting.

Friday, 17 October 2008

La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ/RFH

About a third of the way through this I asked myself why this large scale work for orchestra and chorus wasn't as well known as the Turangalila. About two thirds of the way through I think I knew why. Don't get me wrong, it's a lovely piece, full of lush feather-bed chords. But it lacks the playful liquidity of Turangalila. Rather, it moves along in dense blocks of sound. Whether it was down to Kent Nagano's interpretation or simply flaws in Messiaen's composition, we were left with sublime pockets of ecstasy that never really gathered momentum .

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Music in the City

Tucked away around one of Leicester Square's darkest corners you'll find Club Vertigo. A bugger to find but well worth it, especially if you're a mustard keen amateur musician who likes hanging out with other musos. I'm talking about Music In The City, an occasional club night (no membership required) that allows musicians of all standards to gather and play and drink. I got there a little after nine and was greeted by about four or five different chamber ensembles (thankfully no brass) bashing through all manner of repertoire. It's the brain child of the genial Simon Hewitt-Jones , a young professional violinist who is also the founder of the excellent He has big plans for the club and the website so watch this space. I liked the vibe very much and I suspect they'll be moving to bigger premises soon. I wondered about the competing noise generated by the different ensembles but they didn't seem to mind, it's as much about socialising as anything else. The next night is in Dec, no date yet,. On the floor immediately below is a hostess club. Unaffiliated I can assure you.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

The South Bank Show/The Messiah (1)

It's the 250th anniversary of Handel's death next year so it seems appropriate to mark this with a South Bank Show about his best known work, Messiah. We're approaching it from a grass roots perspective, that is from the view point of the thousands of amateur singers who perform it with their local choir every Christmas (and Easter too sometimes). So, where to start? Well, Yorkshire, that's where, after all, it is the home of some of our best known choral societies (Huddersfield, Halifax...). Our thinking at the moment is to follow three or four choirs as they gear up for their Christmas performance. Through them we discover the secrets of Messiah's enduring popularity. It may be stating the bleeding obvious but for many of the singers we met on our recce earlier this week, it's the words as much as Handel's music that pack a punch. Anyway, we've begun...will keep you posted, obviously.

Friday, 10 October 2008

La Clique/La Calisto

This was fun, sexy circus/cabaret for trendy Londoners. Its jugglers, acrobats and magicians set alight the Hippodrome in Leicester Sq, a perfect venue for undemanding, edgy burlesque that will run and run.

It segued nicely into David Alden's La Calisto at the Royal Opera the following night, an adaption of Ovid's Metamorphoses by the 17th century Italian Franceso Cavalli. Calisto is a beautiful nymph who becomes the centre of Giove's world, a naughty philandering God. And so on...

Lots of stuff has been thrown at this production, including sexy models brandishing bows and arrows, giant lizards, a shagging satyr and the rest. But try as he might, Alden's cabaret sheen on this overlong tale couldn't really bring this opera to life. I blame Cavalli as there isn't really a big musical hit here. But then, my mind was wandering a bit that night.....

Yes, I will add pictures, promise.

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Kings Place

A kindly neighbour hands me a ticket for the opening concert at Kings Place, London's new music venue. Don't be put off by its Canary Wharfy, corporate, feel - it's a bit like walking into a bank - because things quickly improve once you've made it to the building's basement. Here two handsome concert halls await that seat 450 and 220 people respectively. Before we go in a lone french horn player, Steven Stirling, greets us with a stirring solo work by Martin Butler that, whether intentionally or not, makes wonderful use of Kings Place's impressive atrium. Then, a little past 9.30 in the morning, the oboist, Melinda Maxwell performs Disparate by Simon Holt. Maybe we could have had something a little more rousing and, well, less difficult (c'mon, atonalism first thing in the morning?!) to launch this welcome addition to London's musical life. But as a statement of intent it fits the bill exactly: Kings Place is the rightful home of contemporary music. The Holt was followed by shortish works by Kondo and Castiglioni, both of whom I'd never heard of, and rounded off with a solid performance of Bartok's Contrasts. And what about the acoustics? Well I didn't really notice, which is a good thing I guess. And at £2.50 these introductory concerts are an absolute bargain. Lucky old London. Go.

Saturday, 27 September 2008

Kronos at the Barbican

To the Barbican. The Kronos String Quartet is sharing a concert with the Alim Qazimov Ensemble from Azerbaijan as part of the Barbican's Ramadan Nights season. First the Kronos perform an eclectic mix of short pieces from afar as Iceland and Iraq. Most are played with a backing track of stray voices, drums and electronic bleeps and blobs with members of the quartet doubling up on percussion. My highlight was the the yearny Raga Mishra Bhairavi, originally written for the sarangi, a bowed string instrument from northern India but here transcribed for viola and played exquisitely by Hank Dutt. They're a versatile lot the Kronos who thoroughly deserve their reputation as original thinkers. I've always been a bit weary of their fondness for amplification because I think it can obliterate the finer nuances of sound but tonight the clarity of production was crystal clear. Up next was the singer Alim Qasimov. Sitting in the middle of his ensemble like a small firework, he and his daughter took us on a journey of unhappy love based on the texts of the 16th century Azerbaijani poet Fuzuli (the surtitles were a great help btw) that were interspersed with busy instrumental interludes. It all added up to one long sustained musical weep, all of it intoxicating stuff.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Singing Bach

Choir this evening and a work by Bach is offered up, Ich hatte viel Bekummernis BWV 21. It's about 40 mins making it the longest piece this chamber choir has tackled. I actually know it from a programme I made about the singer Emma Kirkby for ITV a couple of years back. She made it sound so effortless then but tonight, oh God, it's like putting together a giant musical jig-saw. Being the slightly austere choirmaster that he is, Nicky insisted on running it at a faster tempo than any of us could really manage. Still, you do get some sense of the overall picture doing it this way. Continuing the jig-saw comparison, by the end of the rehearsal I'd say we'd found all the pieces with straight edges. A small start then. Thank God we've got until April to perform it. Earlier some dispute as to whether we should perform Beatus Vir by Monteverdi. Yes, said some, it's a lovely piece. No said others, it's too populist. What's wrong with that etc be decided. The world wants to know.

Monday, 22 September 2008

An Intro

Hello. A well intentioned friend thought I should start one of these because, jealous of the amount of freebies that come my way, he thought it was time I kept a record of some of my cultural wonderings. You see, by trade I am a TV producer that specialises in the cultural high-end of things, y'know, classical music, opera, and jazz. So the odd freebie does come my way, all in the name of work. They come and they go though, it's not like I'm out every night hob knobbing with Bernard Haitink or some hot new pianist from South America. And I sometimes go to things I actually want to see, so it's not all freebie-on-sea. Anyway, whatever, this blog is an attempt at bringing you some insights and thoughts on the small slice of cultural life I occasionally encounter.

So let me begin in Budapest. I've just spent a weekend there. I have a soft spot for this city; in 1983 I visited it for the first time while inter railing and having been ripped off royaly in France, Switzerland and Austria, arriving in communist Hungary was the best thing me and my companion did - it was sooo cheap. I went again in 1986 to an international music summer school and had a wonderful time mixing with music students from all over the Eastern block. I remember being introduced to Matt Bianco by an East German who I later discovered was a STASI informer. Strange. Anyway, that was then. Now I'm in Budapest on a short weekend break with a mate. It so happens our visit coincides with the Budapest Jazz Festival. So, dutifully, friend and I walk the streets of this very grand, if slightly scruffy, city to check out the Budapest Jazz Club. So what did this venue, the very epicentre of the jazz fest have on offer? Well, nothing that night, even though it was a Saturday, save for a few studenty types jiving away. We didn't stay. However, happy to report much more activity on the Raday utca, a sort of Budapest Soho. Bars and restaurants were crammed to the brim while jazz ensembles of varying styles and abilities played away. Be warned though, the smoking ban hasn't hit this city yet and I can't say I've missed the smell of tobacco. Sniff.