Thursday, 24 December 2009

Aladdin/Hackney Empire

I know I'm not panto's target audience but boy did this drag. The story got ground down by too many characters on stage jostling for laughs. Consequently none of them, including the mighty Clive Row as Widow Twanky, made much of an impression. Their job certainly wasn't helped by a rather lack lustre script. Happy Christmas by the way.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

The Green Carnation

To the attractive Green Carnation, a night club in Soho that does its best to evoke the spirit of Oscar Wilde, and an evening of music by Errollyn Wallen. Generous in spirit to the end she has invited me and one of her students to road test a couple of our songs as well. This could be very embarrassing, especially as the blurb surrounding this inaugural event talks about it 'bringing the vanguard into the mainstream' or something like that. The trouble is my little tune is as cheesy as they come. Undeterred, and with some invaluable support from Will Mount who provides the lyrics, vocal and some tasty work on guitar, we strum our way through a song called Karen O Karen. It's a slowish ballad about..actually I'm not sure what it's about as I'm not really taking Will's lyrics in as I'm far to busy concentrating on the piano chords. It's warmly received thank God. Errollyn wants to make the evening a regular thing that encourages all sorts to come forward with songs they itching to perform. A good idea.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Michael Rosen/Bookmarks. St Mary's Old Church Stoke Newington

Children's author and poet Michael Rosen was the socialist book store Bookmarks' Christmas present to its customers. Holding forth for about an hour, he entertained his young and appreciative audience with hilarious stories about his childhood. Never missing a chance to turn the smallest turn of phrase into a short and witty rhyme, poem or chant, he demonstrated how one man's imagination and humour can be a far more valuable experience for children than all those phony Santa's Grottoes put together.

Spent the evening at St Mary's Stoke Newington, the prettiest and possibly oldest church in this part of town. Plans are afoot to turn it into an arts centre hence my appearance at a fund raiser for this cause. Apart from the odd wedding or two, I haven't really done a solo spot in public since my days at music college so I was a bit nervous. Luckily it was a very friendly informal occasion. I made the audience sing a long to As Time Goes By. Helpful. Nicky Spice from Highbury Chamber Choir accompanied on the piano. Great player!

Friday, 11 December 2009

Richard Rodney Bennett/Claire Martin

A little treat this afternoon. I was lucky enough to film Richard and Claire at a very fine recording studio at the back end of Stamford Brook. They were putting together a couple of tracks for an album of Cy Coleman songs that will be released in 2011 to coincide with Richard's 75th birthday. It's a lovely working relationship they've got, finely honed after a fair few years they've spent on the cabaret circuit (such as it exists) in London and beyond.

Monday, 7 December 2009

Leif Ove Andsnes - Pictures Reframed/Errollyn Wallen - Christmas Concert

I used to be a bit of an evangelist for classical musicians experimenting with visuals to enhance their performances. It was the premise of a South Bank Show I made about the baroque ensemble Red Priest a few years ago. They were keen broaden their appeal to a younger generation of listeners and so they got in some blokes to spice up their stage show with dry ice, goth-icky costumes, moody lights and an exploding recorder (I exaggerate a little). It fell flat on its face. I had always assumed Red Priest would have had a better chance of success had they spent more time and money on it. But after seeing Leif Ove Andsnes's Pictures Reframed at the QEH on Saturday I'm not sure these kinds of classical/multi media projects live or die by the size of the budget thrown at them (and I'm assuming Robin Rhode's accompanying film for Pictures at an Exhibition didn't come cheap), they just die because they're not necessary. All the way through Andsnes's excellent account of Mussorgsky's work my attention was constantly being pulled in a direction I didn't want it to go in. I'm sure Rhode's film images were full of clever references to Pictures but I wasn't getting any of them and what's more, I didn't really care. When you get as good a player as Andsnes up on stage any extra biz is completely superfluous.

A very well groomed West London crowd turned up to the new Theatre 34 to see Errollyn Wallen present its debut as a concert venue. She ran through some of her songs old and new, helped by a string quartet, a guitarist and a couple of dancers. She is an exceptional composer whose skills as a pianist take her to places most other songwriters probably don't know exist. Thoughtful, melodic and funny she is one of music's best kept secrets - well to the mainstream anyway. But just how do you categorise someone as versatile and quirky as Errollyn? I can't see the mainstream embracing her yet, or should that be vice versa?

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

The Tsarina's Slippers/ROH

Apparently Tchaikovsky's opera The Tsarina's Slippers enjoys the same iconic status in Russia as his ballet The Nutcracker does every where else in the world. Strangely though this Xmas tale by Gogal is only now receiving its debut at the Royal Opera House. It's a jolly little story about a blacksmith who rides on a devil's back to St. Petersburg to find the perfect slippers for his beloved back home. Tchaikovsky's score is sweet enough but probably lacks the punch of a Nutcracker, at least on first hearing. But, it's every bit as camp; I've never seen such colourful sets. And there's a good deal of ballet running throughout - it's no wonder the BBC has decided to broadcast it on Christmas Day.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Grierson Awards/BFI

This awards ceremony was a welcome reminder of just how many outstanding documentaries are still being produced for British TV. It's not easy of course; docs depend on mavericks to make them, at least that's the impression I got at the BFI yesterday. But mavericks don't always do what TV bosses want - they eschew the safety of formats and often go over budget. But God, do we need them if TV is still going to mean something. On the evidence of last night, it's not TV that's dumbing down but the scheduling.

Friday, 23 October 2009

London Music Masters/Jennifer Pike

I've been doing a tiny bit of filming for London Music Masters, a charity that helps kick start the careers of young professional violinists. One beneficiary has been Jennifer Pike who yesterday presented an afternoon concert at the Wigmore Hall. Charming, especially the Brahms sonata that was full of amazingly lush, almost jazzy chords that really took me by surprise.
But by far and away the best part of LMM's remit is its work in schools via the Bridge Project. With their financial support violin tuition is taught to primary children who wouldn't normally have the means to learn an instrument. I've seen similar programmes at other schools and the results have always been very impressive. As well as acquiring musical skills, confidence, concentration and communication levels also improve. What other subject does this?

Thursday, 22 October 2009

ETO/MusBook TV

Please take a look at the new MusBook tv page.

It's still work in progress but we're kinda getting there. Up this week is a promo I recently shot for English Touring Opera. It's just started its Handelfest tour around the UK, an ambitious project that celebrates Handel's operatic legacy as part of the 250th anniversary of his death. Lead by director and self confessed Handel nut, James Conway, the ETO have bravely incorporated a number of lesser known works into the mix - Teseo and Tolomeo to name two. Definitely worth a look especially if you're a bit Messiah-ed out and keen to discover another side of Handel.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Alex: A Passion For Life/Channel 4

A rare Channel 4 foray into the world of classical music this time pegged to the moving story of Alex Stobbs. Now a choral scholar at Cambridge University this documentary witnessed Stobbs on-going battle with his debilitating cystic fibrosis while attempting to pull off a performance of Bach's mammoth St Matthew Passion. His enthusiasm for conducting has probably done more for his day to day survival than any thing else. It was especially painful then to see his confidence knocked at the start of a rehearsal after the leader asked him to give a clearer beat. Thankfully he quickly recovered.

Anyway, a nice film about the power of music and one man's exceptional determination to do the thing he loves despite the odds. One slightly jarring thing was to hear the beautiful Bach interspersed with rather banal library music throughout. A strange juxtaposition which kind of watered-down the special quality of Bach's music. Much better to have ditched the wall-paper and let the Bach really sock home as and when it occured.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009


I see conductors have been getting a bit of a kicking in the Guardian today. They're an easy target, I suppose the musical equivalent of a cabinet minister. And it's true, quite a lot of them are paid a ludicrous amount of money. But I'm not sure they're as reviled by orchestral musicians as the article suggests. A friend of mine plays in the RPO and despite their gruelling schedule he loves the job primarily because he gets the chance to work with conductors like Charles Dutoit and Daniele Gatti. If a long-serving rank and file musician can still be inspired by the man (or woman) on the podium then clearly there is still a role for good, well paid, conductors.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Twin Spirits

Sting and wife Trudie Styler star in this affectionate portrayal of the tortured love life between Robert and Clara Schumann. Reading correspondence from the very beginnings of their love affair through to Robert's tragic descent into madness, Sting and Trudie do a pretty good job conveying the frustration and tenderness at the heart of the Schumanns' relationship. The letters are interspersed with Robert's music, sung with gusto by Simon Keenlyside and Rebecca Evans, leaving you in no doubt about his agonised passion for Clara.

It's a lovingly made, if slightly old fashioned, piece of TV. As I understand it, the director John Caird, shot it during an actual performance. I can see the practical reasons for doing this, but in the end it did rather hamper the overall look of the film. The already cramped stage didn't allow much room for cameras to move around which rather constrained Caird's shot selections. These tended to linger an awful lot on Sting and Trudie who at times looked like tongue-tied guests at a dinner party. Another slight distraction was the curious decision to air-brush Styler's face. This is one of the problems, if it is a problem, with High Definition film because it doesn't leave much to the imagination. But then I'd sooner see a few wrinkles than a pink puffy cloud which is what Styler resembled by the end of the film.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Maxwell-Davies Prom/RAH

By far and away the highlight of the evening, Maxwell Davies's new violin concerto was a brilliant evocation of a windswept Orkney (I didn't see the programme notes so if it isn't about that it certainly sounded it) full of swoops, swirls and crashes - all sewn together by Daniel Hope's lyrical, sometimes folky violin that ebbed and flowed through Maxwell Davies's landscape of technicoloured darkness.

It's a pity Sibelius's 5 Symphony that followed contained none of the same drama. Of course it does but this account by Gary Walker glossed over much of the score's detail. Dull.

And here's what I said on the BBC Proms blog

Monday, 27 July 2009

When A Childhood Idyll Disappears

These days a trip down to my home town of Lewes is a very different experience to the restless summertime angst that characterised my teens there. Even into my adult life a sixth form surliness would descend on me when ever I visited which was was only cured when I became a father. Now I love showing-off the place to my children.

One landmark I had always wanted them to see was the mysterious sounding Isle of Thorns a few miles outside Lewes. Nestled in the middle of the Ashdown Forest, it was a sort of country club without actually being one. Founded by a local philanthropist in the 1930s as a bolt hole for London's poorest children it had been taken over by the University of Sussex in 1964. The only criteria for getting into the grounds was for a member of your family to be on the university's faculty, as my dad was, although there were days when it felt like every Guardian under the sun had turned up as no one really bothered checking.

Bleached Italianate buildings surrounded the Isle of Thorns' centrepiece which was a large outdoor - and unmanned - swimming pool with its not very private changing rooms and pitch black toilets (or lavatories as I am sure they were called) that absolutely stank. Elsewhere there was a small paddling pool with two large sentry-like granite turtles on either side of the entrance, and a couple of tennis courts with white lines so faint it was impossible to have a meaningful game. Apart from the pool my favourite hang-out was a big, slightly ghostly hall that featured wall paintings of Scottish soldiers that had apparently been barracked there during the Second World War. I was never sure what this building was for other than a place for me to knock a tennis ball against the tartan clad figures for hours on end. The more adventurous could walk down to a 'hidden' lake that could only be reached by a rickety bridge coated in green slime shielded by the magnificent pines of the Ashdown Forest.

So here I was again some thirty years later brimming full of nostalgia as I took the right hand fork just after the village of Danehill that pointed towards Chelwood Gate. The journey to the Isle of Thorns is something I remember as vividly as the place itself. This would begin in the chalky downlands of Lewes and continue through the very heart of the Sussex Weald full of lush fruit farms, stately homes, the Bluebell Railway and beautiful Saxon churches. Finally, noisy and cramped in the back of dad's Morris Minor, my sisters and I would bounce for joy at the sight of the tiny sign that marked the entrance to this hidden idyll. At this point my heart would race a little faster just in case it might be closed but this never happened.

Halfway up the unassuming little drive the swimming pool would come into view. We'd pile out of the car, flinging everything under the nearest tree as we raced up a little slope to stare adoringly at the cartoon blue of the pool followed by a manic search for any friends. And there we would stay for the rest of the day with little or no parental interference until our shadows grew as tall as the conifers towering over us.

It wasn't all good mind. I remember turning up one afternoon to hear that a student had drowned in the pool earlier in the day. Tragic though it was we children didn't really take it in and neither, it would seem, did anyone else. The pool didn't close as a mark of respect or anything like that and we continued climbing in and out of the shallow end which wasn't shallow at all. In their defence my mum and dad claim they were always looking out for us but compared with the parenting of the noughties their generation did appear quite laid back.

Older, and several rites of passages later the eighties arrived. I went off to college and I don't think I went to the Isle of Thorns again except for fleeting visits out of curiosity. Eventually and not surprisingly, new safety measures brought the complex to a working end most powerfully symbolised by the swimming pool that lay empty for years save for a dirty little puddle at the deep end. Still, it and everything else remained as a timeless reminder of my childhood and this is what I was now going to show my children.

As we turned into Laundry Lane that leads up to the Isle of Thorns we were met by a small line of traffic. At the end a large notice announced we had arrived at the head offices of Cat Protection. Bold yellow signs dotted the landscape that now featured new offices. Tragically the Isle of Thorns of my youth was no more.

We parked in a landscaped car park full of saplings. I tried to retrace my route to the pool but instead found a large building that housed hundreds of abandoned cats. The pool had gone. Looking for another familiar landmark I went in search for the cluster of trees under which I had once pulled down my my uncle's swimming trunks in full view of everyone but they too had disappeared. The only thing I recognised was the hall with the echoing walls but that had become an office so I had no idea what happened to the Scottish soldiers.

I harrumphed and stomped about a bit. How could this magical place be destroyed by orphaned cats?! My children looked on and soon my rational adult head returned. A swimming pool in the middle of the Ashdown Forest for a few rarefied university types? These days you'd have to pay a whopping great membership fee for that privilege.

I do regret my daughters never experiencing that wonderful sense of space I found there. Everything seeped into the countryside around it. OK, so it was full of hidden dangers we were perhaps too ready to overlook. But its informality allowed a whole generation of children an unlimited amount of freedom almost unthinkable by today's standards.

How was I to share these feelings with my two daughters? I looked around in the hope of some kind of empathy but they were too busy cooing at the forlorn cats staring back at them through the glass.

We turned back to the car. Just as I was about to get in I thought I caught a whiff of pine, baked clay and chlorine that used to greet me whenever I went for a swim, cheerful in the knowledge that a lovely long summer lay ahead.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Bill Drummond and The17

Most people know Bill Drummond as the KLF guy who burnt £1 million on a Scottish island at some point in the early 1990. I can't remember why - bad art award or something? And he had a hit record about Dr Who. Anyway, he straddles that area of the art/music world that likes to challenge and subvert accepted wisdom. I really liked his No Music Day idea which was a kind of awareness campaign that questioned the role of music in a world that consumes it without much thought.

This has led to The17. It's a 'choir' that can be made up of 17 people chosen at random at any time and in any place. You don't have to be able to sing or read music. You perform a score which is a set of instructions. Have a look.

I've had a couple of discussions with Bill about turning The17 into a film. He explained everything to me but in the end I felt I had to join The17 to really get my head around the concept. It's basically this: we've become so saturated by recorded music that it has diminished the whole listening experience. The17 is all about reconnecting us to that thing that can make music a special, almost divine experience (my words not his).

So we 17, assembled by me, my friend Ros and Bill, find ourselves in the basement of a dingy pub off the City Road with only a computer screen and standard lamp for light (very MI5). Bill comes in, sits before us and tells us of his love affair with records that changed over the years to hostility, and about this imaginary choir he would hear in his head when driving that eventually became The17.

Then we sang an F# for five minutes. This was recorded. Bill talked some more. Then we sang a G# for five minutes. This was recorded. We did the same with A# C# D#, in other words the black notes on the piano or the pentatonic scale which, as Bill reminded us, is the basis of most Celtic and African music. We went off for a bit and came back to hear the results. It wasn't breathtaking but I certainly felt moved as our simple five note chord engulfed the room. Someone described it as a religious sound, I know what he means. And then Bill deleted the recording.

One of the most telling and poignant stories Bill told us was the time he witnessed his local pipe band march through his Scottish village when he was a kid. Being so close to this sudden and unexpected noise left a huge impression on him. It wasn't just the music that moved him (no one in their right mind would buy a bagpipe CD, he says) but also the location and the time he saw it that made this encounter so memorable.

So maybe this is what The17 is all about, his attempt at replicating those emotions for others to share. And I think it worked, at least according to those I canvased afterwards. This was music we had created and, crucially, we will never hear it again. That's what makes the occasion special.

I'm not sure you need to go to those lengths to get a musical hit - but overall I like what Bill's up to. The trouble is, if we make a film he's adamant we can't use any of The17's music - that runs against his whole recording shtick. So how do we get round that one? Any answers gratefully received. I won't delete them.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Musbook TV

Have been quietly working away on the above with a lot of help and guidance from Simon Hewitt Jones, the founder of It's a social networking site for amateur and professional musicians. I've been put in charge of the TV side of things. It's difficult to do on a shoestring - actually, we haven't even got one of them - but thanks to an awful lot of good will from various contacts, we've managed to put out a couple of filmed interviews that will be there for all to see on the site shortly, if not already. We're kicking off with an interview with the Russian conductor Semyon Bychkov. Running along side the longer interviews will be shorter pieces with 'movers and shakers' ie musicians, journalists, commentators administrators, that kind of thing. The cellist Zoe Marlew is our first interviewee.

It's got huge potential this even if though we have absolutely no resources (for now). It may take a while to find its feet but I think there might be something in this nichecasting thing...

Thursday, 21 May 2009

The South Bank Show

Quite surprising how the demise of Melvyn's flagship arts programme continues to rumble on. Here's a recent FT article on the subject.

I don't know, lovely all the plaudits are for the SBS, I notice most come from blokes of Melvyn's age. Where are the younger commentators in all of this? Perhaps they have given up on TV. That's not a criticism but a sign of the times perhaps.

Friday, 15 May 2009

The Classical Brits/RAH

Domingo, Carreras and Kiri Te Kanawa were some of the big names at the RAH last night to help celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Classical Brits. It hasn't had the easiest of rides with the more established end of the classical world but ten years on I sense a mellowing of attitudes. Ultimately the Classical Brits don't do anyone any harm. Take it or leave it and enjoy your life...(I borrowed that from somewhere I'm sure).

Enticingly, the boy wonder of the piano, Lang Lang was on hand to duet with jazz legend Herbie Hancock in Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. Although promising on paper it sounded a bit splashy and under rehearsed but the audience loved it.

Overall the show was as slick as ever. Despite the impressive roll call, it was relative newcomer Alison Balsom who stole the show. Playing the third movement of Hummel's trumpet concerto with pinpoint precision she even managed, in her wonderfully tight dress, to add the odd shimmy on her semi-quaver runs. Never seen that before. Only at the Classical Brits....

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Aldeburgh Music Campus

Snape Maltings, home of the Aldeburgh Festival that was founded by Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears many moons ago, opened its doors this weekend for a housewarming to celebrate the completion of its new music campus. Like the much older Snape Maltings Concert Hall, the new spaces have been converted from existing buildings on site which had long fallen out of use. Funded with generous support from the Arts Council and private donors, the centrepiece of the campus is a brand new concert hall, Studio 1. Seating 340 its main purpose is as a rehearsal space for the Britten-Pears School - a year round scheme that nurtures the musical talents of young and old professionals. I myself was lucky enough to play with the orchestra way back at the tail end of my trumpet playing 'career'.

It's an attractive venue that has preserved many of the building's rougher edges - if you've been to Wilton's Musical Hall, you'll know what I mean. Interestingly, when the architects Howarth Tompkins first took on the project they discovered Britten had drawn up very similar plans for the site himself. I'm sure then he'd be delighted with the outcome albeit four decades on. My one quibble is that the extensive use of large planes of wood chip all over the place gives the venue a temporary rather than contemporary look if you get my meaning. And although I was immensely impressed with Rebecca Blankenship's performance in Schoenberg's Erwartung, the acoustic didn't strike me as being particularly helpful to her or the excellent Apollo Orchestra. However, I was fiercely overruled by my colleagues on this vexed issue.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

The South Bank Show, Semyon Bychkov/

End of an era. It was my bread and butter for twelve years and I loved it. Melvyn was a good boss even though I never stopped feeling slightly intimidated by him, more my problem than his. He was very fair, constructive and encouraging who allowed us to take risks. I badgered him for weeks about this exciting young jazz pianist called Jamie Cullum. Eventually he came round to the idea even though ITV was breathing down his neck about ratings. But he really went with it, capturing the zeitgeist as he so often did and was rewarded with very good viewing figures. That and many other fond memories were rudely cut short after reading the vitriolic comments about him and the show on the Guardian's website today. God almighty, what did Melvyn ever do to poor old Guardian readers?

My first head to head interview for today. I interviewed Semyon Bychkov, currently conducting Lohengrin at ROH. Excellent speaker who thankfully doesn't do pompousness like other 'maestros'. Great insights into the world of a conductor. The finished result should appear on the tv channel early next month.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009


Based on Neil Gaiman's book of the same name, this treat of a movie centres around a little girl called Coraline. Lonely and unimpressed with her new home, not to mention her non-communicative parents, she is lead into another world behind a disused door where all the wrongs of her current situation are made right. Or so we think...

It's an intelligent, understated handling of the story by director Henry Selick which brings to mind Maurice Sendak's Where The Wild Things Are and the more recent Pan's Labyrinth. As ever, Coraline conquers the challenges set before her but not before many a scary encounter. The fact that this film is in brilliant 3D only adds to its beautiful dreamlike vibrancy. Terrific.

Saturday, 25 April 2009


This 1977 production at the ROH is suitably Teutonic, thankfully lacking those silly visuals that so often plague Wagner operas. Musically too this was a a glorious account of Lohengrin, the conductor Semyon Bychkov drawing out immaculate playing from the ROH band. Good cast, even those suffering from chest infections who held their own stunningly well in the circumstances. Johan Botha's buttery tenor was well supported by the rising star Edith Haller as Elsa while the magnificent Petra Lang snarled and sneered away as the evil Ortrud.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela/RFH

London's media were out in force at the RFH first thing today to welcome the Bolivars to their long awaited residency at the South Bank. Not surprisingly, since they have been lauded almost non-stop since their Proms debut two years ago, the Simon Bolivar open rehearsal this morning was packed to the rafters. As big a draw is their chief conductor Gustavo Dudemal who ran through Tchaikovsky's Symphony No.4. Fortunately (or not) Dudemal didn't rehearse them that much, a bit of tinkering with the balance here and there but otherwise the lucky old audience were treated to pretty much a complete rendition of the work. It's an impressive sound; what you're getting is two orchestras for the price of one since most of the positions are doubled up. This made the symphony's opening brass fanfares even more blistering than usual, almost brash if I'm honest. But there's no question this is one hell of a band that really does live up to the hype.

The success of what the Venezuelans call El Sistema, the project that feeds the Simon Bolivar orchestra, has got a lot of tongues wagging about our own music education system. What slightly depresses me, and others I spoke to, is that we talk about introducing El Sistema here as though we don't have (or did have, depending on where you live) a thoroughly good structure in place through our own music authorities. I'm all for El Sistema being rolled out here, as it already is in Scotland but a decent music authority should be doing - and in many cases is doing - many of the same things El Sistema is famed for. Perhaps we'll notice this a bit more once our love-in with the Venezuelans is over.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

The South Bank Show/Messiah (7)

Earlier than expected, a short preview on the above makes its way into Norman Lebrecht's column in the Standard.

Delighted of course but I'm not sure I agree with Norman that the film is disturbing. Despite all the changes that have taken place in Britain, not least Yorkshire - the focus of this film - the Messiah tradition appears to be as strong now as it has ever has been. Certainly the link between singing with a choir and the church has changed but as the very secular Sacred Wing choir from Leeds reminds us, the Messiah is a work that can be enjoyed by everyone these days. Actually, I think there's an argument for it being done too much. Anyway, judge for yourself. It goes out Easter Sunday on ITV.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Stephen Hough/RFH, The Sixteen/QEH, The Grand Union Orchestra/Hackney Empire

An eclectic old week. Starting with Sat last with the dapper British pianist Stephen Hough. I admit, I wasn't all that excited about the show; Mendelssohn's 1st Piano Concerto doesn't rank as one of his greatest works, I don't think. I played it at college more than twenty years ago and was distinctly underwhelmed by it (but playing second trumpet never encourages wonderment about anything much). Luckily in Hough's agile hands it was shot through with such lively colours that it made the concert's opener - Brahms' Variations on a Theme by Haydn - pretty monochrome by contrast. Hough's playing is the perfect antidote to anyone tiring of the more flashy offerings of those at the other end of the concert pianist spectrum.

Choral works by Purcell and MacMillan featured in The Sixteen's gig at the QEH. If there is a better vocal ensemble out there I'd like to know who it is.
James MacMillan's works in particular stretched the singers' technique to the limit. You might think the QEH's dry acoustic might expose the odd muff here and there but it felt as seamless and lubricated as ever. I actually think ensembles like The Sixteen are better heard in a concert hall then in a cathedral where everything disappears into the rafters. I fear I may have made this point in an earlier blog but hey, only two people read this......

I'd never heard of the Grand Union Orchestra before yesterday but it seems to have been around for a good decade or two. It's an interesting and mostly enjoyable experience to hear a band as inclusive as GUO. Most corners of the globe were were represented on the Hackney Empire stage which, with the help of hundreds of school children, explored how post-war immigration has changed London's musical life. The music shifted from one style to the next and never out stayed its welcome. I particularly enjoyed the jazzers and the lovely Bengali singer. Some of the show's exuberance was lost after the interval. There were some fairly challenging songs about liberation which in the hands of one or two of the performers tested the audience a little too much (stifled giggles actually). And boy, did it get loud towards the end that I felt a bit cross on behalf of all the young ears on stage and in the audience. What I wasn't too sure about was whether the show was for children or adults.

Saturday, 14 March 2009

British Music Experience/O2

Friday. The first treat of the evening was the boat ride to O2 itself. Rather than chug along the Thames at the expected leisurely pace, this clipper bombed it down at a speed I'd never experienced on the River before. London still looks like a fabulously wealthy city despite current problems.

We're welcomed to the British Music Experience by Harvey Goldsmith who asks (pleads..?) the assembled guests not to forget to buy stuff at the BME shop which, needless to say, is the first thing you encounter as you walk through the doors. Sex Pistols tumblers! I ask you.

But it was the BME's main attraction we were there for, the very functional Soundstage, its medium sized concert venue which tonight was hosting short sets from the American flugelhorn player, Dominick Farinacci and British jazz's wunderkind, Jamie Cullum .

Disappointingly most of the assembled music industry people chose to talk through Farinacci's melodic offerings . But they did shut up with the arrival of Jamie, the first big name to perform at Soundstage, who was using the opportunity to roll out some songs from his up and coming album (his first in four years...).

Cute though some people find him, his songs are full of knowing pops at the world around him, not least the record industry. It's that wry detail that will ensure he'll always stay clear of boy band blandness. That and of course his piano playing which has lost none of its exuberance. He and his band were on driving form who clearly relished the chance to showcase some great new songs, in particular a disco number which ought to be a hit.

While Jamie rocked - and he really was - I slipped out to look at the BME's exhibition. Rather than dividing British pop music into decades it settles instead for musical shifts - 1962-66, 1970-1976 etc. Each get its own room with plenty of interactive stuff that can be - ingenious this - saved on your entrance ticket which you can download at home.

I made full use of this on Dance the Decades; you get to dance to a track by monkeying the dancer on the video screen in front of you. Embarrassing really but what the hell.... (click on Dance Video)

If that isn't a big enough draw there is also a room stacked full of guitars, keyboards and drums for punters to test out, complete with a video guides on chord changes etc. I admit I lost myself a bit on a lovely electric piano but no harm in that.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009


This pleasingly unwieldy group of 11 multi instrumentalists first caught my attention at the Beeb's out door Folk Day last summer. Don't be put off by the 'folk' tag though; Bellowhead are far more versatile than that, as was much in evidence at their lively showcase at the QEH on Saturday. Jumping (sometimes quite literally) from sea shanties to music hall, Kurt Weill and then jazz (with the help of a stripper), Bellowhead demonstrated why they are one of the most engaging and good humoured ensembles around. Think of Loose Tubes, The Bonzo Dog Band and The Albion Band all in one and you've kind of got it. And if you're old enough to remember who those groups were, good!

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Richard Rodney Bennett/Pizza on the Park

Richard Rodney Bennett and singer Claire Martin have been co-hosting evenings of show tunes, cabaret music, standards etc at Pizza on the Park for several years now. Softer, more refined and middle aged than its sister venue on Dean Street, Pizza on the Park is as good a place as any to experience the exquisite and startlingly intimate songs that Martin and RRB have a knack of unearthing. Last night they rummaged through Cy Coleman's back catalogue spurning some of his best known tunes in favour of those that had fallen by the way side, usually from musicals that never quite made it on Broadway. Total gems, particularly the one with lyrics penned by Coleman himself. As RRB pointed out, it was only when he discovered the importance of words that he really felt he had come of age as a song writer - 'it's not just about the chords'..

Saturday, 31 January 2009

The South Bank Show/Messiah (6)

Finished. Well, almost. We now have a 50 minute film about three choirs from Yorkshire and their connection with Handel's Messiah. What's left to do is the colourisation of each shot - grading - which is all about improving the picture quality and where required, convey a particular visual mood. Then the online, the technical bit that ensures the programme is suitable for broadcast, followed by the sound dub which, a bit like the grade, buffs up the audio quality (I'm sure dubbing mixers think they're more than just buffers-up of sound but it'll do me). From my point of view this last week of the edit is the least creative part of the process. That happens beforehand in the off-line over a four week period (it used to be 5 at the South Bank Show, how times change). This hasn't been easy, especially with the amount of footage we shot in the proceeding two months. Each day myself and the editor would sit down and trawl through the rushes, pulling sync (the bits of the interviews we most liked) and then arranging it into a time line (sync assembly), a sort of 'greatest hits' of all that has been filmed. Once you've done that, the narrative is 'decorated' with action sequences, performance, general-views, archive material, that sort of thing so each time you run your rough assembly, another layer is added until, almost like magic, the programme finds its own logic. It's a long old business and at times frustrating especially if the narrative you're looking for doesn't hang together.

Actually, this particular project wasn't difficult in that respect; we were spoilt with the number of excellent interviewees we filmed not all of whom we were able to feature in the end. No, the difficulty was piecing the different bits of performance to give the impression of one seamless take. Not easy when you're only working with one camera operator.

Anyway we got there. I was a bit reluctant to blog any of this as we went along because I wasn't sure how things were going to turn out. Our second week in the edit was particularly tough; I really thought I'd bitten off more than I could chew given the amount I'd shot and the limited time I had to shape it into a coherent whole. But, I do work with one of the most gifted and hard working editors in London so while I worked myself up into a silly panic, Mark quietly got on with it. God, I was lucky to have him...

I have to be honest and admit that I feel a bit flat now it's all over. You live with all these on screen characters that they feel like friends after a while. I hope they like it.

Now, photos...erm, sore point. I didn't take any..if anyone asks I send them a 'screen grab' which is frozen frame from the rushes but the quality is never as good as a photo. So the best I can offer at the moment are a couple of stills taken by a local photographer in the pub following the Keighley Vocal Union's Messiah performance in Freckleton on Dec 14.

Thursday, 8 January 2009

Revolutionary Road

Kate Winslett and Leonardo Di Caprio (?) take the lead roles in this adaption of Richard Yates' book of the same name. Sam Mendes makes a good stab at it this tale of the thwarted dreams of an American couple whose 1950s suburban existence slowly eats them up. In the book this gradual descent into hopelessness unfolds at an agonising pace. Film doesn't have this the luxury and this presents problems, particularly with the Winslett character whose desperation and loopiness is too sudden and dramatic. But it was enjoyable if that’s the right word. Should have guessed it was a Sam Mendes film because of the ‘emotionally isolated American’ piano motif that runs throughout.