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.