Saturday, 11 December 2010

Blackbeard's Tea Party/The Good Ship

This lively folk-rock band (I'm sure I could refine this categorisation but it will do for now) have been having such a ball in their native York that it's only now they've ventured down to London. And not before time. Playing in the ever so slightly eccentric The Good Ship in Kilburn - the stage is downstairs and the audience is upstairs - the six strong band ran through their energetic set with barely a pause for breath. Eschewing the plethora of instruments that accompany some of their contemporaries, Blackbeard's Tea Party like taking things right back to basics. That's not to say they lack any musical expertise, quite the opposite, as ably demonstrated by the fiddle and accordion of Laura Barber and Paul Young, the focus of the band's distinctive sound. The audience loved them, some of whom were Londoners. So please, come again .

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Lore Lixenberg/Rich Mix

Lore Lixenberg is mezzo-soprano with a more interesting hinterland than your average opera singer. Although no stranger to the more conventional end of the operatic spectrum, she has made her name in more offbeat and experimental ventures like Jerry Springer - The Opera.

Tonight at Rich Mix in Shoreditch (no I've never heard of it before either) she performed - sometimes in person, sometimes on a pre-prepared recording - a selection of electronic plainchants some of which were beautifully effective. Jamie Telford's Gaudiamus Lixenburgos was particularly engaging. Based on a 16th century round multi-tracked by Lixenberg, he enveloped this celebration of Spring with wonderful bursts of colour by cleverly distorting the vocal line.

The remaining pieces lacked the same coherence as the Telford, coming dangerously close to unyielding wallpaper music.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Armonico Consort - Super Size Polyphony/Cadogan Hall

It's not often you get to hear the big polyphonic blockbusters of the renaissance by the likes of Tallis and Ockeghem. Their very complex, multiple voice parts have placed them out of bounds for most choral groups. You would think then that this rare outing of some of the most magnificent church music ever written might have generated a bit more interest than was in evidence at the Cadogan Hall last night.

The programme's premise, devised by David Buckley, a former Wells Cathedral chorister who now writes film scores in Hollywood, was that most of these outrageously ambitious works didn't stem from composers' God fearing devotion but rather as a consequence of challenges they set themselves 'after a session or two in the local tavern'.

If that's the case, I'd love to know what kind of state Thomas Tallis must have been in to come up with his audacious Spem in Alium, a motet scored for 40 individual parts, divided into eight choirs of five voices each.

Holding scores the size of The Guardian, the vocal ensemble Armonico Consort, boosted by the rather worried looking choir of Gonville and Caius College Cambridge, made sure the occasion didn't go to waste by singing it twice. Forming a large square that took in the Cadogan Hall's auditorium and stage, the different choirs passed the music around with seamless ease thanks in no small part to the cool head of conductor Christopher Monks.

If there was a pervading tentativeness about about the evening, not helped by the hall's airless acoustic, it was still a terrific display of choral bravery that any self-respecting early music nut would have lapped up.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Limelight/The 100 Club

My second visit to this pioneering club and I still think it's a good idea. Ok, so the Limelight have been lucky with their audiences, most of whom know when not to go to the loo or order a drink. And although the air conditioning could be a problem for some listeners, I found myself forgetting about it once the performances begin.

On the bill last night, sets (do classical singers do sets?) from the tenor Marcus Farnsworth, followed by the American countertenor Gerald Thompson. Both took advantage of the informality of the venue by spending time explaining the background to the works they were singing. In turn, the music felt that bit more inviting than usual. Great stuff.

After the interval (during which Annie Lennox was needlessly pumped over the PA system - come on, surely this audience can get by without superfluous white noise?), the Swingle Singers entertained with their usual brand of annoying yet brilliant a cappella singing. Annoying because there's unrelenting heartiness to their duffy duffy do-do sound, brilliant because they do what they do so well. I was completely disarmed by a James Taylor song from their new album called On The 4th Of July.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Monteverdi's Flying Circus/Bridge House Theatre, Warwick, The Reservoir Frogs/West Reservoir, Alfred/Kings Place

Should have blogged about this earlier but hey ho..So, Monteverdi's Flying Circus. Nice show that manages to combine Monteverdi's greatest hits (courtesy of the Armonico Consort) with a play about the cantankerous old genius's dying days. His battles with former employers, the church (who hated his revolutionary harmonies) and his own family were all brought to the fore in a spluttering rage by the excellent Philip Madoc. Once he got going, the 'play' aspect of this joint venture suddenly become far more coherent but it did take a while to find its feet.

My music event of the year thus far was the debut of Reservoir Frogs at the West Reservoir in Stoke Newington. This very fine soul band - made up of members of the Mike Flowers Pops, Faithless, Dream Topping and the Highbury Soul Band - played a brass heavy set to a small but select crowd at a former pumping room whose boomy acoustic probably ensured the sound carried a lot further than the the next door Pirates' Playhouse. Will they return though, that's what I want to know. Any offers of work gratefully received. Here's a clip:

Finally, good to see Ian Page, artistic director of the Classical Opera Company score a hit with Thomas Arne's Alfred at the Kings Place last night. Arne was a contemporary of Handel's which, alas, has made him a bit of an also ran in the history of English music. But, as COC brilliantly demonstrated, he did write some lovely stuff, including the opera/masque Alfred.

The talents of Page's young cast outshone the quaint and unintentionally funny libretto - spoken by a magisterial Michael Maloney - that concluded with a sprightly 'Rule Britannia', as far removed from the lazy jingoism it is now associated with.

Monday, 20 September 2010

John Bennett Big Band/Half Moon

Always a treat to see a good big band in action, especially one that knows how to let its hair down. The John Bennett Big Band has been a regular at the Half Moon in Herne Hill for a fair few years and in that time has built up a very loyal following.

I can see why. £5 at the door, some cracking tunes with the ever soulful Barbar Gough on vocals, this has to be one of the capital's best musical bargains. I'm only sorry John Bennett's attempt to pull off a similar residency in Hoxton never took off. Sarf London 1 - North London 0.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Mike Figgis/Kings Place

The pleasingly maverick film maker Mike Figgis gave an absorbing account of his experimental film 'Time Code' at Kings Place on Wednesday night. It's actually a bit of a mess; four interlinking stories all shot at the same time and presented in split screen. The concept wasn't the problem - '24' took up some of Figgis's ideas later on - but the rather flimsy plot. And it did ramble on rather. Me and my companion tried to make an early exit only to find our path blocked by Figgis and Anthony Gormley. I ask you...

Monday, 13 September 2010

Late Review BBC2

The late night arts show had an interesting discussion on the music biz this week. Thankfully the Guardian's Tom Service was on hand to throw in some challenging thoughts that gave the programme a real fizz. His inclusion made me realise how rare it is to see a classical music bod contribute to a debate like this and all the better and more rounded a conversation it was too. So, well done Mr Service.

The most alarming thing to come out of this discussion was to hear Miranda Sawyer wonder why she had to keep so quiet at a classical concert she once went to. I know she takes her music very seriously but when you hear a top music critic come out with comments like that you realise what a disconnect there is between the pop/rock world and classical music. If I was being unkind, I would ask whether she actually listens to music beyond the noise it makes?

Friday, 3 September 2010

Mr, Not Maestro

I recently filmed a conducting master class at the Royal Academy of Music in London. It was being taken by the English born conductor Benjamin Zander who over several days coaxed and cajoled his young apprentices through the finer aspects of this multi-faceted skill.

Sometimes Zander would break off from conducting and make the students dance or sing in an attempt to acquire some unique insights into a particular work, and to make them less intimidated by the experience.

The classes were done in a spirit of fun quite at odds with the severe, almost intimidating image conductors have in the popular imagination. While there are plenty of authoritarian figures out there (no names mentioned) it’s certainly not a recognisable stereotype for many younger conductors coming through.

And yet it’s a myth that shows little sign of diminishing. Take the BBC’s recent programme on conducting. It was called ‘Maestro’, an Italian word meaning ‘master’ or ‘teacher’ but has these days become universal shorthand for someone (usually a conductor) with an almost unworldly musical prowess, surely the very opposite of what the BBC was trying to convey. Indeed as far as the media is concerned, anyone who has had a modicum of success on the podium is now branded a maestro no matter how well deserved. This only strengthens the old refrain that classical music is elitist because it suggests it has to be passed down to an audience by an Italian speaking grandee.

Nor is maestro an accurate description of what most conductors do, or should do. As Ben Zander kept saying at his master class, the best conductors aren’t there to stamp their authority on players but to engage with them, many of whom share as much, if not more, musical expertise, and to harness their talents for the greater good.

Yes, there are some great conductors out there with brilliant artistic vision that are fully deserving of praise. But doesn’t the word ‘maestro’ take things a little too far? Conductors are conductors – some good, some not so good – who already have big enough egos not to have this extra ounce of flattery imparted by this word.

So next time you have the urge to call someone maestro remember what it means in English. Would you really call someone ‘master’? Of course you wouldn’t, unless you wanted to sound like a complete fool.


The Proms season has reignited the debate about clapping in between the movements of a symphony or concerto, a trend very much on the increase. It’s hard to tell whether this is a consequence of the way classical music is presented in bite size chucks on radio stations like Classic FM, or a wider example of audience power, happy to cast aside outdated conventions.
Some say it breaks the music’s spell while others, including performers like violinist Daniel Hope, positively welcome it. It’s not something that keeps me awake at night but an easy way to settle the matter would be for the conductor or soloist to ask the audience to refrain from applauding until the end of the work. Otherwise those who want to clap should feel perfectly entitled to do so.


Staying with the Proms, it’s great to see the number of child-friendly events on offer from the hugely popular Dr Who Prom to the Family Music events at the Royal College of Music. So why not go the extra mile and have children’s concerts at RAH every Saturday morning during the Proms season? It would be a very welcome throw back to the Robert Mayer Concerts of my youth, a music series founded by the German born philanthropist whose Saturday morning concerts filled the Festival Hall week in week out for many years.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Limelight/The 100 Club

London boasts a growing number of endeavours that present classical music in places far removed from the traditional concert hall. Now into its second year, Limelight is one such venture that has been lucky enough to bag The 100 Club on Oxford Street for its monthly outing.

I couldn't tell you whether hosting at this venue, famed for its Northern Soul nights, has tempted new audiences through the door but it certainly offers the listener a very rewarding intimacy unmatched by more conventional confines including the Wigmore Hall.

And so it was the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra performed a multi-coloured interpretation of Vivaldi's Four Seasons complete with barking fiddle players, a castanet touting percussionist and other accompanying sound effects. They were followed by Norway's other great cultural export, Leif Ove Andsnes who performed Chopin to a rapt audience. Even the queue for the bar seemed to evaporate once he began playing.

I'd be surprised if more people didn't climb on the band-wagon that Limelight and others have started. Once experienced, you wonder why you haven't had your classical music served up like this before. It's an experiment the good people at the Proms would do well to consider.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Prom 49/RAH

A Celebration of Rodgers and Hammerstein. Cracking good - to see an orchestra this size play the R+H scores the way they would have been recorded for the big screen is a rare treat. Conductor John Wilson's attention to detail was staggering, even down to the rate of the first trumpet's vibrato. He and his fine hand-picked orchestra will be back next year, I'm absolutely sure of that. Is it sacrilege to suggest a Prom (other than the Last Night) that positively encourages audience participation? I've never seen so many Prommers straining at the leash to sing along but not having the gumption to do so..

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Endorset, Tete a Tete/Riverside Studios

Took a day out from the summer holiday to play at the Endorset Festival in Dorset (geddit?) which, conveniently, was up the road from where we were staying. Endorset's no Glastonbury, and all the better for it, a low-key affair that's entirely at ease with itself as a show case for Cow Punk (well, that's how it was described to me) very much in keeping with its unassuming rural location.

My guest appearance with Johnny and the Bees was pleasingly early in the day and despite a few syncronisation issues among the band, it passed off without incident, or applause. Good fun tho..

Described as an opera laboratory, the Tete a Tete Opera Festival features new and innovative drama and storytelling driven by music and the voice. It's all a bit random which makes this festival so intriguing. I could have done without the shapeless mortuary gloom of Robert Hugill's When a Man Knows (when an opera begins with the words 'You Fucking Bastard', you know you're in for a long evening).

Things vastly improved with Gutter Press, a witty satire on the paparazzo and starlets with an interesting twist in the tale. The show's writer, James Richards has described it as an operusical, an interesting concept but ultimately too ambiguous an idea. Far better would be for Richards' composing partner, Fergal O'Mahony to work-up some hits from his lively score to give Gutter Press any real chance of commercial success.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Voce/Grosvenor Chapel, Mayfair

Anyone wishing to avoid the sweat box that is the Royal Albert Hall at this time of year could have done a lot worse than attend this sparkling summer concert by the chamber choir, Voce. It's an attractive ensemble, in all senses of the word, 'of around thirty people in their 20s and 30s' (whether that's policy or an accident I'm not sure) that's directed by its founder, Suzi Digby.

On show last night were works by Handel and Pergolesi plus a couple of pieces from a collection of manuscripts, unheard since their composition, that have been in the keep of the descendants of the Duke and Duchess of Montagu. This included Numi, numi pietosi by Hurka de Monti (c.1753-1823), an Austro-Hungarian who became a piano tuner in Glasgow, and When Saul was King over us by Giovanni Battista Bononcini (1670-1747, an Italian brought to London by the Duke of Burlington where he composed several operas for Handel's Royal Academy of Music before leaving for Vienna where he apparently died in poverty.

Lovely though they were, with some very assured solos from various members of the choir, they were easily eclipsed by Monteverdi's Love Madrigals that followed. I'd only ever heard these sung by a small ensemble before but strangely in the hands of a large choir, Monteverdi's exquisite harmonies felt more succulent and exciting.

The highlight was Mike Brewer's piece Amore Vittorioso, especially commissioned by Voce, to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Monteverdi's setting of the Vespers. It was a stunning piece, imagine a 16th century madrigal on LSD, with two trumpeters crowning the work with Monteverdi like fanfares.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

A New Direction for the Proms

This is my piece on the Proms that the Standard was going to run but in its wisdom chose not to..

This week the BBC Proms launches a new season of mouth watering concerts with some of the biggest names in the classical world. It’s a pity then that the venue – the Royal Albert Hall – does not match up to the quality of the music making. So says Mathew Tucker who says it's time to think the unthinkable about the world’s greatest music festival.

The Proms are special. I still remember the transformative effect my first visit to the Royal Albert Hall had on me back in 1982. A mate and I travelled up from Sussex to hear the Philharmonia and the pianist Yefim Bronfman play Bartok’s 2nd Piano Concerto. Back then we had time to spend most of the day queuing for the all standing arena and we were rewarded with places right at the front. So close were we to the stage that we got the giggles watching Bronfman’s facial contortions as he sprinted towards the end of the concerto. Laughter aside, I was bowled over by what I heard – the piano’s opening run followed by the brass fanfare convinced me I should go to music college.

Since then I have made a point of clocking into the Proms every summer. The staggering range of concerts from the world’s finest bands, conductors, soloists and singers night after night is probably one of the best reasons for living in the UK.

These days though I’m far more likely to listen to the Proms on the radio than I am hearing them in the flesh. There are practical reasons for this but mainly it’s because I don’t think the Prom’s home, the Royal Albert Hall, is a good enough venue. I have always tried to put my misgivings about the building to one side by making a virtue of the Albert Hall’s iconic status. But I’ve traipsed over to West London on too many occasions only to hear music die in the hall’s cavernous space before it has a chance to make an impact on the audience. Instead of leaving uplifted, I make the lonely trek back to South Kensington tube feeling frustrated, confident in the knowledge that in any other concert hall the music would have been served so much better.

Don’t get me wrong, for certain things the RAH is perfect. Raymond Gubbay’s operas make magnificent use of the hall’s interior, and its Victorian opulence really suits the glamour of the Classical Brits. Rightly or wrongly both these events are amplified so there’s no danger of missing anything (even if you want to). But for classical music served up acoustically like it is at the Proms, the building is simply not fit for purpose.

The usual retort about the RAH’s acoustical short comings is that it depends on where you stand or sit. If you are lucky enough to get a decent spot in the arena the power of the music can be overwhelming (as I can testify). And I can’t think of anything more serene than lying in the gallery that runs round the top of the dome with choral music wafting up from below. So the RAH does have its benefits but for the majority of the audience the sound quality is too hit and miss and that, for the world’s greatest music festival, is nothing short of shameful.

So what am I proposing? Of course in some far off utopia the ideal would be for a purpose built concert hall for the Proms, perhaps with the Prommers themselves raising some of the cash and co-owning the venue with whoever else is able to stump up the money. But that’s a pipe dream, especially in the current financial climate. No, my solution is quite simple. We swap the Royal Albert Hall with the Royal Festival Hall. Here’s why.

Its central location next to the River Thames is second to none with easy links to and from London. There are things to do before and after concerts with shops, restaurants, art galleries and theatres on the doorstep (not to mention the London Eye).

But the best reason is the Royal Festival Hall and the rest of the Southbank Centre itself. Here you have one of the most well-defined and exciting cultural centres on the planet. Just imagine how well the Proms with all its increasing ambitions and variety would utilise the different venues at the Southbank – the Festival Hall for the main concerts, the Queen Elizabeth Hall for late night stuff, the Purcell Room for chamber music. Then there are all of the Festival Hall’s other spaces perfect for workshops, free music and talks. And let’s not also forget the areas outside the building that brim with possibilities.

I can already hear opponents of this idea sharpening their knives. Haven’t you over looked something? Can you actually stand – or should I say Prom – in the Festival Hall? Well no, you can’t, at least not at the moment. But assuming the BBC continues to underwrite the event, there’s no reason to believe ticket prices would be any less of a bargain. There may be fewer available – the RFH’s capacity is 2500 compared to the RAH’s 5550 - but apart from appearances by the likes of the Berlin Philharmoniker and the Last Night of the Proms, it’s still a rare thing to see the Royal Albert Hall bursting at the seams. Surely the Festival Hall’s superior acoustic is a price worth paying for some reduction in seats (which, incidentally, are far more comfortable). For those unable to get into the blockbuster events it would still be possible to experience and savour the occasion on a big screen in the Festival Hall’s ballroom. It works at Wimbledon, why not at the Proms?

But the Proms and the Royal Albert Hall are so intertwined, it’s become a tradition say RAH loyalists. Yet the Proms began life at the Queen’s Hall in 1895 followed by a brief residency at the Bedford Corn Exchange during the Second World War before the Royal Albert Hall became the regular fixture. So it’s not a relationship set in stone. And if tradition is so important, the Royal Festival Hall was the centrepiece of that most inclusive event of them all, the 1951 Festival of Britain which brought music and arts into the lives of ordinary people. This legacy far better represents the Proms democratic ethos than the quaint Victoriana of the Royal Albert Hall.

I believe it’s time to drop our sentimental attachment to the Royal Albert Hall and move the Proms Eastwards to London’s South Bank where its long-term future should lie. Focused in one place in the heart of the capital would give the organisers many more opportunities to expand the Proms remit and encourage a far greater – and diverse – audience with classical music still at the very core of things. Best of all, the music would sound better. And that for me is what the Proms are all about, hearing music.

Friday, 25 June 2010

Zaide/Sadler's Wells

Founded in 1997 the Classical Opera Company specialises in Mozart so it was only a matter of time before it turned its hand to Zaide, Mozart's unfinished opera from 1779. In a nutshell: Zaide is a favourite of a nasty sultan. She makes the mistake of falling in love with a slave. She runs off with him, gets caught and all hell breaks lose until sultan sees the error of his ways.

Composed when he was only 23, Mozart wrote about seventy minutes worth of music set to a German text (his father thought this would play well with Emperor Joseph II who wanted to start a German-language opera company in Vienna) before putting it aside when the commission for Idomeneo came in.

There have been various stabs at reviving the opera ever since but attempts at staging a complete version have been rare, until now thanks to COC's artistic director Ian Page. Cleverly picking other works by Mozart from around the time he wrote Zaide, Page has concocted a finished Zaide with a new English libretto by the poet Michael Symmons Roberts.

Were this a purely musical exercise then Page's experiment would have paid off. The problem though is the spoken dialogue that links the different arias - melodram, a sort of precursor to sung recitative - provided by Ben Power and the opera's director Melly Still. Totally melodramatic in the modern sense, not even the world's greatest actor would have done justice to this clunky sub-comic book text which comes dangerously close to undermining Page and Symmons Roberts' efforts.

It would have been much better - and fairer on the singers - if this role had been taken by a narrator as has been the convention in past. That way the production team would have been spared the audience's embarrassed titters and we could have all got home a lot quicker. The 19 bus is notoriously infrequent at that time of night.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

Academy of Ancient Music/Wigmore Hall, Ray Gelato/Ronnie Scott's, Sweet Charity/Haymarket

England v Algeria and I'm off to the Wigmore Hall ('and you're not even gay', says a friend) for a concert of English music given by the AAM. My highlight was Purcell's 'Lord, what is man?' performed by the tenor James Gilchirst. Arms outstretched to the audience, he delivered it with the gentle persuasiveness of a preacher. I'm sure Purcell would have approved. I must admit, I don't think I've ever been so moved by Purcell such was Gilchrist's exemplary diction and phrasing. The absence of the basso continuo in 'Evening Hymn' that followed gave this well known work a freer jingly-jangly quality I'd never heard before, and all the more refreshing it was for it.

After the interval Gilchrist was joined by the French Horn player Michael Thompson for Britten's Serenade for tenor, horn and strings. Thompson was note-perfect, no mean feat in this fiendishly difficult work, but at times seemed overly cautious that he down played some of work's drama, particularly in the opening introduction. But I'm being ever so picky. If you were looking for a patriotic glow that night, this was the place to be.

Ronnie Scott's reassuringly retro interior suits the sound and style of London jazz man Ray Gelato and the Giants, a slick ensemble that wouldn't look out of place in a Scorsese film. Even Gelato's jokes have the tinge of a bygone era; 'have you heard Lionel Richie has converted to Islam? His new record is called Halal, is it meat you're looking for'...even the stoney faced stag party in front of me laughed at that one.

Sweet Charity. I want to learn the Frug..possibly the silliest and sexiest dance of them all. Great show.

Saturday, 12 June 2010

The Mike Flowers Pops/The London Leisure Centre

I write this with a head like a small hospital. That's what happens when you get a little too enthusiastic about the return of the Mike Flowers Pops. If you remember, Mike Flowers (AKA Mike Roberts) was the figurehead of a weird easy listening revival in the mid-nineties when it became OK to say you liked Burt Bacharach and Jimmy Webb. Flowers lead from the front with a cheesy cover version of Oasis's Wonderwall that almost reached the number 1 spot. In those days I used to catch him and the Pops in places like Madam Jo Jo's in Soho with a bunch of thirty somethings as we danced away to classics like 'Do You Know the Way to San Jose' and 'Up Up and Away' and bloody good fun it was too.

Both got a welcome airing at his return gig last night at the London Leisure Centre, a venue that is, according to its website,'situated in the heart of the historic city of London, UK, within a building that dates back to 1968'. Others know it as the St. Aloysius Social Club, a rather unassuming ballroom and bar in the basement of a Catholic Church in Camden.

Its faded decor lent itself nicely to the evening's retro feel which opened with a set from Rory More at the Lowrey organ. I'm ashamed to say I'd never heard of the Lowrey organ before last night. It's a kind of smoother version of the Hammond that was originally manufactured for the home entertainment market. This might explain why it never took off in the rock world although apparently Paul McCartney used it for the opening of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. Betcha didn't know that. Mind you, as Rory More demonstrated last night, when linked to a Leslie cabinet the Lowrey can really pack a punch. His up-tempo version of Francis Lai's theme from Un Homme et Une Femme was very lush and sexy and on the basis of that alone I'd buy one straight away if I had the money and space.

Rory More's turn (we had a short interlude while he fixed the E on his Heritage Deluxe model) was followed by the Mike Flowers Pops who, like Mike Flower's wig, haven't lost any of their lustre. Boy, did us forty somethings love it.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Marcin Wasilewski Trio/LSO St Luke's

How nice it is to break my blog fast with news of a fabulous concert at LSO St. Luke's last night by the Marcin Wasilewski Trio. Formed in Poland in 1991, this likeable and understated jazz trio stroked the appreciative audience for a full 90 minutes with material mainly from the hand of pianist Wasilewski. His is a softer edged and more optimistic style compared to (as no doubt they are) the much lamented Swedish trio EST, with Wasilewski himself almost suspending himself in mid air during his gilded piano runs.Somehow the damp sunlit evening peering through the trees outside St Luke's seemed to sum up the occasion perfectly.

Monday, 5 April 2010

The Times

This apppeared in today's Times. It's an account of my evening at Errollyn's Song Club a month ago or so.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Betty Legs Diamond, The Green Parrot/Blackpool

Marisa Carnesky treated her ghost train team to a night out at the Green Parrot, a spic and span new club in Blackpool that hosts nightly shows by the one and only Betty Legs Diamond. Previously the leading lady at Funny Girls, Blackpool's premier drag queen venue, Betty - Simon Green by day - sends-up hits from the musicals in a series of outrageous frocks accompanied by a small troupe of dancers. It's very end of pier-ish and funny but watching people mime their way through songs for an entire evening feels a little bit second hand.

Monday, 29 March 2010

Carnesky's Ghost Train/Blackpool

So where was I going on this train? Why Blackpool of course. Somehow or other I've been assigned the task of documenting the last installment of Marisa Carnesky's Ghost Train in Blackpool before it opens for business this Friday. It has taken her ten years to get the project off the ground which has finally found a permanent (we hope) home on Blackpool's busy promenade. It's going to be pretty good I think although compared to other things in Blackpool it may be deemed 'too arty'. Still, Blackpool Council has backed it to the hilt - much to the chagrin of the local paper - in the hope, I suspect, of drawing in a different demographic, oh alright then, middle class people. Hey, maybe I should have mentioned it to the stubborn mother on my journey up here...

Saturday, 27 March 2010

On The Train

Virgin Trains, don't you love them? They have a knack for winding up people like nothing else on earth. Today I witnessed the most ferocious argument between a youngish working class girl and a mum who, thanks to a cock-up with the reservation signs, had helped her young family to the clutch of seats the woman had reserved for her friends. What happened next was a full scale verbal assault on the mother. 'Do you know what, people like you really wind me up, do you know what, these seats are mine and people like you have no manners and do you know what, I can't believe that you're just sitting there and do you know what....' etc etc. Despite the continued barrage and the raised eyebrows of the other passengers, the mother refused do budge saying quietly, in between the other woman's anguished gasps for air, that she would not move because she had a three year old and they had no where else to sit. Her calm tone only riled the woman even more who in the end sat in the one remaining seat next to her. 'I am going to sit here and I'm going to make your journey hell for the next five hours, is that what you want, is it, is it?' The rather tired looking Scottish bloke sitting next to me piped up. 'Listen Darlin', I think she's got the message.' 'What's it got to do with you,' the woman retorted. Another lady butted in, 'I think it's the principle of the thing,' she said glaring at the mum, 'these are her reserved seats even if the sign up there doesn't say that.' All the while the mother's husband, a grey faced American in a base ball cap, strode up and down the carriage searching in vain for somewhere to move his family. By now the woman's shear aggression was visibly upsetting the two children who had sat through the onslaught. It was a huge relief when one of angry woman's friends managed to find her a place further up the carriage. Maybe it's some kind of class prejudice, but by the end of this ghastly encounter I felt terribly sorry for the mother even though she was completely in the wrong. Must be a first.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

True Stories/Carnesky's Ghost Train/The Review Show

A bit like Errollyn Wallen's Song Club (Muthatucker passim), True Stories Told Live does exactly what it says on the tin. Ordinary people (well as ordinary as you can be to do this kind of thing) tell an extended story to a roomful of strangers. I heard five very contrasting tales the night I went; bedsit life in sixties London, the trails and tribulations of Irish dancing competitions, travels in Kazakhstan, touring Ireland with a dysfunctional rock band, and the life and times of an incorrigible bon viveur. Great stuff, some funny, some tragic and all told with wonderful colour and warmth. It's free too but make sure you get on the guest list (see link below). I dunno, what with song clubs, poetry nights and now this, are we rediscovering our Victorian heritage? Whatever, this is more entertaining than an evening in front of the telly or a solitary roam on the internet.

To Blackpool to film a ghost train. Actually it's still only a shed but work is well underway on Marisa Carnesky's forthcoming attraction which should be, all things being equal, a very welcome addition to Blackpool's sea front. It's a bold and slightly left field take on the traditional ghost train that draws on Carnesky's Jewish roots. Having done the rounds (quite literally) for a few years Carnesky has never been able to find a permanent home for it until now thanks to Blackpool Council. The trouble is there are many in the town who think far too much money has been spent setting it up so there is an enormous pressure on her, and the council, for the ride to deliver when it opens on Good Friday. Anyway, I'm filming this story as it unfolds.

Caught The Review Show - 'from Glasgow' - last night. I don't know what the significance of 'from Glasgow' was because it could have been a studio discussion from anywhere. The only Scottish element was some poor singer from Scottish Opera who, after Martha Kearney's fumbled introduction, sang an aria from La Boheme, accompanied by someone on one of those lifeless electronic keyboards. I suppose once you've flown up six English contributors, provided them with overnights, meals etc, there probably isn't much left in the budget for a half decent piano. Ironically, the overriding theme of tonight's show was climate change.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

The John Bennett Big Band/The Macbeth, Hoxton

So there I was propped up at the bar wondering how I was going to make my pint of lager last all evening. I'd come to see The John Bennett Big Band, a semi-pro outfit that regularly gigs at a Hoxton boozer called The Macbeth. About ten minutes in to the set its lead trumpeter strolls over and tells me they're a man down, would I like to play? If I'd thought about it I probably would have given a big fat naaaaaah but the request was so sudden I just went for it. In my haste I played the first two numbers with a jet tone mouthpiece which is one of the tools of the trade favoured by lead trumpeters who play really high. It was no wonder I split so many notes on the flugelhorn I'd been handed. I'd forgotten too the speed a big band moves at, notes passing me like an express train. Luckily there was other stuff I knew like Take Me To The River and Sunshine of Your Love, all of which were arranged by John Bennett. Big and juicy they were too, particularly his version of Aretha Franklin's Rock Steady - God that was good. Anyway, loved the evening, I hope Mr Bennett asks me back. As I was leaving he handed me a crumpled piece of paper. It was my £5 admission fee. Nice.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Imagine Children's Festival/The Southbank Centre

A welcome half term distraction for middle class parents who can't afford a skiing holiday, the Imagine Festival at the Southbank Centre bursts with children's activities from music, storytelling and magic, much of it free of charge. We caught the Beatbox Concerto for Kids that featured 'beatboxer extraordinaire' Shlomo. Wondering on to the QEH stage with all the poise of a filleted fish, he gave the audience a brief masterclass in the fine art of beatboxing - those percussive noises you make with a microphone - which comes down to the following sounds: Boo, Tee, Kat and Puff. Take away the vowels and voila , you have the basics of beatboxing. It's pretty impressive stuff too. A pity then that Shlomo's collaboration with an orchestra didn't quite come off. Anna Meredith's score was fine but a tad fussy for the occasion, never quite finding the right, well groove I suppose, for Shlomo and his talented team of beatboxers to really come alive. Mind you, most of the young audience loved it.

Friday, 19 February 2010

The Errollyn Wallen Song Club

A very short snippet of A Song About Emotional Denial performed at Errollyn's Song Club in Soho last night. Frighteningly high standard.

And here's an interview with Errollyn Wallen on the subject of song writing.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

The Sixteen/Music and the City

Spent the early afternoon filming an interview with Harry Christophers, the music director of the fabulous Sixteen. Sheppard, Tallis and Byrd are on the menu for this year's Choral Pilgrimage. As an off shoot, members of the Sixteen will march across the North Downs to raise money for charity and Canterbury Cathedral which, appropriately, is the final stop on this nine day walk. I'll put the interview up on site as soon as I've edited it. Sheppard's false relations, Byrd's yearning for his beloved Catholicism...hear it here first folks!

Evening, the splendidly ornate 1901 Club in Waterloo was hosting Simon Hewitt Jones' Music in the City soiree. I'd missed most of the music making by the time I arrived but there were still plenty of bright young things to chat to and an enormous chocolate cake to eat. Good old Simon, God knows how he finds the energy to run this and play the fiddle and keep bobbing along. He should get an award. I left just as he launched into Mendelssohn's Octet, a fine way to complete an extremely rewarding day of gadding about.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Britten Sinfonia/QEH

Great concert at the QEH with the Britten Sinfonia who are on a real roll at the moment. They were directed by Pekka Kuusisto, a young Finnish violinist who clearly enjoys talking as much as he likes performing, playing his fiddle with all the ease of a folk musician. Two works by Purcell (the second of which had been arranged by Nico Muhly) merged beautifully with a movement from Tippett's 'Sellinger's Round'. I know the Tippett from the time I played with an amateur orchestra about twenty years ago. We performed it on a tour of Romania which included a trip to Brasov in Transylvania. It was snowing so only three people turned up (two English tourists and our coach driver). Happy days. Anyway, great to hear it again. So too was it to experience Mark Padmore's Les Illuminations that was full of drama and colour I hadn't heard before. It was certainly more Gallic than the Peter Pears version I was brought up with.

The very English first half was followed by three American offerings, Duet by Reich (whose music never sounds as convincing when performed along side other people's stuff), Nico Muhly's Impossible Things, a very assured piece that added some dark dimensions to poems by C.P Cavafy and carried off beautifully by Mark Padmore again, and finally John Adams Shaker Loops, that worked itself into a stunning frenzy. A 21st century classic. .

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

The South Bank Show Awards - The Dorchester

Odd. I've spent the last year wondering what the hell I'm going to do post South Bank Show and here I am at the Dorchester rubbing shoulders with the great and good as if nothing has happened. I sat next to trumpeter extraordinaire, Alison Balsom who was presenting the classical music award. Surely she should have been receiving a gong for her excellent recording of the Haydn and Hummel trumpet concertos, not giving one away. In the event, the squiggly trophy went to the CBSO and Halle for their joint Nielsen season. Mark Elder made some lovely comments about the SBS which was very gracious of him considering Melvyn had turned down the chance to make a programme about his sterling work to revitalise the Halle. Most annoying moment: Elaine Page getting the giggles during David Alden's acceptance speech for ENO's Peter Grimes. He did go on a bit though. Overall a great ceremony, David Attenborough sent Melvyn off with a well earned Lifetime Achievement Award. Standing ovations, tears and, and as Melvyn would say, that's that. The end of a wonderful era.

Monday, 25 January 2010

Nico Muhly - Roundhouse

Nico Muhly appears on stage in a flash. He wants to get on with things. Dressed in various layers of black, slightly at odds with his sunny disposition, he launches into Philip Glass's solo piano piece Mad Rush. Clearly included as a nod of respect to his one time teacher, it's a less than enthralling start to a concert by America's new composing wunderkind. Fortunately things pick-up significantly with the arrival of vocalist and guitarist Sam Amidon, one of many non-classical artists Muhly has worked with of late. And a great combination this has turned out to be. While Amidon sings his folky songs, Muhly's imagination is given full reign with his orchestral backdrops (complete with sinister sound effects) that never overwhelm but change the colour and drama of what's being sung by stealth. It's almost hallucinogenic in its effect.

The concert concluded with Steve Reich's City Life which sounded a little pedestrian by comparison. But it soon found its noisy New York groove, serving as a useful reminder the debt the promising Muhly owes to the elder statesman of American music.

The Roundhouse is used for the BBC's Electric Proms. How about using it for the Proms proper? As was clearly demonstrated last night, there is a large and mostly young crowd out there with broad tastes who like new music and ideas for the sake of it. Maybe the Proms should think of ways to cater for this audience who thankfully don't seem to have hang-ups about music categorisation.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Stroman/Jonsson - Vortex

Scott Stroman is a musician with fingers in many pies. Tonight he was the vocalist in a band he co-leads with his long-term musical partner, saxophonist Cennet Jonsson. Joined by instrumentalists from Hungary, the US, Ireland and, er Highbury (Stroman), he treated the select audience at the Vortex to a collection of works (well I can't really call them songs) from his new album Project 2. This rather clinical title doesn't do justice to the warmth exuded by the assembled musicians, spearheaded by Jonsson's soprano sax and Zoltan Lantos' fiddle. Their breathtaking unity of sound was underpinned by Stroman's gentle scat singing which, whether intended or not, was a useful brake on anything too outlandish and impenetrable. The highlight of the evening was Stroman's composition, Homeless, its desolate quality perfectly capturing the cold and slushy view of Gillett Square as seen from the comfort of the Vortex.