Archive for March, 2008

The Scottish Ensemble were joined by the grammy award winning double bass player Edgar Meyer for their most recent concert in Perth.

Double basses don’t get much of a serious profile in the classical world, although most will know the famous “Elephant” from Carnival of the Animals.     

Meyer shambled onto the stage with his bass, and set himself up in the centre, leaning into his bass at an angle that reminded me of a pair of lovers walking down a country lane.     

He gave a literally jaw-dropping performance of Bottisini’s B Minor Concerto.   It was almost unbelievable to watch as Mayer produced sounds that I would have thought ‘impossible’ from a double bass.    We then had a couple of solos from Meyer – ‘Pickles’ and an Irish Jig, and then the Ensemble rounded off the first half with David Diamond’s exhilarating Rounds for String Orchestra.

The second half was given over to Meyer’s compositions, and began with a trio for bass, ‘cello and violin.    I would have to say, not just a virtuoso part for the bass, but very demanding for guest director Laurent Quenelle on the violin and Alison Lawrance on ‘cello, who both played splendidly.    The evening rounded off with the first movement of Meyer’s Quintet arranged for a string ensemble.   

The publicity for this concert “Bluegrass Across the Water” suggested that Meyer and the Ensemble might actually play some bluegrass music, so it was a little disappointing not to hear some perhaps.    And I think I would have put the Rounds to open, then the Meyer pieces, and the Bottesini to finish. 

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Seen in preview, this was the first venue of what will be an extensive tour for Jim Cartwright’s show about a dysfunctional mother with a shy but vocally talented daughter.

Famous, and much loved for their panto performances, Elaine C Smith and Andy Gray starred as the mother and boyfriend/agent.    They played this in a knockabout Glasgow style, which although well done, and certainly crowd pleasing had me wondering about the piece.     By the end, I am sure that the audience should be feeling sorry for the situation mother Mari finds herself in, and I am afraid I really wasn’t.     Elaine C. Smith was rather playing (panto) Elaine C. Smith playing Mari as a grotesque Glasgow drunk.

This rather altered the balance of the piece, and took away from the rest of the story, and the other characters.    Debbie Saloman did a pretty good job of being LV, and getting round all the songs.    Andy Gray grew into his role as he realised LV’s talent, and brought out his serious side.     But it is the shocking sight (and it really was) and sound of Elaine C. Smith stumbling about the stage in her lurid tights and dangerously short tops which is the image one takes away.    I am just not sure it should be.

And, for goodness sake –  Perth Theatre is small and seats 500.   So, LV aside,  why on earth was everyone miked up?   It may need it in big houses like The Kings in Edinburgh, but in Perth it was total overkill.

To be fair, the crowd enjoyed this hugely, and it should do well on tour.    

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What is it about Dundee Rep that makes its Shakespeare productions really come alive?     Romeo and Juliet directed by James Brining was a magical tale, thrillingly told by a strong and enthusiastic cast.  

We have had strong casts before at other theatres in Scotland who seem to so often miss the mark with Shakespeare.     But here, the pacing of the language was perfect, and delivered by the actors as if they really cared about what they were about.    

The strength of Dundee Rep is the ensemble of players, many of whom have worked together  for years now.    And encouragingly, there are always some new faces thrown into the mix, and not with bit parts.    Hannah Donaldson, in one of her first major roles, played Juliet, and Kevin Lennon was a tousle-haired Romeo, and a great pair they made – building up their relationship to great heights, so that when it ended, it was all the more awesome.

But it is perhaps unfair to single out two performances when there simply was no weak link in the rest.     But I have to mention Ann Louise Ross being a terrific nurse, and Cliff Burnett a haunting Friar.    It is so good to have Cliff Burnett back at the Rep again.

Neil Warmington’s astonishing wonky street set was stunningly lit by Chris Davey, and Brian Docherty’s soundscape created a magical atmosphere.    Flying beds, a grand piano and standard lamp at crazy angles, and a little snow drew us in immediately.

We took a few 17/16 year olds with us, and they were very impressed indeed.     It was a three hour show, but it really did not feel like it, so it must have been good.  

And, I have to say, great value.     Adults were £16 at the weekend, and under 26s were £4.    That’s cheaper than the cinema for the youngsters.    Other theatres in Scotland should take note.

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Five:15 Scottish Opera

Scottish Opera’s Five:15 project of commissioning five brand new pocket-sized 15 minute operas was a bold an innovative move.      It captured the imagination, and resulted in ‘sold out’ houses.   I really enjoy chamber opera, so I was looking forward to this immensely.    There was lots of pre publicity on the radio and in newspapers – the choice of well known names ensured this – clever move!         

 I had been looking out for the Five:15 tickets to come on sale and luckily managed to secure two of the last tickets for the Sunday afternoon Matinee in Oran Mor, as both evening performances were well sold out.     We were disappointed that we could not be there for the Saturday evening post-show discussion. 

I give Oran Mor absolutely ‘nil points’ for their booking system, which is managed for them, and resent the extortionate (in percentage terms) booking fee.    It was not possible to speak to a person.    At The Traverse in Edinburgh, we went to see Lyall Cresswell’s Good Angel, Bad Angel (dir – Ben Twist, music – Hebrides Ensemble) a while back with no booking fees – that is how it should be.    Booking fees should always be included in the ticket price.   By the way, Good Angel, Bad Angel was a wonderful gem that deserves repeating. 

And so to Five 15. I did wonder about reaching a new audience with this project.    The crowd we were in with on the Sunday in Glasgow were clearly seasoned opera goers, and while there were a few younger faces, there were lots of old ones.      Perhaps the evening shows at Five:15 had younger people, or people attending their first opera. 

Oran Mor as a venue – well, I loved the space, Alasdair Gray’s wonderful painted ceiling, the accoustic and stage design.    Sight lines were not always good, and the seats were seriously uncomfortable and crammed together.     I would have preferred The Tramway as a venue – it worked well for “The Turn of the Screw” a few years back:     the space could have been customised to suit Scottish Opera, and the audience could have been raked.    I realise that Oran Mor were sponsors for Five:15, so perhaps Scottish Opera were tied in to going there.     

The Operas:   I get to a fair share of new theatre writing in a year, and with new writing, you accept that some will work well, and some less so.    It is to be expected, and to an extent the music critics covering Five:15 did not understand this.    I think a lot did work well.    The singing from the company and playing from the orchestra were both first class.    For me, The King’s Conjecture had the edge dramatically.   It was a genuinely curious story about King James IV and a baby ‘experiment’, where Kate Valentine’s performance as deaf and dumb Grizel was astonishing and strangely moving, and left me wanting to know more.     Musically, Lyall Cresswell’s Perfect Woman was probably the best, but he has good operatic form already.    I would have liked to seen the orchestra onstage, as per the direction.     I also enjoyed The Queens of Govan – mainly because of Wajahat Khan’s sitar playing fusing with the orchestra – a meeting of India and Glasgow if you like.  

I did not expect to struggle with the most popular writers, but I am afraid I did.    Dream Angus and Gesualdo, although they were both well sung, never quite hit their mark, and suffered for being only 15 minutes long.      In a way, creating 15 minute operas is a little strange.    True chamber operas are usually longer than this, and allow development of story and character.     

But full marks for an innovative project.    It was fun to go to.   It is exciting to hear trained singers in a smaller space than usual.    I would certainly attend a similar show again . 

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John Swinney MSP told a meeting in Perth a couple of weeks back that the EARL project was not technically feasible.    He said that the proposed gradient for trains was not possible for existing rolling stock to negotiate, and that tunnelling under the airport runway was too risky.    I actually found that rather hard to believe, as the EARL project started in 2001 looking at the possibility of getting rail links tied into Edinburgh airport, involving years of exploratory engineering work as well as securing legislation to emable the project to go ahead.    

Ryanair are just coming into Edinburgh Airport with new routes.   This is really welcome, but how are an extra million passengers actually going to get to and from the airport?    It is probably one of the most congested areas of Scotland.    EARL would have given a direct rail link from the airport to over 60 stations.    It is a ‘no brainer’ but comes at a price.

I asked the people at EARL to comment about the feasibility of the project.    They said that the gradient was no worse than the one getting into and out of Queen Street Station in Glasgow, so no problem there.     They also said that tunnelling under the runway was perfectly feasible, and given the extra engineering precautions built into this part of the project, perfectly safe.

So where does that leave John Swinney?    He should have said that the project was simply too expensive to sanction, and that going ahead would have put other transport projects on hold.    But he didn’t.   Poor show.

And why are the Trams going ahead in Edinburgh?   I don’t see the benefit at all.    Massive expense, huge and prolonged disruption – just look at the mess in Leith Walk and Shandwick Place, unsightly overhead cables etc. – the list of downsides is long.    Who on earth is this project for?    There are  perfectly good bus services serving this route at very reasonable prices, and with bus lanes for much of the route.    I just don’t get it.

They should have spent the money on Earl which would have benefitted many more people.

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Tree Lines

Perthshire lowground is famous for tree lines within field boundary hedges.    It is an attractive landscape feature.    However, dutch elm disease killed off the elms over the years, and the existing trees – mainly ash, oak and sycamore are getting older.    Each year, more are lost to storms, and bits blow off them.   Farmers tend not to like these hedgerow trees as they shade crops and snag on the combine and tractors as they drive by, so they tend not to get replaced.

However, on balance I am prepared to put up with the inconveniences, and value special landscape features.   So I am pleased to announce a planting of 35 new hedgerow trees this week – a mix of oak and ash.    The local Farm and Forestry Wildlife Advisory Group have supplied trees, tubes and posts.    It is rather a dynastical project, but hopefully these trees will be good for 100 years or so.

It is quite a thought.

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I have been to the Scottish Parliament before on several occasions. It is a much nicer building inside than out, with many very unique and unusual features. The main chamber is particularly stunning. From the outside the building can look very severe, and less than inspiring.

Recently, I was asked to give evidence to a Parliamentry Committee, which was a really interesting thing to do. The Committee rooms are of an extraordinary design: imagine a table in the shape of a doughnut, and then pull and stretch it a bit, and you have the idea. High quality wooden finish.    An example here.

We witnesses sat round the end of one of these tables, and the MSPs (cross party representation) and officials sat round the other end. There was a technical person next to me working the microphones and cameras, for the whole session was made available on the parliamentry website. The politicians were quite a way away from us, which was a surprise, as I thought a closer arrangement might have been more appropriate. But perhaps we needed the distance to keep things formal – this was official parliamentry business after all.

Questions from the MSPs were reasonably good, and we were all given plenty of time to make our various points. There will be a report produced at some point, as well as a verbatim record of proceedings on paper and cd.    I hope our collective opinions were useful.

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