Archive for December, 2008

Scottish Ensemble – Green

Approaching the very dead of winter, it was refreshing to be reminded of the coming spring, and green shoots.   This was a performance of minimilist music, with a new piece, called Green, from Scottish composer (now living in the USA) Thea Musgrave.   And in a change of venue, this was in St Ninian’s Cathedral in Perth, which has a lovely acoustic.

First off was Shaker Loops by John Adams – we had seen Scottish Ballet dance to this (live) a few years ago, so it was a good chance to catch up with the music itself:    five movements running together, and technically very difficult.   The Ensemble pulled it off splendidly, passing rhythms and accents round the group.

Green was a piece looking at ‘good’ and ‘evil’:   the upper strings had nice tunes, but were interupted by growls from the double bass, which spread to the cellos and violas.    I remember seeing Musgrave’s Horn Concerto performed in the 1970s, and feeling that it was extremely odd – the horn player had to walk round and ‘appear’ at different places on the platform.   But this was accessible and interesting.

After the break came the work I had been most looking forward to hearing since this concert was announced at the start of the summer:  Steve  Reich’s Clapping Music.    This has fascinated me since I saw the composer and his son on TV performing it years ago.    It is simple in concept, but must be a nightmare to perform:    everyone claps the rhythm:

*** ~ ** ~ * ~ ** ~     

where * is a clap and ~ is a rest.    Half the group keep going, but the other half shift the whole pattern back one beat, and then again , and then again, until after 12 shifts the whole thing comes back into unison again.    Simple.  OK, this animation explains it well.    So 16 musicians stood in a row facing us, and performed the piece – and not only that, but leader Jonathan Morton took the volume down to barely audible halfway through, thus magnifying the listening experience and racking up the tension until we hit the final unison – just brilliant.

Lastly the Ensemble performed Copland’s Appalachian Spring, which they really got their teeth into, leaving us humming “Tis the Gift to be Simple” as we made our way out of the church into the frosty night.

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Arts Round-Up 2008

It has been another busy year in the arts:

25 plays seen – Jo Clifford’s touring version of Great Expectations from Prime productions impressed, as did John Byrne’s fouth part in his Slab Boys ‘trilogy’ Nova Scotia at the Traverse.     At Dundee Rep, Romeo and Juliet, Les Parents Terribles,  and their wonderful Christmas show Beauty and the Beast  were all very good.    In Perth, Of Mice and Men, and touring productions of Oleanna and Little Otik  stood out.   We travelled to Aberdeen to catch The Bacchae, which was worth the trip.    At the Traverse, Fall was a challenging night out, but good theatre, and David Greig’s Midsummer was great fun and well performed.      Out and out winner was Drawer Boy at the Tron – a gentle tale set on a farm in the Canadian prairie, but intensely haunting.    Great to have support on this from Waldorf and Statler over at View From the Stalls – who manage get out to a lot of theatre.

11 Operas – we enjoyed Scottish Opera’s experiment of Five:15 minute brand new operas at Oran Mor – and we will be going along to the next batch fairly soon.      (Oh and I was counting this evening as one opera – so perhaps that should be 15 operas in all, then).    Scotland’s only Opera School at RSAMD continues to impress, nowhere moreso than in the performances of Eugene Onegin where they collaborated with the Rostov-on-Don Conservatoire in Russia.     On the big stage from Scottish Opera, Scottish composer Judith Weir’s Night at the Chinese Opera was well sung and very interesting,  their new production of La Traviata was also outstanding as was their Edinburgh Festival production of The Two Widows.    English Touring Opera visited Perth Festival and gave us a stunningly good Don Giovanni – just wonderful to hear Mozart in a chamber opera setting.    But for sheer drama and intensity, the performance of Peter Maxwell Davies’ opera The Martyrdom of St Magnus by the Hebrides Ensemble and directed by Ben Twist was very special.     And in 2008 we really enjoyed seeing Scottish singer Kate Valentine emerging from almost nowhere to take key roles in Five:15 and in The Two Widows – one to watch.

13 concerts – for consistently being outstanding, and for bringing interesting guests with them, The Scottish Ensemble takes the honours.   But we enjoyed the RSNO when they brought Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust to Perth, which was an event in itself.    And recently, the Patriachiate Choir of Moscow stepped of a plane direct from Russia and performed unaccompanied orthodox singing, as well as Russian folksongs in Perth – their only Scottish date.     Unsung hero is Svend Brown who is in charge of classical music at Perth Horsecross and who brings people to Perth who would never have come here before.

One major gig this year, which was Elton John in Perth, which was just hours of good fun.

And one ballet:   Sleeping Beauty, which is well worth catching on its current tour.

2008 was a pretty good year.   I do think that 2009 will be challenging, because in credit crunch times, it will be harder for audiences to afford to buy tickets for, and travel to and from live performances.     I hope that promoters will continue to run offers on quiet nights, low prices for under 26s and so on – it does all make a big difference, particularly when we take some youngsters along with us – they are the future audience, after all.    And of course, there is a big question mark over the considerable corporate and private sponsorship which the arts in Scotland enjoy – the Bank of Scotland sponsored Sleeping Beauty being the current example on tour just now.

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Beauty and the Beast - photo Dundee Rep - with permission

Beauty and the Beast - photo Dundee Rep - with permission

I confess to wondering that with the Dundee Rep ‘A’  Team busy wowing audiences across Scotland with their award-winning show Sunshine on Leith, that the ‘B’ Team left at home might be struggling in terms of resources to get on a substantial Christmas show back at the Rep.

I need not have worried:   Beauty and the Beast at Dundee Rep is probably one of  the best pieces of seasonal theatre I have seen for a while, and thoroughly deserves the full houses and five star reviews it has been getting.      Just nine actors tell the story, and with a minimalist and very effective set, they sing, dance and use an endless array of props to tell the story.     And the story is so clearly told – we were immediately in France (the cast arrived onstage singing a French song), and introduced to the Merchant’s lively family.     But when within minutes of the start we went from the hugely amusing light-harted squabbling among the siblings to the death of their mother, handled brilliantly and sensitively with black parisian umbrellas, this was clearly going to a very special night of darkness and light, adventure and sheer magic.

This was director Jemima Levick’s first piece for the Rep.    In many Christmas shows, baddies are often very shouty and come with an array of big sound effects.   But Levick’s answer to this was to adopt a ‘less is more’ approach, which allowed the story to emerge with crystal clarity:   the impossibility of the Merchant’s choice between sacrificing himself or letting his daughter return to Beast’s palace;    the challenge Beauty makes to the Beast after he has rescued her from a wolf attack, and the chilling confrontation between the Beast and his minder, the Witch.       It was a nice touch to pass the actual story book through scenes.   

photo - Dundee Rep - with permission

photo - Dundee Rep - with permission

Karen Maciver’s score – performed live with cellist Seylan Baxter – gave this show an even greater depth, aided by some stunning lighting from Chris Davey.      Alex Lowde’s designs were minimal and imaginative – floating vertical coloured neon tubes for the palace, a whole hall of mirrors, and weather from rain and mud to wind and snow.     And a caravan.

It was just a wonderful evening, and harked back perhaps to the iconic Communicado’s Tall Tales.    This was one of those shows to grab and hold the attention of people new to live performance – what a five star way to start a theatregoing habit of a lifetime.

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Now and again, I find myself on a delivery round for one cause or another.   I am just back from such a round with literally bloody knuckles from difficult letterboxes. 

letterboxNow I know, living in the Perthshire countryside, that letterboxes can be a reliable source of drafts, and I understand why people fit brushes or sprung flaps to the inside.    Sometimes both.    But some letter boxes this morning had an unnecessarily strong spring-loaded front flap, then lavatory brush strength bristles with a final strong spring loaded flap after that.     It is impossible to get stuff through without bending it, and posting material in is a two handed operation:   fingers lift the top flap, in through the brushes and push the back flap open – the other hand then posts in the letter.      But some letter boxes are designed well – they keep out the drafts, yet allow for easy posting.     These have flaps, but not too strongly springy, and if they have bristles, they are soft.    There ought to be a design standard which is acceptable to the Royal Mail.

doorAnd who thinks it is OK to put a letter box at ground level?     It really isn’t.    And if it is a Fort Knox type of letter box, it is nigh impossible.

And this morning is the first time that a dog had a go at me.   I stood still and adopted a non threatening position, yet the dog still came at me.   My thick jacket was good protection.    Dogs usually like me.  This one didn’t.

The very worst deliveries though are strong letter boxes with a fierce dog on the inside.    The knack is to stuff the post in just enough to do the job, but before the dog gets your fingers.

Why not take the test yourself – take a letter, stand outside your front door, and try to post it in.    See?   Stop laughing – it is not funny!       Posties have my sympathy.

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