The Trial


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The Trial

Music by Philip Glass

Music Theatre Wales

RNCM Theatre, 22 October 2014

The Trial

As an opera, The Trial is virtually error-free.

What strikes you at first is the set: clean and clear, well-lit, almost but not quite monochrome.  And the costumes – black suits and white shirts, for the most part – share the same aesthetic: a spare use of colour, Middle-European minimalist.  Once the action gets underway, the lighting plays with chiaroscuro effects.

Philip Glass’ score serves the story, which for the most part means that it is edgy and anxious.  At the end, mind, as Josef K is slowly led out by his executioners, it became quite (well, relatively) jaunty.  Perhaps it’s too simple, but the temptation is to read this scene as a homage to Mack the Knife.  The closest we came to a conventional aria was when we got the parable (with Kafka you naturally reach for this word) of the man who comes from the country (you imagine a shetl or a Moldovan village) to stand before the gate of the Law.  Yet even then the music doesn’t meander into melody.  It served the drama of the story always.

Underlying Christopher Hampton’s faithful and unfussy libretto is the notion that while Kafka may once have been a prophet, now he is a realist (of course, Lukacs grasped this a while ago).  There is paranoia, bawdy and brutality here but that makes it a world we can all recognise.

Thus far in to the review and I’ve neglected to mention any of the performers, not even Johnny Herford, who played our put-upon hero.  My reason: they were all so convincing.  Really, it was the world of The Trial, the result of a happy confluence of many talents, that was the star here.  You were immersed in it.  This was an opera tried, tested and true.

Music Theatre Wales’ robust production of The Trial is currently touring the UK.  Further details are here.

Northern Soul


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Northern Soul

Directed by Elaine Constantine

UK, 2014

Cornerhouse, 18 October 2014

Northern Soul

An entertaining film, set like Shimmy Marcus’ SoulBoy (2010) in the ‘70s Northern Soul scene.  Supercool grooves, killer dance moves, baggy trousers and all.

There’s this bright lad, name of John (Elliot James Langridge), whose life is going nowhere.  He’s introverted, antisocial, unhappy.  Has a humdrum existence.  Then he discovers Northern Soul and the world begins to make sense to him.

What the film has going for it is, well, the music, of course.  Strong period detail and a clear sense of how dull yet violent those days could be.  Fine performances, not least from Antonia Thomas as Angela, a nurse that John takes a fancy to.  (While watching her: a memory of first touching a black girl’s Afro.)  Jack Gordon as Sean, a king of the scene/drug dealer type, was impressive – much better than the character as written deserved.  And Steve Coogan was also out and about, doing a turn as a typical ‘70s teacher, obnoxious and not averse, naturally, to using corporal punishment on occasion.

As for the story, it is in truth a bit predictable and doesn’t stray too far from the feel-good track.  It lacks any sustained sense of jeopardy.

Still, an entertaining film and it got me listening to Dexys Midnight Runners’ first album again – not a bad thing.


Kathryn Stott and Martin Roscoe


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Kathryn Stott and Martin Roscoe

Manchester Chamber Concerts Society

RNCM Theatre, 29 September 2014

An intriguing start to the MCCS season, in that the concert featured just the two pianos.

It is certainly not unknown for just two pianists to play together – Imogen Cooper and Paul Lewis have done several performances along these lines in recent years – but it is a fairly rare occurrence.  What makes it intriguing for the listener is the way the pianos are used to complement, engage in dialogue and seemingly respond to each other, rather than being played as one.  And the works chosen here, in particular I’d say the Sonata in D major by Mozart and Rachmaninov’s Suite No 2, showed this diversity in identity to devastating effect.

The concert had an added significance.  Kathryn Stott is bringing her distinguished reign as Artistic Director of the MCCS to a close, with Martin Roscoe duly taking over the reins.  This was a fine occasion to mark the handover.

There is much to look forward to in the coming season, including Balkan folk music in February 2015.  Full details of forthcoming MCCS concerts can be found here.

UpClose: ‘If…’ by Bill Ryder-Jones


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UpClose: ‘If…’ by Bill Ryder-Jones

Manchester Camerata

Manchester Cathedral, 9 October 2014

Among the magnificent surroundings of Manchester Cathedral, Bill Ryder-Jones performed songs from his debut album, originally released in 2011.

Throughout, the former guitarist with The Coral was aided by a fleet of musicians, some from Manchester Camerata.

The album is a riff on Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, which is Ryder-Jones’ favourite novel.  Rather than, say, the best novel ever written about a rock band: From Blue to Black by the brilliant Joel Lane.  Ryder-Jones didn’t go on to say what his favourite passage in Calvino’s novel was, though personally I’d plumb for the portion entitled Without fear of wind or vertigo.  We heard John Simm read several passages from the novel, but nothing I think from this one.

Anyway, the music here was as variegated and inventive as the source text.  And full of subtle melody.  The best moments were when Ryder-Jones’ electric guitar clashed with/played beside the Camerata’s classical instruments.  It made you yearn for some kind of rock/baroque fusion.

Splendidly fabulist fare.

You can listen to a version of If… here.

Or view forthcoming concerts from the Manchester Camerata here.

Mugyenko Taiko Drummers


Mugyenko Taiko Drummers

RNCM Theatre, 7 October 2014

Mugyenko Taiko Drummers

Now you might think that a concert featuring mainly taiko drumming (there are a few flutes and bells besides) would be a bit one-dimensional, even boring after a while.

You’d be dead wrong.  There are performances of about fourteen or fifteen works, some traditional, some original.  The rhythm (several rhythms simultaneously, often), reverberation and vibration that these taiko drummers are able to create is captivating.  Their speed, power and dexterity are incredible.  All told, it is an immensely exciting and exhilarating show.

Naturally, you seek analogies for the sounds you hear: the continuous clash of sword upon shield, an arc of rolling thunder, a clanging collision between two tanks, the tremor of an earthquake.  One piece would serve as an ideal replacement for the roar of all those F1 engines, should that enterprise finally decide to go the quieter, more environmentally friendly route after all.  But best to hear these drummers for yourself.

Mugyenko Taiko Drummers are touring the UK at the moment, full details here.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari


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The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Directed by Robert Weine

Germany, 1920

Cornerhouse, 10 October 2014

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

The angular sets are what strike you immediately, in particular the mountain view of the town, a jumble of houses looking like one of those landscapes by Schiele.

It’s an ingenious device, creating a distorted world which hints at the disturbed mental state of the (is this a plot spoiler, after almost a century?) unreliable narrator.  A world at once disorientating and threatening.

There are other noteworthy aspects.  As for example, the scene where Cagliari first falls on the sleepwalker who has been bought to him, his embrace openly affectionate and sexual.  Also, the close-up of the monster’s face: curiously, grossly androgynous.  He has a ghostly pallor, a dark heavily lipsticked mouth.  And the incisive use of suggestion, a mode of storytelling that is visual yet oblique: violence as shadows wrestling upon a wall, and so on.

In other respects, the film has dated.  Performances seem mannered, situations clichéd.  Of course, one can recognise that this is sometimes because other, later filmmakers have borrowed and pillaged from it.  At the time it must have been terrifying.  Also, for a silent film, it is highly dependent on interpolated text to tell the story; it’s not a ‘pure’ example of the form.

So not exactly a classic, as Fritz Lang’s as Metropolis undoubtedly is (Lang takes his structure from music, I recall, whereas Wiene takes his from theatre – this film is in six acts.  Is this significant?) but still a film that should be seen at least once.  To see what later film-makers have built upon and, equally instructive perhaps, discarded.

Moscow Rachmaninov Trio


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Moscow Rachmaninov Trio

Carole Nash Recital Room, RNCM

12 October 2014

The first of three concerts by this distinguished trio, and it was all subdued brilliance.

One of those occasions where you hoped you had earned the right to be there, but weren’t quite so sure.

Three works, music by Glinka, Arensky and Tchaikovsky.  Tchaikovsky again, following speedily on the toes of Swan Lake.  Of these, Arensky’s Piano Trio No 2 in F minor required most attention, while Glinka’s Trio Pathétique in D minor, the shortest of the three, was easiest to enjoy.  As for Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio in A minor, it had everything: energy, passion, melody in abundance.  A restless dynamism, endlessly inventive.  You hoped – it seemed a fair expectation at the time – the music would never end.

The next concert, tonight, features Rachmaninov and on Thursday the trio are joined by Yair Kless for an evening of music by Shostakovich.  Further details can be found here and here.

English National Ballet’s Swan Lake


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Swan Lake

Music by Tchaikovsky

English National Ballet

Palace Theatre, Manchester

8 October 2014

English National Ballet's Swan Lake.  Photo by Annabel Moeller.

English National Ballet’s Swan Lake. Photo by Annabel Moeller.

This is a thrilling production of the classic ballet.

All the essential elements are present: beautiful performances of choreography by Petipa, Ivanov and Ashton; a vibrant rendition of Tchaikovsky’s rich and complex score by the Orchestra of English National Ballet; an elegant and erotic swan/princess in Alina Cojocaru and with Alejandro Virelles taking full command of the role of the gallant Prince Siegfried.  Both principals, incidentally, making their debut in these roles – it didn’t show at all.

What the production had as well, though, was a prominent place for Rothbart, the raven/sorcerer (James Streeter).  You were made much more aware here of his power, of the circumstance that the princess was in thrall to him.  Many times she was drawn by the flap of his wings as towards a vortex.

As well as the central drama – with the odds stacked against Siegfried and Odette, how can their love prevail? – the ballet offers myriad occasions for exhilarating dance: one of its great strengths, exploited to the full by the troupe.

It is, in truth, a wonderful production and is touring the UK until January 2015.  Further details can be found here.



Cigdem Aslan


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Cigdem Aslan

RNCM Studio Theatre, 5 October 2014

Cigdem Aslan

Cigdem Aslan

This was the penultimate date of a short tour by a captivating singer who has been described as ‘the new voice of the Aegean Blues’.

While such epithets are generally difficult to live up to, Cigdem Aslan and her band, if anything, surpassed expectations.  The concert was plastered top to end with melancholy songs and soulful melodies; the violin soared and the drums and kanun elaborately meandered beside it.  A bass kept pace.

Cigdem Aslan sings rebetiko, a sort of music that arose in Greece and Turkey in the 1920s, and to my naive ears it sounded very much like klezmer: a mix of Arabic and East European influences.  Or maybe Arabic music came to Eastern Europe via the Ottoman Empire and was transformed and returned.  Anyway, the myriad Kurdish, Turkish and Greek songs hit home, winged their way heartwards.

Çiğdem Aslan is a singer and rebetiko a kind of music that’s well worth exploring further.  And I note from her website (here) that she also plays in a klezmer band.


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