Halle Orchestra: Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony

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Halle Orchestra: Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony

The Bridgewater Hall, 14 April 2019

Halle Orchestra: Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony. Image credits: Jeremy Ayres Fischer; Heejae Kim Facebook page

Beethoven, Mozart, Sibelius and Halle himself: a concert that had everything.

Jonathon Heyward conducted the Halle this time out, and they played:

  • Beethoven: Overture: Leonora No.3
  • Mozart: Piano Concerto No.17 in G
  • Hallé (arranged for orchestra by C. M. Wagner): Souvenir and Scherzo
  • Sibelius: Symphony No.5

Beethoven’s ‘Overture: Leonora No.3’ was an epic symphonic poem, a form that the great composer discovered while struggling to write Leonore, an opera (in fact never completed) that was the prototype for Fidelio. To answer the obvious question, Yes there was a version one and two. This third was the final revision before Beethoven abandoned Leonore for good. Or realised that the overture was OK, complete in itself, and did not need to be developed into a full blown opera. He was not wrong. It is dramatic and stirring and altogether splendid.

Heejae Kim played piano for the ‘Piano Concerto No.17 in G’, a masterpiece (yes, another one) by Mozart. It was apparently first played at a private gathering in Dobling, near Vienna. The Concerto has a delicate, filigree construction – though that hardly does justice to it as a description. Prodigious variegated content.

After the interval, having enjoyed a tub of double ginger ice cream, we heard Halle’s ‘Souvenir and Scherzo’ in an arrangement for orchestra by Christoph Maria Wagner, a contemporary composer and conductor, still living (born in 1966). It was no mean work: soaring and energetic and exhilarating.

Sibelius’s ‘Symphony No.5’ brought the concerto to a stirring close. The Allegro motto finale was glorious and spectacular, as ever. Famously, Sibelius was inspired to write this Swan Hymn, as it has been called, by seeing (and hearing) loads of swans (what is the plural noun for swans? It is bank: ‘a bank of swans’): their presence, their call. Their flight away and seeming disappearance. It is like Keats with the nightingale, all over again.

Details of future Halle concerts can be found here.

 

West Side Story @ the Royal Exchange Theatre

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West Side Story

Book by Arthur Laurents, Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Music by Leonard Bernstein

Royal Exchange Theatre, 11 April 2019

Jocasta Almgill (Anita) in West Side Story. Photo by Richard Davenport of The Other Richard

This is a wonderful production of the classic musical.

For this outing, there was a larger diameter to the Royal Exchange stage than usual. I reckon that at least one tier of inner seats had been removed to create the New York street scenes with fire escape and all. And to create sorely needed space for dancing.

Needed because Aletta Collins’s original choreography, here energetically performed by a young and talented cast, was the outstanding facet of the show. In particular, the richly dramatic ‘dance moves’ accompanying the song ‘Play It Cool’ were perfect.

Bernstein’s score, which augurs in a new America and can be considered a counterpoint to Gershwin’s Manhattan, makes the show (and the characters in it) tick; it is at the root of everything. The music is vital, twitchy, jangly, full of nervous energy. To do justice to it, the dance has got to be top-notch. As a song, ‘Play It Cool’ is super-ironic because these kids (for all their swagger and pose and apparent confidence) are anything but. They are uptight, prone to impulse, on the edge, trigger-happy. They have nothing and are fighting over a patch of neighbourhood in an alien land. Aletta Collins’s choreography for ‘Play It Cool’ showed you all of this: it was a group portrait of young, immigrant America: unstable, volatile and yet, for all that, full of promise. Certain songs in the latter part of the show express a yearning for peace and solace, but it is not forthcoming.

This time out I was struck by a remark made by Doc (he is the wise, old head that people in the community look up to) along the lines that they, the kids, were behaving as though they were always at war. And I wondered whether this might have derived ultimately from what Bernstein saw and sensed when he worked in Israel (or Palestine, as it once was) in the ’40s and ’50s. Perhaps some of the insecurity and dread in the music derives from that experience?

There is an unsought topicality in seeing West Side Story now, what with the prevalence of  knife crime. It is unsought, but it is there. An ineluctable procession of tragedy.

My review of an exhibition devoted to Leonard Bernstein at the Jewish Museum in Vienna is here.

West Side Story is showing at the Royal Exchange until 25 May, further details can be found here.

Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story @ HOME

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Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story

Directed by Steve Sullivan

UK, 2018

HOME, 3 April 2019

Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story

I is another, and all that gubbins.

Although largely unknown, Chris Sievey had a good life. He achieved some recognition early on with his band The Freshies (they are usually called a punk band, but their sound is closer to pop – an outfit like The Boo Radleys, say). Their song ‘I’m in Love with the Girl on a Certain Manchester Megastore Check-out Desk’ almost, very nearly, but for myriad mishaps of fate would likely have been a big hit. But it wasn’t to be. When that song didn’t make it, interest in the band gradually petered way, and Chris Sievey, in time, created an alter-ego: Frank Sidebottom.

Frank caught on. Songs, a TV show, bathos, all that gubbins. With the birth of Frank, mind, Chris Sievey’s career effectively ended. He receded into the shadows. There is some protracted, inconclusive discussion here about the relationship between Chris and Frank. Did Chris have complete control of Frank, as (say) a novelist (allegedly, anyway) has control of his protagonist (say: P.G. Wodehouse with Bertie Wooster) or was it more complicated than that? Some interviewees here claim that Frank could be an autonomous or semi-autonomous personality – though maybe Chris just acted in character. Maybe Frank was Chris’s heteronym as Pessoa’s co-writers were? Probably, it was a bit of all these – it oscillated – but mostly the first. Certainly, you get the sense that Chris could completely immerse himself in Frank’s world – and loved to do this. Though no doubt he also at times saw Frank as a sort a straitjacket, a mask that ate into the face. Naturally enough: as an artist you want to innovate.

What is impressive is how fully realised Frank was. There was a comic strip in Oink!, Chris began a football team (big-shorts) managed by Frank, and at one point there was an art show about Frank and his world. Not really surprising, this last one: there is an obvious kinship between Frank Sidebottom and the performance artist Leigh Bowery.

Early on, in one of his notebooks, Chris Sievey expressed an ambition to be in show biz, to write and perform songs, and that is pretty much what he did all his life. He had some personal problems, moments of unhappiness, money troubles. But he did what he wanted, he entertained people, he touched others’ lives. And he paid his dues.

This is a very full, a comprehensive documentary, though it still leaves you with a mystery. Who was Chris Sievey?

Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story is showing at HOME now. Details here.

3 Faces

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3 Faces

Directed by Jafar Panahi

Iran, 2018

HOME, 17 April 2019

3 Faces

An actress, Behnaz Jafari (she plays herself), receives a video where a village girl apparently kills herself.

Distraught, she journeys to the girl’s village to try to find out if she is alive or not. Perhaps the suicide was merely staged?

Anyway, we see Behnaz Jafari and Jafar Panahi (here the director) taking in Iranian village life, observing its mores, prejudices and superstitions. And enjoying its hospitality.

We learn that women have few opportunities in villages such as this, and for sure ‘actress’ is not a viable career option. There is one woman who was a singer and a dancer ‘before the Revolution’; now old, she goes out each day to paint in the open air. She is still ostracised. Male violence is a simmering presence.

A valuable document.

The Sisters Brothers

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The Sisters Brothers

Directed by Jacques Audiard

USA, 2018

HOME, 17 April 2019

The Sisters Brothers

This was a very satisfying western, an adaptation of Patrick deWitt’s fine novel, which I reviewed back in the day.

There are great performances by John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix, who play the brothers with a deserved reputation for violence. They are basically hit-men, hired killers. Jake Gyllenhaal is a kind of Pinkerton detective, whose job is to entrap and detain Riz Ahmed, a chemist with a formula to reveal gold in them thar rivers.

The chemist’s formula does the job but it kills the fishes, among others. We see environmental degradation. It is an ecological Original Sin in a new Eden. Human beings cannot help but bring their filth with them, wherever they go.

I like the scenes where John C. Reilly tastes the pleasure of brushing your teeth with mint toothpowder. I pleased they kept that from the novel.

A good film and my review of the novel is here.

Halle Orchestra: Sibelius’s Violin Concerto

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Halle Orchestra: Sibelius’s Violin Concerto

The Bridgewater Hall, 4 April 2019

Halle Orchestra: Sibelius’s Violin Concerto. Image credit: Heikefischer Fotografie De

This was another excellent concert from the Halle.

The orchestra, conducted this evening by Sir Mark Elder, took to the stage and played the following works:

  • Berlioz: Overture: Les Francs Juges
  • Sibelius: Violin Concerto
  • Debussy: Nocturnes
  • Ravel: La Valse

Ravel’s La Valse, the closing performance, was splendid. Sometimes slow and stately and serene, it acquired as well a rollicking commotion when the tempo accelerated to a quicksilver pace. Though recognisably a waltz, there were too myriad moments of tension and suspense (and I was reminded that a waltz features in Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt.).

There were three movements to Debussy’s Nocturnes. Nuages had a soaring quality – it seemed as though you were being borne aloft and away. Fetes made you think of a bright adventure, an eventful journey. Flashes of light, a holy procession. Whereas Sirenes had a silver quality: a gleaming sea, pale moonlight, lustrous sirens.

I was interested to learn that Nocturnes was inspired by a series of Impressionist paintings but not, as you might imagine, by a Frenchman – Monet or Manet, say – but by an American: Whistler. Is it possible to attribute each movement to a particular painting? I don’t know, but Nocturne in Black and Gold, the Falling Rocket is certainly in the Fetes camp.

The magnificent virtuoso Viktoria Mullova accompanied the Halle for Sibelius’s Violin Concerto and, as for Berlioz:’s Overture: Les Francs Juges, well we are hearing a lot of Berlioz this year, and learning a lot about him. And learning that there is much in his music to enjoy.

Details of future Halle concerts can be found here.

Us

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Us

Directed by Jordan Peele

USA, 2019

HOME, 3 April 2019

Us

There are some fine moments of visceral horror here.

You have dread and terror, capture and pursuit. A weird metaphysic (vaguely Jungian) to do with Shadow People. All in all, it is a white-knuckle ride.

Having said that, the story (on reflection) is a bit silly. People coming from subterranean tunnels to hold hands and rule over America – after carrying out a killing spree, naturally enough. It is curious how a young girl’s abduction and experience of trauma – a tragic individual event, no doubt – snowballs into something that threatens American civilisation as we know it.

Let us acknowledge the nice pun: Us = US.

Out of Blue

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Out of Blue

Directed by Carol Morley

USA, 2018

HOME, 3 April 2019

Out of Blue

This very decent noir thriller is based on a Martin Amis novel, Night Train.

But don’t let that put you off.

A young woman, a renowned astrophysicist, has died. Her death may be murder or it may be suicide. And it may turn out to be the work of a notorious serial killer.

Patricia Clarkson plays a damaged cop trying to hold it together for one more case. She is an alcoholic, a promiscuous lesbian. There is some classy support from a fine cast. The great James Caan is the victim’s father and a celebrated war hero, while Toby Jones is her colleague and a sometime suspect. Amidst the gaudy, gory detail, forensic and excoriating, there are plentiful allusions to quantum physics and cosmology. (A bit simple, not to say embarrassing, this: Amis doesn’t have any deep understanding of the science. Better to just read Carlo Rovelli.)

The film drags a bit, but not too much, because of these inane explainers. But in the end it delivers.

 

The Pilgrim’s Progress

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The Pilgrim’s Progress

Music by Ralph Vaughan Williams

RNCM Theatre, 31 March 2019

The Pilgrim’s Progress

This was for the most part a gripping production of Vaughan Williams’ great ‘morality’, as he once termed it.

Set during the First World War, we see Pilgrim as a deserter who leaves his fellow soldiers behind in order to search for a better way of life. After that, we pretty much follow Bunyan’s classic: Pilgrim encounters many people, the comfortable and the unfortunate and the damned, but none quite possess his urgency and his resolve to attain Christian virtue.

My only qualm with the production was the ending, where we saw Pilgrim on the couch and a Freud figure listening sympathetically to his story. Somehow, it undercut Pilgrim’s Faith, which was until then (in my mind anyway: I bought it whole) inviolable. And I mean, is psychoanalysis (a pseudo-science at best) to be placed above Christianity? Really?

Details of future performances of The Pilgrim’s Progress can be found here.

Border

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Border

Directed by Ali Abbasi

Denmark, 2018

HOME, 27 March 2019

Border

A Transhumanist Manifesto.

A gripping film, this one, and a mish-mash of genres. It is a crime drama, in part: there is an investigation into a paedophile ring. There is a fantasy, even folkloric element which it would be remiss to reveal in a review. But, anyway, this put me in mind of the theory that early humans killed off the Neanderthals, an act that was the first genocide. In addition, the film has an element of self discovery: the main character, a customs official, discovers who she is and acquires a sense of belonging.

It was one of those rare films where you are attentive throughout: an absorbing, rewarding experience.