Sunday, 30 August 2009

Ears This Weekend (2009-08-29 & 30)

Apologies for anyone on the edge of their seat waiting for the Ears yesterday. They did not appear for two reasons: firstly, due to a long stint at the venue, followed by a trip to the pub thereafter, I listened to very little; secondly, by the time I was back, it was too late. Today, I've done very little, as I seem to have collapsed as a result of having been doing two jobs for the last few weeks, not to mention all the writing for this site.

Yesterday began with a little more of that Radio 4 gem, Cabin Pressure. Then another listen to Mariss Jansons and the Bavarians playing Britten's A Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra:


With the exception of another listen to Runnicles, Wosner and the BBC Scottish playing Mozart's K466 concerto at the Proms last week while I counted the money up for the last time, that was it for Friday. Well, except that David (the venue technician) and I managed to get ourselves looked into the building and so when we came downstairs and set the alarm off, the Ears had rather a shock.

Today was a fairly minimal day for the Ears as well, as much of it was spent vegetating in front of the TV. However, one earworthy piece of viewing was the film version of Ronald Harwood's play Taking Sides, which I saw recently. The film version, in an attempt to be more film like, ended up being massively inferior and less compelling and dramatic.

I should have headed out to hear the Festspiel Orchester Gottingen do Acis and Galatea, but I didn't quite feel up to it so my ticket went to waste. Instead it was a second visit to the CD player for Jansons' Bavarian Tchaikovsky sixth.


Finally, I gave the first disc of my new Furtwangler box set a spin. It is from his first concert with the Berlin Philharmonic following his clearance by the denazification committee and features Beethoven's sixth and fifth symphonies:


Between works I have a bath, for which another gem of Radio 4's comedy department accompanied me, the second series of Dickensian spoof Bleak Expectations:


Then it was back to the Furtwangler for Beethoven five, then off to bed.

Tomorrow Runnicles is in town for his first conducting engagement here in three years. Wild horses won't keep me from that.

Saturday, 29 August 2009

Ears Today - 2009-08-28

The Ears have haven't had too much on their plate today, but that's what comes of a 9-6 shift in the venue (rewarding though it is, I'm rather glad there's only one day left).

They took a rest from the Economist this morning, opting instead for the recently purchased first series of the Radio Four comedy Cabin Pressure.

The Ears then heartily enjoyed Deneve's performance of Romeo and Juliet (see review here).

Rather than coming straight home to type it up (and thus have the opportunity for more listening), I instead made my way to Sandy Bells, a pub on Forrest Road, famous for it's folk music, the choice dictated by it being our chosen gathering point for venue volunteers. There may well have been some music in the background, but such was the throng and general hubbub (which gives the pub its 'charm') the Ears didn't pick up on any.

Then it was home to write up the review, and what better company than Romeo and Juliet, this time in a live recording from Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra.


I didn't finish it, it was well past time for bed by this point.

Deneve and the RSNO raise the bar with Romeo and Juliet

I don't always get on with Stephane Deneve (I have found his Mahler dull and he is rather too fond of talking from the podium). But when we're on the same wavelength I find him thrilling. That tends to happen when he's conducting music by French composers, never more so than in the dramatic celebration of Poulenc he conducted two years ago.

Last season, he turned his attention to Berlioz with a wonderful performance of The Damnation of Faust (which I never got round to reviewing). So his Festival appearance with Romeo and Juliet always promised to be something memorable. Neither Deneve nor the Royal Scottish National Orchestra disappointed.


From the opening bars his interpretation overflowed drama, something so absent with Zinman last night. It's a tricky score, especially in the faster moments. Deneve drove the orchestra hard at times, and yet they never cracked under the pressure. The quality of the quiet playing was superb, utterly superior to the Tonhalle last night. Playing all round was very fine, so much so that it is difficult, and would be unfair, to single out any one section. That said, the call and response between the flute and violins that closed the funeral march was absolutely chilling.

The same flair for theatre that had the singers bowing their heads with the sound of the guillotine in the Poulenc had tenor Loic Felix leaping down between the desks of the orchestra before dashing from the stage at the end of his Queen Mab aria.

Deneve exhibited a Runnicles like (and praise here comes no higher than that) skill for placement, putting the chorus for the night scene in the foyer of the grand circle. Perhaps Deneve's been reading this site, and all the times I've raved about Runnicles putting the horn there in Mahler three. This gave a tantalising offstage effect, the more so where I was at the back of the gods as it came from beneath.

The Festival Chorus were on choir duty, with just a handful visible in the first half. We had their full force in the second. True, they may lack the finesse and the out and out quality of the SCO's singers, and their male members appear to be one of the most endangered species on the planet, but none the less, they are a force to be reckoned with and sang well, adding much to the drama of the closing movement.

It was not perfect. I was so far round that I couldn't see almost half the stage, including the spot where mezzo Patricia Bardon stood, and sang nicely from. Bass Franz Hawlata didn't quite have the power I would have ideally liked. It would also have been nice if those around me weren't quite so chatty.

Still, set against the thrilling sonic spectacle being provided, such as the four timpanists, the power of the climaxes or the emotion of other moments, such concerns were largely rendered moot. Indeed, this is comfortably the highlight of my International Festival so far and will take some beating.

Deneve acquitted himself as marvellously as we have come to expect on home territory, making me think what a fine opening concert the Berlioz Grande Messe des Morts would make in his hands.

Friday, 28 August 2009

Ears Today - 2009-08-27

Today began for the Ears like many others: with the audio edition of the Economist (and, what is now two weeks ago's issue). This accompanied me out of bed, to work, where despite being technically on holiday I had to go in for an interview for a promotion (seemed to go okay), and then on the bus to the Royal Mail depot to collect some goodies that the postman was unable to deliver (the goodies in question including some Jansons/Bavarian discs).

On returning home, I paid a visit to the iPlayer and had a listen to Prom 49: chamber sized forces from Barenboim's West-Eastern Divan Orchestra playing first Mendelssohn's Octet and then Berg's Chamber Concerto. What with the festival it's a mad dash to catch some proms before they vanish - a week isn't long enough.

This was followed by the first of my Bavarian Jansons treats:


Tchaikovsky's sixth symphony. Now, Jansons' studio cycle in Oslo has had rave reviews but has never grabbed me, odd given I think he had fantastic chemistry with the orchestra. This, however, is another matter altogether, a searing and white hot reading. It comes coupled with Schoenberg's Verklarte Nacht.


So good in fact, that another disc from the family had to follow straight away, featuring Sibelius's first symphony and a fine performance that every bit lives up to the version I heard them give two years ago.

Then it was off to the Usher Hall for a disappointing concert of Brahms' Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Berio's Folk Songs and Mahler's fourth symphony (see review here). On the way, I had the recently purchased, via iTunes, first series of Radio Four comedy Cabin Pressure to keep me company.


Once home, a little more of the same while I had a late supper. Then I needed to hear the Brahms Haydn Variations done properly. What better excuse to rip the cellophane wrapper from my new box set of Furtwangler recordings.


After that it was back to the Jansons Sibelius disc for the other two works: Britten's The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra and Webern's Im Sommerwind.

I wanted to listen to that Tchaik six again, but really it was time for bed.

Blandness from Zinman and the Zurich Tonehalle - Brahms, Berio and Mahler

One criticism of this year's International Festival programme might be the relative lack of big name European orchestras. One of the few is the Tonhalle-Orchester Zurich under baton of their chief conductor, David Zinman, who has held the post for around a decade and a half. As such, you might expect a pretty special combination.

Then again, I've not been overly impressed by what little I've heard from them before: a few bits of the Beethoven cycle and some Mahler. His Mahler is very much in vogue at the moment and they have been racing though a recorded cycle. However, I've found it rather unremarkable in the exerts I have on the radio.

Still, there's been litter Mahler at the festival since Mills took over so I thought I'd take a chance and hoped to have my mind changed. Sadly it was not.

Zinman began with Brahms' Variations on a theme by Haydn. They started as they meant to go on: with a dull and bland reading. Where was the yearning and the drama that marks so much great Brahms? Alternatively, the lightness and wit that might be found in interpretations like Mackerras's? There was a lack of excitement, except in the quickest moments, when the band couldn't entirely keep together. Indeed, as an orchestra they didn't much impress; quiet playing, always a good mark of quality, was thin and harsh.

Brahms was followed by a set of folk songs by Luciano Berio. They were joined on stage for these by soprano Dawn Upshaw. Her voice seemed slightly odd, but I couldn't pin it down. Perhaps it was the various accents she was attempting. Zinman didn't seem a particularly sensitive accompanist. Whether it was the performance or to the composition, it didn't really grab me.

After the interval came the Mahler. This too, was mostly bland. I say mostly because occasionally there was something close to drama, though mainly this was due to Zinman mistakenly equating volume with drama. The poor quiet playing was more of an issue here than in the Brahms: Zinman too often called for a volume below what was sensible for the players. That said, there were some good solos from the principal oboist (Simon Fuchs). Sadly the leader (Julia Becker) was less fine with her other violin in the second movement. The third movement, which should be hauntingly beautiful was just dull. Upshaw returned for the finale but her singing was disappointing. It seems her voice is past its peak, a little too thin and hollow, this was especially true of the lines at the end of each verse. The tantalising beauty of the vision of heaven was absent.

All in all, it was rather disappointing. For the most part, it felt as though Zinman had gone out of his way to lobotomise the pieces of interest. Fortunately, better should be in store tomorrow. Deneve, on home territory, conducts Berlioz's Romeo and Juliet.

Finally, I notice programmes at the international are now £3.50. Did they go up to this last year? Either way, for what we get it seems awfully pricey. The SCO give theirs out for £2 and at the LSO you get them for free. We produce a programme at the venue on similar quality paper and for the number of pages required for notes it can't be more than £1 a copy, then bear in mind the adverts (which must more than pay for their extra pages otherwise there'd be no point). Suffice to say it must be a nice money spinner for them. The Royal Opera charge a fair bit more, but you do get very good notes, articles and illustrations. I wonder if the future isn't in notes downloaded to my iPhone.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Ears Today - 2009-08-26

After yesterday's marathon of novelty, the Ears have had a less eventful day today.

To accompany them to the venue they had, once again, last week's Economist (which is now scarily close to becoming two weeks ago's).

There was no listening at the venue, not least because we didn't stump up for the licence for any form of background music outside of the theatre (interestingly, some kid dashed in to check we were displaying the PRS poster that was part of the deal - I'll charitably assume he was making some game of it and that PRS hasn't stooped to child labour).

After my shift I popped into the our theatre to see Cygnet Training Theatre's The Tempest. They delivered a lesson in giving Shakespearean dialogue and provided an interesting modern interpretation which wasn't too in your face. My main complaint, though, as is too often the case (and why I mention it here), was the noise of the storm meant the opening passages were lost to the Ears. Since they're high amongst my favourite lines of Shakespeare that's a shame (and pointless, since they convey the elements better than any sound effect).


Later in the evening it was off to the Usher Hall for Walker and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (see review here) for a programme of Hadyn's 70th symphony, Battistelli's Fair is foul, foul is fair and Haydn's Last Seven Words of our Saviour from the Cross.

Then home, and time for some iPlayer. Of course, it had to be Donald Runnicles' prom with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra from earlier in the evening (listen here) featuring Adams' Slonimsky's Earbox, which they played back in February, Mozart's K466 piano concerto with Shai Wosner and Strauss's Symphonia Domestica.

Then it was time for bed (actually, since I have a job interview in the morning, it was probably past time for bed!).

Where's Mackerras: Haydn's The Seven Last Words of our Saviour on the Cross - Walker and the SCO

Back when initial booking for the 2009 Festival opened in the spring, I only booked one ticket prior to the end of my Fringe duties (which finish this coming Saturday) and it was for tonight's concert. The reason: Sir Charles Mackerras and, if I needed a second, that he was conducting the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, with whom he has a very special and well documented (not least here) relationship.

It was, therefore, something of a blow last week when the e-mail came round announcing that he would not be able to conduct the concert and that Gary Walker, who had always been slated to do the first half, would stand in his stead. I've only encountered Walker on the podium once before but he impressed me greatly. He conducted a performance of Mahler's first symphony by a scratch orchestra of amateurs, given this and the time they had had, the results were most impressive.

How, then, would he fare with the SCO?


Very well, as it turns out. The programme began with Haydn's 70th symphony, not one I know. It was well played throughout and had a nice bounce to it. Walker, in his reading, came close to Jochum, who is possibly my favourite interpreter of the symphonies, in making the minuet the focal point. That said, the finale had a slightly 'Is that all?' quality to it and the symphony is not, I think, the composer's finest achievement in the genre.

What came next was much more interesting and much more compelling (unless you were one of the Edinburgh audience who instinctively turn their noses up at anything recently composed). This piece could hardly have been newer: a world premiere and EIF commission. As I've noted before, I like Mills' embrace of new music. It was composed by Giorgio Battistelli and entitled Fair is foul, foul is fair. The title, a quote from Macbeth, seemed absolutely fitting. From the opening moments the wind machine, which I could not locate on the stage, and which almost seemed to be coming from beneath the overhang at the back of the stalls, lent the atmosphere of a bleak moor. The whole piece seethed with turbulent drama, so much so that you could feel the hurly-burly and the bubbling of the caldron. The orchestra (with augmented percussion and even keyboards) played superbly under Walker's direction. Almost as soon as it was done, I wanted to go back and listen again.

Lasting a little over an hour, The Last Seven Words is no small piece (and slightly misleadingly named since there are a few more than seven - it is actually the last seven sayings, with a fair bit of exposition to each). Furthermore, Walker had not only to step in at the last minute, but step into the shoes of a great Haydn interpreter. He acquitted himself superbly. The orchestra played crisply throughout, with the strings, and violins particularly, especially fine, including some lovely pizzicato work in the fifth saying. It was nice, too, to hear former principal bassoon Ursula Leveaux back with the orchestra again. The horn section (as with the trumpets playing on natural instruments) was nicely fluff-free.

However, more than the orchestra, the wonderful SCO Chorus were the stars (I should note that I know at least three of the basses - my cousin Roger Robertson, David Ireland and Donald MacLeod, occasional conductor and violinist for the Stockbridge and New Town Community Orchestra). Clear, weighty when needed, but also sublime in the quieter moments that finished many of the sayings. Credit, as ever, due to chorus master Nick Jones.

Then there were the soloists. The two women have both worked with Mackerras before. Soprano Rebecca Evans is the veteran of numerous opera recordings including his stunning English Magic Flute and several of his WNO Gilbert and Sullivan recordings. Christine Rice first came to my attention singing Annio in his 2005 performance of La Clemenza di Tito, also with the SCO, where she in some ways stole the show from Kozena with her understated performance. Both of them sang beautifully, effortlessly soaring over the orchestra. Unfortunately the two men, tenor Robert Murray and bass Henry Waddington, though both perfectly decent, were simply not in the same league.

All credit then to Walker for not only turning in an acceptable stand-in performance but an emotionally moving one that stands tall on its own merits. Indeed, one that calls for a new award, as we at Where's Runnicles sometimes are wont to give (as ever named after its inaugural recipient): The Gary Walker Award for Stepping into Gargantuan Shoes at the Last Minute and Turning in a Fantastic Performance. Actually, thinking about it, James Lowe should have had this award for his performance with the SCO back in December. Credit too to the orchestra, as these sorts of situations tend to bring out the best in people. We wish Mackerras a speedy recovery (I hope he can still do Turn of the Screw in November at ENO).

One interesting question occurred to me during the performance. Mackerras usually uses his own parts, and these are presumably sent up in advance, so I wonder if they'd already arrived in Scotland by the time he cancelled and, if so, whether they were being used?

Finally, at least there's one good side to the dreadful summer weather we're having: it seems to have prevented that awful jet the Tattoo has flying over the city every night from ruining thirty seconds of the concert.

Update - 2009-08-27

I'm reliably informed that it was the keyboard, or more accurately, the synthesiser, that provided the wind effect in the Battistelli.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

The Rose Street Quartet (or rather Quintet) play Rachmaninov, Shostakovich and Elgar

I first met the Rose Street Quartet on the eve of last year's Edinburgh Festival through the larger Rose Street Ensemble. They played a very interesting programme, which included Bartok's folk music inspired work (along with aged and crackling recordings the composer himself made) and a number of other fascinating items for string orchestra. I wound up there as my friend Caroline, who also plays with the Starlets, a band I've reviewed a few times under my shameless plugs tag, plays with them too.

Sadly things were so mad for me at the time of that concert, that I never got round to writing a review; I never got round to making any notes either, so even looking at the programme now I'm not really able to recapture what was a fascinating and enjoyable programme. Hopefully I'll be able to turn in a review of their forthcoming September concert, featuring works by Bartok, Rachmaninoff and Gal (of course, what I'd really like to hear them try is Tippett's Concerto for Double String Orchestra or Strauss's Metamorphosen).

I mention it al this because Caroline recently drew my attention to a Rose Street Quartet (in which she doesn't play) concert of 1st August. As with the ensemble, it took place in Canongate Kirk, which, particularly at this time of year, is a wonderfully light space.

The programme began with Rachmaninoff's Romance and Scherzo. This was nicely enough played but didn't really grab me as a piece.

They were then joined by pianist Andrew Johnston for the remainder of the programme. First came Shostakovich's Piano Quintet in G minor, op.57. This was well played and with barely any gap between movements. The fugue was particularly wonderful.

However, it was Elgar's Piano Quintet in A minor, op.84 that was the real star of the evening. Both beautifully played and wonderfully heartfelt, as only Elgar can be. The slow movement was especially fine. Throughout there was an excellent balance between the piano and the quartet.

There might have been the odd fluffed note but they are very fine for a semi-professional ensemble and, indeed, more compelling than plenty of professionals I've heard.

Ears Today - 2009-08-25 (Lots of new things)

I didn't set out with this specific objective, but today the Ears wound up hearing lots of stuff they'd never heard before. Which is great, I love hearing new things, so three in one day is outstanding.

The first was born of necessity:


The Prom of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain was due to expire on iPlayer this evening and will, by now, have done so. Pity, since it was insanely good and I would wholeheartedly recommend it.

Not only are they eight talented players, but they have a keen sense of humour too. Add to that that we got to hear what a thousand or so ukuleles playing the Ode to Joy sounded like and, well, what more could you possibly ask for.

This was followed by more from the Proms in the form of the first Prom by Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. I only had time for the first half before leaving the flat: Liszt's Les Preludes and Wagner's Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde. I heard the orchestra play the latter as an encore when they came to Edinburgh four years ago. It was quite a performance.


There wasn't quite time for the second half, but I did squeeze in part of Pictures at an Exhibition (orch. Ravel) by Rattle and the Berliners care of Spotify.


Then it was off to the venue accompanied once again by last week's Economist on my ipod. However, I was not there to work, rather to meet a colleague for some musical adventures.

First we headed down to the Grassmarket and to the Apex hotel (which becomes the Sweet Grassmarket venue) to hear Living Room, an ensemble based around the hang (think two woks stuck together). It was exception and one of the best musical experiences I've had in a while (review here).

Then it was off the Udderbelly to catch The Magnets, an exceptional band of a capella singers and beatboxers (review here).

Then the Ears had a bit of a rest, aside from the dialogue of Black Comedy, a rather fine farce being done by a school theatre group at my venue (with the nice device that most of the action occurs with the lights 'off', but from the perspective of the audience this is reversed).

Then it was home for some typing up of what I've heard today, and what better to accompany this than the Living Room in London CD (though first I finished off the rest of the Mussorgsky from earlier).

Just before bed, I squeezed in the second half of the Barenboim prom: Berlioz's Symphony Fantastique (and again find myself wondering when they might get round to broadcasting that stunning Runnicles performance from earlier this year).

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

The Magnets - Six guys, six mics and one heck of a lot of talent

Fresh from one thing I've never heard before, I headed to another this afternoon. Before I go further, I should note this review requires a shameless plugs tag: my ticket had been bought for my by Venue 40 colleague John Welton whose son Michael, together with Nic Doodson, James Fortune, Steve Trowell, Andy Frost, Derek Elroy and Fraser Collins, is one of The Magnets.

Over the last few years I've wandered past the vast purple upended cow that takes over Bristo Square in August and wondered what strange things go on there (okay, I have a fair idea, but I've just never actually managed to get to a show there before). It's a slightly odd venue, and actually feels bigger inside than you might expect.

Background music is pumping fairly loudly as you enter and the eagle-eyed might notice the singers, radio mics in hand, sneaking into empty seats. And then they start - a mix of a cappella and human beatboxing. Extraordinarily, and I use that word because the melodies they build up make this difficult to believe, there is not a single instrument used (except two blows of a harmonica for comic purposes when this is stated) and there is no backing track.

With this, then, they cover a range of classics, complete with impressive choreography (not least in the Michael Jackson cover). Indeed, it's no mean feat that they're able to keep it up for the hour, and able to fit in a costume change. Perhaps most impressive is Frost, whose beatboxing drum solo (complete with the perfectly timed mime) is little short of gobsmaking.

There is wit and humour too, including their portrayal of bagpipes, inaccurate primarily in that it isn't painful to listen to!

They wound things up with an A to Z medley, involving a little cheating (X was done via Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah and passed of as X-Factor). I was only able to identify the easy ones, such as the Beatles, Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody, Led Zeppelin and Guns and Roses (disconcertingly, the eight year old in the front row seemed to be streets ahead of all of us).

An unabashed recommendation then? Well, not quite. It was often too loud (and needlessly so), with the bass notes particularly distorting sometimes. It's a pity, as it marred an otherwise great performance by an exceptional group of artists.

Living Room in London

I had planned to use the early afternoon of my day off to see Cygnet Theatre's production of the The Tempest at my own venue (since I've heard excellent things about it and it's probably my favourite Shakespeare play). However, the offer to see a group based around the hang, augmented by string trio, including personnel from the LSO, was too good to pass up. The hang is not an instrument I've encountered before, but think two woks, shorn of their handles, with a few dimples and a hole in the bottom. It is then played by tapping.

It's sound is quite wonderful, much softer and less metallic than a steel drum. Indeed, they sound in some ways sounds more like a plucked instrument than a percussive one. More impressive was the sheer range of sound such a simple instrument is capable of. It was played to perfection by Manu Delago. His partner was Christoph Pepe Auer on the bass clarinet, which made for a wonderful contrast. Together they are Living Room (a name which seems designed to confound google). They played a few original compositions with a cover Nivana's Smells Like Teen Spirit thrown in.

Then they were joined on stage (well, I say stage - we were in Sweet Grassmarket, so the cramped converted room, with its odd thin shape, was less than idea; that said, from the front row I could practically touch the artists) by Tom Norris, (viola, who also plays second violin in the LSO), Ellie Fagg (violin, who also plays with the LSO sometimes) and Gregor Riddell (cello). All three of them displayed very impressive technique and the combined result was exceptional.

Whether it was Auer's own extended two part composition Lilla Kontrast or covers of such familiar items as Yesterday or So What, from Miles Davis's classic album Kind of Blue, it made for a magical hour. The freshness they brought to the covers was wonderful, no more so than in their rendition of Mozart's Turkish March (the rondo finale of the K331 piano sonata). I never thought Mitsuko Uchida could be outdone here, but now I have another favourite for vying for my attention. Suffice to say that I left with the CD. Indeed, the only complaint would be that after an hour we had to leave.

I always like to hear something new musically, and I've never heard anything quite like this. Whether you have or not, I cannot recommend the ensemble highly enough: it is one of my musical highlights of the year so far, and at £8 a ticket, one of the cheapest. (Note - I'm not sure the London element of the band, the strings, will be at the remaining concerts, though they should still be well worth it.)

If they're reading this and would like a better space next year, drop me a line (I'd love to have them).

I'm not sure I've done a good job of describing them, so why not watch them instead:

Ears Today - 2009-08-24 (The Berliner Philharmonic Digital Concert Hall)

The Ears a fairly busy Monday (I'm technically on holiday this week, and wasn't needed at the venue until 6pm). Things got off to a somewhat atypical start:


I've been meaning to listen to something by the Arctic Monkeys for ages but have repeatedly failed to get round to it. Annoyingly Spotify let me down (in that when you try to play the debut album Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not, you get a message that it isn't available at the request of the artists). Fortunately, it is on the rival service We7.

It's good. Very listenable, though after a while it does seem a little samey overall. I'm not sure they deserve the reputation they have managed to acquire. Certainly, I've heard a lot of much better rock music over the years.

After that it was time for something completely different:


Cabin Pressure is a rather fine Radio 4 comedy (and the last episode of the current series will be on the iPlayer until Friday). It charts the adventures of a somewhat shambolic charter airline with an inept captain, know-it-all first officer, mind-bogglingly stupid flight attendant and exasperated manager. Well worth a listen - it's baffling that this goes out in the daytime slot when so much junk gets put on in the 6.30 prime time period (the less said about Down the Line the better).

Then, to accompany me on a brief trip to the supermarket:


Once again the audio edition of the Economist (still a week or so behind).

I still had a couple of hours to kill before the venue so I thought I'd investigate the Berlin Philharmonic's Digital Concert Hall a little more closely. Now, in the past I've steered clear because the price (€9.90 per concert or nearly €150 for a season pass) seemed pretty steep. However, this tour did leave me wanting a little more. Still, I had a conundrum: if it wasn't worth it I didn't really want to spend €150 and if it was, I didn't want to spend €9.90 just to be sure and then have to spend €150 on top of that. What's needed is proper free trail of, say, one concert or even just one work. Fortunately, via Gramophone, there is one (the article gives a discount code that gives you access to one concert of your choice from the archive for free). However, the orchestra would be sensible to offer this as standard.

So, after a little browsing, I selected this concert, not least as the prospect of Christine Brewer singing Wagner is always appealing.

Picture quality is pretty good (though I'm not sure the link from my Macbook to my TV is quite good enough to really exploit it). Sound is good too, though at 320kbps not quite CD quality which is a shame. That said, it is massively better than what you get from a BBC Proms broadcast on the iPlayer. The interface is pretty user friendly.

What, then, of the music. Well, the programme kicked off with a new commission from Siegfried Matthus of a work for wind quintet and orchestra. This was rather fine (and interesting for the fact that Rattle himself took to the timpani to open it).

The Wagner that followed was the real treat, though. It's wonderful to hear the music played buy this superb ensemble. They worked their way through the standard Gotterdammerung chunks: the Rheinfahrt, the funeral music and immolation. However we also got Waltraute's scene with the added bonus of Karen Cargill. My only reservation was that the soprano was not, as advertised on the website, Brewer. Since I wasn't paying (and since Katarina Dalayman was a creditable replacement), I wasn't too miffed. If I'd paid €9.90 I'd be pretty cross so they ought to correct it.

So, is it worth it? For the individual concerts I'd say not (unless it's something really special). €9.90 either gets you the option to watch live or a 48 hour pass to watch an archived performance. So, the price of a CD, and then in two weeks time if you wanted to watch again, you have to pay again. You can compare to a real concert ticket, but in my view any such comparison is spurious since the two things aren't remotely comparable.

That said, in a funny way, €150 for the season pass is actually pretty fair value. You get the live concerts, you get full access to the archive (both of last year's season, and this year's as they're added) and it lasts until the 2010 season kicks off in a year's time. I think I may invest.

The ears had no company on their way to the venue. On returning home, I dipped into Furtwangler and the Berlin Philharmonic's 1949 Bruckner eight (I have two different pressings, but can't decide if they're the same performance).

I have some interesting things in store for the Ears tomorrow (but you'll just have to wait until then to find out what they are).

Monday, 24 August 2009

Festival 2006, Part IV - The Masterworks

I've only been to one thing at the International Festival this year (though I have plenty more planned). In the meantime, here's a further snatch from the archives of the 2006 Festival (which occurred prior to the foundation of this website).

As I've noted in previous such posts, the orchestral backbone of the 2006 orchestral programme was the cycles of Beethoven and Bruckner symphonies. The Beethoven happened at 5.30, the Bruckner at 9.30. Sandwiched in between was a Masterwork at 7.30. Unlike the symphonic cycle, I didn't attempt to attend all nine. Furthermore, I would suggest that the title of Masterwork was stretched somewhat in respect of some of these concerts.

As before, I originally wrote the quoted comments on the Naim Audio forum and I have sometimes added comments (italicised and in square brackets). I have made corrections to one or two typos, or added a full name here or there and these changes are not indicated.

On the first evening, Tuesday 15th August, bookended by Beethoven's erioca and Bruckner's first, came Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde from the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and Stefan Anton Reck:

After a rushed dinner, I was at a rather disappointing Das Lied von der Erde. It was from the RSNO under someone of whom I'd not previously heard called Reck [And, indeed, someone I've not come across since]. The whole thing was just rather cold (though everyone else seemed to have enjoyed it far more than I did) and the conductor didn't really acompany the singers very effectively. He went in for a lot of jumping about on the podium, but when he did it often seemed the orchestra didn't (contrast this with someone like Marin Alsop).

After a somewhat unimpressive start by Stuart Skelton (the tenor), I warmed to him. However, I found Jane Irwin's voice rather lacking in character and emotion (except during a few passages towards the end). Perhaps I have listened to accounts from the likes of Ferrier and Baker too many times and just expect too much.

Thursday 17th August saw Vaughan Williams' Serenade to Music and Dona nobis pacem and Saturday 19th Schubert's Trout quintet. I passed on both (normally I would attend the Schubert but the pianist was Llyr Williams whom I do not like - a few years back he gave a horribly mannered performance of the D960, pulling it out of all proportion). Week two kicked off on Tuesday 22nd August with Beethoven's sixth, after that and prior to Burckner's fourth came some Brahms:

Beethoven was followed by Richard Goode, the Budapest Festival Orchestra and Ivan Fischer playing Brahms' first piano concerto. I really should have learnt my lesson from hearing him play one of the Beethoven concerti a few years ago. For the first twenty minutes or so I couldn't decide whether there was something wrong with the piano or his playing. However, occasionally he did sparkle (and the piano sounded right) so it must have been him. Often the sound he got was horribly muddled, almost as though he were hitting too many keys or the instrument was slightly out of tune. I don't know if this was helped by the fact that the orchestra did not tune to the piano [I'd call this amateur, except that would be to insult amateurs. It's one of the reasons I did not attend any of this ensemble's return visit last summer.]. Anyway, were I questing for a word to describe his pianism, hamfisted would probably be at the top of the list. He also played a lot of wrong notes.

I was also none too impressed by the orchestra (which bodes ill for the next two nights). I have a sneaking suspicion the were underrehearsed as a number of important notes (from the horns especially) were fluffed.

Perhaps a schooling on the impossible standards of Gilels/Jochum and Fleisher/Szell doesn't help, but I think there is something in the tone of Goode's playing that I find really uncomfortable and I cannot understand the reviews he gets or the standing he seems to have.

Either way, I am not looking forward to hearing them in Bartok's 3rd this evening (fortunately there is other stuff in the programme).

Two nights later on Thursday 24th, amid Beethoven's fourth and Bruckner's fifth, the same forces, less Goode, returned for a work that struck me as stretching the Masterwork definition well beyond the point of dislocation:

This was followed by the Budapest Festival orchestra in Richard Strauss's Josephslegende. I don't think it's a good work, and certainly not Strauss's best. It suffers badly from a kitchen sink style of orchestration - was there really any need for that wind machine? Indeed, there is often so much going on that everything blurs horribly as a result (making the orchestra appear less good than they are). That said, my impression from the 3 concerts I have heard them give is that they are not an especially well balanced ensemble (the brass and also the basses being among the weak links). I also feel that they are to some degree on autopilot and don't seem to respond to the conductor's movements quickly or as sharply as others.

Saturday 26th August brought the first of two concerts from Thomas Zehetmair and the Northern Sinfonia, featuring the complete Bach Brandenburg concerti (the first, fourth and second, in this case). I passed on both. The next day, however, between Beethoven's eighth and Bruckner's seventh, came something very special indeed, a real Masterwork:

However the star of the evening was NOT Mackerras. The middle concert (and, of which more later, in a poor piece of programming) was Messiaen's Des Canyons aux Etoiles... (From the Canyons to the Stars). And how utterly extraordinary it was too. The Netherlands Youth Orchestra were conducted by Reinbert de Leeuw with Benjamin Kobler on the piano and William Pervis on the horn.

The work paints a portrait of various American national parks (and the wildlife, especially the birdlife within), particularly the canyons and the stars above. It also has a strong spiritual dimension (like much of his writing). It's really difficult to describe it without reciting the programme note in full (which I'm not about to do). However, it was a profound experience and one of the finest things I've heard this year (I may start a thread on it soon, in order to ask for help picking out a recording).

The playing was wonderful (and I was very glad I've recently been exploring his catalogue of bird music for solo piano). There is a slow movement for solo horn, meant to represent outer space (titled 'interstellar call'). The way he mixes the brilliance and beauty with the emptiness is staggering and, to my ears, puts Holst's attempts to show this into the shade.

There is some wonderfully clever orchestration (indeed, the strings are very sparse and percussion in some regards steals the show) - some of the wind effects were extraordinary. However, unlike the Strauss from the Budapest orchestra the other evening (where you felt it was very nearly scored for everything up to and including kitchen sink), here there was a clarity to the writing - he blended his instruments masterfully and it never felt like too much.

At an hour and a half it's long (and too much for some, who left), but most seemed to know what they were letting themselves in for and were as impressed as we were (not least by the wonderful playing of the young musicians). [It's worth noting that the upper circle was closed and the hall couldn't have been more than about 20% sold. But for some reason Messiaen never sells well here.]

However, it's the kind of work where at the end you almost feel you never want to hear another note of anything, and certainly not the Bruckner seven due to start in half an hour. In this regard, it was poor programming and not really suitable to fill the space between Beethoven and Bruckner - would that it had been given an evening to itself.

The remaining two concerts were the rest of the Brandenburgs (six, three and five) on Wednesday 30th August and Beethoven's Hammerklavier sonata. Neither of which I attended, the latter because the pianist was, once again, Williams.

As I've noted before, I love the idea of single work programmes. However, what this demonstrates is that three such programmes in one evening largely defeats the point. As importantly, not every work is up to carrying a whole programme by itself so care should be taken

Ears Today - 2009-08-23 (lots from Jansons)

The Ears have had a Jansons theme today. There's no particular reason for this, other than he was at the top of my mind after yesterday's Haydn.

Late last night I finally got around to cancelling my emusic subscription (the sound quality is pretty low and I rarely actually get round to using my downloads so it isn't very cost effective). However, I had 40 tracks left to use up and expended most of them adding various things from the RCO Live label.


First up today, though, was a second Bavarian disc care of Spotify: this time of Wagner chunks. And they really are rather fine - but then this combination is one of my absolute favourites in the world today (up there with Mackerras/SCO, Runnicles/BBCSSO).

The emusic downloads followed on the train to and from Glasgow for my TV interview.


This rather decent recording of Dvorak's ninth symphony started things off.


Dvorak was followed by Strauss's Heldenleben. Actually, I used to own this on CD but parted company after having acquired the Rattle recording which I found significantly more compelling. At the time I didn't feel it was a work I wanted own multiple times but it has since grown on me, particularly through Barbirolli's emotive recording. The Jansons is solid if not great.


Finally came Honegger's third symphony (a work completely new to me). I'll refrain from judgement but I want to explore it further, and somewhat regret that all I have to do with is a comparatively low quality download (the CD also contain's Poulenc's Gloriana but I've split them apart in my iTunes library so the Ears will have to wait for that).


Before bed, there was just time for a couple of hypnotic tracks from Louis Lortie's complete survey of Ravel's solo piano music. I've been meaning to listen to it ever since he blew me away in Aldeburgh (the set is quite something and I may have to review when I get a moment).

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Where's Runnicles on TV (probably for all of about fifteen seconds)

It never ceases to surprise me who stumbles across this blog (and indeed how many - for those who actually want to know, we normally get somewhere between 500 and 1,000 unique visitors a month, sometimes more, depending on how much I have time to go and see and review).

Over the last year, we've had a little more notice from press offices and the like; still, it was a surprise back in June to get an e-mail from someone at the BBC making a documentary about Donald Runnicles who'd stumbled across the site and wondering if she would be able to phone for a chat? I gave a brief interview over the phone and thought little more of it.

As perhaps is the way these days, the person who called me wasn't a specialist in classical music, so I had an interesting time trying to describe what it things can make for a compelling partnership between conductor and orchestra and what doesn't (though, as Charles Mackerras said in a talk he gave, it's something of a dark art as so many contradictory approaches work for different people and ensembles).

However, I was very surprised yesterday when I got an e-mail from John MacLaverty, the director of the film in question, wondering if I'd be able to come over to Glasgow today and be interviewed. Now, as regular readers will be aware, I'm a little busy just now with Venue 40 where I'm a venue manager (indeed, while I'm on holiday to do it next week, this last week it's been combined with my day job). On Sundays our new volunteers arrive for training so it's not ideal. On the other hand, it's not every day you get the chance to be interviewed on camera for a TV documentary.

So, I made found and made my way to City Halls (via, oddly, trains that are only once an hour between Edinburgh and Glasgow during festival time on Sundays - not sure what's going on with the planners at Scotrail) at around midday, entering via the stage door (an altogether snazzier and more prominent affair than some of the dingy ones I've seen or been through, so much so that there's a sign reminded public that the real doors are round the other side).

I met John, who unfortunately wasn't able to get me in to watch a little bit of the rehearsal he was there to film. However, after a brief wait, we made our way to the front of the halls, camera and fury boom mic thing in hand, for the interview. Needless to say, this was the cue for the city's clampers to start lifting cars.

He asked me the questions you might expect, starting with how we came to have our title (see here, I hope I gave sufficient impression that we do a lot more than just rave about Runnicles, and indeed he accounts for only around 10% of our posts) and why we're such fans of Runnicles. As I've said so many times before, it was that Mahler third symphony, with the posthorn so tantalisingly placed that kicked things off.

I talked about his general genius for the placement of instruments, especially those offstage, that I've mentioned so many times before and, of course, my mad dash down for the Gotterdammerung prom.

It seems though, that they'll probably only use a small fraction of it. The programme itself is to go out in October to accompany the BBC2 Scotland broadcast of Runnicles' first concert as chief conductor which will feature both Mahler's first symphony and Beethoven's first. I suspect that it may be something of a celebratory piece, and if they use my stuff, I have a fair idea which bits it will be. In particular, to do with whether the appointment was a real coup for the BBC (which I think it is) and why people should listen to the concert, as apparently people in Scotland aren't terribly interested in classical music.

That said, given they've been filming rehearsals and will also be travelling down to the Proms to film around their performance there on Wednesday, there is potential for lots of interesting footage and insight (and apparently an interview with Runnicles in the back of a taxi).

Still, it was a new and exciting experience and I've very glad to have had it. I don't suppose it will happen again any time soon. Not being entirely free of ego, I'll flag it up again when it's broadcast (those outside Scotland will probably have to fall back on the iPlayer).

Ears Today - 2009-08-22

The Ears have had a pretty light day today. First up was a disc of Jansons conducting the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. They are a combination that has made two few recordings, or rather, too few that are readily available in the UK (one must instead trawl the German Amazon). This is all the more baffling given that I think the partnership has a more compelling chemistry than Jansons' other with the Concertgebouw.

But, as usual, I digress. The disc in question was via Spotify and contained Haydn's 104th and 101st symphonies (I heard Jansons do the former at the Festival Hall a little while back).


This is unashamed big band Haydn (no bad thing in my view).

However, I didn't even have time to finish it before I had to dash off to the AGM of the Fringe Society. Then it was back and fourth to the venue (pausing only for a long coffee after a chance encounter).

I returned home to find the evening's Prom safely stored on my digibox. It was one I've been looking forward to: Baremboim and his extraordinary West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in a concert performance of Fidelio (those in the UK can watch it on the iPlayer).

Sadly it was a disappointment. The BBC2 sound engineers had done an impressively poor job (a horrifically closed sound). To make matters worse they had elected for an annoying and patronising narration which got completely in the way of the music. The performance didn't totally catch fire for me (but I'm not sure how much these other factors were to blame).

To add insult to injury, the box cut off filming four minutes before the end!

To ease the ears to bed, I returned to the Jansons to finish off the disc with the 100th symphony.

Friday, 21 August 2009

Ears Today - 2009-08-21 (Furtwangler Friday)

The ears have had a more eventful day today than I would normally have expected (since I was in the office all day and in the venue all evening).

The day got off to its usual start with the audio edition of the Economist seeing me out of bed and into work.


Now onto the 2009-08-15 issue (so still about a week behind). I was pleasantly surprised to learn it will now download straight to iTunes (sadly, it comes as one huge big file - which I don't like at all).


Once at work, it became clear that lots of people were away and so it was in no way antisocial to put on my iPod. I always find Mozart good to work to so I called on Zacharias and the Lausanne Chamber orchestra for concertos K271 and 413.


After that, I felt like some Furtwangler (I'm still waiting for my new box set to turn up) and I went for a favourite recording of the Beethoven violin concerto from the early 40s in a live performance with the Berlin Philharmonic and Rohn as the soloist.


Another favourite followed: Mahler's first symphony from Jansons and the Olso Philharmonic.


From then it was firmly back to Furtwangler for the rest of the day. First up was a stunning Tckaikovsky sixth symphony, again live, again with the Berlin Philharmonic (though this time recorded in Cairo of all places).


Then it was the newish Orfeo issue of Furtwangler's classic performance of Beethoven's ninth symphony at the reopening of the Bayreuth festival in 1951.


That pretty much took me to the venue (where the evening wasn't the smoothest I've had). When I got home I was in need of a sofa, a whisky (a fine 18 year old Caol Ila, in the end) and Bruckner eight from Furtwangler. That should see me more or less to bed.

Ears Today - 2009-08-20

They say imitation is the highest form of flattery and Nicholi Ivanovich Lobachevsky exhorted his students to "plagiarise, let no one else's work evade your eyes...... only be sure always to call it research" (well, he didn't, but Tom Lehrer's version of him did).

In the spirit of that, I thought I'd steal a rather excellent idea from @ViolaMaths, who recently started a blog called A Year With My Ears which, as one might expect, is a day by day chronicle of what she's been listening to. I hope she doesn't object to this shameless rip-off.

Since I have no idea how long I'll keep it up for, would like to at least make a pretence at originality by coming up with my own title, and love a bad pun, I shall call mine Ears Today. By today I don't mean calendar day, rather I mean from the time I get up and start listening to things until the time I finally go to sleep (which will usually be in the small hours of the next morning). Thus, things included on the entry for 20th August, may actually have been listened to on the 21st. Still, any other way and it just wouldn't make sense. For the benefit of any Americans reading, I shall be using the British date format (day/month/year - you will notice how they are logically in ascending order of size, which is why we're right on this one)*.


Today's listening began on the bus to work with the Audio Edition of the Economist (my primary supply of current affairs). What with the Festival, I'm a little behind so it's still the 8th August issue.

No listening at work (it's a bit antisocial to put the earphones in and I need to speak to people quite often so I'd only be taking them out all the time). It's different if I'm working late or lots of people are off.


The 8th August issue was rounded off on the way back as the bus reached Lothian Road. So, for the walk to Venue 40 I selected disc two from Miles Davis' Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel which I'm shocked to learn is currently unavailable.


Fortunately not a huge amount required my attention at the venue so I came home (no music) and collapsed on the sofa. The perfect time to finally spin Marin Alsop's recording of the Bernstein's Mass with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (something I've been itching to do since I picked it up on Monday). It's a magnificent and unique piece and Alsop gives it a fine reading, though the composer's own is still very much the one to go for.


Last night's Philharmonia performance of Janacek's Sinfonietta lacked the Mackerras bite, so putting on his classic VPO recording was a must.


Then it was the ascent of Strauss's Alpensinfonie in the company of Franz Welser-Most and the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester.

Finally, before bed, a little of the Brahms German Requiem from Furtwangler and the Stockholm orchestra (sorry, no picture for this one).


*My cousin Colin quite rightly informs me that both the British and American date formats are wrong and that really I should be using ISO 8601. While the date bit of the British format is in the right order on its own, everything goes wrong when you put it next to the time and the ISO standard corrects this. I shall therefore adopt it for my Ears.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Salonen and the Philharmonia open my Edinburgh International Festival

The Edinburgh International Festival started last Friday, of course, but for various reasons, this concert from the Philharmonia is the first thing I've been able to get to.

But before I get started on the music, something much more important: the state of the Usher Hall. Arguably the best sounding concert hall of its size in the UK, it has lain silent for most of the last two years and been the subject of much conversation amongst Edinburgh concert goers. Last summer it poked its head above the parapet for the Festival but resembled a building site more than anything else. When I met Donald Runnicles himself back in April and showed him a few snaps, he was as unconvinced as most other people that it would be ready in time for this year. And, indeed, it isn't: the new glass wing is still firmly blocked off. Ascending the rather dusty steps to the upper circle, things looked oddly familiar. Then I rounded a corner to find thick green carpets and a creamy/yellowy paint that isn't completely convincing, and a noticeable and reassuring lack of exposed wiring.

There is lots of wood panelling (though the toilets no longer appear to be constructed out of plywood and have been sensibly tiled instead). Much of the wood hides the many air conditioning units that have made a welcome appearance. Having said that, the front of house areas up there appeared even more cramped than before (worrying since it wasn't sold out). In the auditorium there appear to be few changes, though some seats at the far edge of the dress circle have been removed to create what look to be wheelchair spaces. The stage appears to have been improved too. It would, perhaps, have been better to illustrate this with a couple of pictures, but the battery on my iPhone died so I can't. However, I suspect you're not reading this for all that, you want to know about the music.

The Philharmonia are generally a very fine band, and they were certainly on form for Esa-Pekka Salonen. It was my first chance to hear them with their new chief conductor, who didn't overly impress me when he visited the Barbican with the LA Philharmonic. They got off to an incredible start with Bartok's The Miraculous Mandarin: suite, displaying a Cleveland-like precision, and praise on precision doesn't come any higher than that. Yet there was no shortage of tenderness when required and clarinetist Mark van de Wiel provided a fine solo. However, it was in the louder and faster moments that they really took your breath away, especially in the frenzy of the finale. It was marred only by what was either a very strange mobile phone ring tone or some malfunction in the staff walkie-talkie system midway through (but the performance was too fine for this to detract significantly).

This was followed by some comparatively new music, something that I think is one of Jonathan Mills' best innovations since taking over the festival directorship. In this case, Salonen himself was composer as well as conductor for a work that had its UK premiere two years ago at the Proms (indeed, it links to Runnicles as I bought my brother tickets to it in order to game the priority booking system and secure a perfect seat for the Runnicles Gotterdammerung). Finn wasn't overly impressed by the piano concerto and I find myself in a similar position. Certainly Yefim Bronfman, for whom the concerto was written, is very fine pianist. Coincidentally, the last time I heard him was with the Philharmonia and Mackerras, playing Mozart. However, it didn't feel especially remarkably, either lyrically or texturally. It was fairly easy listening though (which made the loud "what was that comment" from one member of the audience, immediately on its completion, a little out of place). It became more compelling as it went on, though running at around forty minutes it was fairly long and it did feel as though some slightly more ruthless editing would have helped it a lot. It also wasn't helped by Salonen's programme note either, which intricately described the three movements, failing to note that they were played without break. By the time this dawned on me, I had lost my place in the notes as a result and was unable to pick out, for example, the section devoted to science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem.

After the interval came Debussy's Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune. I'm no fan of the composer and never make much effort to seek out his music, yet this was still instantly familiar. Certainly the Philharmonia played it sublimely, particularly the flute solo by Kenneth Smith. However, Debussy is still in no danger of getting anywhere remotely near my desert island playlist.

The finale was Janacek's glorious Sinfonietta. Again, the last time I heard this work the Philharmonia were on duty. Unfortunately for Salonen, Charles Mackerras was conducting that concert, shortly after the Festival Hall reopened, and those are gargantuan shoes to fill. The reading was beautifully textured, and it was wonderful to have that massive and magnificent sounding array of brass through the organ gallery, yet I didn't get the sense he'd thought about their placement as carefully as Runnicles would have or as Volkov did with that 2004 Bluebeard's Castle; there was some superb string playing too. While the final few bars were extremely impressive something was missing; again and again I found myself wanting more bite, more of the kind of reading that Mackerras would have given. Only in the climax in the middle of the central slow movement did Salonen really set my spine tingling. It is perhaps unsurprising that this movement overall responded best his less dramatic appraoch. I seemed to be in a minority though.

Regardless of Salonen's interpretations, or my taste for some of the compositions, it is impossible to fault the orchestra - they were a joy to listen to, what a pity we only have them for one evening.

It was better sold than might have been expected, given new music was on the programme, though the Edinburgh audience was at its chatty worst. Fortunately we were spared the jet that is flying over the tattoo every night at 9pm, as we emerged the reason became clear: it had started to pour with rain.

Where's Runnicles at EIF 2009

Shortly I'll be heading down to the Usher Hall to catch my first concert of the 2009 Edinburgh Internation Festival. It will be the Philharmonia Orchestra under Salonen playing a programme that will include Bartok's Miraculous Mandarin suite, Janacek's Sinfoniette and Salonen's own piano concerto. I haven't managed to get to too much so far (that's what happens when you have a full time job and run a Fringe venue in your free time).

But, for those interested, here's what else I'm going to. There's nothing much for the next week or so until Mackerras and the SCO for Haydn's Last Seven Words. Interestingly, he isn't doing the whole concert, Gary Walker is on hand for the rest.

From then it's thick and fast: Zinman and the Zurich Tonhalle with Maher four on 27th, Deneve and the RSNO on 28th with Berlioz's Romeo and Juliette and on Sunday the FestspielOrchester Gottingen for Acis and Galatea.

Then on Monday, a highlight as Runnicles conducts the BBCSSO in Brahms and Strauss. 1st September brings a concert performance of Der Fliegende Hollander, then on 2nd Metzmacher conducts Brahms four with Berlin's other orchestra (oh and that'll be preceded by Carolyn Sampson singing some Bach at Greyfriars). More Bach the next day from Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir and then again on the 4th with a staged opera all the way from Stuttgart.

On the final Saturday I'll see Scottish Ballet and the SCO then off to the closing concer - a very promising looking Gerontius from Elder and the Halle.

To cap it all: firework music and Zadock the Priest from the SCO with the appropriate visual accompaniment. My only regret is that I'm back at work when Zacharias is playing.

All this was typed on my iPhone (so forgive typos and the lack of links and italics). You'd think that might lend brevity to a simple list (but you'd be wrong, and if you did think so, you don't know me very well!).

Thursday, 13 August 2009

The Tony Monaco Organ Trio - Third Time's a Charm

After my recent whinging about festival ticketing troubles , it's nice to be actually writing a review. Last night saw me making what has now become a traditional Fringe outing down to the Jazz Bar on Chambers Street to hear the Tony Monaco Organ Trio.

I first encountered him two years ago. We'd had a particularly gruelling day at the Venue and had repaired to the fine Bow Bar on Victoria Street for much needed beer. One of our number got up after his first pint and announced he was off, when we enquired why, he said he was going to see this jazz gig. The general feeling was one of "well, why not", so we all wandered over to Chambers Street.

We were greeted by Tony Monaco and his Hammond Organ. Now, I know what you may be thinking: the Hammond Organ, really? But the answer is yes, really. Foot-tappingly brilliant and with a superb dollop of funk, he swept us all away. He was, in the words of David Clarke, our fine Technical Manager "just what the doctor ordered."

So, when we saw he was to return last year, needless to say we were near the head of the queue on opening night. This proved something of a mistake since it was one of the wettest nights I've experienced in Edinburgh: we stood in the queue getting soaked, which didn't stop when we got inside as the building was less watertight than would ideally have been the case. Given the number of people and the resultant heat, there was a not especially pleasant humid and tropical atmosphere. None of which would have mattered quiet so much if the rain hadn't also delayed Monaco's plane to the extent he missed half the set.

This year, on the other hand, we had opted to catch the final night. Given the lack of rain, the atmosphere was much more as it should have been. From the opening bars of their first number, it seemed like we were in for a treat. We were not disappointed.

Monaco then introduced his young band: Serbian drummer Vladimir Kostadinovic (whom he'd come across when he won a competition he was involved in judging) and guitarist Kevin Glasgow. He called in the band of his dreams. Now, call me jaded, but normally when I get a description like that I think, yeah, whatever. But in this case it genuinely seems true. This was a superbly balanced ensemble, all of whom were capable of soloing superbly and yet none completely upstaging the others. Kostadinovic was especially fine - not least for the demands Monaco put on his technique in one or two of the later numbers. Monaco says he wants to tour the world with them; anyone with any sense should book them.

As a band they all seemed to be having a tremendous time, Monaco especially, with his grinning and gleefully contorted face. Of course, it's perfectly possible for a band to have fun and sound rubbish at the same time (fortunately not the case here), but there's little worse than a band that seems like they really don't want to be there.

Monaco, however, is the star. The range of colours and textures he gets from the instrument is exceptional. So too the intensity of his playing. The last two numbers were extraordinary: first came some funk, then a number which called for such rapid drum work, it was little short of breathtaking. It was a shame they had to end there - the loud cheers of the crowd would clearly have justified more.

Still, the evening was being captured on tape (or, rather, on the hard disk of a macbook) for future CD release. It should be something special indeed and I can't wait for it.

As we left, there were some CDs on sale but the guy was unable to tell us the name of the one Monaco mentioned as featuring the funky song (we ourselves hadn't caught it). There was no choice then, David and I went back into the bar to ask the man himself: we thanked him for three years of superb music, complimented his band, hoped to see him next year and came away having bought copies of Tony Monaco - Live at the Orbit Room, which is spinning on the Hi-Fi as I write this. Oh, and we got to shake his hand.

All in all, it was a pretty good night, if it hadn't been his last I'd be telling you to go an see him; as it is, I'll just have to say buy the CD and turn up next year.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Edinburgh Fringe Ticketing Issues - The Sequel

Okay, before I go on, I must stress that whatever problems I'm about to describe are small potatoes when set next to last year's, what's the right word, fiasco, catastrophe, inability to organise a piss-up in a brewery, [insert hyperbole of choice here]. That said, they are both real and present and the Fringe is basically hunkered down and in denial over them.

I find this particularly upsetting. Aside from my day job, and this website, I work as a volunteer and one the venue managers at Venue 40. Amid last year's chaos the most depressing thing was the lack of any kind of information from the Fringe. Indeed, my only updates came from a chance meeting with an acquaintance who worked at Underbelly (who, since the software they and the other big venues used was drafted in to salvage things, was more in the know).

Everyone makes mistakes, but basic failures of communication make it that much harder for us to deliver a satisfactory service to the customer. Doubtless they hope that these matters will escape the damaging press coverage of the past. However, such an approach is, in my view, hopelessly misguided and short sighted.

There are, then, two problems that I am aware of. The first came to my attention yesterday afternoon when someone came up to our box office to express concern that a ticket purchased for our venue (which is on Victoria Terrace) said 140 The Pleasance, a good long twenty minute walk away (picture below - the address is inbetween the venue name and the name of the theatre space):

That put us on guard and more tickets followed with such addresses and Nicholson Street and Hanover Street (and not just for that one show). Most tickets, however, had nothing in this space and none had our correct address. Was this a glitch, were these tickets somehow faked? We simply didn't know. Phoning the box office was a lost cause, we faxed a sample and received no response. Finally today, one of my colleagues, after visiting both Fringe Central and then the main Fringe office, got an answer: that there had been a problem (now corrected) affecting tickets sold before a certain date, causing some to have the wrong address. Why then, have we not put out a release advising people to check their tickets and avoid missing a show? Why not inform venue managers? There is no good reason.

The second problem actually came to my attention first, but I thought it was just a one off: someone came into the venue to collect a ticket booked through the Fringe (something we have no facility to do). However, I am now informed that the Fringe's guidance when tickets are purchased online is not clear in this regard: i.e. not stating that tickets need to be collected from the Fringe and that this has already caused problems elsewhere. Again, this is a simply addressed problem and one which denial doesn't help.

Given the queues at the Fringe, which were crazy this afternoon, anyone wanting to see a Venue 40 show should contact us direct and I suspect that's good advice in general (we don't charge a booking fee either - on the show I was booking for it worked out over 10%, which is the more outrageous when you remember they already take a cut of the ticket price). You would also be well advised to double check where a venue is, if you don't know, and not go by any address that is printed on the ticket.

My reason then for writing this is twofold - to advise customers to take care, and to plead with the Fringe that this approach simply is not good enough: everyone makes mistakes but you have to communicate better with the general public and with the venues (it isn't rocket science).

Friday, 7 August 2009

iPhone the Edinburgh Festival

The iPhone is a work of genius. If you disagree with that statement, odds are you should probably stop reading now. It's by far the best, most intuitive and functional phone I've ever owned; it's a joy to use and it never stops improving thanks to a regular stream of applications I keep downloaded (the last few weeks it has been stealing my time and rekindling my love for chess). I never leave home without.

The Edinburgh Festival, in all its flavours, is a dizzying spectacle, in scale and nature unlike anything else. An iPhone application to help us pick our way through it was, therefore, highly desirable. And, given that everyone and his sister now seems to have one (ah, how I remember when it was moderately unusual), it was inevitable.

Indeed, there are no fewer than three and half. Just for you, I've downloaded every single one of them. Okay, mainly for myself, but since they're here now, I may as well review them.

First up is iFringe. As the name implies, it limits itself to the Festival Fringe, the largest and most sprawling part of the festival, the part with the hundreds of venues (often including some bloke's care or your living room) and thousands of shows.

First to the market, it has a lot going for it. It will detect your location and list venues nearby. Each venue is given a brief review (certainly in the case of my own venue, Venue 40, The Quaker Meeting House, it seems pretty fair and informative). It also has a useful section for hints and tips, for example, the Queen's Hall page informs the unsuspecting visitor that the box office is actually in the building next door. (Though the logical extension of allowing users to submit these doesn't seem to exist.) It also gives information about food options, both at the venue and nearby (something Urbanspoon will also do, and free). Press a link and it will bring it up on the phone's built in maps application. Press another icon to dial up the box office.

What it doesn't do, however, is then give you a handy list of everything that's on there. In other words, it doesn't replace the fringe brochure, and given that runs over 200 pages, that's a shame. Rather, this application is about collating reviews from Fringe Guru, Fringe Review and Broadway Baby and Three Weeks. Of course, fringe aficionados will immediately note that such notables as The Scotsman, The Herald and The List aren't there so it won't save you your copies of those. This is a pity.

At £2.99 it's not especially cheap (and titled iFringe 2009, I have a strong suspicion we'll be asked to pay again next year, which would make it a pretty price app in the long run - if that is the case it should be explicitly stated), though being well designed and user friendly it's probably worth it.

Of course, there is a free version, but it's much more limited. You can't do any of the planning ahead that the paid version allows and it only gives the 'latest reviews' (so it may well become useless in week three for shows that have long since had their review). You don't get the venue hints and tips either.

An alternative is on offer in the form of Edinburgh Festivals Guide. This is an official app, and official to all the festivals. This is great for someone like me who goes to several flavours of the festival. It's also cheaper, at £1.79.

The app was only released this week and, in comparison to iFringe, it does look less polished. One can't help but feel it's been rushed out in order to meet the deadline (the Fringe started this week and the Jazz Festival has been in full swing for a week now). The Fringe, rushing out software before it was quite ready, that could never happen!

That said, I don't want to be too unfair, since it is fairly usable and their support team have been reasonably responsive and clearly rushed off their feet getting it up and running this week.

The main screen presents you with a series of genres, click on any one and brings a chronological list of upcoming shows (you can sort by distance if you prefer).

If you're only interesting in the International Festival or the Fringe, it appears there is no way to restrict your search. In fact, confusingly, clicking on 'All' in the main menu brings up the option to browse by festival which is insanely counter-intuitive (I actually only discovered this in exploring for the review just to see what it did). However, this only brings up events a day ahead. True, you can use search (though searching for Mackerras, who I know is coming to conduct, brings nothing), but what I'd like is something browseable that allows me to leave multiple programmes behind me. For the EIF, you need a search that does for more than just title (some things do works - Runnicles, for example).

Bringing up a given show does similar things to iFringe (e.g. the box office number, venue details, map link). There is also a link to reviews (though it is not clear whether these are just Fringe website reviews that anyone can post or whether they will link to third party content).

You can search by venue too, though this is inferior to iFringe, which makes use of the iPhone's intuitive touch/scroll interface, while Edinburgh Festivals Guide forces you to type a name, hit search and is consequently slower more cumbersome.

It gives venue details briefly (and, after a couple of tweets, correctly in our case) and will tell you what shows are on there. It also detects your location and will bring up nearby venues - but this too is unintuitive (you have to search for nothing).

I think this an app with great potential, but it just isn't quite ready for prime time yet. They had surely looked at iFringe, and seeing that, knew how well they had to do. I'll be interested to see what they make of it next year.

There's one final app: Edinburgh Fringe Venues. This is free, which is nice. Essentially a searchable directory of venues (with an interface midway between iFringe and Festivals Guide). It gives only very basic info such as address, phone number, and website links. I suppose it could be useful as a companion to the Fringe brochure, saving you the hassle of flicking back and forth to the map and the box office phone numbers. And, given it's free, one can't really complain. Still, iFringe does this too, and better, in its free version.

Verdict. The free iFringe is a must. Both paid apps are probably worth it for the serious festival goer. However, with both I feel, for different reasons, we're not quite where we could be. Maybe next year.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Monday Night Film Club - Space Geek Fortnight

A rare thing happened in film club a few weeks ago: we went to see something that wasn't the suggestion of the club's founders. The plan had been for Moon, but this was postponed when someone spotted, for one night only, documentary In the Shadow of the Moon at the Filmhouse. Scheduled to co-incide with the anniversary of the original Apollo 11 landing (well, nearly so; actually, in GMT that happened in the small hours of 21st July), it didn't matter that it was on Channel Four later that same evening. This is the kind of documentary that it pays to see on the big screen. Moon was therefore put off a week leading to a fortnight of space geek heaven.

Described as narrator-less, though this isn't quite true (to my mind narration by caption is still narration, though it is minimal), the film tells the story of Apollo's astronauts through their own words.

It is helped by some fantastic visuals in the form of brilliantly remastered footage. True, it isn't free of grain in the manner of the latest Hollywood blockbuster, but it is no less compelling for it. Perhaps most remarkable is the distant shot of the staging of the giant Saturn V rocket: as the first stage cuts out, acceleration drops from 4.5g to nothing, the rocket plume flares up round it, and then it shoots forward again with the ignition of stage two. There was a magnificent poetry to it.

The astronauts largely came across very well. Michael Collins, consigned to relative historical obscurity, having stayed behind in the command module while Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong descending to the Sea of Tranquility in the Eagle was especially engaging. So too Apollo 12 lunar module pilot Alan Bean. Unfortunately, Armstrong himself was a notable absence.

None of those interviewed came over badly and, as with James May's rather good recent documentary, it was actually nice to focus a little more on some of the lesser known names.

There was plenty of footage to keep the space geek in me in seventh heaven - it was nice to see shots of the X-15 (an experimental rocket powered plane).

Philip Sheppard's excellent score helped lift the imagination perfectly and never got in the way.

However, it wasn't perfect. Firstly, a lot was left out. Of course, if you want to tell the story of Apollo in an hour and a half, such decision have to be made. As such, the choice to focus solely on the astronauts had a logic to it. And yet, at times I found myself wishing for an interview with some of the engineers or with NASA flight director Gene Kranz.

A more nagging imperfection was the implication of just how central the astronauts were. I think the film exaggerated their role in the design and engineering process.

Another minor piece of nit-picking concerns the narrative post Apollo 11. Again, this was doubtless to save time, however, we jumped past 12 and straight to the near disaster of 13 (massively abridged, but then the film of Apollo 13 lasts a good two hours on its own). The caption then flashed up that a further 5 missions landed on the moon. Well, in a sense: 12, 14, 15, 16 and 17 all did, but 12 had already happened. Apollo 9, which test flew the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) in low earth orbit, and 10, which took it to the moon and scouted for landing sites, were airbrushed out entirely.

But such concerns are minimal and don't matter next to the compelling result. Well worth seeing either on the big or small screen. Not least for those stunning pictures from the later missions: astronauts bouncing around in lunar rovers before revealing, decades later, that the fact there was no traffic made it much easier. Unlike many documentaries, in getting the words of these men down on tape, it can actually claim to be a historical document of value.

Oh, and for those idiots who actually think the whole thing was fake, Apollo 16 lunar module pilot Charlie Duke puts it about as well as I've heard it over the closing credits:

"We've been to the Moon nine times. Why would we fake it nine times, if we faked it?"

Oh, and if you are in that ignorant group, see here.

The next week saw us back at Cameo, albeit in screen two, with the sound bleeding through slightly from next door, for Sam Rockwell, Sam Rockwell and, well, Sam Rockwell, in Moon.

Rockwell gives a superb performance as Sam Bell, the sole human inhabitant of a distant mining outpost on the far side of the moon. Far side, note, not dark side (that being a slight misnomer since it changes depending on its position in relation to the sun). He's been there for three years, overseeing the giant robots that comb the satellite for what is now earth's dominant power source. Soon he will go home, but time has taken it's toll and he appears to be losing his mind.

I won't say too much more, because I don't want to spoil it. Having said that, there is not much by way of surprise once the initial puzzle is resolved, and that happens fairly simply and early on (and isn't an oh my god, I never saw that coming moment). But that doesn't matter, it isn't the point. Sci-Fi, at its best, is about exploring interesting and impossible questions in a way that can't otherwise be done. And Moon does so.

A 'costless' way has been found of doing something, but would it be worth it, would we want to do it if we could and what would happen if we did? Moon asks these questions, suggests answers, and still leaves you thinking on your way out.

The score is superb: isolating and claustrophobic at times, reinforcing the story and the production design. The wonderfully ironic usage of Chesney Hawkes' The One and Only is nothing short of inspired.

The trailer seemed like the George Clooney Solaris, which I rather enjoy, but it wasn't that at all. Others have mentioned silent running, and it did have a certain something in common with that (though it lacked that's film's ability to bring a tear to eyes of heard hearted souls).

Perhaps the strongest references were to 2001: A Space Odyssey, and in one or two places, such as in the extend shot of Sam's face towards the end, complete with flashing colours, they were overdone. At first, Gerty, a computer/robot and Sam's only companion (well voiced by Kevin Spacey), seemed a little too similar to HAL. And yet, as the film progressed, it became clearer that he was not. However, he was used to address a very similar question: how does such a machine respond to conflicting demands and orders.

It was, surprisingly, from the tone of the trailer, oddly uplifting it its ending.

The effects in general were pretty good and both the base and the external shots of the mining machines had a fine and atmospheric look to them, especial the debris sprayed out behind the latter as they trawled the surface (reminding us how much excellent work you can do with miniatures that now seems ignored in favour of CGI).

But, as ever, I'm not above a little nit-picking. Superb as it looked, at the same time it still seemed a little fake in one respect: gravity. After the previous week's actual lunar footage, something about the way everything moved was wrong, exactly like it was on sound stages. Which, of course, it was. Only in one very late scene did they get the feel of 1/6th gravity. This, of course, is more excellent evidence we really went - even forty years later, it's not easy to fake it.

In the Shadow of the Moon prompted me to do something I've been meaning to for some time: log onto Amazon and order From the Earth to the Moon (and at under £15 why wouldn't you?). This twelve part HBO mini-series is produced by Tom Hanks and chronicles Apollo in much greater detail. Sadly, for reasons passing understanding, in the UK we've got a widescreen release, which actually means we've got a cropped version, since the original wasn't produced in that format.

The twelve episodes focus broadly on each of the manned Apollo missions with a couple of extras thrown in. This broadly works, though it doesn't always seem to be the story I want.

In some cases that's very wise: it would have been a mistake to try and remake Apollo 13 (there's nothing to improve on and with less money and less time you'd only embarrass yourself). Instead we never even see the inside of the capsule and get a story about how the media reacted.

At other times, though, I get the nagging sense that something is missing: NASA flight director Gene Kranz, a key figure in the Apollo 13 mission (superbly played by Ed Harris in the film) and elsewhere in the programme, barely appears. This is baffling.

However, at its best it is quite superb. Episode two, which focuses on the aftermath of the tragic fire that killed Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee in a test for Apollo 1 is especially harrowing.

Spider, the story of the design and construction of the LEM, is fascinating, doubtless even if you're not an engineer like me. Similarly, the penultimate part, which focuses on the toll taken on the astronauts' wives, makes for an interesting and fresh insight.

Elsewhere it's a little less successful. The series would be immeasurably improved by cutting Hanks' cheesy narration that opens each episode with some guff leading up to the words "from the earth to the moon". Perhaps these would be less annoying if the episodes weren't in rapid succession on a DVD. I'd say he should stick to acting, except that the final episode, which he penned, is really rather good.

There are some other slightly odd choices, for example I'm not sure why some much of 1968 (the first voyage to the moon, made by Apollo 8) was filmed in black and white. Similarly the decision to blend in archive footage, which doesn't always quite mesh seamlessly in the manner of, say, Goodnight and Good Luck.

More generally the effects good but not great. Comparison to the fantastic visuals of Apollo 13 is a little disappointing, particularly in the rocket launch scenes. Elsewhere it is better. The sets, for example, appear to have been constructed in superb and meticulous detail. The biggest problem is the moon itself. True, they've built a vast set, and using a clever effect with a bunch of lights and a giant mirror, got an effect remarkably like the light source that is the sun. But compared to the actual footage of astronauts bouncing around in In the Shadow of the Moon, despite the tens of millions spent, it just looks, well, fake. This is especially true of the rover scenes which look very safe in comparision. While the score is generally pretty good, the quality of the sound recording is disappointing.

Still, in terms of factual accuracy it seems pretty bang on and even though I consider myself fairly knowledgeable on the subject, it taught me plenty I didn't know. I'd still rank it as an absolute must purchase, if not having quite the perfection of that later Hanks/HBO collaboration: Band of Brothers (but since that has no space geekery it is a subject for another time.