Monday, 30 November 2009

Monday Night Film Club - Bunny and the Bull (and one exceptional film)

Last week I we saw the trailer for Bunny and the Bull and my overriding reaction was: hmmmm. This was a film I was in no hurry to see. Of course, one of the joys of Monday Night Film Club is that it means I go to see things I wouldn't otherwise bother with. Sometimes that can be bad, other times it can be exceptional. This falls into the latter category.

On a basic level, it is a road movie, though to call it that would be a bit like saying Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a martial arts movie or that Blade Runner has lots of robots in it: it would completely miss the point. Partly, this is because for the duration of the film Stephen, superbly and sensitively played by Edward Hogg, barely steps outside his house. Instead, though flashback, we get a journey as much through his mind as through Europe.

As the film opens, the camera winds its way through the house, credits appearing on household items such as the old fashioned rotary dial of the telephone, the tube of toothpaste, the paste itself writing in the sink, and so on. This meticulous attention to detail carries through the film as we meet Stephen, an obsessive-compulsive agoraphobic who between filing his dental floss and eating the same vegetable lasagne for lunch each day has hid himself from the world.

It is one year since he has ventured outside, and suddenly his neatly ordered life comes crashing down as he discovers the mice have been at the whole of his stock of ready meals. This launches a voyage through the mementos of his European tour with his friend Bunny (and equally superb Simon Farnaby). On one level, it's somewhat unclear how two such different people have come to be such close friends; on another, their relationship never feels unnatural.

The moment the narrative ventures outside the house, we leave any semblance of the ordinary. Instead, our characters inhabit animated or almost cardboard like sets, giving the film a magically surreal quality not a million miles away from the likes of Gilliam, Kaufman or Burton.

Gradually, we learn why Stephen is now a prisoner of his own mind. Writer and director Paul King expertly dips in and out of flashbacks, using a snowdome to transport the viewer to a mountaintop Swiss chalet, taking us to a fairground inside the mechanism of a clock. At times the transitions from the house to the recollections call to mind Joel tumbling through his memories in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or the dream sequences that make up perhaps my favourite episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Restless, the season four finale). Similarly he knows how to hold onto an exquisite moment, such as when Stephen nearly kisses Eloisa (a fine performance by Veronica Echegui) in an archway in some unnamed and unidentifiable Spanish town. It is simply a wonder to look at.

I don't want to say any more about the plot than I have, it really isn't easy to explain; it's the sort of film you just have to see. However, don't be thinking it's simply a heartfelt and poignant journey, though it certainly is; and though it may bring a tear to your eye, it is also funny, so much so that if you were sticking on labels, the comedy one would have to be affixed and feature big bold type. It is hysterically funny at times, such as when Bunny begs Stephen for some underwear, Stephen's elaborate cocktails, or the argument in the car.

There really is nothing I can fault the film on. Perhaps one or two moments edge a little closer to gross-out comedy than I would like, the scene with the dogs, for example. However, such moments are generally so hilarious it's hard to see them as a flaw. There isn't a duff performance to be seen on the screen and there's a great soundtrack too, accentuating the moods well, but never outshining the film. They also know when no sound at all is needed. In a wonderfully powerful moment towards the end, the only sound was the whirr of the projector, reminding one that the Cameo is a proper cinema.

In short, this is a truly exceptional film, one of the finest I've seen this year, and I really can't recommend it highly enough. So what put me off initially? Well, Paul King is also the director of The Mighty Boosh, and what little I've seen of that has left me no desire to see more. Now I'm wondering if it deserves a proper viewing.

One final word - stay to the end of the credits - the final dedication is well worth the wait.


Actually, a final, final word is needed. A film this fine deserves one of our irregular awards. So, without further ado, I present:

The Paul King Award for a Stunning, Meticulously Crafted, Poignant and Hilarious Odyssey through the Imagination

Thinking about it, Joss Whedon deserves this award for Restless, so too do Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Monday Night Film Club - A Serious Man (and a pointless film)

I should put my cards on the table at the start: I'm not a fan of the Coen brothers' films. In fact, there's only been one that I've seen which I've really enjoyed, and that was their last one, Burn After Reading, mainly because it was hysterically funny.

The big problems I tend to have are that their films are often not about anything and lack characters I care about. While I did go into this with an open mind, A Serious Man falls down badly on both counts.

It tells the story of Larry Gopnik, a physics lecturer, who suffers an appalling run of bad luck. Now, at this point, I should put a spoiler warnings: I don't think I can review this without giving a way the plot. However, since it doesn't really have one, I don't think this much of a problem.

Of course, it has a plot in one sense: lots of bad things happen to Gopnik and the phalanx of characters surrounding him who aspire to being one dimensional. From all of this, he learns precisely nothing. Nobody in the film really goes on any kind of journey. And it ends, well, it ends mid-story with no real resolution, except to say that everyone's pretty well doomed.

On his way, he seeks advice, which is completely useless, from a series of Rabbis. It's hard to be sympathetic for him, since he does nothing to change his lot. Not only can you see why his wife leaves him, one struggles to imagine what made her marry him in the first place. I mean, he may be a nice enough guy, but there's nothing more to him. Then again, since there's nothing much to her character either, they're arguably a pretty decent match. This is characterisation of the kind of depth that a reasonably comprehensive analysis of everyone in the film could fit comfortably on the back of a single napkin (and still leave ample space to calculate a fair tip).

Of course, when a film isn't convincing you, all the little niggling things you'd otherwise forgive start to stick out like sore thumbs. Now, I realise academia has changed since the time this film was set, but I'm pretty certain that, even then, tenure wasn't on the cards if you'd published nothing. Why does his son still have to run away from the drug dealer after he's stolen the money he needed from his sister? Come to that, a drug dealer who advances credit! And why is Larry's doctor less determined to get hold of him than the man from the Columbia Record Club, especially given he clearly has terrible news.

Apparently, though, I've totally missed the point. This magnificent cinematic achievement is a clever reworking of the Book of Job. Except, of course, that it isn't. Job has a pretty happy ending all told. In other words, it's a moral with the moral removed. Hmmm. Genius!

The film isn't entirely without redeeming features, though. There are some funny moments - the kid who uses the f-work constantly, the man his wife leaves him for and his hideously ingratiating manner, the first Rabbi's belief that salvation can be located in the parking lot, second Rabbi's story about a man who finds a message engraved on someone's teeth. There's also an opportunity for spotting actors who've worked on Aaron Sorkin shows (there's Adam Arkin, who so superbly played Stanley Keyworth, first introduced to the West Wing to treat Josh for post-traumatic stress, here playing Gopnik's lawyer; Simon Helberg, who crops up as the first Rabbi, had much better opportunity to showcase his talents as one of the cast of the show within a show on Studio 60). The performances are solid enough, though playing such uniformly caricatured roles, nobody is in the slightest danger of stretching any acting muscles.

All told, there are many more rewarding ways to spend a couple of hours.

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra Comes Home

Not that they've ever really been away, mind. No, the title is a reference to the fact that Saturday's concert was part of Homecoming Scotland 2009, an attempt to boost tourism by celebrating Scotland's culture. No bad thing, in and of itself, since there's lots of great stuff to celebrate, however the wisdom of the scheme has at times eluded me (such as when I sat through expensive cinema trailers in Edinburgh cinemas exhorting people to come home to, erm, Scotland, which still included Edinburgh when I last checked).

Whatever you may think of the spin, however, it's always nice to have an interesting programme of new music. At least, if you're moderately adventurous. To be honest, the programme was not terribly difficult, certainly not by the standards of some that I've been to in Aldeburgh. All the same, the Queen's Hall had an awful lot of empty seats. I really wish the audiences here weren't quite so stand-offish to new music. Still, those who came were amply rewarded.

First up was Kenneth Leighton, who while being an English composer, had a long association with the University of Edinburgh, thus qualifying for homecoming inclusion. The SCO played his Concerto for String Orchestra very well. The more I hear works for string orchestra the more I enjoy them, and this was no exception. The pizzicato second movement was a particular joy to hear.

This was followed by James MacMillan's Tryst. It was a slightly strange choice, since it was only two months to the day since the SCO last played it. Don't get me wrong, it's a fabulous piece, but MacMillan's written lots of other stuff, so if you're going to play two of his works in a season, why not actually play two and not just the same one twice? With its myriad of time changes and other challenges, it's a tricky piece, but the orchestra played well and conductor Garry Walker kept a tight grip on everything. That said, I think I preferred Lowe's reading in September (though this may well just be because that was preceded by an illustrated talk, and therefore I got more out of it that time).

After the interval it was the turn of Edward Harper. The programme was intended to feature his third symphony. Sadly, his death earlier this year left the work uncompleted. Instead the orchestra were joined by the SCO chorus to perform his second symphony. This was a powerful work, though at times it would have benefitted from more restraint volume wise, as would Tryst. When you have an orchestra and chorus in a comparatively small hall, it can all to easily overwhelm and Walker, as so many before him, didn't always get this balance quite right. However, overall it was a moving and compelling reading, particularly third movement, a poem by Ron Butlin describing families on both sides of the Israel-Palestine conflict who'd allowed the organs of victims of the conflict to be donated to those on the other side.

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra Chorus were on particularly fine form. I've heard glowing reports about their current guest chorus master, the youthful Gregory Batsleer, from members of the chorus, and their performance certainly confirmed these. The orchestra should engage him permanently post haste. The only choral reservation concerned the soloist Alexander Robin Baker. I don't want to be too critical since he was a last minute replacement after Leigh Melrose dropped out. However, there was a tone to his voice that I didn't care for at all.

Still, minor reservations aside, it was a fine evening of modern music very well played. The more stuffy residents of Edinburgh really should give it a try sometime; they might actually find they like it!

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Monday Night Film Club - Should you stare at The Men Who Stare at Goats?

It's been rather too long since my last film review and, indeed, my last visit to the cinema, so it was nice to be back in the Cameo full stop.


When I first saw the poster for The Men Who Stare at Goats, I assumed it was the new Coen brothers movie (the title seemed suitably daft, Bridges and Clooney are both veterans of their films and the typeface isn't a million miles away from that used in the Burn After Reading poster). It's not though, that is A Simple Man which has just opened here. However, it certainly does feel a little like it.

For starters, and I suspect I may offend Coen brothers fans at this point, there isn't terribly much of a plot, or much satisfaction at the end, and there is a general absence of characters I care terribly much about. Ewan McGregor plays Bob, a distinctly second rate journalist whose wife has left him for the editor. He heads to Iraq where he falls in with Lyn (played by George Clooney). Lyn is, it turns out, a Jedi and on a secret mission to rescue his mentor (Bridges) from the clutches of the dark side (led by Spacey). Now, the makers of the film are clearly under the impression that because McGregor played one in the three rubbish Star Wars films, it is therefore hilarious when he says the word Jedi, or when anyone else says it to him. And while it does produce a wry smile the first time round, once we get to the fifteenth one can't help but think this is a script/casting combination that seemed like a really good idea after a few pints in the pub and that the acting talent on display here is somewhat wasted.

It seems that in the 60s the US Army decided it would be a good idea to explore the paranormal, culminating in an attempt to kill a goat simply by looking at it, and thus give the film its title. This all provides for the film's second joke: to make fun of weird and wacky beliefs and hippies in general. And, to be sure, it does this very well: highlights include the disco dancing soldiers, a general attempting, and failing, to phase through a solid wall and Lyn being so distracted by his attempts to burst clouds that he crashes into a rock in the middle of a deserted desert road. However, the trouble is, aside from a lovely moment where they run over an Iraqi whilst protesting he's safe because they're Americans and here to help, it is just these two jokes that sustain the film. That might do in an hour an a half sit-com, but when stretched to ninety minutes, quite a brief film by modern standards, it feels a bit long. It isn't helped by a structure that is very heavily reliant on flashbacks.

None of which is to say it's a terrible film. It's actually rather enjoyable and they're are plenty of laughs, even if they're mainly the same ones. At the end of the day, sit back and stick your mind firmly into neutral. Not unmissable by a long shot, but there are much worse ways to spend an hour a half.

We're told at the start it's based on a true story. I have little difficulty believing that the US and Russia, each afraid the other might be, wasted time and money looking into this hokum, but beyond that..... well, let's just say I don't think the goats have much to worry about.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Shostakovich's Year 1905 - The RSNO and Sondergard

Last Friday presented an interesting programme from the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Interesting because it featured two works I know well, and two artists I've never come across before.

The concert opened with Beethoven's first piano concerto with Ingrid Fliter as the soloist. She endeared herself to me immediately, prominently displaying at least one trait I adore: delicacy. This certainly helped make for a beautiful and generally compelling account. However, at times I did want for Paul Lewis's skill at mixing delicacy with weight. Whether she became better, or I simply warmed to her approach, the last movement was especially fine. Underneath her, young Danish conductor Tomas Sondergard, standing in for Yakov Kreizberg, provided solid accompaniment, though occasionally, mostly in the largo, he wasn't quite soft enough for her quiet style. She was warmly received and returned to the platform to dazzle us with a sparkling rendition of Chopin's minute waltz (op.64/1). She has recorded them all - should be well worth a listen (and those who can access Spotify can do so here).

Even better was to follow. After the interval came Shostakovich's eleventh symphony, The Year 1905. This has long been my favourite of his symphonies, ever since I got to know it through Rostropovich's superb recording with the London Symphony Orchestra. Of course, weighing in at over seventy minutes, that's hardly a typical reading; at the other end of the spectrum Kondrashin is home and having tea before Rostropovich has even got started on the finale! It's a mark of the greatness of the work that it responds well to both approaches. Sondergard opted for the middle ground, his reading weighing in at around an hour. Under him the playing of the RSNO was extremely tight and well drilled, with an appropriately military feel at times. Indeed, it slightly felt as if the band were significantly better rehearsed for the second half (not, mind, to say they were bad before the interval). Shostakovich's score is both vivid and evocative and Sondergard captured this in his reading. He was very dynamic on the podium and seemed to have a tight grip on his forces.

There are hairs that could be split. In the quieter moments, especially the wonderful slow opening, and the same theme's return in the finale, there wasn't quite the pin-drop near silence that would have maximised the drama, and which the orchestra are capable of delivering, save for a few moments in the adagio. Forte, and more, presented no such problems, with terrifically thrilling climaxes to both the second movement and the finale. By the close he had the orchestra in a frenzy, beset by dramatic bells tolling. Then, in the fabulous ending, this juggernaut, this almost unstoppable force of music, is brought up short, mid-flow, by an immovable object. The result, a chasm of silence that feels as if a great number of very heavy objects have just been dropped on you. What a shame, then, that one member of the audience couldn't wait to applaud and robbed the moment of its ultimate power.

Niggles aside, though, it was a superb evening. Hopefully we'll see more of both Fliter and Sondergard.

Friday, 13 November 2009

A Very Bennett Tragedy, or in which it is shown that Mr Hytner has learned nothing from the horror that was Fram

Regular readers will know that I have recently been enduring a dry spell in terms of theatrical and operatic enjoyment. I had hoped that Alan Bennett's new play, The Habit of Art, would end it, but it was not to be. This is a disappointing evening from almost all perspectives, and a waste of the enormous talents present on the stage.

The conceit of the piece recalls a device Bennett has previously used in Forty Years On of the play within a play. I only wish I could report it works as successfully here. Here the National Theatre is rehearsing a new play by a man called Neil (who bore a disturbing resemblance at times to Harvey Baines in Waiting for God) which deals with a fictitious meeting between W.H. Auden and Benjamin Britten shortly before their deaths. Richard Griffiths and Alex Jennings play the actors playing the aforementioned famous men. The play within the play is further complicated by the presence of a third actor (Adrian Scarborough) playing Humphrey Carpenter, who, because of having written biographies of the two men is considered well placed to comment on them. The play without the play has the benefit of Frances de la Tour in the Stage Manager's seat. If all this sounds tedious, pretentious and over-complicated that's because it is.

The most profound problem, which becomes increasingly evident as the play goes on, is that you begin to feel that actually Bennett really has nothing to say about Auden or Britten (beyond the facts that Auden was a deadly bore in old age and Britten liked boys, both of which facts, as Screwtape might have put it, I could have found out from other sources). In particular, Bennett is depressingly barren of insight with respect to the music and the poetry – there is hardly any of either in the play. Their collaboration on the GPO film unit is mentioned in passing, their major operatic collaboration Paul Bunyan is totally ignored. There never seems to be a really compelling reason why the two should want to meet again, and what little momentum the play within a play tries to build up around this moment is dissipated by the constant interruptions from the other actors, the stage managers and the fictitious author.

I have read that Bennett completed a version of the play and then things were delayed by his ill health. One almost wonders if somewhere within that delay the piece slipped away from him and he has tried to disguise this by the retreat into the device of the play-within-a-play. The alternative possibility is that Bennett is trying to say something clever about the problems of writing a play, the trouble with actors, the trouble with being a writer nearing the end of your creative life. That alternative is all very well, but sadly many of those things have been done more convincingly by other writers.

For the cast one can only have sympathy as they struggle with this at times desperately unsympathetic text. The laughs are few and far between, the emotional engagement hard to come by. Frances de la Tour is excellent but largely wasted as the stage manager. Richard Griffiths is hamstrung by the fact that one of Bennett's main points is to emphasise how boring the elderly Auden was – Griffiths duly is. Adrian Scarborough's character is, as he himself admits, a device within the play, and duly annoying. Alex Jennings alone manages to make something of the text. He provides a striking variety of performance, all quite different from anything I have seen him do before. The moment when he is trying to explain how a rent boy might behave and becomes lost in reminiscence is beautifully observed, and one of the few occasions during the evening when I was moved.

Astute readers will have noticed that the title of this review refers back to Fram. For those who did not experience it, Fram was a diabolical new play put on in the Olivier with a large cast who mostly did nothing, a large set which was mostly pointless, and lots of pretentious things to say about the whole idea of putting on plays in a National Theatre. I would never have believed that Alan Bennett would somehow end up writing along the same lines, and yet that is exactly how this play ends (or rather that is exactly what the third ending of this play is – yes there are three endings – yes it is tedious, pretentious, annoying, etc., etc.)

Bennett's past career is largely a story of triumphs. His contribution to Beyond the Fringe, Forty Years On, The Madness of George III, The History Boys and in some ways my favourite, the brilliant A Question of Attribution. Perhaps there is a deliberate irony here since in the play Bennett is busy commenting on the contemporary sense that people were wanting Auden and Britten to stop. But this is not actually very convincing. Britten for one had not ceased to be creative (or at least not at the point we see him in the play). I doubt that most people want Bennett to cease writing great plays, and did Bennett really set out to provide staged evidence of a talent in decline? Clearly the National anticipated another History Boys and, indeed, on the strength of Bennett's reputation they have managed to sell out the whole first booking period and organise a national tour before the appearance of a single review.

I really wanted this to be a great evening at the theatre. Instead it reminded me of Tony Harrison's Fram and Caryl Churchill's Drunk Enough to Say I Love You – two other very poor plays put on one suspects because well known authors are not subject to the same critical judgement as first time aspirants. For the sake of this fine cast, the audience who are paying good money, and for Bennett, somebody should have had the courage to say stop.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Savoy presents Guys and Dolls

I don't think this review quite qualifies for a shameless plug tag, since an examination of the programme indicates that I don't actually know anyone in the production (well, save the two people on the door and one of the people responsible for constructing the sets). That said, I wouldn't have been surprised if I had. During his many years in Edinburgh, my brother, and co-founder of this site, was a stalwart of the Edinburgh University Savoy Opera Group, I thus know an awful lot of ex-Savoyards.

Heading off to catch their opening night of Guys and Dolls, a slight step away from their usual Gilbert and Sullivan faire, was something of a last minute whim - I hadn't realised it was on until today and this was the only night of the run I could make. I like the show, and it's been a good while since I've seen it (the last time being at the National Theatre quite a few years back).

So how did it stack up? Well, really very enjoyably. Director Lesley Acheson and producer Nick Morris gave us a nice, traditional view of the show without trying anything silly or too clever for its own good. After some of the opera I've seen lately, that is a lovely breath of fresh air. Perhaps more importantly, it was nice to have a good sized band; too many student productions have to recourse to not much more than two pianos. Conductor Iain McLarty (whom I find I know via twitter, and whose blog you'll find a link to over on the right) kept a good grip on things with a lively reading that never dragged and found plenty of drama in the score.

The cast was fairly solid too, led by by Hamish Colville (Sky Masterson) and Katie Irby (Sarah Brown). Scot Dignan (Nathan Detroit) tripped over a few of his lines early on, but never let it dent his stride and turned in a good performance overall. Ali Colam and Finlay Macaulay made for a nice double act as Nicely-Nicely Johnson and Benny Southstreet. They avoided two musical theatre pitfalls that can easily hobble a show: poor diction and cringeworthy American accents where both notable in their absence.

It wasn't all perfect. A lot of the mistakes felt rather like first night jitters, such as when the orchestra was bathed in bright light briefly for no very good reason. Doors on the set often come or stayed open when they should have been closed and the rather complex scene change into the sewer took just longer than the music allowed and perhaps needed more drilling. It was a good set though (if not on a par with Dave Larking's glorious flying saucer in Salad Days a few years back - think saucer as in cup and saucer, then imagine it at an angle and rotating with people standing and sitting on it and singing; it was quite something else).

More seriously, there was the choreography. This was fine enough in smaller scenes with just a couple of actors on the stage, save an early scene where Detroit seemed to have been instructed to drag his shoes across the stage to make the most annoying sound possible. The big numbers, though, just didn't work for me. The craps shoot in the sewer is a case in point: for the most part they looked like they were doing anything but shooting craps (though some of the things they appeared to be doing to each other and themselves are probably just as illegal in public). Elsewhere, it all just felt a little awkward or, "wouldn't it be cool if they all did this, never mind if it fits". Good choreography should be invisible, in that it shouldn't feel like it's been choreographed.

Inexcusably, given things were amplified and all the principals had mics, the balances were at times poorly judged. This was especially and unfortunately true in two of the show's biggest numbers: during both Luck be a Lady Tonight and Sit Down You're Rocking the Boat the soloist wasn't loud enough, and too often their words were drowned out by either the band or the ensemble. This was a shame since both performers had seemed much stronger elsewhere, only to have biggest numbers fall below expectations.

More minor niggles included the copies of the New York Times actors carried at various points which were not only inconsistent in their size, but also very clearly made from taking UK papers, printing the Times logo on very different paper and taping it on. Fair enough, you might say, but I'm pretty certain there are several newsagents here in Edinburgh where you can easily pick up a copy of the NY Times.

At the end of the day, though, it was a lot of fun, and for £8 (less if you're a concession) you can't say much fairer than that. Doubtless as the run goes on things will tighten up, so if you've a spare evening between Wednesday and Saturday this week and are in the Edinburgh area, you could do an awful lot worse.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Great Comics - Part 1: Watchmen

Comics are like opera. No, really. What makes great opera, really great opera, is that it is a synthesis of two art forms. You have the drama, or humour, or passion of the text underscored with the music, the two together doing something greater than either one alone. Of course, it doesn't always work that well, but the potential is there. It's the same with comics. They sometimes get a bad rep, some people view them as for those too lazy to read a proper book, but that view is just as mistaken as saying opera is for those who'd get bored sitting through a play.


For me, chapter four of Watchmen proves this point. Dr Manhattan, his body glowing bright blue, strolls naked across the surface of Mars. Alan Moore's words and Dave Gibbons' art come together to tell the story of his life. However, the now virtually omnipotent Manhattan no longer experiences time as we do and the narrative flits back and forth throughout his life, tying key events together and highlighting how he can see a relationship is doomed even as he tells someone he loves them. In one moment we see him hone his watchmaking skills; in another we see him piece his body back together following the accident that 'creates' him. Doubtless you could try such a narrative through words alone, but without the pictures it would risk being a confusing mess. As it is, it ranks amongst the most enthralling and fascinating issues of any comic book and helps put Watchmen firmly among the greats.

I don't like greatest ever lists, I think I've made that pretty clear over the years, largely as I think once you get to a certain level of brilliance ranking things in any kind of order is just plain daft. I usually say that if they just said, here's a inexhaustive list of great things, in no particular order, I wouldn't have nearly such a problem. So this is the first in a series looking at a bunch of great things, and while there is an order, at least initially, it is dictated by other factors.

The other day someone on twitter mentioned V for Vendetta, indisputably one of the great comic books. Now, normally I write and tweet about classical music and opera. Occasionally I stray into other art forms. I also read and buy far too many comics, and since it turns out that at least a couple of my followers are so inclined, I thought I would turn my pen, or rather my keyboard, to them. The reason I mention greatest ever lists is because it seems obligatory for almost any article about Alan Moore's Watchmen to either call it the greatest ever comic book or to say it regularly tops such lists. In point of fact, though, it isn't my favourite and it isn't the comic I most keenly wanted to write about; that honour falls to Joe Straczynski's Rising Stars. However, since I don't think that could have been written had Moore not penned Watchmen first, it seems logical to talk about that first and create a mini series in the process.

So, chapter four aside, what makes Watchmen great? Well, take, for example, Spider-man, or the other Marvel superheroes. They all live very much in the real world. True, it's a world in which people get bitten by radioactive spiders and start swinging from the skyscrapers of Manhattan fighting an array of villains of varying degrees of plausibility. It is, none the less, the real world; it is New York and looks remarkably similar to our New York, and whenever the president crops up he has a tendency to look an awful lot like the real occupant of the oval office. My point is this: if there were all these superheroes, surely the world would be radically different, but it doesn't seem to be. Mr Fantastic is able to devise ships that travel between dimensions, yet everyone seems to drive around in petrol driven cars.

For me, Moore's key idea at the centre of Watchmen is to say wait, hang on a minute, if you really had these people running about, doing what they do, the world would, by the 1980s, be a vastly different place. History would not be at all the same. Such it is, that we find a 1985 where Nixon is entering his fourth term and America hasn't been humbled in Vietnam. After all, if you had a person who was effectively godlike, it doesn't really make sense that you would have been.

Underpinning this is a tapestry so rich as to give any comic book geek multiple orgasms. Now, as I mentioned above, I love comic books, and I know a reasonable about about them and their evolution, but I'm not expert. However, I luxuriate in the richness of the way Moore develops his characters in generations through the golden age to the atomic age. It is littered with characters who are analogues of famous superheroes (the second Night Owl owes a lot to Batman, for example), but often taken to extremes: Dr Manhattan, the Superman analogue, is practically a god. These parallels and layers are fleshed out more fully in the wonderful appendices at the back of each issue save the last, be they an article on nuclear deterrence in this new world order or an extra from an ageing superheroes memoir.

As with the greatest science fiction though, Moore is not content with simply asking how the world would be different, but also asks whether we would want it that way. Manhattan may be able to wish away intercontinental ballistic missiles, but far from guaranteeing peace this has only led to the Russians amassing an ever greater arsenal in the hopes of creating one so big that if even only a tiny fraction get through it will be sufficient. This gives rise to the doomsday clock, edging towards midnight, that drives the narrative in a world where the threat of nuclear holocaust is as present, if not more so, as at any time in the cold war.

It's difficult discuss the comic further without giving away what happens in the end, which, in case you haven't read it, I don't want to do, but suffice to say it isn't easy. How diabolical really is the villain? Is there actually a moral case to be made for his master plan? How far is it right for the hero to compromise? I don't think it gives anything to say that no matter how many times I read it, the end remains troubling and I still don't know exactly what I think about the questions it raises.

True, that leaves this a review that omits to mention most of the characters, or so many of the little touches that make this a masterpiece. But then you could write whole books on Rorschach alone. However, that's not quite what I had in mind writing it. Rather, it was to get to the core of what, for me, marks it for greatness, and hopefully I've done that.

The sentence has been written countless times: if you only ever read one comic book, it should be Watchment. I'm not sure I'd go that far, but read it you most certainly should, even if the genre is something you would normally turn up your nose at. Then reread it a while later. And again, for this is art of the level that shows you something more each time. This is a work of true genius and true greatness.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Mackerras Turns the Screw to perfection at ENO

I noted in my recent piece on conductors just what a difference the best can make. As if fate wanted to underscore the point, cue Charles Mackerras returning to English National Opera (sadly Saturday was his final night in the pit, though the production gets one more outing on Monday; however, he can still be heard via the iPlayer for the next six days).

Despite his long association with the ENO and its predecessor, having started out there as second oboe in 1947 when first came to the UK and been music director in the 70s, he has conducted there fairly infrequently in recent years, working much more at Covent Garden. His last visit, in 2006, saw a new production of Janacek's Makropulos Case. While the orchestra played their socks off, the production was, to say the least, flawed (Mackerras himself has slated it), most notably in its baffling changes to the text - the titular document clinging to Marty's fingers like flypaper at the end, to name just the most egregious.

This time he turned his hand to Britten's The Turn of the Screw. It often seems routine to note Mackerras's expertise with yet another composer, but that is what one is forced to do once again here: one of the occasions on which he worked with Britten was when he conducted some of the initial run of London performances.

It is, therefore, no surprise that the music is the standout star of the evening. The slimmed down orchestra of ENO played superbly and Mackerras was in complete control of the score, turning in a reading both well paced and wonderfully textured. As ever, he kept a firm grip on the drama, building some powerful climaxes, especially around the Yeats quotation (from The Second Coming) "The ceremony of innocence is drowned" at the start of the second act.

On stage too, things were similarly fine. Diction was never less than decent and normally very good (contrast with the recent Rigoletto) and singing was excellent. Michael Colvin, doubling as both the prologue and the ghostly Peter Quint, blood dripping from his head, was very fine, so too Rebecca Evans as the governess. Ann Murray was well cast too as the ageing housekeeper Mrs Grose. Rounding off the adult cast was Cheryl Barker (who sang the title role in that performance of Makropulos Case) as Miss Jessel.

Two of the key roles are children. This can sometimes present a problem, as finding young children who can act and sing well, particularly in such a vast house, is no mean feat. But just try telling that to Charlie Manton (one of two boys alternating in the role of Miles) who at times nearly stole the show with an unsettling performance and even managed not to look silly miming at the piano. He was partnered with Nazan Fikret as Flora. While she made her debut in the role when she was just twelve, that was very nearly a decade ago. However, she managed to look and act convincingly younger than her years and sang well.

David McVicar's production was for the most part successful. I am on the fence about the leaves strewn about the stage. Doubtless that helps it double for both the interior and exterior of the country house and, when the former, lends it a nicely decayed feel. However, I suspect the sound of feet crunching through them will be quite annoying on the radio broadcast. On the other hand, they worked superbly when Quint pulled Jessel up through them, or rather the trapdoor they obscured, at the start of the second act, and then more chillingly so when the children buried the doll in them. Other than that, its main feature was four large panels that slid back and fourth horizontally across the stage. Designed to look like windows, at times they were excellent, such as when partially revealing the ghosts. Unfortunately, in the first act they were rather over-used and did at times make the country house look rather too much like a conservatory. The first act over-use was exacerbated by the fact that the second one from the front was either being badly winched by its operator or badly need some oil, as it clunked back and forth very noisily. Such technical things, when done right, should be invisible (or, in this case, inaudible). The black back wall, which slid about to reveal a blindingly lit cyclorama in various interesting ways, from shrinking squares to thin slits, was perhaps, more successful.

While it shouldn't be necessary, it's worth praising it for not actively getting in the way of the text as seems so often to be the fashion now. A key example would seem to be the sexual subtext, which seemed entirely supported by the text. McVicar also got solid acting performances from the entire cast. Doubly impressive since good acting and singing sadly don't always go together and I can't recall the last time I saw an opera without a weak link in this regard.

Let's hope we don't have to wait three and a half years until Mackerras's next return to ENO.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Who needs Runnicles, et al? (Nobody, apparently....)

Many orchestras seem to be suffering financially just now (e.g. Cleveland and Philadelphia). However, if this rather poor piece of journalism in the Grauniad is to be believed, there is a simple solution: sack the conductor. According to Philippa Ibbotson, they not only do nothing useful, but are also massively overpaid for the privilege.

Who is this person? One could be forgiven for imagining that such ramblings come from the pen of one who rarely, if ever, gets out to hear an orchestra, and certainly not the same one regularly with different conductors. The article gives no biography, but a little googling reveals she is, staggeringly, a freelance violinist (presumably one not expecting a great deal of work in the near future).

I go to a lot of concerts, too many, frankly, and listen to even more recordings and radio broadcasts. If the weight of all that experience has taught me anything, it is that it is utter nonsense to suggest that the conductor makes no difference. Of course, I don't doubt that there are those who fall into precisely this category (and I have heard unflattering things about various people from performers who've worked with them; I've seen others about whom I'd say as much), but if there are such poor practitioners, it only underscores what is absent and the existence of those who can deliver it. Simply because not everyone can do something, we shouldn't write the whole idea off.

Put Charles Mackerras in front of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, for example for their concert series of Beethoven symphonies back in 2006, and you have a standard of musicianship to rival any in the world. As someone who lives just round the corner from them, take it from me when I say would that they always sounded that fantastic, regardless of who is up there waving the stick. Of course, they almost always sound good in all but the worst hands, but with someone like Mackerras they are great.

Mackerras, of course, is a particularly fine example of just how much difference a conductor makes. Possessing one of the largest private collections of full orchestral parts, he brings all the scores with him, marked up with decades of experience and research, so he can get just the sound he wants.

Orchestras can, and often very successfully do, play without a conductor. The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra are both examples of this. However, even those performances are conducted after a fashion, being directed by a member of the ensemble. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra blog had a fine piece on the subject earlier in the year. Now, great though their principal cellist David Watkin may be (and regular readers will know that I think he's pretty fantastic), I'm sure even he would admit he's no Charles Mackerras. The blog post makes an interesting point:

First of all, I should clarify that this week we have been performing without a conductor. If you are surprised to hear this, remember that as a small performing group, we don’t really need one.

To me, the key word here is need. No, they don't need a conductor, they can get along just fine without one, I've heard and seen them do it. But there's another key word here: small. The SCO are a fairly small ensemble. I'd like to see somebody do Mahler's eighth symphony or Berlioz's requiem without a conductor (actually, I wouldn't, I'm not daft, but that's exactly the point - the words train, wreck and catastrophic would doubtless feature in any review of a concert that attempted either). And that's not even mentioning opera, from whence many of the best conductors come, doubtless because of the sheer quantity of different factors to be brought together for success.

But just because the SCO doesn't need a conductor, it doesn't mean they don't benefit from having one, usually they do.

That's just my view. After all, what would I, a lowly spectator (albeit one who goes to a quite crazy number of different concerts, and owns equally absurd numbers of different recordings of some works, so has ample opportunity to compare different conductors) know? We should clearly be grateful to Ibbotson for telling us the truth. Doubtless all orchestral players share this view but are afraid to speak out. Except, wait, what's this from Gareth Davies, principal flautist of the LSO, writing in their blog:

I think any discussion over the difference a conductor makes could be settled when you here the LSO play Mahler 9 with Haitink on one night and Gergiev on the other. I’m sure you’ll each have our own personal favourite, but I don’t think any of you would say that we sound the same!

And what a fine example that is. Just personally, I cannot stand Gergiev's Mahler. It strikes me as rushed and altogether reminds me of a man late for an appointment. Others will, and do, adore it. That's just the point - it's nothing like Haitink's, even with the same orchestra, as anybody who heard their Prom this year will have been able to tell. Clearly the man on the podium is doing something and having some effect.

But what is she/he doing exactly. My experiences as a musician, which are extremely limited, since I don't play very well, suggest they do a lot. I play trombone, pretty badly, in an amateur orchestra. Over the last year or so we've had a least four different conductors work with us, and they're all very different. Given my talent, or lack thereof, I like a clear beat, the clearer the better as it's harder to get lost that way. I also find their general attitude makes a huge difference in how hard you try and consequently perform for them, much as with any manager in any job I've ever had (I should say that I do think all our regular conductors do a very fine job; Louise Martin is particularly great at making me feel I'm not as useless as I surely am). Then there's having someone who knows what to do in rehearsals generally, i.e. that you need to have just the violins and flutes playing this passage, then the cellos and brass say, that if you can't hear the violas here it means you're playing too loudly. Not to mention paying attention to exactly what dynamics will work and what tempi to use. We're back to Mackerras and his library of parts now.

In an orchestra of professional players, doubtless most people are capable of doing such things sufficient for a competent performance. However, it surely makes sense to assume that someone who has dedicated their career to taking an overview of a piece will generally be able to get a better result. Similarly, the tuning that goes on is likely of an altogether finer form than with us (though another bit in Gareth's blog did remind me of our fine leader Caroline, one of a number of very talented players we have, as he described the LSO's leader demonstrating a technique to the rest of the players).

Even if Ibbotson was right and players never look at the conductor, clearly something has gone on before hand. Of course, I think the suggestion that the musicians spend the whole evening with their heads buried in the score simply doesn't mesh with my experience. Last night I was at another SCO concert and I couldn't help but notice just how much principal cellist David Watkin looked conductor Andrew Manze, at times he seemed to be looking up almost every other bar. Of course, Watkin is a superb musician, doubtless she could learn something from him.

But why do the results of one conductor's labours lead to a transporting experience while another's may fall flat. Well, that's altogether a tougher question to answer. I once attended a talk with Charles Mackerras where he addressed the issue. Some great conductors, he said, give an exceptionally clear beat, others an impossibly difficult one to follow (Furtwangler had a notoriously difficult downbeat, but the results were unique and incredible: I defy you to say Karajan's Berlin recordings sound anything like his); others spend hours in rehearsal, still others rush in at the last moment then rush out again immediately after; some are dictatorial and scream, fortunately a diminishing trend these days, while others are collegiate in their approach. More interestingly still, the dynamic between one conductor and one orchestra may be extremely successful yet put them with another and it could be a disaster with less chemistry than was located during the search for Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

Earlier in the year, when I spoke to a researcher for the recent Runnicles documentary who didn't know much about classical music, she asked me what I meant by him having a great relationship with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. The analogy I came up with on the spot was one of a conversation between two people: sometimes it's awkward and uncomfortable, sometimes they hit it right off from the word go. The reason isn't entirely clear, but it is normally pretty easy to identify people who are getting along and people who aren't. But just because something isn't clear doesn't mean nothing is happening or that it's worthless. Physicists still don't understand how or why exactly gravity works, but it still keeps my laptop firmly on the table while I type this. Which is nice.

Of course, the question of whether or not a conductor is effective is a quite separate one from whether the salary is excessive, despite the author's insistence on conflating them (and while it may seem fashionable to tie it in with bankers' bonuses given the current climate, the two have about as much in common as astrophysics and astrology). After all, if someone truly is pointless, any salary is outrageous, not just one running into the millions. Even if they were useless, the conflation with bankers would still be unfair, since they've been rather worse than that. However, as I think I've demonstrated, it should be pretty clear that they're not.

Now, it may be valid to argue that there is a fundamental inequity between what the players get paid and what the conductor gets. However, to some extent this is simply market forces at work as is the nature of capitalism. Rightly or wrongly, more people are going to come and hear an orchestra with Claudio Abbado standing in front of them than with Joe Bloggs. Not only, therefore, is an orchestra right to pay top dollar for top conductors, they would be shooting themselves in the foot not to. Until audiences stop caring about hearing the best conductors, they're going to command high prices. The trouble is, for the reasons given above, I don't think that's very likely.

Certainly argue that orchestral musicians should be paid more, everything I know about their finances suggest that for the most part they don't get nearly as much as they deserve. However, in a world where reality stars make millions and Jordan can publish books (yes, note the plural), it seems to me there are more glaring and baffling inequities. I also suspect the proportion of conductors who make millions isn't the majority.

Leaving cold economics aside, though, if someone is capable of creating a revelatory experience in the way the very greatest are, then shouldn't they make a lot? In most of the orchestras I know well there are many great players. However, if one falls ill, or is off doing something else for a given concert, while it is a shame, it doesn't seem to make the same difference as the conductor: the SCO are lifted up when Ursula Leveaux returns to the principal bassoonist's seat, but when Charles Mackerras climbs onto the podium they are transformed.

The simple fact of the matter is that if conductors really were so pointless, far more orchestras would do away with them far more often. They, and the people running them, are not complete idiots.

The real puzzle in all this is whether the Grauniad has any kind of editorial process and how on earth this dross got through it. Therefore, without further ado, I present the Philippa Ibbotson Award for a Bafflingly Terrible Piece of Arts Journalism that Reads Like it was Written by Someone for whom the Arts are a Foreign Country and which was Inexplicably Unhindered by the Editorial Process. I suppose we should retroactively award it to Charles Hazelwood for this too.

Paul Lewis plays Beethoven to perfection while Andrew Manze observes too many repeats

After having to miss several due to other commitments, it was very nice last night to finally make my first official SCO concert of the 2009/10 season. But then, Paul Lewis playing Beethoven was never something I was going to pass by. Lewis's Beethoven has had rave reviews left right and centre, not to mention here, and I've been a fan of it since I first came across him playing the complete sonatas at the Queen's Hall.

Last time he was here, back in January, he gave us a Mozart concerto; this time it was Beethoven's third, with exactly the same partners (Andrew Manze and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra). He did not disappoint. All the hallmarks of a great Lewis performance were present - a wonderful mix of weight, grandeur and delicacy, made all the more special by his ability to transition so seamlessly, and seemingly effortlessly, between them. In the fast moments, such was the intricacy of his finger work that nothing was lost. It was little short of a master class. Behind him Manze provided solid support, with the orchestra firmly in their historically informed gear and using natural horns and trumpets. Their phrasing was very crisp, perhaps a little too much so early on, in a way that didn't entirely convince me. True, he lacked the ultimate control and excitement that Mackerras would have brought, but it was pretty fine nonetheless. Manze and Lewis were never at odds, though, and the result was a nicely unified reading, something that all too often isn't the case. Almost always the balance between soloist and orchestra was well judged, except during a few moments of the slow movement, where they could have been slightly softer behind Lewis's exquisitely teasing phrasing. However, such reservations are minor: it was a glorious joy to hear and only makes me wish once more that the team Lewis is recording these with was Mackerras and the SCO. Let's hope Lewis returns again next year, perhaps for some more Mozart. Alternatively, perhaps he could be persuaded to do a solo concert of the Diabelli Variations as well.

The Beethoven was preceded by Webern's Five Movements for Strings, op.5. These, scored for string orchestra alone, proved a great series of miniatures, displaying a wonderful range of colours and textures; each interesting and none overstaying its welcome. Indeed, they showcased the economy of Webern's writing and just how much he could do with how little. Manze directed a finely controlled and well played reading.

The second half was to feature Schubert's sixth symphony (so called the Little as it is in the same key as the Great C major but about half as long). However, Manze turned to address the audience. He did so fairly briefly, and confined himself to talking about the music and some interesting biographical details about Webern. It's only a pity that he didn't go into more depth about how the works fitted together in the programme, rather than just giving a throw away line to the effect that Webern had studied the others so there was a reason for it all. The Movements, we were told, could be appreciated both close up and from far away. So much so that we'd hear them again. I'm baffled as to why. Perhaps he wanted to annoy Edinburgh's ultra-conservative audience. It's not that I don't like the pieces, they're very good, but I'm not sure I got anything more the second time. The purported excuse that Schubert's thirty minute plus symphony was too short doesn't really stand up: the concert would have run a respectable two hours without the repeat. What's more, if the 2006 International Festival Beethoven concerts taught us anything it was that just because you have the time, doesn't mean you have to fill it, indeed it's sometimes better not to. And if the programme really was light, why not add another short work (doubtless another Webern might fit the bill). Maybe some people listened more carefully the second time, but surely that effect could have been had by doing the talk at the very start. I realise I've now expended a vastly disproportionate amount of time on this, but I was sufficiently baffled by the decision, something that, in an awful lot of concert going, I've never encountered before, that it detracted from my enjoyment of the Schubert.

That was a shame, because it was really rather good. Manze led the orchestra in a witty, dramatic and very well played performance (with some particularly excellent work from guest principal flautist Daniel Pailthorpe in the first movement). The influence Rossini could be keenly felt. As is often the case with less well known works, one was left wondering why Schubert's symphonies that aren't numbered eight or nine don't make it onto concert programmes more often.

Oh, and one final thought. Anyone recalling that silly piece in the Grauniad a while back which suggested orchestral players never look at the conductor might have enjoyed noting just how often principal cellist David Watkin looked at Manze (at times almost every other bar).