Sunday 24 May 2009

The Singular Thomas Dolby

It's very exciting right now: we're so nearly there. Almost every time I've seen my youngest uncle in the last decade or so I've had one question for him: when is he going to get back into the recording studio and produce a new album. (The fact that Dolby is my uncle earns this post a shameless plugs tag.)

It's been the better part of two decades since Astronauts and Heretics, his last effort, but in recent years things have started to look up, first with the Sole Inhabitant tour and then more recently when he established his lifeboat studio in his back garden.

Now everything seems to be happening at once. Shortly we will get brand new remasters of his first two albums The Golden Age of Wireless and The Flat Earth, with extra tracks, and, in the case of the former a bonus DVD (you may wish to register at his online forum as some of the extras will only be made available via this). EMI's pop department appears to be not much more reliable than their classical though, and the release dates have kept slipping. Still, while we wait, we have a couple of things to tide us over. First up is this, The Singular Thomas Dolby:

Released on Monday, by Friday Amazon had still to ship it (clearly they are unable to count up all the people who have ordered it and get that many copies), so I picked it up in Fopp instead; pleasantly reassuring that you can pick up a Dolby disc on the high street. Essentially, it's Retrospectacle redux (i.e. a compilation disc). Now, I'm not ordinarily a great fan of these, but two things make it well worth buying.

First up is the second disc which is a DVD containing a series of Dolby's music videos. Some of these, such as She Blinded me with Science and Hyperactive I've seen before (the latter I remember from my childhood and a worn VHS tape). Many I have not, so it is a real treasure trove. May the Cube Be With You is nicely zany and I think Airhead is extremely clever. The retro filming of I Love You, Goodbye fits wonderfully. It also scores points with me right off by having a simple and clean menu design. As with the CD, the sound has been remastered and sound very good indeed. The picture is decent enough too (but it is very likely they didn't have source material in such good condition to work with). That it is only stereo will annoy some. It's fine with me, I no longer bother to run a 5.1 system and find it utterly pointless for music - when in a concert hall are the musicians ever behind you (I can count the instances on the fingers of one hand)? The DVD is PAL format (and does not appear to have regional coding); I don't know if this has implications for American players, but I've never had the slightest trouble with NTSC discs.

Secondly, the CD tracks have been digitally remastered. Sound quality is definitely improved and if not quite a night and day difference (the source previous versions were, after all, pretty decent to begin with), certainly cleaner, crisper and richer; the sound is much more open and less compressed. They have not been comprehensively remixed in the manner of, say, The Sole Inhabitant (where may of the textures are often totally new or changed). For those of a hi-fi persuasion this will make it worth acquiring. If you're not bothered by such things, you may not notice.

It should be noted that these are not the album versions, mostly shorter; it seems instrumental sections have been truncated as the lyrics seem all there. At least, more or less. Unfortunately, the lyric of silk Pyjamas has been changed from "how's the bugger gonna manage" to "how's she ever gonna manage". A pity. A good thing EMI don't have to remasted Phillp Jeays' lyric "Until one day you find your freedom fucked with freedom fries", from his supreme rant against consumerism and the Iraq war Seven Signs of Ageing.

One nice curiosity is Fieldwork (which has never, as far as I am aware, had a CD release). Depending on your view, the disc may be worth buying for the CD; but for my money, what makes it cheap at twice the price is the DVD, the CD is a nice bonus. It does, however, make me all the more eager for the two album remasters.

Much more interesting, and tantalising, though, is the current edition of the Wired podcast (issue five, if you're reading this in the future), which features Dolby as guest DJ. Amid a relatively interesting selection of other pieces (Iggy Pop surprised me for some reason), we get three tantalising glimpses at, yes, you guessed, that elusive work in progress, the new album. Or, as we now know we can call it A Map of the Floating City. This seems to have arisen from the fact that JJ Abrams recently guest edited an issue, and turns out to be a fan of Dolby (listing The Golden Age of Wireless among his favourite albums; while we part company somewhat, in that Wireless isn't my favourite, praise doesn't come much more fulsome than this):

Dolby's The Golden Age of Wireless remains one of the greatest albums ever recorded. And his follow-up records were a brilliant mix of heart, soul, and electronics..... He's a genius.

I feel a bit bad even trying to review them. I must confess to not having been blown away on the first listen, but having gone back several times in writing this, I'm now much more excited. However, part of that is, in general, I think Dolby's albums are well filled with songs that belong together, so it may not necessarily be possible to make a fair judgement in isolation (the A side of The Flat Earth remains one of my favourite album sides of all time - the only thing blemish on the album is that, superb though it is, I don't quite feel Hyperactive fits there).

The first new track arrives at a cue point 9.32 into the podcast, 9.09 if you want the spoken introduction. It's called The Toad Lickers, a tale of eco-warriors holed up in the mountains of Wales and it has a folksy feel to it, aided by the presence of accordion and dobro. There's a gently subversive wit to many of the lyrics, as we might expect. I like especially like "make hay not war".

The second new track arrives at 16.17 (16.01 if you want the spoken introduction) and is called Oceanea. This is classic Dolby, dreamy and melodic in the manner of, say, Screen Kiss or Mulu The Rain Forest (especially the pipes). I can't wait to hear this one at CD quality rather than on a podcast.

Dolby then drops the following bombshell (time index 19.07):

Well, I'll be releasing my upcoming album in the form of three downloadable EPs, followed by a physical CD entitled A Map of the Floating City.

First up, nice title. There certainly seems to be a fairly nautical inspiration. Of course, from a studio in a converted boat, looking out on the North Sea and a windswept Suffolk beach, this is not surprising. However, the statement begs numerous questions:

  • What will the charge be for the EPs? I don't really fancy having to buy them, then buy the CD afterwards.
  • Is Dolby going to be really brave and issue the EPs for free and then hope we all buy the album (and, from what I know of his fans, I suspect this approach would work)?
  • Will the EPs be at CD quality (or, perhaps, even better)? Which could partly render the first question moot (though I do like a physical album and booklet, etc.).
  • When will the EPs and the CD actually get their release?

If Dolby or anyone representing him wants to answer some or any of these questions, we'll happily print the responses.

Dolby closes out the podcast with a snippet from a third and final new song: To the Lifeboats, so brief I won't give any comment beyond a plea to hear it in full.

ENO presents Peter Grimes (the rare absurdist farce, black comedy verison)

Director David Alden seems to have managed something of a coup for his new staging of Britten's masterpiece Peter Grimes at English National Opera: he appears to have located and restored an earlier draft of the piece where a somewhat different approach was taken, melding theatre of the absurd, black comedy and outright farce. Sadly, it is easy to see why Britten made the changes he did.

Okay, I don't believe that either; however, the only alternative explanation for this embarrassingly bad production is that Alden is completely useless. A theory for which he has presented some pretty compelling evidence this evening. That said, had I read the programme fully before hand, I might have known we were destined to get off on the wrong foot, since he is very dismissive of Paul Bunyan.

If fairness, not everyone destroys their reputation. The orchestra do sound very good indeed, and Gardner gets some good sounds from them (unfortunately, the last time I saw this, it was a live relay from the Met with the man himself, Runnicles, in the pit, and this doesn't match the magic of that musically). There are some good singers too: Stuart Skelton in the title role, Gerald Findlay as Balstrode and Matthew Best as Swallow. The women are more problematic, especially when it comes to making out what they're singing, and none of the casting seems quite right - in particular Amanda Roocroft as Ellen who is often inaudible and doesn't seem a big enough voice for the hall. Sadly, any fine vocal performance are totally ruined by the aforementioned directorial ineptitude.

To begin at the beginning, we see the inquest taking place in what appears to be the slightly odd setting of a marble hall. Then the real oddities start: who, you may well wonder, are these two young ladies, dressed like girl guides, carrying voodoo dolls and seeming to be a lot more than just friends. As it turns out, they are a slightly creative reading of Auntie's two nieces. Auntie herself is equally puzzling, looking like she is auditioning for the role of Sally Bowles in Cabaret.

The court scene over, Grimes brings in his ship alone. For some reason the mooring post is indoors, creating something of a health and safety hazard (which the nieces unaccountably limbo under). That the rope goes slack when the boat is pulled in is also a little annoying. The pub set is more confusing still, consisting mainly of worn old sofas and arm chairs. What's more, the chorus is kept outside in the storm behind an odd wall that raises and lowers periodically to remind us it's nasty out. Still, Auntie is not totally without heart, and while they're not allowed into the pub, they are all permitted a bottle of grog to ward off the storm. When they do all finally come in for the sea shanty, it is a curiously underwhelming moment.

Act two is better done, but only marginally so. Ellen skips onto the stage so gaily that one half expects her to swing from a lamppost and declare that she is, in fact, singing in the rain. Grimes, on the other hand, comes across as so one-dimensionally evil and beastly that it is impossible to discern what she might see in him. The character is only interesting when there is ambiguity (Alden acknowledges the need for this in an interview in the programme, what a shame he wasn't capable of conveying it).

Then we see Grimes' hut. Things are odd here too. While the apprentice cowers in the foetal position (about the only thing he ever does do), one cannot help but notice Grimes has made a mistake in constructing his house on a thirty degree incline. There is meant to have been a landslide, yet it appears to have had a very odd effect since both the way down to the sea at the back, and also the area surrounding the front door, appear to have compromised. Essentially the director does not seem to have a picture in his head that makes sense, or, if he does, he hasn't communicated it to everyone else. It further irks when Grimes orders the apprentice to descend to the sea, which he does by climbing up a ladder.

But this is, frankly, small potatoes compared to what Alden has in store for the final act. The Borough, it seems, is a veritable swingers' paradise. Swallow parades around in a pink tutu (and later, for reasons passing understanding, with his trousers down - I'd love to know if Best asked what the motivation was for that and what possible answer Alden might have; given how judgemental everyone is of Grimes, they're remarkably blase about taking orders from a man in his underpants). Auntie's nieces are now dressed as a soldier and sailor, and choreographed in a way that would make a robot from fifty years ago look fluid and elegant.

The choreography in general is abysmal. To what extent this is down to the sad and untimely death of Claire Glaskin (during the first week of rehearsal) is unclear. However, the programme credits her with The Makropulos Case, another dire production, saved only by Mackerras and some good singing. Interestingly, Alden's brother directed that travesty. Perhaps a study is required into whether an inability to respect the text is genetic. But I digress. It's unclear how much was Glaskin and how much the credited movement director Maxine Braham. However, it basically looks like what they really wanted to do was choreograph Guys and Dolls (the moment in act three were various men bid goodnight by repeatedly remove their hats is amongst the most prominent examples) or West Side Story (think the gangs facing off and clicking their fingers as the mob advances). However, it looks both out of place and poorly executed.

Indeed, as the first scene of the last act drew to a close, it was taking every ounce of my self-control not to burst into hysterical laughter, particularly when what appeared to be the rabbit from Donnie Darko wandered onto the stage for no readily apparent reason.

Grimes' final descent into madness should be powerful and moving. Sadly, here it didn't represent much of a change and I found myself wishing he'd just get on with it and drown himself so I could go home.

Often, at this point, I would say that's not the end of the world, so long as the music is good. And it's doubtless true that, if I'd been blindfolded prior to entering the theatre, I might very well have had a good night. Unfortunately no one was on hand to perform this much needed public service, with the result that every time I tried to close my eyes and blot it out, I couldn't unwatch the silliness I'd seen and it refused to leave my mind.

I cannot conceive how it's been widely reviewed so well (then again, I seem destined to be perennially at odds with the London opera critics - after all, I loved ENO's Aida, disliked Haitink's Parsifal and now detest this). I feel badly cheated by this and rather wish I hadn't travelled all the way down here to see it. A few weeks back they offered me a free ticket for the press night - even if our policy was to take such offers, I still would have felt ripped off. ENO would do well to burn the sets and erase any evidence that this travesty ever existed.

Friday 22 May 2009

The Birmingham Repertory Theatre ordain His Dark Materials to create a bit of a mess

One of the biggest things on the internet in 2003 was a video of kid who dressed up, played with a toy lightsabre and, by common consent, made a bit of a fool of himself. Now, in fairness to the Birmingham Rep, this is a somewhat harsh comparison, but not completely so. Nearly five years ago I saw the National Theatre production of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, and, while it had its flaws, it was, and remains, the most technically impressive thing I have ever witnessed in the theatre (for the avoidance of any confusion, I use technically in the stage technician sense). Lighting, sound, costume and puppetry were constantly jaw-dropping; the Olivier theatre's famous cylindrical revolve was used so many times it is a wonder they didn't wear it out. I can't think it can have been a cheap.

This, of course, presented the Rep with their biggest challenge: to take something so epic and make it into a successful touring production. For me, it comes off looking a little too like the Star Wars kid and, having seen the original, no substitute for the real thing. The lack of money is everywhere: virtually none of the characters have a daemon, the same table and benches are endlessly reused (upended as boats or poorly impersonating laboratory equipment) in a manner unfortunately reminiscent of a school drama class. Where there is talk of the Amber Spyglass, we have to use our imagination rather than see the swirls of dust that the National created; there are wobbly and often inadequate walls. I could go on.

Does this matter? To me, yes. You see, the adaptation itself is extremely problematic. You're taking three fairly long books and shredding them into six hours of theatre and, in a lot of places, there's no way to do that that isn't extremely clunky (or, if there is, Nicholas Wright doesn't find it - in many places I disagree with his choices). Much of the drive, beauty and subtlety of The Northern Lights, my favourite of the books, is lost. Lee Scoresby simply vanishes, removing the best scene of the second book (though given John Hodgkinson's dire attempt at a Texan accent, this is no great loss; Josie Daxter manages much better as his daemon Hester). When you have visually stunning things going on all the time, you are more forgiving of such flaws.

Some things are carried off reasonably well - the armoured bears are almost identical to the Michael Curry's for the National Theatre (something designers Nick Barnes and Mark Down neglect to mention in their three page interview in the programme). The end, where the adaptation is least curtailed, still manages to be fairly moving. A number of the cast turn in solid performances, especially Amy McAllister as Lyra, Nick Barber as Will, Geoffrey Lumb as Iorek Byrnison and Christopher Ettridge as Lord Boreal

Elsewhere, far from helping, the production seems intent on shooting itself in the foot with a lot of silly decisions. Where the National's puppeteers were masked and all in black, allowing the puppets to come to life and disbelief to be suspended, here faces were visible and clothes coloured and they got in the way as a result. The lighting and sound cues when Will cut a window to another world were either repeatedly messed up or, bafflingly, deliberately misaligned with each other and with the action. The more severe flaws seem down to some poor direction on the part of Rachel Kavanaugh and Sarah Esdaile. Everyone seems to have been instructed to be as over the top as possible: Charlotte Asprey as Mrs Coulter is a particularly glaring example (though Timothy Kightley runs her pretty closely as the Master and in various other roles). Most critical is the decision to play the Gallivespian's solely for laughs, much as the Lord of the Rings films chose to trash the character of Gimli. It's not helped by the fact the 'puppets' are simply inanimate wooden dolls. Much the same is true of the angels - the fact that they are not elegant puppets makes the death of Baruch, who is supposed to blow away in the wind to nothing, oddly unmoving.

The Festival Theatre was pretty poorly sold (an hour before hand, I was able to pick up a front row dress circle seat for part one). This may be down to odd timing: it's currently exam season in Edinburgh's schools and a production that might be expected to count on a school audience really ought to think of these sorts of things when picking tour dates. Then again, I don't think they missed terribly much.

Still, it was at least better than the film, which I wasn't even able to get to the end of (that was also let down by an inept director - in this case one Chris Weitz who was under the mistaken impression he could write a better screenplay than Tom Stoppard).

Andsnes and the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra PLAY - Mozart, Prokofiev, Grieg and Beethoven

One of the most annoying aspects of the absence of the Usher Hall for these last few seasons has been the resulting absence of any international classics season from Edinburgh. We must wait for August and the festival for our international ensembles. Or we can go to Glasgow.

Leif Ove Andsnes and the young Norwegian Chamber Orchestra always seemed an enticing bet, yet at the beginning of this week I was feeling so shattered I wondered if I'd even bother with the trip. Even this on Wednesday morning, I had my doubts. I'm very glad I resisted them.

They began with Mozart's K449 concerto, Andsnes also directing, with the lid off the piano, which was facing into the orchestra (providing a nice view of the keyboard). They gave a crisp reading of the work and the ensemble was nicely tight in a way that isn't always the case when a soloist directs; the fact that this ensemble is conductorless probably helps here. Andsnes' played nicely, though didn't quite seem to have the clarity of, say, Paul Lewis.

He then left the stage, his piano was pushed off to one side, and a small rostra was brought on for leader Terje Tonnesen (also the orchestra's music director). They played Prokofiev's small first symphony. Weighing in at under a quarter of an hour, it always sounds as though it's very difficult to play. I love it though, especially the rapid and witty opening movement. The orchestra kept effortlessly on top of the tricky tempi and at times the piece danced wonderfully. My only reservation concerns my seat - I had managed to end up in the front row of the stalls (not sure quite how, since I normally like to look down for a better view) between the second and third desks of the first violins; this led to a slightly string-heavy balance.

During the interval a member of the hall's staff played with the tuning of the piano. This struck me as odd, since I hadn't noticed anything untoward. A second odd thing happened when I returned to my seat: all the chairs were pushed back, bar three. The strings then returned to the stage to play, from memory and while, with the exception of the cellos, still standing, Grieg's Holberg Suite. Now, this immediately suggested to me some kind of party piece, something which can be a bad omen as it can mean a by the numbers and routine affair. Fortunately nothing could have been further from the truth. They gave a sparkling reading and there seemed to be great concentration and greater communication between the players.

Finally Andsnes returned for Beethoven's third piano concerto, often amongst my least favourite (unless it's played very well indeed, such as by Solomon). It was superb and either I had been tired during the Mozart or there really had been something not quite right about the piano as his playing was breathtaking. Yes, perhaps not quite the absolute clarity of Lewis, but something else too, especially the richness and delicacy he brought to the sublime slow movement, which I would happily have listened to over and over again. The outer movements were also well judged and all in all it was a beautiful performance. So too the accompaniment from the orchestra was of the highest order.

It was a slightly eclectic programme, yet one which seemed to fit together very well. And, when he returned to the stage to announce an encore, something that often winds me up, it seemed entirely fitting: they gave a sparkling reading of the finale from Haydn's D major piano concerto (Andsnes' intricate fingerwork was a joy to behold).

They were justly well received by the modest audience (the hall must have been below half capacity). That more people weren't there is baffling; apparently Scottish Opera's new production opened the same night: more fool anyone choosing that over this. I hope the visitors didn't feel unwelcome and I hope the return soon (if anyone from the festival is reading this, how about booking them next year, go on).

Monday Night Film Club and a near impossible review - Synecdoche, New York

About two thirds of the way through Charlie Kaufmann's new epic I had a deeply unsettling thought: how on God's earth am I going to write a review of this movie? Kaufmann's work is tricky to pin down at the best of times, but Synecdoche leaves everything else standing. In the pub afterwards, half joking, I came up with an idea that would be entirely fitting. The review would be this: if you liked his past work, Adaptation, Being John Malkovich and The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, then you will probably like Synecdoche too and should go and see it. If you sat through those films wondering what on earth the point was, you should avoid this like the plague; you will very likely come out and want your money back. That would be it, the rest would be left to the comments in the hope that something could be gleaned from the cumulative experience of many viewers. It was a joke, but it would actually fit quite nicely.

However, I haven't done that. After all, I'm a subscriber to Jed Bartlet's dictum (which I can't remember exactly in terms of numbers) that anyone who uses five words when they could use ten just isn't trying hard enough. And, in fairness, the more I've thought about the film, the easier it becomes.

To begin at the beginning, with the name. From my full Oxford English Dictionary (all twenty micrographically reduced volumes of it) Synecdoche:

A figure by which a more comprehensive term is used for a less comprehensive or vice versa; as whole for part or part for whole, genus for species or species for genus, etc.

It's a fitting title. Actually, when I first read it I mistook it for Schenectady, a district of New York (where the opening of the film is set and in which Charles Mackerras, a favourite conductor of mine, was born). But enough etymology.

In many ways, I see Synecdoche as the sequel to Adaptation. Which, in turn, is probably my least favourite Kaufmann film. There are brilliant aspects to it: I love Kaufmann's quest to capture the beauty of the orchids and nothing but, and his failure as the script goes to ever crazier places (though, as Film Club co-founder Caroline noted afterwards, he does indeed capture the beauty of the orchids). However, partly as a writer, and partly for other reasons I'd rather not go into, I find it very difficult viewing as too much of the time it cuts too close to the bone for me. However, the film explored the mind of screenwriter putting a script together, and the meandering journey that resulted. Synecdoche does the same, only more so. And now, as director as well as writer, there is little to hold Kaufmann back and things balloon somewhat.

The story follows director Caden Cotard, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. He is in a disintegrating marriage with Adele Lack, Catherine Keener (a Kaufmann stalwart). He has just directed Death of a Salesman and is a raving hypochondriac. Things get going when he wins the MacArthur Grant (the exact value of which is not specified, but, given what comes next, must be bigger than Kubla Kahn's caverns) and decides to make something true. Over the ensuing decades, he builds his theatre piece in a measureless warehouse, recreating his life in infinte detail. As he does so, it consumes everything else. That is doesn't amount to much is what many will find frustrating. Ditto that characters vanish from his life, and consequently the film, without resolution.

I suppose what Kaufmann is saying is that, well, life's like that. You could recreate anyone's daily existence with a cast of thousands and it would probably amount to a similarly unenlightening experience. In his ever deeper search for meaning in the warehouse, Cotard becomes ever more disconnected from life and from the real world until he is no longer even the director of his life, but merely a bit part actor. In other words, you could argue it's a longer way of putting that line from The Shawshank Redemption: "Get busy living or get busy dying." There's more to it than that, of course, lots more. Much of it defying explanation. But that, for me, is the gist.

The execution is beautiful - the way the set grows around them, the way we see the slightest snippets of the outside world, from the passing of Zeppelins to the troops roaming the streets of New York, which are wonderfully judged to convey just how long has passed. The rest of the cast, including Michelle Williams, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan and Samantha Morton is excellent too.

That said, this isn't Kaufmann's best work. It is not, for me, as thought provoking or as simply brilliant as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a near perfect work of science fiction which took an impossibility (erasing an unhappy love affair) and asked two brilliant questions: would you want it and would it make a blind bit of difference?

Then again, perhaps I should just have said go if you like Kaufmann. There are plenty of typically mad touches, the 7 1/2th floor-esque burning house (which at first provokes the response that it must be a dream sequence) springs most readily to remind. Enjoy, but don't say I didn't warn you.

Sunday 17 May 2009

The Starlets (and others) play Henry's Cellar Bar

This review marks something of a first, since two of the three bands covered earn it a shameless plugs tag (meaning that a friend of mine plays with them each of them).

I've written about The Starlets a couple of times before. I first heard them in a gig last July, I also mentioned their Japanese tour last autumn. At the end of that piece I lamented the lack of plans for UK gigs and it's only very recently that they've got round to playing any. Friday marked their first Edinburgh appearance since last summer and is one of a series surrounding the launch of their new album Out Into the Days from Here. Unlike the last time I heard them, both support acts are worth mentioning and, actually, all three of them complimented each other nicely.

First up was Famous Dave Dixon, and the only act I don't know anyone involved in (who Starlets front man Biff Smith described to me beforehand as imagine Bob Dylan but from Aberdeen and with ginger hair). He played a brief set, accompanying himself on an amplified acoustic guitar. He has a nice voice and is decent guitarist to boot.

Dave was followed by Lipsync for a Lullaby, whose lead singer and guitarist Atzi plays cello with us in the Stockbridge and New Town Community Orchestra. I've heard Lipsync a couple of times now, and find them a rather difficult band to describe. They are a slightly unusual setup, with viola joining guitars and drums, but one which works very well. Their songs tend to start out quiet beauty and then get almost overpoweringly loud (sometimes a little too loud for my taste). I'm not really able to say much more than that because they have a very unusual effect on me. As well as writing reviews and the like here, I also do a fair bit of creative writing. I find Lipsync's music transports me and often helps me unlock various bits of writer's block I might be having. As such, I find myself jotting down notes about that rather than the music itself. I hope this is taken as a compliment - it's certainly meant that way and it's why I like hearing them. There's not much music that does that for me and I find that I can't really just listen without it having that effect. Unfortunately, it's of little help as a review.

After this the The Starlets took to the stage (my friend Caroline Evens, also the leader of our orchestra, plays violin with them). The first thing that struck me was not something I really noticed the last time I heard them: Biff Smith is a very engaging front man, not least in so far as his amusing commentary regarding his wayward microphone stand was concerned.

Friday found the band on fine form. As I've mentioned before, they have a sound that particularly appeals to me, due to their mix of guitars, drums, trumpet, violin and, on this occasion, cello as well. Perhaps unusually, given they've only just had the UK launch of their new album, the set was mostly not their newer songs. I'm slightly glad of this. I haven't yet got round to giving the new album a proper review (I downloaded it from emusic a week or so ago) and while there's a lot of good stuff on it, I don't like it quite so much as the last two efforts. I think that is because the balance is slightly less in favour of the more dreamy songs which I really like. However, two of numbers Like Novocaine and Running out of Saturday were both excellent. These were nicely joined by some of my favourite songs from the older albums such as Rocking in a Shy Way and Surely Tomorrow You'll Feel Blue.

For a couple of songs, including the Western inspired Crazy Horse (which, despite sounding like it in name only, made me think of the Bad Horse chorus from Joss Whedon's genius musical Dr Horrible's Sing Along Blog) they were joined on stage by Famous Dave Dixon.

They finished nicely with a purely musical, foot tapping, or rather stomping, number inspired by a weekend of drinking in Poland. It was an inspired choice as it removed any demand for encore, since it's the kind of song you shouldn't try to followup on (we're not generally fans of encores here). That said, I could happily have listened to sets twice as long from each band.

All in all, a good night of music.

The return of Monday Night Film Club (Is Anybody There and Star Trek)

It's been too long since our Cameo Monday Night Film Club last met (though, in point of fact, it returned a few weeks back but I had to miss one because I was in London for the London Symphony Orchestra and another because I was in Glasgow for the BBC SSO launch, featuring Runnicles himself; that's a shame because I missed In the Loop and State of Play).

I must confess, I didn't have high hopes for Is Anybody There. I'm not quite sure why, but I felt I needed a light-hearted film and didn't think I'd be getting one. I'm not sure where this feeling came from, but suffice to say it was completely and totally misplaced.

The film is difficult to describe, and I'm not sure to call it a comedy would be entirely accurate, but that isn't going to stop me, not least because it is very funny indeed. Set in the 80s, the film tells the story of Edward (played by Bill Milner, who was in Son of Rambow, which for some unaccountable reason I've yet to see) whose parents have turned their house into an old people's home. No little suspension of disbelief is required here, since in the real world this outfit would have been closed down by social services before the film even started. Still, the film is sufficiently engaging that this isn't a problem. Edward is obsessed with death, what happens afterwards and, more than anything, ghosts. This includes leaving a tape recorder in the rooms of dying inmates and endlessly listening back to them, before noting no contact day after day in his journal.

Then Michael Caine arrives, a comudgeonly old magician who cannot bear that his life has come to this, and whose sardonic comments at the lives the others are reduced to provide much of the comedy. Milner starts off loathing him (and wanting his bedroom back), but the two form a bond, starting with giving him some leaflets on preparing for death (and one that is hilariously inapproriate).

Other aspects of the film are not so completely successful: Leslie Phillips is as completely over the top as one would expect. More crucially, the more serious, emotional lines of the film don't entirely convince. Caine's journey is quite moving, if predictable, but the story of Edward's parents (played by Anne-Marie Duff and David Morrissey) is not, and far too nicely tied up at the end. Still, it works gloriously for me as a comedy and can be thoroughly be recommended.

Then, on Saturday, it was back to the cinema. Sadly, though, not the Cameo, but instead the Vue at the awful Omni Centre. The reason: Star Trek (which isn't on at the Cameo, or any other civilised cinema that doesn't feature half an hour of adverts and leave you looking very embarressed when you try to pay for two tickets with a tenner). Topping of a progressively more awful series of trailers was G-Force, which appears to be about a commando unit of gerbils working for the US government; must see that one.

Now, I have a love hate relationship with JJ Abrams, the director hired to reboot the franchise. I first met him through Alias, a wonderful spy show starring Jennifer Garner which was unashamedly complicated and silly, and yet emotionally very real (I would still argue that the portrayal of the relationship with her father, played by Victor Garber, is one of the most realistic such examples I've seen). Then there was Lost, which only ever answered a question with another question, didn't have the bonus of Garner saving the world weekly in skimpy outfits and has unaccountably gained greater success. Then there is Felicity, which I'd love unequivically if she'd ended up with the right guy. I could list a few more examples, but I'll limit myself to just one: Mission Impossible 3. This was a bitter disappointment because it should have been perfect. In so many ways, Alias, with its unremittingly cool heists, was the mission impossible of the twenty-first century. As such, Abrams was the perfect choice for the film (indeed, I'd been saying as much for some time before it was announced). So what went wrong? Well, given it was in large part the plot of the Alias pilot and the episode where they break into the Vatican, just with lots more money, what could possibly go wrong? I think the answer must be just that: the money. Lack of money can be a wonderful spur to creativity, forcing people to think outside the box. Whatever the reason, it had nothing of the flair I would have expected.

Sorry, that's probably going into too much detail. But it spells out why I was concerned about Star Trek, a picture that would undoubtably have very deep pockets. However, it has received rave reviews, so my fears were allayed somewhat and I can pleasingly report that the reviews are fair: it's a lot of fun. Recreating the 60s TV series is something of a minefield, since if you do it too closely it might look very silly. Certainly, our views of what looks futuristic have changed somewhat. Hats off here to production designer Scott Chambliss (a long standing Abrams collaborator), who perfectly captures the look while at the same time updating it. In particular, I like how industrial the engine rooms seem - they actually look vast enough to be powering these huge star ships.

Cast-wise things are pretty good too. Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto look the parts as Kirk and Spock and have a good chemistry together. There is a wonderful moment early on when Quinto instructs someone to "live long and prosper" with more scorn than I'd ever conceived the line having. I didn't warm to Karl Urban as Bones initially: he is no DeForest Kelley, always the best thing about the original cast, but then who is. However, his performance grew on me a lot as the film progressed. Zoe Saldana's Uhura is similarly fine, not least for the way she keeps Kirk's ego in check. Simon Pegg, though always great, seems somewhat miscast as Scotty (and has a slightly elusive accent). Bruce Greenwood is superb as Pike, who fans will remember as the Enterprise's original captain in the pilot episode.

The plot tells of Kirk and Spock's early lives, in particular showcasing the beauty of Vulcan, as well as just how alien it is. Things get shaken up as Romulan Nero, who is bent on wiping out planets, in best Star Wars tradition, embarks on a quest for vengeance. Leonard Nimoy, the original Spock is elegantly fitted into the film, in such a way that it doesn't feel like it's just there to please fans. In fairness, the plot doesn't entirely stand up to scrutiny in one or two moments (but it would be exceptionally geeky to point them out; one concerns the ease with which Kirk gets back onto the ship). Fortunately the film is sufficiently fun, in the best Hollywood blockbuster tradition, that it doesn't much matter. The effects are pretty good. We get a proper ship ramming another ship scene, unlike the embarrassment of Star Trek: Nemesis; all the same, it isn't quite so impressive as such examples as Babylon 5 and the new Battlestar Galactica have provided. Indeed, when one thinks about how innovative and visually stunning the latter show has been in its effects (think the rescue sequence from New Caprica and the atmospheric jump), there was no similarly wow effects moment in this film. Given the money involved, that's disappointing.

There are two bigger annoyances. The first is the sponsorship. I realise that a big film cannot apparently be made these days without some company paying millions to get their product into it. Still, you'd think you'd be safe in Sci-Fi. Particularly in a world which, I'd always got the impression, had done away with big corporations and the like. So it was especially galling when Kirk got a call on a phone made by a well known manufacturer (whom I will not give publicity to here), similarly some of the beverages in the bar scene. What's next: U.S.S. Enterprise, sponsored by Duracell (Because it just keeps on going)! We give awards here occasionally, one more must now be created to join them: The Star Trek Award for Out of Place Product Placement. It must retroactively be awarded to Die Another Day for having James Bond shave with an electric razor. More critically (SPOILER ALERT, though one I'd already got from every review), it turns out we're in a parallel universe. What this means is that we do not, after all, get the story of how Spock, Kirk and the rest of the crew meet and become friends and the team that would go on to such greatness. Instead, we've learnt the origin of a similar but different crew, and I can't help feeling slightly cheated as a result.

Still, it is nice to finally see Kirk defeat the Kobayaski Maru test.

Update - 30/5/09

One final thought occurred to me yesterday: JJ Abrams has managed to break the odd numbered Star Trek film curse - namely that they aren't, generally speaking, any good. Actually, in fairness, the curse was broken by the terrible Nemesis, which, as an even numbered entry to the canon, should have been great.

Sunday 10 May 2009

The SCO Season finale (Edinburgh only) - Bronnimann conducts Kodaly, Hallgrimsson and Bartok

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra were due to have closed their 2008/9 Edinburgh season this coming Thursday with a performance of Haydn's The Seasons. The latest round of delays to the Usher Hall renovations put paid to that notion (though the concert will still take place at City Halls in Glasgow). Still, it was no great loss to me as I had not planned to attend: Olari Elts' conducting does little for me.

Heading to the Queen's Hall tonight, I wondered if this would prove an underwhelming performance after Zacharias's effort a little over a week ago. Certainly, conductor Baldur Bronnimann put himself in difficult territory, an area where many recent guest conductors have marooned themselves: music Charles Mackerras has successfully conducted with the orchestra. As the advert in the programme reminded us, which unfortunately mis-capitalised the K, he has recorded both Kodaly's Dances of Galanta and Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste for Linn Records.

The programme began with Kodaly's Dances of Galanta, not a piece I know especially well. The SCO were on top form from the opening bars, played superbly by the cellos. Maximiliano Martin's clarinet solos were as outstanding as we have come to expect from him. Guest (I assume) principal horn Bostjan Lipovsek was too loud for my taste on his first entry, something that was generally true of Bronnimann's reading of the piece (volume can too easily be an issue when a full orchestra plays in the Queen's Hall). However, overall it was very tightly played, with the faster sections particularly impressive.

Then came, for me, the feature event: the world premiere of Hallgrimsson's double bass concerto Sonnambulo. Last year we were treated to Truls Mork playing the cello concerto (which was rather special, and which they have just released a recording of). In many ways it was similar, also having a wonderful flow to it. The orchestra's principal bass, Nicholas Bayley, was the soloist, and had a lovely range and colour to his playing. This was particularly true at the start where he blended beautifully with the cymbal. Elsewhere pianist Peter Evans deftly moved between the piano and celeste (and doubtless explaining the shrewdness of coupling it with the Bartok). The work featured a fairly scaled back orchestra (for example, only one horn and trumpet, two cellos). As was the case last year, I find myself wanting to hear it again right away and get to know it better. There seemed to be cameras present to record it, and I can only hope we don't have to wait too long for a CD release.

After the interval was Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste. Again, not a work I know well. I hadn't, for example, realised it is really scored for two separate string orchestras, divided one on each side of the stage, piano and celeste in the centre. The orchestra played superbly - some wonderful pizzicato work, especially from principal cellist David Watkin, who surely has the most enthusiastic technique around; similarly there was some nice spiccato bowing. The space seemed slightly limiting - ideally I would have thought the percussion and timpani would be arranged along the back of the stage, rather than off to one side under the gallery; the extra instruments were well played though. Julia Lynch took over the celeste (and at one point joined Evans at the piano).

Oddly, there wasn't the ghost of excess volume in the second two works. All told, it represented some of the finest playing the orchestra has managed all season and, as such, a more than fitting finale. For one of the Adventurer concerts, and a programme of 20th and 21st century music, it was surprisingly well sold, and justly well received. The SCO seemed to have liked working with Bronnimann and were particularly reluctant to get to their feet at the end.

Sunday 3 May 2009

Scottish Opera's 2009/10 'season' (and a rather longer rant)

Regular readers may wonder why, given I review a fair bit of opera, I've never reviewed a Scottish Opera production (well, aside from this piece, part of the roundup of the 2005 festival, which predates the side, and briefly covers Adams' The Death of Klinghoffer). As it turns out, the answer is pretty simple: I haven't been to a Scottish Opera production in nearly three years. That, in turn, is because the last thing I saw was truly terribly awful. (Before going further, I should note that most of this post is an extended rant, and if you just want my feelings on the actual content of the season you should skip to the penultimate paragraph.)

Of course, if I stopped going to a company because of one bad production, or performance, I'd have nothing to do of an evening, and these pages would be fairly quiet. With Scottish Opera it was a little different and, in a sense, I just found it depressing. My introduction to the company (I haven't lived here my whole life), was also in many ways its swan song: the glorious Ring Cycle of 2003, which I probably should write about in detail one day. It may not have been vocally perfect, and certainly they didn't do the Rheingold anvils justice, but it was nonetheless among the finest operatic experience I've enjoyed and Albery's production was superb. Sadly, it basically bankrupted the company. This led to the dark year, the axing of the chorus and the freelancing of the orchestra. Music director Richard Armstrong also departed and stop fell vacant for several years (there was then a botched attempt to replace him with someone who couldn't do it, before finally Corti was brought in - it was little wonder it took them so long to find someone, who'd want to take on such a poisoned chalice?). To suggest all this had a destructive effect on the company would be an understatement.

It's also the case that the most compelling year of opera I've had since moving here was that dark year when we got both Welsh National Opera (with a solid Don Carlos) and Glyndebourne Touring Opera visiting. I've argued elsewhere, and made myself very unpopular by doing so, that hiring them, and others such as Opera North, would be a far more effective use of the money. That's not that I'm against Scotland having an opera company. I want there to be one, I just want a decent one, and I think if the one we've got is all we're going to get, I can't see the point: I'd rather get my opera fixes elsewhere. If the SNP is really serious about independence they need to look to cultural independence and tackle this. Of course, it might be different if the company nurtured young Scottish talent. But it doesn't, not really. Productions too often seemed filled with unremarkable European singers.

On top of all this, the 2006 Don Giovanni was something of a last straw. This despite recombining the Armstrong/Albery dream team. Musically lacklustre and with an insane production to boot (scenes illuminated so that audience members required night vision goggles, the Don's habit of discarding pair upon pair of white gloves, and, frankly, the less said about how pathetically he was dragged down to hell the better - that scene shouldn't be comical). At the same time, I was finding myself in London more often, and spending my money on ENO and Covent Garden was just infinitely more appealing.

I took a good look at the 2008/9 brochure, but mainly it annoyed me. I disliked the creative accounting of calling the Edinburgh Festival production part of the season to boost the production count: you don't see their festival appearances in the orchestra's season brochures. Festival isn't season. Period. Even if one counts this, and the Five:15 project that only gives six staged productions. Last season Opera North managed nine. Add to that a parade of little known conductors and singers and it's hard to see why my opera money should go here rather than trips south to hear Mackerras conduct and Keenlyside sing. Oh, and then there's the price: £14 is the cheapest seat in the Festival Theatre. Come again! Last year, and indeed next, you could get into every production at the Royal Opera House for under £10; okay, to stand, but the point remains that you should not be able to see a better company with better singers and better conductors more cheaply. It should be noted, too, that there are only a handful of those £14 seats, most of the back of the upper circle was £26. (There are some cheaper day seats, but for those of us who have jobs and can't just turn up and queue, they aren't really applicable.)

As such, the announcement of the 2009/10 season is, unlike for Scotland's orchestras, not something I've been sitting on the edge of my seat waiting for and not something I'm especially excited about now it's here. Before I get to discuss it, I have to have another rant. Scottish Opera follow the infuriating current fashion of putting up an overly elaborate online version. Why can people not just stick a PDF up for download - it really isn't hard, I can turn any file into a PDF in about ten seconds on my Mac. You can download an offline version, but it's just as annoying to use. Instead, I suggest selecting the print option (and save the result as a PDF file - this may only work on a Mac). What's really annoying, is that they are probably wasting much need money on these versions.

The number of productions is similarly unimpressive. Even less than last year, indeed, since the Edinburgh festival has, for the second year in three, excluded Scottish Opera (something that, for the reasons I've outlined, doesn't surprise me at all). Scottish Opera general director Alex Reedijk has moaned about this to The Stage. If it was producing world class work (as Scotland's orchestras do) and got left out, there would be outcry, that there was none is telling. One thing that catches the eye, as a Janacek fan, is Kata Kabanova. Sadly, this is a touring production and does not make it to Edinburgh. Of the things that do, only one stands out: also by Janacek, we get the rarely performed The Adventures of Mr Broucek (which I've always before seen translated as Excursions). Giving hope, this is a co-production with Opera North and John Graham Hall stars in the title roll. Elsewhere we get La boheme, Rossini's The Italian Girl in Algiers (a new co-production with New Zealand Opera) and Donizetti's The Elixir of Love, none of which really excite me at all. Casts and conductors are similarly unimpressive. Still, one must see out of four isn't too bad, I've never had a chance to see Broucek before and very much want to. Indeed, it's an infinite improvement over last year, but that isn't saying too much. Of course, I may well be in a minority on this, but that's what the comments are for. Ticket prices are not announced.

I'm sorry to be so gloomy. I'd love to write about a wonderfully exciting season. Unfortunately, for that to happen, they need to produce one. I know that the recent McVicar Cosi has been getting rave reviews, but I probably won't see that since it's on the week I'm away for Aldeburgh (I find the fact they're in town for such brief periods quite frustrating too, but best not to start off on another rant.)

Saturday 2 May 2009

On the nature of free lunches and associated paraphernalia

When we first started this site about two years ago, we really didn't think anyone else would read it. I continued to hold that view until October 2007, when I was astonished that we'd been noticed by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orceshtra. It seems that, due to our being powered by the Google owned Blogger, we come up straight away in their news alerts service whenever we mention an organisation or artist (I know, because it alerts me when I write about the people I have alerts for). Certainly, I suspect this is what happened when the Gabrieli Consort cleared up the identity of their soloist. Anyway, I still thought nobody else except a few friends and family read us (the only measure I had was the number of views my profile got, which wasn't, and still isn't, all that many). Then my cousin suggested I install Google Analytics. It takes about ten minutes to set up (just copy a bit of code into the website) and, from the point of view of someone who objects to people storing too much data about them, records a frankly quite frightening amount of stuff. It also told me that hundreds of people were coming here each month. In the last couple of months this has risen even more (I think in large part due to my use of twitter, my review of a popular tv show and a very nice plug on the Guardian website). The result of which is that in the last month we've had well over a thousand unique visitors.

So, why am I bothering to mention all this? It's because in the last couple of weeks something has happened that hasn't before: people have started to offer me free stuff (actually, I was offered a free ticket to a BBCSSO concert a year ago, but already had one, so didn't give it much thought). In this case it was a CD I very much want and an invitation to a press night of something (which I couldn't anyway have made, and to which I anyway have tickets later in the run). Somewhat surprising myself, I did not e-mail back straight away asking them to send me the review CD though post haste.

Who on earth might want to turn down a free lunch? After all, it would be a nice reward for the effort I put into this site. The problem is this: why am I being offered a freebie? Well, because the organisation in question wants me to write a review. They are, in effect, paying me, albeit not very much, to do so. That, for me, is a big problem and represents a glaring conflict of interest. Being in touch with various orchestras and artists via twitter, I already feel guiltier than I did when I say something negative, I'd feel worse if I'd had my seat for free. Similarly, if I rave about a performance, I like to think that the reader has a confidence that nothing improper has coloured that. It would also make it harder to comment on value for money. For example, despite paying a quite absurd portion of my monthly salary to see Don Carlos from the good seats, I don't feel in the least overcharged. If I'd had the ticket for free and said that (though, admittedly, I didn't in the review), the response might be that was all very well for me to say, but amongst those paying the astronomical to prices of Royal Opera's best seats, things feel a little different. I'd also no longer be able to say I felt short changed, rare though that is (actually, even if it had been free, I'd still have felt cheated by The Beggar's Opera).

Then there's the fact that if I don't pay for my ticket the artist doesn't get any money. Now, while some people are sufficiently rich not to notice, others are not. Regardless of which, I want them to get my share of the money, particularly if I've enjoyed the performance. Arts funding does not grow on trees, and especially in the current climate budgets are stretched. I would feel a little wrong and guilty not paying my own way.

Anyway, the question bounced back and forth in my head for a week or so until, after about an hour of setting the world to rights in the pub on Monday, I came to a decision: I don't want to take free stuff (at least, not so long as it isn't also available to the general public). So, if you work for an arts organisation and are thinking of offering us something, this may save you the trouble. However, we are very happy to be contacted for informational purposes: you're welcome to add us to press release mailing lists and we will try to come to press launches of seasons and other such things if invited. It's just, when it's something everyone else has to pay for, we want to too. That said, should you have a performance or CD you want us to review, or think we would be interested in, do still get in touch all the same - we may not be aware of it, or may already be coming.

I should note that I have taken one or two free tickets in the past (a couple were comps a friend of mine had to concerts I didn't in the end review), at other times they've been concerts free to the general public, which is different. Similarly, I am sometimes the guest of a friend or family member, but since in those cases the ticket has been paid for, it isn't a free lunch in sense I've been discussing it.

This may come across as a little prissy or overzealous. Possibly it is, but my integrity is of great importance to me and I find to do otherwise just doesn't sit quite right. I'm also not, I hope, trying to suggest that all professional critics (who, of course, take free tickets all the time), or bloggers who do take free tickets, are somehow morally bankrupt. It is a personal choice, and possibly if you do this sort of thing professionally, rather than just as a hobby, it may feel a little different. In the end, though, for me, this is just how it is.