Sunday, 20 October 2019

MUSIC REVIEW: Manchester University Symphony Orchestra - The Martin Harris Centre, Manchester.

The first full concert this academic year from the Manchester University Symphony Orchestra, and, boy oh boy, did they put on a show! Three pieces in the programme this evening, and with each piece they just got better and better.

Their opening piece was a little inauspicious, and I was also not aware it had started until it had; the lights in the auditorium had not been sufficiently dimmed and there was no conductor, and so the start took me, and several others, by surprise. That however, was not the only 'surprising' thing about this piece. A contemporary rule-bending composition from Simon Hellewell - currently studying for his PhD in Composition at the university - called 'Parabolae', it required most of the orchestra members to play tiny gongs or cymbals at various points throughout, besides playing their own instruments. There was no percussion section though, so all the percussive sounds were played by other players. Being able to see the sheet music on the violinists' music stands, I could also tell that the score had been printed in the form of a parabola. A curiosity piece at best, but for me, without any real substance and I found it impossible to enjoy. For me it was a little like a classroom exercise to illustrate some point of his musical learning, rather than a piece of music for an audience to listen to. Perhaps I simply didn't 'get' or 'understand' the piece; but surely the whole point of music should be its accessability?

Thankfully the piece was not too long and we were soon on terra firma with music with which one was able to relate. This was Prokofiev's rarely performed 5th piano concerto. Prokofiev, like many others of his generation, took their musical influences from all over; they looked backwards to the Romantic and Classical periods and forwards to the jazz and new wave; even, as was very much the case with Prokofiev and evidenced in this work, to influences such as military music, folk music, Jewish music and nursery rhymes.  The piano concerto is not very long as concertos go, and yet it is given 5 movements (the standrad being 3). Perhaps the reason for this was that it was originally not going to be a piano concerto at all, but a piece of concert music for piano and orchestra, thus giving the orchestra equal status with the piano. In Classical style concertos the solo instrument was always paramount to the orchestra. The whole piece is jocular and light-hearted; even the more gentle and reflective larghetto of the 4th movement, you still have the distinct feeling that Prokofiev is somehow sticking two fingers up at the stablishment, or even the audience for having the audacity to like it; or even the critics who dared to try and analyse it and pigeon-hole it! The solo piano today was played by current student, Max Bilbe. Technically the playing was superb, I had the wonderful vantage point in the audience of being able to see his finger-work which was exemplary. The passion and the pathos he put into the piece was noteworthy; however, for me there was just a lack of lightness, a lacking of joviality. Many moons ago when I took piano lessons my teacher always told me that if I wanted the piece to dance, I had to think about dancing; if I wanted to the piece to laugh, then think of a joke and laugh along with the music. It was great advice, and I don't think Bilbe was laughing at all through any of the piece, and thus it became a little too staid, a little too mechanical. This is just a personal preference and interpretation. That notwithstanding it was a highly creditable interpretation and I enjoyed listening to the piece immensely.

After the interval, and to the favourite piece of the evening; quite the showstopper! The Symphonic Dances (op 45) by Rachmaninov. There isn't really much to say about this piece except that it was perfect and magical. I have never heard the MUMS orchestra play better! The dances were composed whilst Rachmaninov was living in America in 1940, and they were to be his last composition. Critics have often mused whether or not Rachmaninov himself knew it would be his last work, since he makes subtle (and some not so subtle) references to many of his earlier compositions (none by direct quotation) throughout. Whatever the case, these are exuberant and life-affirming pieces and played by a larger than usual symphony orchestra; and whether Rachmaninov liked it or not, they are still very Russian in their soundscape and structure. Even the second movement, a more gentle and lyrical waltz (.. it wasn't just the Austrians who were capable of a good waltz tune!!) sounds very Russian, even if you didn't know who composed it.

The first piece this evening was conducted in rehearsals by orchestra member Dexter Drown. The first movement of the Symphonic Dances was conducted by student conductor James Gillett, who was extremely watchable and exerted a lovely control over the piece, interpreting it superbly. The other pieces in this evening's concert were conducted by conducting tutor at the University of Huddersfield and regular conductor at MUMS, Robert Guy. In contrast to Gillett's whole body commanding approach, Guy's conducting is gentle and unassuming, and yet totally in control. Neither style better than the other, just interesting to note and see how the orchestra responds to these differing techniques.

All in all, a wonderful evening's entertainment listening to some beautiful Russian music played by the talented (MUMS) Manchester University Music Society Symphony Orchestra. Bravissimi tutti!

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 19/10/19

MUSIC REVIEW: Kate Rusby and Midnight Skyracer - Manchester Central, Manchester.

The former mining town of Barnsley, South Yorkshire, has produced several stars for the musical firmament and this year’s Manchester Folk Festival featured two of them who coincidentally share the same initials – Kathryn Roberts at HOME last night and Kate Rusby at Manchester Central tonight.

The all-female five-piece Bluegrass band Midnight Skyracer proved to be an inspired and popular choice of support act to Kate Rusby. Despite having only formed in 2017, Midnight Skyracer have already received critical acclaim - and two International Bluegrass Music Association award nominations - for their debut album “Fire” (2018).

Several of the songs from tonight’s set were from “Fire”. The tender “Virginia Rose”, for example, co-written by Tabitha Agnew (banjo, vocals) and Laura Carravin (guitar, dobro) is a tender ballad and suits Agnew’s mellow voice perfectly whilst “So Long, Goodbye, We’re Through” is what Charlotte Carravin (guitar) describes as a “fast train song in the key of B” and showcases Leanne Thorose’s more powerful vocals.

Not on an album (yet – we are promised another one is on the way) is “Steaming Buzzard” which Charlotte proudly describes as having been inspired by the sight of a beautiful buzzard atop a steaming manure pile one summer evening. Midnight Skyracer move effortlessly between tempos and moods (and Laura switches between guitar and dobro). The haunting “Shadows On The Moon” by Eleanor Wilkie (double-bass) is perhaps the best example of the band’s pitch-perfect harmonies whilst “Leaving On The Next Train” brought the set to a lively and powerful end. We will be hearing a lot more of Midnight Skyracer over the next few years though.

Kate Rusby’s arrival on stage after the interval was warmly received. Accompanied by Stevie Burns (bouzouki), Mick Cork (accordion), Duncan Lyall (double-bass / Moog) and Damien O’Kane (guitar), she began her set with “Benjamin Bowmaneer” from her 2016 album “Life In A Paper Boat”. “It’s a strange song”, Rusby opined, “but that’s what I like about folk music – you can write songs about anything”. Telling us the story – it’s about a tailor who made himself a horse out of all sorts of bits and bobs – she likened Bowmaneer to “The A-Team, you know, how they’d get locked in a shed with a few plumbing tools and build themselves a tank”. Rusby’s unaffected warmth and humour is undoubtedly as much a reason for her popularity as her singing.

Kate Rusby’s greatest love is for her family, and this shines through the whole set. Introducing “The Farmer’s Toast” she tells us how her parents met through folk music and celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in 2018 whilst the incredibly moving “The Bitter Boy” is a poignant tribute to her beloved Uncle Stan. I confess to shedding a tear or two at this one.

There’s a lot of fun in this set too. Talking about “The Fairest Of All The Yarrow” Rusby points out that the Barnsley word for this flower is “yazzer” which leads her on to Yazz – “did you know that Yazz’s ‘The Only Way Is Up’ will fit to this tune?” It does, as she and O’Kane cheerfully demonstrated.

The life of a true Folkie isn’t just about music, of course – no, there are all sorts of arcane traditions involved! Take Pace Egging for example, which as far as I can tell is basically an excuse (as if one were needed!) for painting hard-boiled eggs and drinking lots of beer as we learn in “The Pace Egging Song”.

The set came to a close with an old Rusby favourite “I Courted A Sailor” (“of course, I never did – we don’t get many sailors in Barnsley!”) and finally – as an encore following rapturous applause – the tender “Underneath The Stars”, fitting given Rusby’s earlier description of the night sky as her “constant companion through 27 years of touring”.

On the subject of stars, I’d certainly give both of this evening’s superb acts five of them!

Reviewer - Ian Simpson
on - 19/10/19

THEATRE REVIEW: Sleeping Beauty - Theatre Royal, St. Helens.

October felt rather early to be enjoying a pantomime but as I ushered my four year old grandson into his seat I could feel the excitement and eager anticipation of the audience building before Sleeping Beauty started. Young girls dressed in their princess party dresses and young boys with their multi-coloured lit-up swords looked towards the stage with wide-eyed wonderment as the curtain rose and the show started.

Billed as ‘The most spellbinding panto of them all’ Producer and Director Chantelle Nolan, along with Jane Joseph, were able to whisk the audience away to a land of magical adventure where Princess Aurora (Mia Molloy) is tricked by villainous Fairy Carabosse (Samantha Palin) into an eternal slumber which can only be broken by a kiss from her true love. James Lacey played the handsome Prince, Lewis Devine excelled as Chester The Jester and Warren Donnelly, best known for starring in TV series Shameless, played the King. Si Foster provided plenty of laughs and slapstick chaos as Dame Queenie and Abigail Middleton delivered plenty of delightful magic as Fairy Sparkle.
Choreographer, Sarah Walker devised the dance routines performed by junior dancers from dance troupes Sparkle – Attitude Dance, and Glitter – Dance Dynamix, along with senior dancers Millie Davies, Jodie Taylor, Georgia Cowin and Ellie Fook whilst musical supervision was undertaken by Callum Clarke. Writer, Liam Mellor has put together an enjoyable two hours of entertainment utilising the talents of the cast to the full albeit in comedy, song and dance.

Devine as Chester The Jester has a full-on part in the entertainment and is to be commended for his versatility and stamina in the role. Reminiscent of comedians Norman Wisdom and Bobby Ball, he was visibly sweating from setting first foot on the stage and kept young and old amused throughout. Although some of his jokes weren’t suitable for youngsters, they had their parents laughing out loud and I’m not sure that the PC brigade would approve of some parts of the script which were rather sexist for this day and age, but hey, that’s something Panto has long been an established provider of.

The one scene which had me and the rest of the audience laughing out loud the most was a scene where Chester The Jester and Dame Queenie were attempting to wallpaper the castle walls. It involved a lot of green wallpaper paste which had them slipping about uncontrollably (not scripted) and Dame Queenie’s wig coming off at the same time, again not scripted. They should definitely keep it all in the script as it was the funniest part of the show, so much so the actors had to hide their faces as they also couldn’t help laughing.

Some current jokes about Boris Johnson, Brexit and Donald Trump had to be included of course along with bottom-burping jokes which are pretty much standard fare in a panto production. Jokes about the local districts near to the theatre, such as Earlestown, Carr Mill and Clock Face went over my head as I am not a resident of the area, but locals seemed to get them and appreciate the jibes. One point to mention is that packets of sweets were at one point thrown into the audience which was a bit scary as they could have been construed as a missile and could possibly have inflicted harm or injury to a child or adult and it’s also difficult to explain to a four year old why he didn’t receive any of the sweets being thrown. Luckily I had a packet of sweets in my bag to give him.

Molloy as Princess Aurora is a talented singer and competent dancer and actor. Lacey as the Prince also performs well and Palin as Fairy Carabosse with her Maleficent horns is excellent as the baddie of the piece. Donnelly as the King and Foster as Dame Queenie are an excellent comedy duo and work well together.

At one point there are flames of fire emitting from the stage and there are fireworks at the end which all added to the excitement and pleasure of a very entertaining production.

Regal Entertainments are presenting Sleeping Beauty at the theatre from 19th – 29th October 2019, which will be convenient for parents wanting to take their youngsters as it covers the half-term school holidays.

Reviewer - Anne Pritchard
on - 19/10/19