Thursday, 24 August 2017

Edinburgh International Festival 2017 - Reviews

Edinburgh International Festival  - EIF 2017 - Reviews 

My musical introduction
  • Mitsuke Uchida In Recital  - 21 August 2017
I have no great knowledge of the minutiae of classical music, and learned most of what I know about it from my grandad's 12 album Reader's Digest collection of "light classical music". So with an open mind I have tended to just give things a go, without any pre-conceived notions about it. I have found that I particularly enjoy opera and twentieth century classical music. My oldest son however has been learning to play the piano for several years now, and has given me great insights into the music that he likes, of Mozart and Chopin. About 8 years ago when he had not long started playing piano, we took him to see Mitsuke Uchida play in Glasgow City Halls. So I was delighted to take the chance to see her again in the Edinburgh Festival this year. 

The Japanese pianist is a world renowned interpreter of the works of Mozart and Schubert, but the main reason that I rushed to get tickets for this recital in Edinburgh was because of the mention that she got in a book that I read recently. Absolutely On Music is written by Haruki Murakami, recounting his discussions about music, from several afternoons spent with Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa. As they listen to a recording of Uchida playing Beethoven, Murakami says
"Her touch is so clear. You can hear everything so clearly - every strong note, every quiet note. She plays with total mastery: there is nothing vague in her performance
 Ozawa adds...
"Listen to that, those perfect moments of silence....What an ear she has for music!"
Murakami describes the next section of the music with a flourish 
"(a) beautiful piano solo unfolds, like an ink painting in space. A string of notes, perfectly formed and brimming with courage, each note thinking for itself.
It is a great book, with specific details about the music they are listening to whilst they speak, and timings about which sections they are discussing - the master and the enthusiast. In the era of music streaming you can find most of the recordings online and listen along as you read, part of the conversation. 

The stage is set at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh, for Mitsuku Uchida
Anyway, I loved that book and Murakami's description of Uchida's playing drew me to the Usher Hall tonight. The programme started with Mozart's piano sonata facile in C major K545. I didn't recognise it from the title, but the first 5 bars of this piece is the ONLY bit of music that my dad can still play, 50 years after he stopped learning the piano. My childhood was punctuated by his enthusiastic playing of 20 seconds of this before it faded into plinkity-plonkety, every time we passed piano somewhere. Though I had my own reasons, I am sure that I wasn't the only one with a grin on their face listening to this rendition of Mozart's playful, frisky tune. The reason for starting with this was evident in the second half of the performance which began with a modern Sonatina facile from German composer Jorg Widmann, a homage to Mozart's well known piece. When recognisable neo-classical phrases bubbled up they were scattered sideways by wild distortions. This was my favourite piece of the evening. 

The main meat of the evening was in two longer, and more dramatic, pieces by Robert Schumann. His tribute to Hoffman, Kreisleriana, crashed about one minute, before, quietly fading away and Fantasy in C major was a grandiose way to finish the night. 

Uchida is a star performer who held the attention of the whole hall. With her total mastery, there was indeed nothing vague about her performance. 

Edinburgh Castle

  • Mariinsky and RSNO - 23 August 2017
So back again to the Usher Hall two days later to see another classical music celebrity, conductor Valery Gergiev, tonight conducting his own Mariinsky Orchestra from St Petersburg and our very own RNSO. The reason for the combined forces was to do the final piece of the night justice. Shostakovich's Symphony No 4 calls for an orchestra of 100+ musicians and is a masterclass in grandiose music, conjuring up the "gigantomania" of the USSR in the 1930s. 

To begin we had the Mariinsky perform a piece from another major Russian composer of the 20th century, Sergei Prokofiev.  His "Classical"symphony rolled along sweetly, with crisp playing throughout, particularly from the lead violin. It is a piece of music written in 1917 at the time of the Russian Revolution, that straddles the music of two centuries, the 20th century and the 18th. It was a controlled and professional performance, without any great drama. 

As the Mariinsky Orchestra shuffled off stage, the string section of the Royal National Scottish Orchestra came on, to be led by Gergiev in a rendition of Benjamin Britten's 1937 piece Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge. The theme of the piece sweeps across the orchestra in the opening and swirls around again at the end with more force. In between the musicians are put through every possible method to play their instruments, at one moment pizzicato, the next strumming their violins like ukuleles. A slight lack of variation between the "variations" started to make the piece sag a bit in the middle, and Gergiev seemed to perform with greater languor than when he was guiding the music of Prokofiev. Overall the piece feels a bit cinematic, but the RSNO played as a tight unit, with humour and levity in their manner under the inscrutable gaze of Gergiev. 

The combined orchestras assemble on stage at the Usher Hall
In the second half the concert caught fire, with Shostakovich's Symphony No 4. The massed ranks of both orchestras filled the stage and Gergiev conducted with energy, holding the two orchestras together as one unified instrument. There is a lot of clashing drama in the symphony, but also moments of quiet, with lovely solos from various musicians showing how calm and quiet 100+ musicians on stage can be (I didn't count, that's a quick guesstimate). There was impressive musicianship throughout, playing a fantastic piece of music and when the final hush fell, the full Usher Hall paused in sat in silence, waiting for Gergiev's permission to applaud. Special mention must go to Lynda Cochrane of the RSNO who had the nerve-wracking role of striking out the final notes of the symphony alone on the celesta, and mopped her brow in relief at the end after. Поздравляем всех вас.  

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Edinburgh. One Day at the Festivals.

Edinburgh Festival Reviews

Every year I try to have a quick run around as much as I can in a day at the Edinburgh festivals. Every year I underestimate how long it will take me to get from venue to venue when the pavements are all choc-a-bloc with people dragging wheelie suitcases or trying to hand out flyers. So as usual I tried to squeeze in too much.

Here are some quick reviews of the shows that I managed to catch, in case you are planning to take in a couple.


Issues of refugees are being discussed in several shows at the Fringe this year. The Sleeper (by Henry C. Krempels in a pokey space in the top floor of the Jury's Inn Hotel) starts with the testimony of real Syrian refugees. An Englishwoman on an overnight train across Europe returns from the bathroom to find "a pair of eyes" in her couchette. Reporting it to a world-weary staff member on the train he asks her to decide if she wants him to deal with it. They replay the confrontation, to see what choices we can all make in such a situation. The person who seems powerless to determine her fate is Amena, whose voice we struggle to listen to in all this (well played by Aya Daghem with a startled air of confusion). A quick wake up call to your brain in its 10.30am slot in the fringe programme. (Their shows have a later 11.40am time for the remainder of the run).


It is difficult doing a stand-up show at noon, when your more sobre audience requires a bit more work to loosen them up, but Eleanor Morton at The Stand gives it a good go. In a show titled Angry Young Woman, she is angry about most things. Particular ire is aimed at the everyday sexism in our world which, funnily enough, female comedians (or comediennes if you prefer) are exposed to on and off stage. It would be good to see more of her, but as TV panel shows already meet their one woman per show quota, you probably won't.

Also apparently very angry is Lucy Porter, with her show Choose Your Battles at the Pleasance Courtyard. However it is the middle-class rage of losing the keys for the Volvo that is the subject of her show. Where Eleanor Morton was earlier talking about faking it by going about on public transport with a yoga mat prominently displayed under her arm, Lucy Porter was talking about her yoga classes. All a bit cosy.


The one name that jumped out at me when I saw the programme for this year's Edinburgh International Book Festival, was James Kelman's. With a new collection of short stories released this month (That Was A Shiver available now - go buy it at your local bookshops). He was on top form, and I was delighted that instead of reading from his new book he decided to talk to us about his thoughts on literature in general and the position of artists in Scotland today. TV's Brian Taylor was a good host, reflecting on his university studies of Descartes as they talked. Kelman talked about his own learning, starting from the Realism of Zola and moving on to Camus, Kafka, Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, Pushkin, and so it goes on. A curious mind exploring his world, and finding his voice in trying to express the subjective experience of his characters. Nobody else in Scottish (or British) literature comes close to this existential ventriloquism. Good painters start by first observing people and the world around them, and Kelman is a master of his art because of his ability to observe, and to listen, to people.

I bought a ticket for The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk as it is based on paintings I like by Marc Chagall, who often pictures himself and his wife floating over the town. Thinking of Chagall's paintings gives me terrible flashbacks, as my then 2 year old daughter all but managed to crash straight through a 10 foot painting of his when we visited the Musée National Marc Chagall. Thankfully no damage was done to either her or the painting. The play, by Kneehigh theatre company, is a two-header with Marc Antolin as Chagall and Audrey Brisson as his wife Bella, accompanied by two musicians. The fantastic choreography and Marc Antolin's floppy-haired physical similarity to Chagall does make the paintings appear before your eyes. Clever stagecraft throughout manages to carry a love story and a turbulent historical period, without distracting from the storytelling. A lovely way to spend an hour and a half.

Over the Town 1918 by Marc Chagall


Written by Sabrina Mahfouz (whose essay was one of the stand out's in the excellent book The Good Immigrant) and Hollie McNish, the play Offside benefits from the poetry that both writers excel at, with a rhythm and beat to the script that matches the muscular physicality of the story. On stage Daphne Kouma, Tanya-Loretta Dee and Jessica Butcher tell the real stories of Emma Clarke, a black footballer who played for Scotland in the 1890s and of Lily Parr from the 1920s. Flicking back and forwards to the current day the play tackles issues of prejudice, sexism, mental health, intrusive journalism, body image matters and more, but manages to stay on track by having a story that you want to follow weaving through all of this. The melodrama that real football can generate sometimes translates badly to film or theatre, but my problem  was that Emma Clarke's life sounds so interesting that I wanted to hear more about her, playing in Glasgow in the 1890s, than the imagined England players of the modern phase of the play. If it's true drama that you area after, the Scottish Women's Premier League is about to kick off again after a short hiatus for the Euros there. Glasgow City FC's next home game is against Hamilton Accies on Sunday 3rd September.

Goalkeeper Emma Clarke, in the back row here of Mrs Graham's XI in 1895


Described as an "experimental opera" and written by Roddy Bottum, keyboardist with Faith No More, I found Sasquatch: The Opera a lot of fun. As a rock-opera the live music from Bottum himself on keyboards, accompanied by electronic beats, timpani drums and brass was very impressive, and far more dramatic than the story playing out in front of the musicians. I did not ever expect to see an opera where a drug-addled hill-billy family con tourists with their fake Sasquatch, before the chained up daughter of the family flees into the woods and falls in love with the real beast, who it turns out is a real pussycat with a falsetto voice. The surprising chorus working the forest meth lab in the second half of the story help hunt down the beast and...well you can go and see it if you want to find out what happens. Bass-baritone singer Joe Chappel should have his own show on at the fringe whilst he is here, as he has a great voice. It's a strange hotchpotch of ideas and maybe needs stronger direction and better acting to knock the story into shape, but if you want entertained you should see it now in case it gets the rough edges knocked off of it.


Part of the official Edinburgh International Festival, Had We Never, Robert Burns: Chains and Slavery, was a late night concert performed in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. The museum currently has two fascinating exhibits that offer a dialogue between Robert Burns's idealised character as demonstrated by the white marble statue of him in the main hall here, and the truer, more flawed character, who was on the verge of heading to Jamaica to work on the plantations before his poetry took off. Douglas Gordon has copied the white marble statue, in black marble, and as a literal iconoclast, has thrown its broken parts onto the hall floor at the feet of Burns. Graham Fagen has a video installation of reggae singer Ghetto Priest singing a new version of Burns's The Slave's Lament  by composer Sally Beamish.

Reflecting on these works an evening of Burns's poems and songs was promised, with new works by Jackie Kay and a live performance by Ghetto Priest and musicians from the Scottish Ensemble. It was a terribly Edinburgh affair, stilted and old fashioned. Instead of trying to see Burns differently much of it was based around old fashioned, churchy performances of Burns's works from bass singer Brian Bannatyne-Scott and counter-tenor David James. Away from the Caribbean angle, the international works were a bit dry. I like Avro Part's version of My heart is in the Highland's but like much of his work it feels very religious and churchy. I know the Shostakovich Burns stuff in Russian as I heard many earnest renditions of them at the Scotland-USSR Friendship Society, but again that took me to the late 1970s/ early 1980s. Jackie Kay brought fresher moments with her playful poems on Douglas Gordon's sculpture and on Burns, such as Resume The Plough, where she spoke of Burns getting "Awa frae polite society/ And Edinburgh literary soirees". I bet she was thinking the same thing. I have never been to a Jackie Kay reading which wasn't filled with laughter and applause and I have never, ever heard such a fussy rendition of A Man's A Man, in which I seemed to be the only person wanting to join in. All in all it was a very strange programme.

I was maybe getting a bit tired by midnight when it finished, but I was now ready to go back to Glasgow, where audiences are a bit more bawdy.

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Greek by Mark-Anthony Turnage. Scottish Opera at Edinburgh International Festival 2017

Review - Greek by Mark-Anthony Turnage.
Scottish Opera and Opera Ventures at Edinburgh International Festival 2017

Hibernian vs Partick Thistle. Incest patricide and plague

Two years ago I combined an afternoon at a Partick Thistle away game in the capital, with an evening at the Edinburgh Festival. Unfortunately that day a 3-0 defeat by Hearts was what preceded an evening of Greek tragedy, with Juliette Binoche as Antigone. Much as the heroes of Greek plays often fail to learn the lessons of their ancestors, I optimistically tried to combine a trip to Easter Road to see Partick Thistle open their season with a match against Hibs, with another Greek tragedy in the evening. The day started much as it did two years ago, with a 3-1 Partick Thistle defeat setting a dark mood for the evening's entertainment. 

Hibernian 3-1 Partick Thistle
The Greek stories persist because they are good stories. They also give us a prism with which to examine our current world. This year at the Edinburgh Festival alongside Mark-Anthony Turnage's Opera, Zinnie Harris's re-telling of The Oresteia, which I saw (and loved) last year, in on show (Oresteia: This Restless House review). 

In Greek mythology Antigone is the daughter of Oedipus, her tragic fate set in motion by the history of her father's actions. Tonight we were going to hear about the deeds of the father. Mark-Anthony Turnage's Greek is an opera of Steven Berkoff's play of that name, which re-staged the Oedipus myth in the east end of London in the 1980s. 

Oedipus in Greek mythology, was left on a hillside to die by his father, King Laius, to prevent a prophecy that he would grow up to kill his father and marry his mother. Found and raised as their own by King Polybus and Queen Merope he hears the prophecy of what he is fated to do, from the Delphic oracle, and not knowing his real parentage flees Thebes to avoid his fate. In the classic example of  the Scot's phrase "whit's fir ye'll no go by ye" he ends up unknowingly killing his father, marrying Queen Jocasta his mother, and bringing a plague upon the lands by his actions. Discovering the truth he rips out his eyes and lives on forever in the strange mind of Sigmund Freud who believed we all want to emulate Oedipus' complex family dynamics.

The cast of Greek
Scottish Opera have recently become very competent at modern, smaller scale productions, such as their excellent The Devil Inside. Greek has a cast of four artists playing several roles and an orchestra of 18 or 19 musicians, yet it still packs a mighty punch. The co-production with Opera Ventures uses a bare, revolving stage set onto which imaginative projections give a stark, and when necessary, humourous atmosphere to the whole performance. The costumes, often requiring a quick turnover, also give it a distinctive, consistent and crisp feel. Taken from Berkoff's play, it is a story set not among Greek kings and queens, but working class families in Thatcher's dystopian Britain. Coming here straight from Easter Road, the opening scene greeted me with the rhythmic chanting onstage of Arsenal fans in an London pub. Alarmed by the racist chants of his father and his parents' belief in a fairground fortune-teller's alarming prophecy, shell-suited Eddy leaves home. 

Alex Otterburn as Eddy
The cast of Susan Bullock, Andrew Shore, Allison Cook and "Scottish Opera Emerging Artist" Alex Otterburn as Eddy were excellent throughout, both in singing and in the extravagant acting required of their parts. The words are sharp and witty throughout, with much dark humour at times. As London descends into riots and plague (the play was written whilst AIDS was running out of control) Eddy kills a cafe owner in a fight and marries his wife, before inevitably finding out at the end when his parents arrive years later that his true origins mean he has unknowingly fulfilled the prophecy. Oedipus pleaded to be excused his actions because he was unaware of what he was doing. Now Eddy knows what he has done, should the shame destroy everything he has? 

The orchestra keep the story moving along, with brassy jazz sounds at times, and a cacophony of percussion, with truncheons and riot shields at other moments. The 1980s setting feels unfortunately contemporary in a Tory led Britain fermenting division along racist lines and between those that have and have not. Are people responsible for their actions when they know not what they are doing? 

It was nice to see Steven Berkoff on stage at the end to take the plaudits from the audience, alongside Mark-Anthony Turnage and the cast and crew.

A thoroughly enjoyable night out, and I find it bizarre that the audience for this type of thing remains elusive. Opera has got to tear down its elitist image to make people aware of the imaginative and entertaining material it can provide. After a second night at the Edinburgh Festival, Greek will be coming to Glasgow in February 2018. I am planning to go see it again. 

Edinburgh skyline as we head home to Glasgow

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Brian Wilson - Pet Sounds 50th Anniversary Tour

Brian Wilson - Pet Sounds. Summer Nights, Kelvingrove Bandstand, Glasgow. 3rd August 2017. Live review

The Beach Boys were surely one of the most recognisable and influential bands around. As they evoke a bright, breezy awakening of youth culture in the 1960s, their songs still pop up again and again in film and television. Even people like me born after the Beach Boys had faded away can adopt a cheery falsetto and sing along to "Surfin' USA", "I Get Around", "Barbara Ann," "Fun Fun Fun", "God Only Knows", and "Good Vibrations". When I was 8 or 9 years old I got a tape recorder as a present and "The Beach Boys 20 Golden Greats" tape, with the blue cover and the surfer on the front was the first, and for a long time, only album that I possessed. Apart from that I had a collection of music recorded off of the radio chart show. 

The Beach Boys 20 Golden Greats
The original Beach Boys line up was brothers Brian, Denis and Carl Wilson, their friend Al Jardine and cousin Mike Love. Brian Wilson was the main songwriter and often producer, along with performing lead and backing vocals, bass and keyboards. However the life of Brian was far more complicated than the sunny music would have you believe and that leaked into the music of their 1966 album Pet Sounds, which when you listen to it is far more complex and self-doubting than you would expect from a 24 year old leading one of the most successful bands on the planet at the time. Although receiving disappointing sales at the time, it has stood the test of time and was rated number 2 in Rolling Stone magazine's "500 greatest albums of all time" list (behind Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band). 

I was not really aware of how complicated and bizarre Brian Wilson's life became over the years as he dealt with health problems, exploitation and over-medication until I watched the 2014 biopic Love & Mercy, which seems to have been greeted by those in the know as a fairly accurate portrayal of events in his life. With Paul Dano as the young Brian Wilson and John Cusack as an older version it is hard not to warm to him as the character portrayed on screen, then when you read about what has happened in his life it is hard not to shake your head in disbelief. 

However seeing him live, it is the music that you are coming to hear. The fear is that you will be seeing a mere shadow of Brian Wilson's former self. However the younger man is such a musical giant, that any crumb of that is worth buying a ticket for. 

Brian Wilson, Kelvingrove Bandstand
The show we saw was on a summer night in Glasgow, at the fantastic Kelvingrove Park bandstand, a repeat of last year's successful "Summer Nights" season of concerts. In Glasgow the potential summer issue here is obviously the weather, but tonight the rain held off and wee shards of blue sky meant that if you screwed your eyes up really tightly, you could pretend you were being transported to a Californian beach. Expecting a run through of the Pet Sounds album, then an encore of other hits, I was amazed that before we got there the first set was 19 songs long, going from opening number California Girls, to I Get Around and Surfer Girl and 1973's Sail On Sailor, by which time Blondie Chaplin was on stage to add to the vocals and guitar barrage. 
Brian Wilson at Kelvingrove Bandstand, August 2017
Brian Wilson sat centre stage behind keyboards, sharing singing duties with original Beach Boy Al Jardine, who was in fine voice, and Jardine's son Matt Jardine. Matt dealt brilliantly with the falsetto end of the scale, notes which are beyond the older vocal cords on stage, creating harmonies very evocative of the original recordings. Wilson is not a man in good health and was helped on stage, but after that seemed invigorated throughout the two and a half hour show. His flat affect and shuffling gait are the inevitable consequences of a lifetime on heavy medication, which makes it hard for any outside observer to say what his true feelings are, but my impression was of a man at ease in front of a receptive and lively crowd, and a smiling and supportive band of eleven fellow musicians. 

The second set of the gig, working through the Pet Sounds album from start to finish, including the two complex instrumental pieces, was the highlight of the show. Opener Wouldn't It Be Nice is possibly the most positive song on the album, after that the lyrics leave you pondering and raising an eyebrow. As Brian Wilson's gruff tones started singing You Still Believe In Me then Matt Jardine's stronger falsetto took over it gave a nice impression of the passage of time from the youthful voices that recorded the album half a century ago, until today. I Just Wasn't Made For These Times could be a summary of Wilson's life, a man out of time, dealing with low moods with lines like "no one wants to help me look for places where new things might be found". Was nobody listening to him?

Summer Nights, Glasgow
As darkness finally fell over this part of Glasgow, the show was finished off with a flurry of five classic Beach Boys songs that got everyone on their feet. The last song of the night was the 1988 tune Love and Mercy that gave the biopic film its title, a slower number which is about two things Wilson feels the world needs more of. Me? I had a big smile on my face all evening.