An Intimate Evening With The Unthanks. Stephen Joseph Theatre. 11-05-12

The Unthanks have called their current tour “An Intimate Evening With The Unthanks” and the Stephen Joseph theatre in Scarborough, currently reconfigured for the summer in a “cabaret” seating pattern, was the perfect intimate venue for their heart rending, gentle, delicate and tender songs. It was like meeting them in person rather than seeing them on stage, especially as their grandma was in the audience and they took her tiny grandchild up to her seat to see her during the interval. Rachel and Becky were in great voice, harmonising beautifully together and the simple, nicely judged, pared down arrangements for the core quintet (Rachel and Becky plus Adrian McNally, Niopha Keegan, and Chris Price) showed off their tone beautifully. There was a haunting off mic accapella number which had the most perfect harmonies and the whole audience seemed to draw closer to listen. There is something very special about the way that two relaxed, self effacing and very much down to earth Geordie lasses can zero in on a song and take you to some very dark and lonely places. My favourite song of the evening was The Testimony of Patience Kershaw, that really is a song to break your heart. It is a traditional one, derived from a transcript of testimony gathered by the Ashley Mines Committee from a real young girl, 17-yr-old Patience Kershaw, in 1842. Rachel Unthank sang it with great conviction and it really brought out the best in her voice.

I try to be respectable, but sir, the shame, God save my soul.
I work with naked, sweating men who curse and swear and hew the coal.
The sights, the sounds, the smells, kind Sir, not even God could know my pain.

I say my prayers, but what’s the use? Tomorrow will be just the same.”

There were also songs about the more recent shipbuilding industry which brought the tradition 
closer to our own times. The traditional clog dancing of Rachel and Becky added a percussive 
drive and rhythm  to some of the songs which was a great addition to the pared down sound of 
the quintet, and it was also just great to watch.

One of the greatest strengths of the Unthanks is their commitment to their own history and their 
own local area and it is moving to see how they celebrate the connection between the past and 
the present as the lives of working people continue to evolve. People never really change, we 
feel pain and joy and react to the vagaries of life now much as people have always done, and 
nothing brings this home like traditional folk music sung with heart and soul. It is always changing
 and developing in the hands of a new generation, but that unity of spirit with the people who sang 
these songs in the past is always there and the new generation of folk musicians treasure it as well 
as moving it forward. The Unthanks do this as well as anybody out there on the folk circuit today.

The Unthanks also had solid support from Johnny Kearney and Lucy Farrell. Lucy sang the traditional 
Celtic song Peggy Gordon with real feeling in the second half with just a simple piano accompaniment. 
Really lovely. 

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Ludwig String Trio. Stephen Joseph Theatre. 08-03-12

Ludwig String Trio. (Peter Cropper VIOLIN, James Boyd VIOLA and Paul Watkins CELLO)

Beethoven. Serenade for string Trio in D Op 8 (1796-7)
Hindemith. String Trio Op 34 (1924)
Mozart. Divertimento in E flat K563 (1788)

This concert at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, given by three of the leading chamber musicians in the UK, was a real joy. We were lucky to hear genuine virtuoso playing in such a small space. Alan Ayckbourn was in the audience and I hope that he was proud of the fact that the SJT is able to attract musicians of such quality, he certainly should be. It is a gift that Scarborough doesn’t always appreciate. Those who were there absolutely relished it and knew how lucky they were but there were plenty of empty seats in a venue which is already small. Thankfully we have Music In The Round, the largest promoter of chamber music concerts outside London, to make sure that we will still get to hear music of a quality that would almost certainly never be heard in Scarborough without their support.

One of the fascinations of hearing chamber music live is that you don’t just listen, you also gain a lot from the chance to watch. There is an absolute kinship and understanding between players of this quality and you can see them communicate with the smallest of glances, seeing to fuse effortlessly into a single unit in the service of the music. The Ludwig String Trio have many years of experience playing with the best musicians in the country and they also know each other well as musicians. That experience was there for us to see as well as hear when we watched them play. The sound of James Boyd’s cello, made by Montagnana and Goffriller in Venice c 1730, was just beautiful.

I must admit that I admire the late Beethoven quartets more, but it was very good to hear one of his earlier and more cheerful pieces, something to make you smile. The Hindemith was not so much to my taste but it was brilliantly played. There was a wonderful pizzicato section, and the whole piece was full of light and shade and drama with mercurial mood changes, and I did find it interesting. The playing certainly impressed my companion, who knows it well, so much in fact that they uncharacteristically made a point of thanking the players in the bar afterwards. I will be waiting a long time to see that happen again. The Mozart was described by Peter Cropper as one of the most sublime pieces of chamber music ever written and while I do want to stick up for Schubert I am not going to disagree with that. It is light airy and joyous with a melancholy and yearning adagio thrown it. Just lovely.

One of the good things about a Music in the Round concert is that you also get to hear the players speak about the music. The three of them spoke confidently and wittily, both after the Beethoven and in the Q and A afterwards, and gave us some interesting insights. The Hindemith is a particularly difficult piece and I liked the way that James Boyd waved his score at us when they introduced it, showing us a relatively normal looking first page and then the second page, which was covered in dense black notes. “And that’s not just black. That’s tricky black!”

Carmen. Stephen Joseph Theatre Scarborough. 18-08-11

A small scale production of Carmen is a brave undertaking but Chris Monks has made something of a speciality out of this kind of thing and the talented and hard working company in the Stephen Joseph theatre’s summer production make it work. This is a Carmen for today, set in a shopping mall, and it works very well. Love and desire don’t change over the centuries and this is a timeless story of obsessive passion and reckless self will which is never going to end well whenever it happens.

The production takes a while to lift off and the early scenes in the mall seem a little thin, but once the main characters are established and the plot kicks in, the claustrophobic small scale personal scenes work well in the round and it becomes both moving and chilling. Some of the dialogue and recitative doesn’t quite come off but the best of it is great. I loved the moment where Carmen explains her name away by saying that her mum got pregnant in Ibiza and the transformation of bullfighter Don Escamillo into an Italian stallion premiership footballer, Tony Amor is pitch perfect. This is a rhyme that sent a chuckle around the audience at the start of the toreador’s song and I should have seen it coming. There are some nice directorial touches throughout, making the most of the new setting and using the cast cleverly to keep things moving and vibrant. The costumes are very well judged and help to define the characters well when the cast are doubling. I’m not sure that the video snippets worked for me, they were a bit cheesy and really needed to be more believable, but I can see why they were needed, not just to cover scene changes but to provide a context for Tony’s character.

The strength of the production definitely lies in the performances. This is a talented cast who have to work incredibly hard throughout. In a space so small that you can see every detail of every performance that kind of commitment shows. Caroline Keiff as Carmen looks stunning and sings beautifully. The wildness of the character was underplayed, thankfully, but it was there when it needed to be and it was in her eyes the whole time.  Neil Moors gives a delightful performance as Tony which is utterly believable. He charms the socks off the audience as we understand the kind of man that he is sending up without it ever being allowed to descend into parody. I also liked Gareth Kennerley’s performance as Johnny Jay (Don Jose) very much.. It was both truthful and moving, a clear portrait of a man who was potentially good and loving being destroyed by his obsessive love for someone who didn’t deserve it. Johnny is offered love, and a way out of danger by Michelle (Michaela) but can’t bring himself to accept it. If only love was always given where it is deserved things would have been very different. Michelle was beautifully played by Jennifer Rhodes who has a lovely stage presence and a great voice. She did a lot more besides during the course of the production and I was full of admiration for her.

Finally, you have to take your hat off to Georges Bizet. The music is irresistible, full of melody and passion. Any song which can get a midweek matinee audience in Scarborough clapping along to it after around 130 years, just because they can’t help it, as the reprise of the toreador song in the club shop did has to be a major achievement.

Christmas with the Choral. Huddersfield Choral Society’s Christmas concert. 10-12-2010

The Huddersfield choral society is 175 years old so it should be no surprise to anybody that by now it knows exactly what it is doing. It is very proud of its traditions, as a part of a long West Riding tradition of music making which is largely centred around brass bands and choral singing. This tradition is still very strong in the area, even if it isn’t quite as all embracing as it used to be. The choral is a great choir, and that is obvious even at times like this, when they are simply having fun and providing a Christmas present for their home town; a concert filled with carols and Christmas light music, along with their junior choir, young voices, and the Hepworth band. They sing confidently, able to make a fine crescendo and a quiet pianissimo without any loss of control or clarity, and they are rightly proud of what they can do. When the audience was given the chance to join in it was also clear that the choral are not the only people in the Huddersfield area who can sing. You could never blow the heavy, ornate Victorian roof off a packed Huddersfield town hall but there were hundreds of us and we made a mighty sound and had a darn good try. It was all huge fun. Many of the favourite pieces which get trotted out at this kind of concert were there, Widor, John Rutter, two fabulous sleigh rides (the midnight one by Prokofiev and my favourite Leroy Anderson one which it is impossible to sit still through) as well as a mixture of both familiar and less familiar carols and Christmas songs. The way that the simple tune of Who Is He In Yonder Stall built to a dignified and thrilling climax was very moving and at the end of the first half finale, Sing, when the choir, band and organ were at full power you could feel the whole hall reverberating as the vibrations came up from the floor through your body. Anyone who thinks that they don’t like brass band music probably just needs to hear it done properly by a band like the Hepworth band. They are able to keep up a cracking tempo and play with both delicacy and power and they well deserved the adjective mighty which Brian Kay the charming and experienced compere attached to them. The junior choir and young voices were absolutely charming and extremely well drilled and clearly enjoyed their moments in the spotlight. The arrangement that they sang of Away in a Manger, to a tune that was new to me, was particularly beautiful.

This was a great way to start Christmas. No wonder it’s quite hard to get a ticket.

Spend Spend Spend! Watermill theatre at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. 21-10-10

The Watermill Theatre have brought the musical Spend, Spend Spend! back to the West Yorkshire Playhouse where it premiered in 1998, and it couldn’t be more welcome. Viv Nicholson and her husband Keith were the biggest ever pools winners when they won over 152,000 pounds in 1961. Viv was young, pretty and lively and, recognising a publicity goldmine when they saw one, Littlewoods pools persuaded the couple to accept publicity. They were used to hardship and when given the money, understandably, Viv declared that she was going to spend, spend spend. The musical Spend, Spend Spend! is the story of that win and what happened when she carried out her promise. She would probably have been a great star of reality TV had she been a young record breaking lottery winner of today and it makes a very moving story- for once the cliché roller coaster ride is justified. She makes a great central character and the conceit of having both her older and younger selves on stage together works beautifully, adding a certain irony, poignancy and a genuine bitter sweet quality to the narrative. In the second half, when Viv returns to the little house which they were living in and realises that if they hadn’t won the pools they would still be living there, her cry of “If we hadn’t won the pools we’d still be here” is not an expression of thankfulness for good luck, but heartfelt regret at the loss of the uncomplicated happiness which they had then, in spite of everything. It’s a pure musical theatre moment.

Kirstie Hoiles and Karen Mann are both terrific as Viv and you can really see how the young Viv developed into the older. The direction, which allows interaction as the older Viv watches herself is beautifully done. Greg Barnett is also very moving as Keith- particularly when he sings Canary in a Cage. The whole show is full of wit, life and energy, utterly unafraid and unsentimental, and Steve Brown deserves great credit for meshing together the book and lyrics so well to tell a gift of a story. Much of the music is character driven and serves the story but there are a few songs which can stand alone, two great ballads, Who’s Gonna to Love Me and The Scars of Love, a beautiful love song in Canary in a Cage, and a rollicking first half finale in the title song Spend Spend Spend! The cast play a variety of instruments and act and sing, sometimes all at the same time and keep the pace speeding along. It is a great credit to them that what is quite a small scale show is easily able to fill the dauntingly large space of the Quarry Theatre. I would love to have seen it close up in the tiny Watermill Theatre- it must have really packed a punch in its original home. It’s a small gem.

The  photographs are production stills from the Watermill Theatre production of Spend Spend Spend taken by Robert Day.

Burton Agnes Jazz and Blues Festival. 07-08-10

It was good to see an audience of all ages and types at Burton Agnes Jazz and Blues Festival, from straight laced elderly jazz fans, aspiring posh couples with fancy picnic hampers, champagne and tablecloths, aging hippies, young hip types, to growing families- even a fair sprinkling of dogs. It was a relaxed comfortable atmosphere in a beautiful setting, the weather was kind, the sound quality was great and everybody was able to sit back, eat, drink and enjoy. The evening started with the Al Wood big band and guest vocalist Saffron Byass. They did a workmanlike job, zipping through old Count Basie favourites and jazz big band standards. It was a perfect way to ease the audience into the evening while they enjoyed their food. Saffron Byass has a lovely rich deep tone to her voice and did a fine job, although I have to say that she did rather murder the Cole Porter number It’s All Right By Me. On the other hand I am used to listening to Ella Fitzgerald’s version and that’s pretty stiff competition.

The main event of the evening was a long set by the Velocity Trio. This is led by Dennis Rollins on Trombone, with Pedro Segundo, a young Portugese musician, on drums and Ross Stanley on organ. This was not an audience that were ever going to rush the stage or crowd surf but the enthusiasm and musicianship of the trio quickly created an atmosphere as darkness fell and the stage lights brightened. Jazz musicians love to play and they were completely in thrall to each other and the music. Dennis Rollins is well known for his ability to coax a groove from an instrument that is somewhat neglected, and he is a dignified and charismatic stage presence. His playing has a contemporary edge and creates soundscapes which are a long way from the trad jazz that we had started with.  Pedro Segundo was a revelation. He is young and good looking (which never does any harm) but more importantly he is a phenomenal drummer, who was able to create sounds of quiet delicacy alongside his flashier moments. He clearly loved playing and he enjoyed the reaction that he got from his audience. It was a tribute to him that at one point Dennis Rollins had those of us at the front chanting his name. Ross Stanley was the quiet anchor of the trio. The three of them were bouncing off each other, watching each other closely and relishing the communication that they have built up. This produced some very sharp playing, which was also relaxed and carefree, mostly original compositions, but they also threw in a storming version of Pink Floyd’s Money which was full of sheer exuberance and playfulness.

After the set finished there was acoustic blues in the beer tent from Miles Cain, who rather ruefully followed Dennis Rollins with a short acoustic guitar set. He needn’t have worried, he did fine and it was fun when his friend joined him on harmonica for a few Bob Dylan numbers. Next were Two, Helen Turner and Sharon Winfield, who had some nicely written and moving material, and made a pleasant end to a lovely evening.

 

The Messiah in Hereford Cathedral.

Although it has been performed in many settings there is no better place to hear The Messiah than in one of our great cathedrals. It is a sacred work which fills a sacred space to perfection and completes it, adding a soundtrack to the still, vaulted space which reminds the listener of its meaning and purpose. Hereford Choral Society’s concert in Hereford cathedral was a lovely example of something which will be happening all over the country during the weeks leading up to Christmas. Handel’s best known oratorio has always been popular and it still is. The cathedral was packed and the choir was large and enthusiastic, enjoying their chance to sing it with an orchestra and four talented soloists. The Messiah is often thought of as a Christmas piece, and it is, but it also tells the whole story of salvation and God’s plan for the world. Whether you believe it or not it’s a tremendous story and it carries you along, building through one musical climax after another, as the tale unfolds. Possibly we don’t need to believe it in order to be moved because when Handel wrote this music he absolutely did, and those people who listen without faith can be moved by his.  It is a work of enormous bravura. There is no room for doubt or questioning here. God is great and he has saved us all and we can be gloriously sure that one day we will be with him in heaven. That statement demands the biggest amen in music at the end and it gets it. Handel was writing as a direct response to his faith and his confidence in his God shines out from every note. It is humbling to think that this response to his faith is still speaking to people and drawing crowds around 250 years later. After writing the Hallelujah chorus he famously told his servant, “I did think that I did see all heaven before me and the great God himself” and that window onto heaven that his genius showed him is still there for us now. It takes your breath away when you hear it in the proper setting and the beautiful, simple declaration which the Soprano soloist makes immediately afterwards, “I know that my Redeemer Liveth” is a perfect response to what we have just been shown, a statement of quiet humble confidence in the face of God’s glory. This was the start of my Christmas for 2009 and I can’t imagine a better one.