Humble Boy at the Orange Tree Theatre review ***

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Humble Boy

Orange Tree Theatre, 11th April 2018

Sometimes it can be tricky to put your finger on exactly why a play doesn’t quite work for you. Other times it is easy. This was one of the latter. For me, writer Charlotte Jones lavishes so much attention on shoehorning in all her ideas, themes and research, and emphasising the foibles of character, that she forgets to create a worthwhile story. Not a problem if the play were formally inventive but the set-up here could hardly be more unremarkable.

Felix Humble is a chubby, geeky astro-physicist man-child prone to warbling on about the theory of everything, M theory, string theory, event horizons and the like. Not by way of explanation, more like the kind of pseud who writes a blog on culture without really knowing what he is talking about. Amateur entomologist Daddy has died and Felix comes home to Mummy, Flora, who has got rid of Daddy’s bees and lacks the maternal touch. There is a gardener, (guess who that is), lurking in the flowerbeds who is prone to profundity and knows all the Latin names. Mummy has taken up with a yokel made good, George Pye, who owns a coach company, likes a drink and is the antithesis of Daddy. Mummy has a friend Mercy, to bully, and provide extra comic relief. George has a daughter, Rosie, that Felix improbably impregnated before he took off to the dreaming spires. Felix, it turns out, is a Daddy too.┬áMummy and Felix acidly snipe, Felix and George spar, Rosie tells Felix to man up. Mercy bites back. There is an embarrassing Ayckbournish dinner party. Mummy and Felix, sort of reconcile. Dady’s ghost exits.

What with the bees, the epigrams, the Hamlet references, the “science-y” stuff, the pithy lines, the cod-psychology, it reeks of “cleverness”. And that is probably what did for me. The performances are fine, especially Jonathan Broadbent as Felix and Belinda Lang as Flora, though Paul Bradley as George, Rebekah Hinds as Rosie, and especially Christopher Ravenscroft as Jim, have a few uncomfortable lines to hurdle over. Best of all though was Selina Cadell’s Mercy mostly I think because her comedy and pathos was more rooted in sympathy than intellect. Simon Daw’s garden design uses every available millimetre of the OT stage, and Paul Miller’s direction, is, as always, on the money in terms of pacing.

i am just not sure this is as good a play as it, and others, think it is. Nothing wrong with taking Hamlet as your starting point, it is the greatest play ever written after all, but then I would have liked some surprises. Dramatic surprises, not guess the allusion. Mummy as queen bee, Flora having a bee named after her, Felix trying to reconcile the apparently irreconcilable, the name Humble. And many, many more.

It won awards when premiered at the NT in 2001 with Simon Russell Beale and Diana Rigg in the lead roles and I can see why the luvvies loved it. There are some funny lines, even if you can see them coming, and the dialogue moves apace, even when the clunky disclosures come into play. There is a convincing prosthetic surprise and a sharp sight gag. The two main characters though eventually become irritating and the play collapses inward, black hole like, into its conceited core.

Waspish yes. Stinging no.

Bryce Dessner and the London Contemporary Orchestra Soloists at Queen Elizabeth Hall review ***

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London Contemporary Orchestra Soloists, Galya Bisengalieva (violin), Rakhi Singh (violin), Robert Ames (viola), Oliver Coates (cello) – Bryce Dessner (electric guitar)

Queen Elizabeth Hall. 10th April 2018

  • Bryce Dessner – Aheym for string quartet
  • Mica Levi – You belong to me for string quartet
  • Steve Reich – Electric Counterpoint for electric guitar and tape
  • Steve Reich – Different trains for string quartet and tape (with film from Bill Morrison)

I am pretty sure the last time I was in the Queen Elizabeth Hall was with a young BD and LD and the SO to see Slava’s Snow Show as a “Christmas Treat”. The SO booked the entertainment without, as is her wont, looking too closely at the details. Which is a shame as she has an aversion to clowns. Not a full blown psychic horror but enough to engender a vague sense of unease. Which is unfortunate as, for those that don’t know, Slava’s Snow Show involves clowns. A lot of clowns. On a journey. In Russian. Being the supportive family that we are we found the SO’s discomfort funnier that the show. We still do.

This was my first visit to the newly refurbished QEH and I can report an already handsome building is now even better looking. It looks like it will pursue a course of adventurous programming, which is marvellous, though I can’t pretend it is all to my taste.

This concert was though. Arse that I am I hadn’t recorded the details correctly in my foolproof diary system so I hadn’t realised Different Trains was on the menu and had no idea the evening would be graced by the presence of Mr Bryce Dessner. Now I am guessing this was in stark contrast to most of the audience, for whom, I assume, he was the main attraction. I do not know if the punters that can now be counted on to fill a hall showcasing minimalist classics have always been there, or whether they are new to the genre, but it doesn’t matter. The whole of arty. trendy, creative London turns up in droves now, (though not so much at venues without the social media presence of the Southbank)., which leaves me looking and feeling even more conscious of my shocking lack of style.

(Where did it all go wrong? I used to be a contender in the sartorial stakes and could oft be found propping up the bar at cutting edge London venues. Honestly. No longer. Now even the pensioner tribe at midweek theatrical matinees looks down on me. That it should come to this. Mind you, it’s all my fault. This too stolid flesh needs melting).

All this crossing of musical boundaries is immensely energising though, and, in some ways, it was minimalism that first brought together the the “high” art of classical music with the “popular” art of rock and pop. I would also contend that if it hadn’t been for “classical” composers in the 1950s and 1960s exploring what technology and music from other cultures had to offer, dance music would be much the poorer.

Anyway our man Mr Dessner stands astride the divide, as it were, with his well regarded minimal classical works and his day, or night, job as guitarist for The National. Now, as it happens, I like The National. No expert but I have a few of their albums and saw them support that dreadful old rocker Neil Young a few years ago in Hyde Park. Obviously I don’t mean Neil Young is dreadful. he is akin to a god in my eyes. What I can say though is that The National, along with the likes of Beach House, Death Grips, Eels, John Grant, The Knife, Metronomy and TV on the Radio, ensure that the non-classical section of my CD collection, (I know CDs, ho-ho-ho grandad), isn’t entirely made up of artists who are either older than me or dead. I also appreciate that this is hardly evidence of cutting edge musical taste, and is very white, but, I fear, so is your correspondent. And it also doesn’t mean that as far as I am concerned the best music made in the last few years has come from The Fall, (sadly no longer, why are we not still in a period of national mourning?) and Wire. Worse still, whilst writing this I am listening to Soft Machine. Could it be any worse?

Unsurprisingly Mr Dessner was terrific. I listened to Aheym for string quartet a couple of times before this and it is a worthy and apposite work to set alongside Steve Reich’s string quartet masterpiece. Written in 2009, early on in his catalogue, the title is Yiddish for “homeward” and is inspired by his granny’s stories about Eastern Europe and coming to America. There is a five beat jagged chordal rhythm that runs through the piece which is cut up and syncopated in various ways until a short solo cello line, with pizzicato breaks, takes us to a slower, murky fugal passage, above the cello rocking. This is repeated in a different way before the rhythm returns, with col legno bowing, some scratchy stuff, some very high harmonics and a bit of double stopping to round things off. It is not structurally complex but it is very arresting and every string effect on show was “enhanced” by the close microphones. I loved it though I don’t suppose it will pop up at the Wigmore any time soon.

Mica Levi’s work, written in 2016 for this very ensemble, takes the 1950s song of the title and zeroes in on scraps of music within it. There are three sections to be played in any order. Hannah, a kind of set of passacaglia variations with mad trilling, Jumping, sort of fugal with odd chords moving to tremolos over a cello grind, and Sun, with the higher strings sliding up over the cello drone. It is less interesting than it sounds. Again it was over-amplified for my liking.

Ahed of the interval and before the main event Mr Dessner took to the stage with electric guitar for a performance of Electric Counterpoint. No rock’n’roll razzamatazz here. He looked like one of the stage managers despite having taking a bow earlier after Aheym. EC has one live guitar part, obviously, alongside twelve recorded guitar parts, two on bass. There are three movements, without breaks, the first an 8 part canon with the live guitar over the top and harmonic pulse from the other recorded guitars, the slow movement is similar but with 9 parts and, er, a slower theme, and the final part, again a canon, but with more tonal variation and rhythmic change. It is pure Reich and here the QEH acoustic, the amplification and, obviously, our rock god, really delivered.

Different Trains, commissioned, like Aheym, by the Kronos Quartet, and premiered in this very venue in 1988, is way more interesting than it sounds. The live string quartet is backed by three recorded versions of themselves. This creates the opportunity for 16 part counterpoint and, in line with the concept of the piece, means we listen to a “past we did not witness”. The tape line also includes lines of speech, from Reich’s governess and a train porter, as well as Holocaust victims, as well as “train” noises. The idea is to contrast Reich’s train journeys across America as a child with the horrific journeys made by Jewish children in Europe during the war. The accompanying film from Bill Morrison reinforces the contrast and is, at times, disturbing. The first movement is upbeat, the snatches of conversation brief, and the rhythmic patterns clear and harmonics tonal. The second second is slower and darker with frequent sustains, more harmonic dissonance, and with the train ambience increasing. The final movement takes the voices from the first time and melds them into the music.

I wasn’t entirely persuaded by the performance with the recordings sometimes overwhelming the live performers though I was perched right at the back. Oliver Coates’s cello playing was very fine, as I know from previous performances, and Galya Bisengalieva’s first violin sang, but the second violin and viola parts were a bit muddied. On the other hand having the film footage definitely enhanced the powerful meaning behind Steve’s Reich’s music. (I am assuming the age of the footage is what delivered the “blotchy effects”). The performers were standing and split two by two on stage which made for an antiphonal effect, in mind if not ear.

Even with the sound this was still a fine rendition of a modern masterpiece near Reich’s best. More of this at the QEH please. I promise to smarten up next time.

Oh, and no clowns please.

Isabelle Faust and Kristian Bezuidenhout at Wigmore Hall review ****

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Isabelle Faust (violin), Kristian Bezuidenhout (harpsichord)

Wigmore Hall, 9th April 2018

  • JS Bach – Violin Sonatas 4, 5 and 2, BWV 1017, 1018 and 1015,
  • Johan Jacob Froberger Suite No 12 in C minor for harpsichord,
  • Biber – Violin Sonata No 5 in E minor, Mystery Sonatas Passacaglia in G minor “Guardian Angel”

JS Bach tick. Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber tick. Not just the Passacaglia from the Mystery Sonatas, which seems to appear on every Baroque violinists concert programmes right now, but one from the “other” 1681 set of sonatas. And then this chap Froberger which also turned into a qualified tick. All from the violin of Isabelle Faust, always a resounding tick, and harpsichord of Kristian Bezuidenhout, likewise.

This partnership has recently recorded the Bach Violin sonatas using some top draw instruments and the reviews are very positive. On the strength of this performance I have bought the CD. I am also signed up, in tandem with MSBD, for the second instalment of the other sonatas at St Luke’s on 16th June. I see there are a few tickets left. Snap ’em up I say.

The first couple of minutes of the opening Sonata No 4 weren’t perfect, harpsichord right hand just a bit forceful compared to left and the violin, but balance was quickly achieved and from there on we, and they, never looked back. These works are not right at the top of the Bach instrumental pile, crowded out by the solo works and the concertos and suites, but, IMHO, there is no reason why they shouldn’t be. And this sublime partnership is making that case convincingly. Son CPE certainly thought they were amongst Dad’s best works, They are not revolutionary in structure adhering to the familiar baroque sonata di chiesa pattern of four slow-fast-slow-fast movements, but they are some of the first to have a fully written out keyboard part rather than a bassline with some indications of harmonies to be filled in above it. This means the right hand can match the melodies of the violin whilst the left hand trots out the bassline. This gives the texture of a trio sonata which is most clearly heard in No 4.

No 4 kicks off with a lilting siciliano, follows with a three line fugue, then an adagio with triplets in the keyboard right hand alongside a dotted violin rhythm, then another fugue with some syncopation and cross-rhythms. No 5 starts with a largo where the violin gradually adds melody to the three part invention of the keyboard, unrelated at first and then conjoined, like a cantata aria apparently. The fast movements are fugues again, the second slow movement, arpeggios from keyboard with double stopping accompaniment from violin. No 2 is strictly 3 part, beginning with another gentle dance imitating the contemporary ‘galant” manner, followed by another fugue which sandwiches some flashy violin, then a canon, then another fugue. Now I confess I am not entirely sure what all this means but once I have recording in hand, or ear, I will try to work it out. That is the fun of art music; you know you like it, you can then spend years working out why you do and what it is.

Now apparently our man Froberger was the leading keyboard composer of the mid C17, born in Stuttgart, and working for 20 years as an organists for the Hapsburg emperors in gilded Vienna, though like all these chaps he got about a bit. Free movement across Europe you see. His compositions unite the Italian, German and French traditions, the French broken style still be based on lute technique (and a bit dull to my ears). This is one of his suites based on dances grouped by key, here C. It begins with an allemande in the form of a lament, then cheers up a bit with gigue, courante and sarabande. Still can’t quite remember the differences but this passed the time pleasantly enough. Seems JJ Froberger was a bit of a noodle forbidding publication of his compositions in his lifetime. The right to be forgotten, though now he must be a wet dream for Baroque keyboard scholars.

In contrast the Biber sonata was, yet again, a revelation. This is part of a set of 8, published in 1681, and is a barnstormer with extreme upper register shrills, very fast runs and bonkers double stopping. The work is continuous starting with a fantasia-like intro, then into an exquisite set of variations over a ground bass, then a show off presto and ending with another beautiful set of variations. Maybe this fellow isn’t quite up there with JSB and Vivaldi but he is in the vicinity and it’s a mystery to me why he isn’t more popular. A CD of this set of sonatas has literally just dropped through the letter box. I’m on it.

Biber didn’t tour much, despite his astounding technique, preferring to publish his ground breaking works for violinists and let the punters work it out for themselves. I like the sound of that. He spent most of his working life in Salzburg, after doing a runner from an employer in Bohemia. I suspect you would be hard pressed to find a bar of chocolate with his mug on it in Salzburg though unlike you know who. He married well and his surviving kids were musically gifted. In addition to the violin pieces apparently he also wrote plenty of large scale sacred music, though I haven’t seen any being performed, maybe they are a bit too labour intensive. I will find out and let you know.

Needless to say Ms Faust’s rendition of this sonata was electric, in atmosphere not technology of course. Biber may have been ahead of his time, until the Italians overtook him, but he wasn’t that advanced. I really hope she programmes more of these solo violin pieces in future and that some promoters will be brave enough to let one of the sublime baroque violinists performing today to have a crack at the Mystery Sonatas in full.