Monday, January 30, 2017

mirga grazinyte-tyla: beethoven’s fifth with the CBSO…

Oh. My. Goodness.
Moira, Lesley, Alan and I went along to the Symphony Hall in Birmingham yesterday afternoon to see/listen to the CBSO perform Haydn’s Symphony no.31, Mozart’s Piano Concerto no.27 (with the wonderful Francesco Piemontesi on piano) and Beethoven’s Symphony no.5.
But, I have to admit that the main reason we were there was to see the orchestra’s new conductor ‘in action’.
Her name is Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla.
You’ve probably never heard of her… but she’s been described as “conducting’s next super star”. She was appointed Director of the acclaimed CBSO last year at the ridiculously young age of 29. She’s from Lithuania and she’s already worked with some of the world’s leading orchestras after winning the Nestle Conducting Competition in 2012.

But, look, what do I know? I’m certainly no classical music expert(!) and I don’t know a huge amount about the art of conducting (understatement)… and, for goodness sake, watching the “Maestro” television series hardly makes me an expert (although I DID love it)! Having said that, we have been very fortunate to have been able to follow the rather brilliant conducting career of our very good friend Daniel Harding (who we’ve known from his childhood… and who is currently principal conductor of the Orchestre de Paris). Daniel was hired by Simon Rattle to be his assistant with the CBSO (small world!) at the tender age of 17! I’ve watched Daniel on a number of occasions and recall being hugely impressed on hearing his interpretation of Mahler’s Symphony no.5 (one of my very favourite pieces of music) some years ago and suddenly realising the importance of the conductor to any orchestra or piece of music.

The Symphony Hall had a virtual sell-out audience for this Sunday afternoon concert (yes, Sunday afternoon). You could sense a tangible level of anticipation and excitement as Grazinyte-Tyla took to the rostrum and, believe me, within the very first minute of the Haydn’s Symphony no.31, you just KNEW you were witnessing something VERY special.
This tiny, pale, pretty woman was utterly captivating to watch… she was absolutely mesmerising. She already appears to have created a wonderful rapport with the orchestra. It was simply bewitching to watch… complete control, spellbinding grace, hugely charismatic… and completely magical.

Look, I know you’ll think I’ve gone stupidly over-the-top about Grazinyte-Tyla (Mirga-mania?) but, believe me, she IS something very, very special. I strongly urge you to witness her performing alongside the CBSO (warning: go online, check out the CBSO programme and book EARLY!!)… I can guarantee that you won’t be disappointed.  
She has clearly already forged a formidable relationship with both the orchestra and the audiences.
Birmingham loves her.
The orchestra loves her.
I absolutely love her.
Photograph: Benjamin Ealovega.

Saturday, January 28, 2017


Moira and I went along to the Watershed yesterday to see Pablo Larrain’s film “Jackie” – an intimate portrait of Jackie Kennedy in the events leading up to and immediately following the assassination of President Kennedy in November 1963.
Natalie Portman, in the title role, is simply stunning.
Initially, I thought her characterisation was a little too affected and exaggerated (her quiet, slightly ‘breathy’, slightly lispy way of speaking and her very particular way of walking), but I was quickly ‘won round’. In fact, her performance is quite extraordinary (surely an Oscar?). We see her life dissolving amid grief, politics and media management… at a time when she has to prepare to vacate the White House and to arrange a state funeral (as she sees it, “to rival that of Abraham Lincoln”).
There are a number of impressive performances by the supporting actors – including Peter Sarsgaard, Richard E Grant, Billy Crudup and Greta Gerwig – but Mica Levi’s wonderful musical score also deserves huge credit (although, perhaps to my shame, I only really became aware of it nearly half way through the film!).

Inevitably, I suppose, one is left reflecting on the parallels between the lives of Princess Diana and Jackie Kennedy – both treated as iconic beauties by people (and the media) throughout the world.
Most people from my generation (I was 14 at the time) are very familiar with the events surrounding JFK’s assassination and can recall images from that time… including watching Jackie Kennedy walking behind the gun-carriage carrying her husband’s coffin. It’s sobering to realise that it all happened 55 years ago… and that, perhaps, some of our ‘remembered’ images are simply television footage we’ve seen replayed over (and over) the intervening years. It now seems very strange to realise that JFK was only president for a little over two years.

The film brought it all back. Scenes from the White House almost felt like watching clips from “West Wing”! It was fascinating to realise that, within just a week of her husband’s death, Mrs Kennedy had summoned a journalist - wonderfully played in the film by Billy Crudup - to her home, aware (even then) of the historic importance of what had happened and of the opportunity to put her own ‘spin’ on events for all time. Some things don’t change! 
Without a doubt, it’ll be Natalie Portman’s mesmerising performance that you’ll remember from this film.
PS: Somewhat bizarrely, during the film, I also found myself reflecting on the twin images of Jackie Kennedy, ‘queen’ of the American ‘royal family’ living with all the associated luxury of the White House and of Cherie Blair, as she was caught opening the front door of their house in Islington in her nightdress on the morning after her husband’s election as prime minister!
PPS: Also a sense poignant irony to have watched John Hurt play the part of the elderly catholic priest who comforted Jackie in her grief, only to discover that (as I write this), he had died… at the age of 77.

Friday, January 27, 2017

o’hooley+tidow at st george’s…

Can’t really believe that it was four years ago that Moira and I last saw O’Hooley+Tidow at the Folk House. Well, last night, they were ‘roughing it’ at Bristol’s wonderful St George’s – complete with its Steinway grand piano… and they were simply brilliant (again).
Belinda O’Hooley and Heidi Tidow are very impressive singer-songwriters who tackle thought-provoking issues such as racism, animal cruelty, poverty, vulnerability and child abuse with remarkable, understated clarity. Their voices combine quite brilliantly (and St George’s is just a perfect venue for such gifted people!). Belinda O’Hooley clearly relished her evening on the Steinway and I was amused by the St George’s blurb indicating that “Heidi shares lead vocals with Belinda, and also provides foot percussion” (when I launch my own music career, foot percussion will be my instrument of choice... obviously!).
It was a really lovely evening (they’re very amusing too!) – they played for two hours and only stopped for 20 minutes to sell their CDs during the interval.
One of the highlights for me was when they sang Joni Mitchell’s ‘River’… that moment when two of your favourite singers begin singing a song that you instantly recognise as perhaps your favourite song in all the world (by your very favourite singer-songwriter)… that sense of “please don’t mess this up”… immediately followed by that nerve-tingling feeling when you realise that it’s going to be ok, they’re going to perform the song in a quite exquisite way.
Yes, feeling very blessed…
PS: I think they’ll be appearing in Frome on 12 March (with other performers, in the guise of “Coven”)… if you’re in the area, I suggest you book tickets!

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Thomas Friedman talking at the Bristol Festival of Ideas…

Last night, Moira and I went to hear Thomas L Friedman (why do people insist on using their middle name initial?) talk about his current book ‘Thank You For Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations’ as part of the excellent Bristol Festival of Ideas. The pre-talk blurb described it thus: “In today’s changing world of Brexit and Donald Trump’s promises of walls and tariffs, Friedman argues that it is only openness to ideas and trade that will allow us all to thrive. He addresses the need for politically moral leadership…”.
Born in 1953, Friedman is an American journalist, internationally-renowned author and three time Pulitzer Prize winner. He currently writes a weekly column for The New York Times.
I went along with an open mind… ‘this could be inspiring or really, really depressing’!
Well, it proved to be an absolutely fascinating, stimulating evening. He spoke for 45 minutes, without notes. Evidently, he’d been giving this talk around the world since last May… but suitably updated in the light of Mr Trump (and Brexit)! He’s a confident, articulate and engaging speaker.
I can’t begin to summarise Friedman’s wide-ranging talk… so I’ll just highlight a few things that struck me.
He talked about the significance of the year 2007: Steve Job launching the iPhone; facebook; Kindle; The Cloud; YouTube; the beginnings of Airbnb… followed, somewhat ironically, by the worldwide economic recession of 2008. Although we didn’t perhaps notice at the time, digital globilisation and the exponential growth in microchips were transforming our lives.
The pace of change and the pace of new ideas is almost overwhelming… or, as Friedman put it: “Google lives in the future and sends us letters home”.
He talked about the way many of the large Corporations were moving – analysing the capabilities of their employees and being prepared to train them, free of charge, in areas where they needed specific help or improvement… BUT for them to undertake the training in their own time… and if they didn’t fancy that, then they’d be given a redundancy package and removed from the organisation. Corporations see life-long learning as CRUCIAL.

Friedman talked about politics (and specifically US and UK politics)… and how our current political parties are designed to think and work “with an old situation”… in his view, they needed to be “blown up (not literally, hopefully) and re-started… "the age of acceleration is going to be just too fast for them”.
He talked very briefly about taxation… feeling that the current systems should be abandoned in favour of universal carbon taxes and sugar taxes.
He talked about us living in a world where “one of us can kill all of us” (he didn’t specifically mention the Trident ‘deterrent’ but, clearly, implied that such policies were hugely outdated and ineffective).
He talked about ethics; about a cyber world where no one's ‘in charge’; and, perhaps somewhat strangely in the context of the evening(?), about the need for us all to live by the old ‘golden rule’ (“do unto others as you would have them do unto you”); about the need for ‘strong families’ and ‘strong communities’(?)… and about ‘applied hope’. There were lots of things I wanted him to explain more fully, but time didn’t allow… yes, I know, I should have bought his book!
It was all inspiring, fascinating stuff… but even now, writing this the morning after, I’m not sure if his words made me feel depressed or encouraged. They’ve certainly underlined my own naivety in some areas… or, as Friedman put it: “naivety is the new realism”!

Friday, January 20, 2017

manchester by the sea…

I went along to the Watershed this afternoon (somewhat cramped in the tiny Cinema 2 for a virtual sell-out audience – the annual Slapstick Festival takes precedence at this time of year) to see Kenneth Lonergan’s critically acclaimed film “Manchester By The Sea” (in the USA, not the one that’s home to Old Trafford!).
I don’t want to give away too much of the story but, essentially, troubled Boston-based handyman Lee (brilliantly played by Casey Affleck) has his rather sparse existence further disrupted by the death of his older brother. This forces him to return to his hometown on the Massachusetts north shore, but he is horrified to discover that that he has been appointed guardian to his16 year-old nephew, Patrick (again, excellently played by Lucas Hedges). This return to his old stomping ground provides Lee with memories of an earlier devastating family tragedy involving his ex-wife Randi (convincingly played by Michelle Williams – although I had envisaged her taking a more prominent role in the story).
Lee’s basic, depressing, lack-lustre life is a struggle. For him, life is drudgery and mere existence. He’s variously hiding his emotions or exploding in frustration. Gradually, dual timelines emerge in the film and we begin to understand the toils a little more clearly.
The film is about grief, hope and love… it’s stark, moving, comical (at times), intimate, tender and very impressive.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

peter pan…

Moira and I went up to London yesterday to see Sally Cookson’s much-acclaimed version of JM Barrie’s “Peter Pan” at the National Theatre.
It was simply brilliant.
You know the story, of course… Peter, the boy who never grew up; the Darling family’s nursery and daughter Wendy; the ability to fly; Tinker Bell; the lost boys in Never Land; Captain Hook and the pirates… and, of course, the crocodile!
It’s just a children’s story.
Well, yes. But this telling of the story was completely magical.
Colourful, funny, dramatic, brilliantly inventive, poignant… theatre at its very, very best.
The production was devised entirely by the cast (in typical Cookson manner) - which included Benji Bower’s wonderful, integral, music – and made the most of the individual characteristics of the Olivier Theatre (with its drum-revolve stage). The costumes, set design and ‘streetwise’ storytelling are all spot-on.
The entire cast is absolutely excellent - including Felix, of course (“just plain perfect” as one critic described him!), as Smee and Mr Darling – with Paul Hilton stunning as Peter; Anna Francolini suitably fierce and sinister as Hook (and charming as Mrs Darling!); Madaleine Worrall as an ideal Wendy; and Saikat Ahmed as a ridiculous, but perfect, Tink!
It’s very difficult to pick any highlights of this show, but it would be utterly wrong not to mention the FLYING! They don’t go for any invisible wires, they go for rope systems and flying harnesses (which they describe to the audience as “fairy string”!)… with fellow cast members acting as counterweights, bouncing up and down tall stage scaffolding as the central characters ‘fly’. The whole effect is extraordinary and wonderful… the first time Peter launches himself out over the front stalls is simply breath-taking.
This production was definitely for BOTH children and adults. The Olivier Theatre was packed for the matinee performance we saw. The audience included lots of children (included one group we noticed who’d dressed for the occasion… as pirates, a sea captain and a green-clad Peter, as you do!) and everyone (including the adults, let me stress) was captivated (in a very enthusiastic way!).
Yes, it’s just a children’s story (and I know I’m soft)… but it made me cry.
Magical, brilliant, uplifting – live performance at its very, very best.
PS: IF I was any good with heights and IF I was young and fit, then I think I’ve discovered my new dream career: “professional counterweighter” (yes, that’s how the programme describes three individuals who spend most of the production “bouncing up and down tall stage scaffolding” for some of the most dramatic scenes)!

Friday, January 13, 2017

la la land...

Moira and I went along to the Watershed (where else?) this afternoon to see Bristol’s first showing of this acclaimed film. Somewhat predictably, even for an afternoon showing, it wasn’t far off being a full house. The scenario (as you probably already know) is two people - a jazz pianist (Seb, played by Ryan Gosling) and an aspiring actress (Mia, played by Emma Stone) – who fall in love while pursuing their dreams of Hollywood stardom.
I purposely tried to avoid knowing too much about the film in advance… basically, I knew it was a musical of sorts and that it also featured dance (the poster's a bit of a give-away).
Ridiculously for most film buffs, I really hadn’t seen much of Emma Stone before this film (Birdman is the only one I can recall?) and, whilst I recognised Ryan Gosling, our paths clearly hadn’t crossed too many times in the past (I know!)(in fact, before the film, I felt sure I wasn’t going to like him!).
Well, surprise surprise, I found it absolutely delightful.
Predictably, Seb was first class and I’m in love with Mia (who was also first class)!
Yes, it’s something of ‘an all-singing, all-dancing romance’, but it’s not over-slushy and I particularly enjoyed the music. Neither Gosling nor Stone are natural singers, but I thought they were both perfect for their respective roles (and they both dance rather gracefully too!). To its credit (for me, at least), the film isn’t over-glitzy and, indeed, even has a degree of ‘ordinariness’ about it, which merely adds to its charm.
I’ve just read Peter Bradshaw’s (5 star) review in The Guardian… and he makes reference to the film’s “primary-coloured homage to classic movie musicals”. I can only endorse this (not that my knowledge of classic movie musicals is extensive!). In fact, there were some scenes that made me think of director Wes Anderson – beautifully orchestrated and stunningly graphic (frequently shot against a backdrop of a colourful building façade or a painted wall or a stunning skyline at dusk etc etc).
Moira wasn’t quite sure about the film (she reckoned it took her an hour to get into it – but, then she’s not a great lover of music or musicals), but I really enjoyed it.
After all the gloom and doom following Trump’s election and the repercussions of the Brexit vote, this film is a breath of fresh air… it’s about hopes and dreams.
Ok, in a way, it might be pure escapism, but it’s also uplifting and an absolute joy… and we certainly need more of that at present!

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

january 2017 books…

Long Live Great Bardfield: Autobiography  (Tirzah Garwood): Towards the end of last year, thanks to my good friend David, I read an excellent memoir of the artist Eric Ravilious - who married fellow artist Tirzah Garwood in 1930. Thanks to Moira, I became aware that TG had written an autobiography and, being rather fascinated by British art of the 1920s and 30s, added the book to my Christmas wish-list. Well, I’m VERY glad that I did! Eric Ravilious died early in 1942 (lost at sea in the war) and, somewhat strangely perhaps(?), TG began writing her autobiography (largely for her grandchildren, it seems) in March 1942, when she was in hospital recovering from a mastectomy operation for primary cancer (she completed the first draft in May that year and finalised most of the manuscript by February 1943). She died in 1951. The book was first published in 2012 (and by Persephone Books in 2016) – having been edited (and added to on the basis of TG’s own notes) by her daughter Anne Ullmann. It’s a long (some 500 pages) but brilliantly-written book which also contains copies of beautiful engravings, drawings, paintings and photographs. As well as being a record of the life of a woman who was at the centre of an important group of artists, it also provides a fascinating social history of the time. Tirzah was brought up “in comfort”, whereas Eric’s background was essentially working class (the Garwoods apparently felt socially embarrassed at Tirzah’s choice and Eric’s parents were equally perplexed!). TG is a natural, gifted writer with a hugely engaging and amusing ability to describe people and situations with an honest and endearing frankness. Apart perhaps for a section in the middle of the book which seemed to read a bit like an episode from The Archers (not that I listen to such radio programmes these days!) about who fancied who and what steps they took to try to ensure an appropriate conclusion, I found the book completely captivating. This might be the very first book I’ve read in 2017, but I suspect it might be one of the very best I read in the entire year.
If I Could Tell You Just One Thing (ed. Richard Reed): Amongst other things, Richard Reed is the co-founder of ‘Innocent’ (the smoothie people) and this book was compiled through his “encounters with remarkable people”. The list of people is impressive and, as you might imagine, their ‘most valuable advice’ is frequently profound and thought-provoking (eg. Bill Clinton, Shami Chakrabarti, Harry Belafonte, Judi Dench, Sandy Toksvig, Richard Curtis, Nicola Sturgeon etc)… but there were also some that just irritated me! Here’s just one example: “Don’t take holidays… Give yourself a maximum of a day or day and a half a year. And use that to read books on your industry. The rest of the time you should just work” (Indra Nooyi, Global CEO of PepsiCo). But on the positive side, I particularly liked the two examples provided by Margaret Busby (writer, broadcaster, literary critic and ‘rule-breaking publisher’): “It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who takes the credit” (via Harry Truman); and that her approach to life is ultimately best captured by a Greek proverb she read: “A society grows great when old men plant trees under which they know they will never sit”. I know it’s one of those books that I’ll just pick it up and browse on a regular basis.
Pour Me (AA Gill): This is Gill’s autobiography, published in 2015. He died from lung cancer in December 2016, aged 62. He was a journalist, TV+restaurant critic and a travel/features-writer. I read his book “AA Gill is Away” in 2011. Somewhat ridiculously, this was the first time I’d come across him and, from my blog post of the time, I commented: “His writing was a revelation for me. He has a brilliant writing style – punchy, humorous and intelligent (and, on occasions, somewhat maddening!)”. I very much regret not having read more of Gill’s stuff… and will endeavour to make amends over the coming years. His autobiography is a poignant, funny, dark, honest and, at times, quite moving book… telling of his struggles with dyslexia, alcoholism (he gave up drinking at 30) and drugs, but also evocatively about his family (especially his father and his brother), parenting, his days as an art student at the Slade… and passionately about journalism and food (amongst other things). It’s a very special, rather brilliant, book.
The Cornish Coast Murder (John Bude): One of those “Golden Age of Crime Novels” (published in 1935). As you might imagine – after having just consumed two brilliant autobiographies - this book provided some straightforward, non-challenging(?), New Year, comfort fiction. Very readable and enjoyable… although, like an awful lot of these mystery novels, you spend all your time trying to solve the crime through the given clues – only to find that this was an impossible task… because the final piece of the jigsaw is only revealed in the final chapter!
A Country Of Refuge (ed. Lucy Popescu): I really think you need to read this book. It will make you angry. It will also make you feel sad. It’s a book about the strength of the human spirit. It’s a powerful collection of memoir, essays, short fiction and poetry that explores what it really means to be a refugee. It will challenge the way we, especially in the UK, think about and act towards the dispossessed and those forced to seek a safe place to call home. It’s a brilliant, measured, indictment against the much of the media’s (and in turn the public’s) frequent descriptions of refugees as “a moral, cultural, biological and spiritual threat” (as one of the book’s contributors, AL Kennedy, expresses it)…”As David Cameron put it, ‘a swarm of people’. When people are in a swarm, they aren’t people. They are both an alien species and a danger”. Jon Snow has described it thus: “At last, here is a rich and times beautiful insight into the painful individuality of the refugee and the life lost in the face of a collective struggle for freedom and future”. A poignant reminder of the humanity of each and every individual forced to flee their own country.

Friday, January 06, 2017


I went along to the Watershed this afternoon to see Martin Scorsese’s lengthy film “Silence” (some 2hrs 40 mins long!), based on Shusaku Endo’s book of the same name (published in 1966). Strange as this may seem to cinema-lovers, but I think I’ve only watched a couple of Scorsese films in my life! Endo’s profound, disturbing, harrowing novel - about a 17th century Portuguese priest in Japan at the time of great persecution of the small Christian community - was one of our Book Group books in 2014. Scorsese first read the book in 1989 and, over the past 25 years, the possibility of turning it into a film became one of his true passion projects.
Like the book, I found the film utterly compelling… tragic, challenging and unrelenting. Christians in Japan are dealt with viciously… this is a world where Christians are asked to spit on the cross or to stamp on an image of Christ to prove they have renounced their faith (if they demur, they or their families will be cruelly tortured and killed). You certainly don’t need to be a Christian (or to have any other religious beliefs) to appreciate the film, but it’s very definitely a film that makes you question one’s own faith and the very nature of God. Will God remain silent in the face of such unimaginable suffering?
It’s all about the struggle for the very essence of faith.
Tough, but a brilliant film.
PS: Our Resonate group went to see the film last Tuesday, but I was unable to make it… but, after nearly 3 hours of film, I probably wouldn’t have been much good for any après-film discussion! No doubt there will be other opportunities to compare notes…