Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Review: Haydn's 23rd Symphony. Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra.

Today I was the victim of a 249 year old prank. There I was, contentedly listening to the cheerful final movement of Haydn's 23rd Symphony and it just petered out, leaving only silence. I stood up, confused, and checked my player. I was aware that the whole opus was rather short, at below twenty minutes, but nothing should finish like that. I played the end of the presto again, and again the piece shrank abruptly from full throttle romp to barely audible string pianissimo. Then nothing. Meeting this imbalance, the listener naturally expects the final crash bang wallop, but it never comes, leaving one dissatisfied, a hungry ghost. I felt like shouting More!, not so much  in appreciation, but because I wanted resolution. But it was not to come, for in this racy piece of music, Haydn has produced something somewhat zen and post-modern - an ending without an ending. The original fade-out in Western music.

People are usually aware of Haydn's sense of mischief from the crashing fortissimo in his later 94th ("Surprise") Symphony. I always thought this naming of the symphony not entirely helpful, as it ensures that new listeners expect the surprise, and are therefore not at all surprised when it happens. Indeed, they expect to be surprised precisely at the end of the piano opening of the second movement. It is commonly thought that this crashing chord was inserted by Haydn to wake up his audience. However, this it not true. In a later interview, Haydn observed that it was there just to jolt and amuse the audience. I actually think that the brilliance of the gag was that the fortissimo was not used again for the duration of the whole symphony. It was thus like one of Garkinkel's breaching experiments, where people have to make sense of a singular normative outrage. One envisages people in the original audiences, looking to each other to check that they hadn't imagined it.

Anyway, back to the 23rd - the original Surprise Symphony. If you have a spare twenty minutes, you could do much worse than playing this. If you have forty minutes, play it again. Joseph Haydn was the pop star in his day, a huge international celebrity. He was also an innovator, and was really the first to consolidate the symphonic structure. Rather than the long drawn out affairs that symphonies later became, Haydn's early symphonies were very short - the EPs of the 18th Century, with four tracks; each the length of a modern pop single.

The first track of the Haydn EP, "23", comes in the form a breezy 3/4 time romp, with fresh use of rhythm, and sheer sheening strings. Unlike the romantic approach to music as expression, the classical ideal was the attainment of heavenly perfection, and I wouldn't bet against Haydn playing in Heaven right now. The andante 2/2 second movement is beautiful in its simplicity, but interesting in its use of syncopation. Strange to consider that what we think of as defining of Jazz, the off beat playfulness before final resolution, has roots going back three centuries. As Jacques Loussier did in his treatment of Bach, somebody needs to highlight the jazz in Haydn. The minuet in 3/3 is a bar by bar alternation between highs and lows - a calling and answer that is mutually elaborative. Wonderful stuff. Finally, the fourth movement is breezy, jolly and classical - a right royal romp around landscaped grounds, before . .

Disappearing. First to pianissimo strings; then to a barely audible pizzicato pluck. And, then, we're left with that unsatisfactory silence. How audiences back in the 18th century would have reacted to this sudden emptiness, one can only guess. My reaction? Play it all over again.

Overall, Haydn's 23rd is a refreshing piece of music - witty, emotional, and hinting at a perfection just beyond out senses. Plato talked about universal, foundational forms that reality approximates to. Haydn almost reveals these forms to us.

Have a listen:

Friday, May 24, 2013

Review: CSS in London and the NME, May 2013.

CSS are a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Founded in 2003 in São Paulo as Cansei de Ser Sexy (“tired of being sexy”) they have always been lo-fi, sunny, quirky. Above all, however, CSS have always seemed ephemeral. Their fun-loving, slacker approach to things has always given the impression that they would inevitably fall apart, leaving behind a few hummable songs and memories of some blissful, chaotic concerts. The band have always had dissolution in their DNA.

Yet CSS have survived – they’re still here, ten years on, giggling, gigging and about to release their fourth album, Planta.

Against the odds and against all expectations, they survived their biggest crisis when songwriter and instrumentalist Adriano Cintra left the band in 2011 amidst a world tour. I was due to see them a few weeks later at the Heaven nightclub in London, and was horrified by the news. In the days leading up to the gig, I nervously awaited word that they had split up. I wouldn't have blamed them, and fully expected to be asking Heaven for a refund. However, the day arrived with no news, and I turned up to find the club full to the rafters and buzzing with anticipation. Having recently bought the lyrical, shambolic album La Liberación, I was buzzing too. But, how could they possibly perform without Adriano? How good could they be?

The answer came bounding on stage with a frizzy wig and leather jacket. Heaven exploded, and responded immediately with echoes of “calling, calling” to the opening number. Lovefoxxx had hit the stage.

Simply put, Lovefoxxx is one of the great contemporary performers.  Her very presence is enough to start a party, and that’s partly what makes CSS events so exciting and intoxicating – they are not gigs in the traditional sense, but carnivals, celebrations.

That night, the wig and leather jacket came off quickly to reveal a red haired, hot panted Luísa Matsuchita leading the singing of “Short shorts, short skirts / Flower tops, denim shirts / In the big city, nothing hurts, nothing hurts”. And you know what . . . nothing did that night, as she threw herself into the crowd, and Luiza Sá, Carolina Parra and Ana Rezende kept the beats and melodies flowing - everybody danced. 

Nothing hurt . . until the next morning that is, when my head certainly did. Before going to bed, I had tweeted about what a storming gig the girls had put on. Turning on my IPad, I saw that they had actually replied to me. CSS are like that.

A year past. A year listening to the albums, and following Lovefoxxx’s various DJ stints and collaborations, such as with Steve Aoki on the catchy and strangely moving Heartbreaker. Actually the song was so catchy that it stuck in my head for a week, and I had to hum Beethoven’s 8th loudly to muffle it out.

Again the expectation, the conviction, that what seemed ephemeral, actually was. OK, so the girls had managed to pull off the gig of the year without Adriano . . . but what about the songs, perfectly pitched for the four intoxicating muses? Could they write their own material? With Lovefoxxx herself being a one-woman brand for cool, and getting all the work she needed, why would she bother? Would Luiza, Carol and Ana form another band?

As the year rolled on, the CSS tweets and Facebook entries became fewer and fewer. They did a series of entertaining, chaotic, radio shows in LA. At least they still enjoyed each other’s company, but the expectation was that they would fade into the Californian sunshine.

Then out of the blue, and totally unexpectedly, guitarist Luiza Sá posted that they were doing a fourth album.  The tweets and Facebook entries started up again, along with pics of the girls in residence at an LA house, swimming, smiling, partying. A UK date popped up, with perhaps the most appropriate sounding announcement of all time, “CSS at All Tomorrow’s Parties, Camber Sands, Sussex”.  It was like a keyword distillation of the band:





Then came news of the London gig on Hoxton Square. I hurriedly bought a ticket, and put it on the mantelpiece.

I counted down the days, then a chilly Monday 13th May 2013 arrived. I met a couple of friends for drinks and trouped over to the Hoxton Square Bar and Kitchen for a few more, before joining the expectant sell-out crowd.

Ana, Luiza and Carol came bouncing on with a male drummer, and Lovefoxxx followed, strangely subdued, and complaining of being cold (she was right to). This incarnation of Lovefoxxx had a painted face, long, long, black hair, and she was wearing a substantial and rather stiff cloak. Very Dada - Lovefoxxx as Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven.

And the band did their thing, effusively, infectiously. The musicians, Ana, Carol and Luiza seemed to be having the time of their life up there – laughing, pointing, acting up . . and man, they were good. Often overlooked is that CSS are a very tight, hard hitting band. Luiza Sá struts and preens self-mockingly like a young Keith Richards. Carolina Parra keeps it all together, surveying the others knowingly. And then there is Ana Rezende – keyboard maestro, and heart of the band. The three slide and dance, carve out rhythms and hooks, weaving their unique, euphoric magic.

Shortly into the gig, the stangely subdued Lovefoxxx suddenly raised her hands; the levers in her stiff cloak clicked in, and she became a huge butterfly. Lovefoxxx reborn! After a couple of minutes as this startling, rhythmic insect, she dispensed with the contraption, and became the centre of the party she always is. The rest of the gig was an uplifting melange of old and new, with a thunderous duet at the end, with the girls yelling “I seen you drunk girl, but you ain’t drunk yet.”

I, however, was indeed drunk, and drifted off into the night with my ears ringing.

I forgot to mention that in the run up to this gig, Kevin Perry, Deputy Editor of the NME, had tweeted asking whether any CSS fans would like to see their session at the NME offices. Err . . yes, I replied. Yes, please.

So on the following Wednesday morning I turned up to the NME offices in a cab, only to see the girls in shades passing from their car into the building – the Rolling Stones at their coolest did not look as cool as this. After a long wait downstairs, fifteen young fans and myself – a rather old fan – were ushered up to the huge offices on the 9th floor. At the end of the corridor sat the girls, with a couple of friends and a bearded bongo drummer.

Lovefoxxx opened her arms beatifically: “Thank you so, much for coming!!” she smiled, with genuine warmth, as the young fans sat cross-legged in front of her like disciples around the Buddha. Luiza Sá started to strum, the bongo drummer kicked in and Lovefoxxx began to sing their latest, and self-penned, number, “Hangover”. It was rather like sitting around a camp-fire on a beach in Brazil. With a bit of banter and chat in between, the band did another three or four songs, and that was it. Morning had broken.

I left the NME offices glad that I had gone and seen a new side to the band. CSS, acoustic? Who would have thought that would work? It started to rain; and as I crossed the Thames, I smiled as I thought about these bright, funky Brazilian women. When they play together something happens, something rare. Luiza, Luisa, Carolina and Ana make the world more fun, less predictable, more human. CSS are four girls against the world - and they are winning.

Will I ever see them again? I really don’t know – they are ephemeral, after all.

But I hope so.  

Review: Romeo and Juliet, Icarus Theatre Collective, Guildhall Arts Centre, Grantham. 23rd May 2013

Romeo and Juliet came to Grantham this week, in the form of the Icarus Theatre Collective. Anyone who thought that R&J was for softies will have had something of a shock, as this was as energetic, rude and bloody an affair as any Tarantino fan could hope for. From the off, the playing was superb, clear, vital, and the audience were irresistibly sucked into the high japes and low manoeuvres of a fractious and dangerous Verona. The set was brilliant in its simplicity. You got a balcony and a ladder – that’s it – but with the players smuggling in scene-specific props, that was the only infrastructure needed, and it freed up the stage for this breathtaking performance.

Two clans at war. The son of one falls for the daughter of another, and all hell breaks loose. Not a new idea, even in Shakespeare’s time, but a storyline that highlights the paradoxes, absurdities, joys and injustices that tribalism sustains.

This was very much a play of two halves. The first, a dynamic, joyous affair of rivalry and heart. The second half, a desperate spiral to inevitable death, leaving some in the audience sobbing.

But the play’s the thing, and the players were magnificent. A great performance reveals something fresh to the audience, and for me the great revelation was the central role of the loyal, gauche, Nurse, forcefully played by Gemma Barrett. Indeed, the story arguably centres around the woman who brought up Juliet, and loves and understands her more than any other. The tragedy turns on how Nurse’s well-meaning loyalty and advice to Juliet seal the teenager’s doom. Here is a dark, bloody precedent to Jane Austen’s Emma. The role needed an actor of charisma and sensitivity, and Gemma Barrett’s portrayal of this bruised, well-meaning, loyal woman was electrifying – at times hilarious; at other times, wounded and desperate. Hats off to Ms Barrett.

This was, however, a troupe of equals, with no weak performances. Kaiden Dubois’ Romeo was boy-band gorgeous, and his energetic portrayals of the peaks and pits of first love were life-affirming. In Juliet, Nicole Anderson had a difficult role, playing a young girl exploring her sexuality, caught up in a hard, adult, political world. Whereas her acting was light and devoted in the first half, she came to dominate the stage in the second, pulling the audience into her incomprehending hurt. I heard sniffles behind me as she desperately tried to make sense of Romeo’s banishment. For me, all future Juliets must compare with Nicole Anderson’s vulnerable naive.

David McLaughlin was Mercutio. No, I mean, he really was Mercutio. One of the great challenges for the reader, and presumably the player of this role is the monologue about Queen Mag, which up until now I thought over-egged and over-long. David McLaughlin, though, brought a fresh, physical and funny interpretation to this, and made me wish it wouldn’t end. The interplay between Mercutio and Christopher Smart’s Benvolio was bawdy, witty and knowing – it was like being in a pub with two very rude, but very funny mates. What was fascinating about McLaughlin and Smart’s playing was that they really seemed to be enjoying themselves, and it seemed at times that they were indeed throwing lines around for the sport.

Shock, horror . . . Tybalt was played by a woman, Gabrielle Dempsey. From now on, I want all my Tybalts to be played by women. Actually, I want them all to be played by Gabrielle Dempsey. As soon as she hit the town square, your gaze shifted to the alpha female – beautiful, intelligent, charismatic, athletic – what’s not to like here? But Gabrielle Dempsey’s role amounted to a further departure from the Tybalts of old in that she was admirably dutiful to her family, and reluctant to fight and eventually kill the fun loving Mercutio. As this finest of women sat sobbing next to Mercutio’s corpse, I sensed that Gabrielle Dempsey has transformed Tybalt for ever. Tybalt a man? Never!

Georgina Periam was also excellent as the pragmatic, compromised Lady Capulet, and her scolding of Juliet showed well the regrets within. Hubbie, Lord Capulet , played by the imposing figure of Zachary Holton, provided the gravitas, not just for this role, but as the bemused and sad Prince Escalus, whose city is riven by this bloody affair.

Afterwards, as I was reflecting on the amazing performance, I learnt that this was to be the troupe’s last rendition of Romeo and Juliet. This saddened me, as I would love to see it again. I’ll miss the swordfights, the laughs, the tears . . . Oh well, I shall just have to go to the next show by this freshest, most inventive and passionate of troupes, the Icarus Theatre Collective.

Well done to Director, Max Lewendel and to Guildhall Arts Centre for staging this event. We need more Shakespeare in Grantham, and I’m pleased to see that Kesteven and Grantham Girls’ School are staging A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the theatre, 16-17 July.

I will be there. 

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Review: The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things, curated by Mark Leckey, Nottingham Contemporary, 27 Apr 2013 - 30 Jun 2013

As far as I can see, Nottingham Contemporary is the most daring, relevant and stylish gallery in the land. Hot on the heels of John Newling's earthy geo-exhibition, Ecologies of Value, which featured balls made from mulch, plants growing in a plastic shed, and living kale walking sticks, the NC has staged an equally outré show by Mark Leckey, the Turner Prize winning artist from Birkenhead. 

Curating is to art what DJ-ing is to music nowadays, and here Mark Leckey has assembled a seemingly disparate, but actually tightly and cleverly themed collection of art. Some of these are obscure/ some by famous artists such as William Blake. Not one of the exhibits, or the complex synergies between them is boring or mundane, however, which puts the actuality of the collection at odds with its ponderous title. Leckey presents us with car wheels without a car, an alimentary canal, flickering cine-camera footage, the sputnik satellite, the death mask of William Blake, a leg being born by, or swallowed up by a sanitised vagina; and then there is the room in which the erect Cerne Abbas giant and hanging projectors flicker noisily under florescent lights. All immediately interesting and thought provoking.

What thoughts does it provoke? What themes lie beneath this fizzing, exuberant collection of unique but interconnected art?

That's for you, the viewer, to work out. Go see it before it finishes. Bunk off work, miss your classes, get somebody to pick up the kids, beg, borrow or steal the fare to Nottingham  . . . Do what it takes  - just go. 

You have until 30th of June. 

Shakespeare: Sonnet 18

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed,
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature's changing course untrimmed:
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st,
Nor shall death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st,
   So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
   So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Review: King Lear at Shakespeare's Globe, London - Tuesday 14th May 2013

This was my first visit to Shakespeare's Globe in London, and I was nervous about it. When it comes to audiences, I generally subscribe to Sartre's observation "Hell is other people", and I feared that mobile phones, chatting schoolies and coughing pensioners would spoil my enjoyment of this darkest of tragedies. I needn't have worried, however, as the audience added immeasurably to the atmosphere, and indeed to the delivery of the performance.

Last month I set myself the task of seeing and reporting upon every Shakespeare play, and I had done a fair amount of prep for this. I had watched the 1974 NYC Central Park version with James Earl Jones as a powerful Lear. The full version of this is on YouTube, and is well worth watching. Incidentally, two facts about James Earl Jones: firstly, he was the resonant voice that used to announce  "This is CNN"; secondly, and somewhat spookily, his middle name is an anagram of Lear.

As part of my preps I had also watched Ian McKellan in his role with the RSC - an intimate, dark interpretation of the King's descent into madness, which for me highlighted the parallels between this and Krapp's Last Tape. McKellan's Lear is available on DVD, and might be the best ten quid I ever spent.

I also had read through various wikis and notes on the web - all very useful . . . indeed necessary preparation (for me anyway) to get right into the actual play before me.

A rip roaring sing song to mark the start of the formalities, and we were off, with the players immediately playing with style, wit and gusto. I was hooked in immediately.

The story itself concerns four major themes: madness; the betrayal of parents by their offspring; the nature of Nature; and the precariousness of the State. Shakespeare brilliantly weaves these threads together in the development of key characters and monumental stand-alone lines. Joseph Marcel as Lear portrayed the experience of madness, and the fear of it, with a confident fragility, befitting a once all-powerful and arrogant ruler. The performances of the sisters were clever and accomplished, and the  interplay between Ruth Everett as Goneril, and Shanaya Rafaat as Regan achieved something unexpected - they actually made me sympathise with their harsh actions, ushering a fifth very modern theme - that of the plight of carers, obliged to look after infirm parents. For me, the stand-out performance, however, was Ruth Everett's Goneril - sassy, sexy, authorative - brilliantly highlighting a reasonable logic to her unpleasant actions. Matthew Romaine as Edgar was fresh and imaginative, and Oliver Boot as Edmund was authoritative and ambitious. Bethan Cullinane pulled off the remarkable schizophrenic feat of playing both the dutiful, maltreated Cordelia, and the bawdy and rude Fool. In a play about madness, this vivid contradiction must surely threaten an actor's own sanity! Dickson Tyrrell as the Earl of Kent was stately and masculine - an honourable and witty alpha male for all seasons; and Rawirir Paratene played the Duke of Gloucester beautifully, highlighting his vulnerability, and misplaced wrath. He also had to suffer the most shocking, and humiliating of desecrations as the Duke of Cornwall pulled out his eyes, crying "out, vile jelly/ where is thy lustre now?"

It was, however, as it should be, Marcell's Lear that dominated, as the bruised, humiliated, yesterday's man, descending into madness. Seeing the play in the wake of the recent Thatcher funeral meant that there were obvious resonances with outside events.

As it finished, we clapped and cheered at once, not just for the players, and the play, but for that mysterious genius who continues to hold a mirror to our sins, fragilities and dreams.

Leaving the theatre, is was bucketing down with rain, so I took refuge in the Globe pub next to the playhouse. As I sat at a bench, I noticed the actors, barely recognisable, drifting in for a deserved after-play symposium. It was strange to watch the Duke of Gloucester revived and wearing a T shirt, and the beautiful Cordelia sipping a glass of wine with a young male companion at the next table. It made me think, how life-affirming and precious live theatre is, and how wonderful these off duty actors were.

Well done, all. I loved it.