Wednesday, 28 October 2020

New song/old song

When is a new song not a new song?

In the car recently I heard a cool new song, very chill beat with a contemporary electronic sound. It was extremely easy to sing along and the melody was memorable. Musically speaking, it’s built on a cycle of fifths, but you don’t need to worry if that worries you, just enjoy the music.

Well, if you enjoy this song, you are enjoying the music, but not all of it. Please be patient. Here’s the 


Okay, you have heard it, repeated it, loved it, the rest is history.

It’s history because it’s a massively popular song, with more than 77 million youtube views in the official upload by Surf Mesa - ily.  The ily is really important because you might not remember it after hearing the song, no, joking, the lyric is repeated over and over as the 8 bar phrase is  kind of looped. The singer is Emilee, relaxed and chill.

It’s history too because this song has been around before.

You might like this version by Lauryn Hill from 


Surprise, there’s more to this song than Surf Mesa’s 8 bars. This is a guitar and organ mix with of course superb vocals, and passion and energy in the performance with bah bah backing vocals. As always with Lauryn Hill, it’s thoughtfully planned and expertly, beautifully performed.

But let’s go even further back, to Andy Williams and his superb version in 1968. It was really Frankie Valli who got there a year earlier, but I prefer Andy Williams and his smooth voice, meaning smooth as honey. And just listen to the orchestra building from 1’10” and the next 20 seconds, complete with bass trombone …. wow!!! Some of us started learning the trumpet just to play music like this   

This is Andy Williams showing it’s ok to sound passionate and powerful in performance. 

There’s a fun thing about the change from 68 to 20, I mean 1968 to 2020, via 1998: has our concentration span has shrunk so much we can’t manage more than a single 8 bar phrase looped endlessly?

Are we getting to a moment where we can’t sound as though we are making any effort in falling in love, it’s just got to be chill, cool, easy?

Okay let’s not think too much about it. New song/old song, it’s all lovely music whether it’s trumpets or auto-tune. Enjoy.

Saturday, 29 December 2018

Play: serious business for Aracaladanza

Play: serious business for Aracaladanza

Yesterday I saw the premiere of the new show by Aracaladanza at Madrid’s Teatros del Canal. The title is Play and the show is marketed at a family audience. The marketing obviously worked, since the large theatre was full of small children with their parents. The show itself also worked, since the children of all ages were engaged and entertained by this varied and well paced show.

Aracaladanza’s director is Enrique Cabrera and his title is aptly chosen. This 55 minute show features 5 dancers in numerous costume changes and easily managed props including sliding sofas, inflatables and dayglow frisbees. Technolgy is a major feature, with attractive and varied images projected on a screen made of dismountable panels which become elements in the choreography. The video sequences were designed by Álvaro Luna.

The dancers are Jorge Brea, Raquel de la Plaza, Jonatan de Luis, Elena García and Jimena Trueba. I agreed with my friend Kitty that the women shone in their solos: their beautiful execution and wonderfully expressive faces were a joy to watch.

My friend John O’Brien, choreographer and tap legend, was responsible for the Dogs segment of the show. The dancers wore dog head masks and tapped away and brought applause from the audience. It was clearly a high point in the show.

I very much enjoyed the original music by Luis Miguel Cobo: it was varied and had a contemporary feel. There was a lovely piece of Chinese themed music too. I am not so sure about including fragments of Bach and Tchaikovsky. It’s a big ask to place your music side by side with these giants. Why not keep it 100% original?

This show is a co-production with the Teatros del Canal (Madrid), Shanghai Children’s Art Theatre, the Madrid Regional Government, Sadler’s Wells (London) and the Festival Grec 2019 (Barcelona).

This is a very entertaining show, which is extremely well packaged and with excellent performers. It is so successful because in every detail, Aracaladanza take their Play very seriously.

Tuesday, 27 November 2018

Meeting up: old contact, new technology

Meeting up: old contact, new technology
I was leaving school today and colleagues were setting up a display for an event tomorrow. Nothing unusual there, we are a busy school and there is an almost endless series of events to arrange. So what caught my attention? It turns out that visitors tomorrow include representatives from universities around Europe and one of the universities especially caught my eye. When I worked in Madrid I organized an annual universities fair at my school and one of the most visited stands was a new university which had grown from an institution which was originally a business school.
It was surprising, at first, that this untested university attracted so much interest among my students. Later I spoke to a number of parents and they explained what was happening: since the parents had such positive experiences of studying post-grad courses at the business school it was natural that they encouraged their children to explore the school’s emerging university.
Since the university in question was so open to ideas I arranged several contact events, including a visit to their beautiful out of town campus for young people from Beijing.
Who will be there tomorrow representing this institution? Will it be the same person who came to my school in Madrid and who welcomed our visitors from China?
Even if it is the same person, will s/he remember me?
After all, 7 years have passed and so much has happened in that time.
I confess I am not as young as I was and maybe I have changed more than I think.
What is the point of the new technology reference in the title of this post?
Quite simply, this is my first blog post made entirely on my ipad: I am writing this text on Notes and hope to copy and paste it into the blog for publishing.
If you are reading this it means it has worked. My students in Years 7&8 are asked to work extensively on their ipads: if I ask something of my students I should try it myself, don’t you think?
And what about my visitor to school from years gone by?
More of that shortly.....

Sunday, 28 October 2018

Lourdes Perez Sierra and Antonia Brico

Lourdes Perez Sierra is an expert arts administrator based in Madrid, Spain. I have attended numerous concerts which she has organized, sometimes paying for a ticket and at other times as a guest and I have seen at first hand how she has been able to combine imaginative programming with top class performers in outstanding venues:  in other words, a perfect storm of musical experience. Lourdes is the founder of  Arts for Leadership and other initiatives aimed at promoting high quality development of talent in Spain and beyond.
In her recent blog post Lourdes takes the role of the orchestra conductor as a case study with regard to leadership. She explores different conducting styles, from the most authoritarian Karajan technique to a more democratic, egalitarian style of leadership.
I enjoyed this post and I hoped to get around to asking her to explore the role of women as conductors in a future blog post. Before I got to that I saw a new film about a woman conductor. At the moment I am living in the Netherlands so I got first chance to see De Dirigent   , The Conductor, a  film   produced with Dutch finance and expertise, about the fascinating true story of Antonia Brico.
 Brico was born in Rotterdam, NL in 1902 and was separated from her parents and taken to New York as a child. Thanks to her determination and strength of character, together with financial help from a friend, she was able to study conducting in Berlin and return to the USA, where she worked as a conductor and where she remained until her passing in 1989.
Brico´s story is inspiring and in many ways a positive view of progress towards recognition of gender equality.
There is a disappointing note at the end of the film, crediting Gramophone magazine statistics which show zero women conductors among the greats. First there is a quote from 2006 and then another, I believe from 2017, showing no women among the great conductors. 
On the one hand, it´s ok for the producers to make a point that women have not been given a fair chance on the podium of the world´s leading orchestras. On the other hand, it is a disservice to the achievements of those women who have achieved recognition at the very highest levels of musical accomplishment.
If you look at the long and distinguished career of   Marin Alsop ,for example,  from her early days as assistant to Leonard Bernstein to her current engagements with the world´s leading orchestras, or the huge achievements of Mirga Grazinyte Tyla, Principal Conductor  of the City of Bermingham Symphony Orchestra, it is clear that the suffering of Antonia Brico has not been in vain.
Recently I wrote a letter of recommendation for a student who left my school and moved to Germany. I wrote that she was the most exceptional student I have met in 40 years of teaching and that she reminded me of the young Simon Rattle who I knew as a young musician in Liverpool. Before she left, I encouraged her to pursue a career as a conductor. Was I doing her a disservice by comparing her to a (male) Simon Rattle? I am convinced the answer is no: I am comparing her to the highest standard that I have in my living memory.

At the beginning of this post I introduced you to Lourdes Perez Sierra: I mention her as an expert arts administrator, not as man or woman, simply as an expert. I hope that the sad and difficult experience of Antonia Brico will at least serve this current generation of young musicians, male, female and non-gender, as an inspiration to achieve your highest level of achievement, not as gender based, but as a person, a living, breathing, musical  human being.   

Sunday, 21 October 2018

The Liverpool Band, from a Liverpool Boy

Earlier this year I saw a show by The Liverpool Band, not in Liverpool but in Denia in Spain. It turns out these four incredible musicians are from the Alicante area, so the Condado venue, a former cinema in 
Denia´s high street, is more or less home ground.

Watchy Watchy is what too many substandard bands in Spain use to fill in for the English lyrics they cannot understand and/or cannot be bothered to learn.  Happily there was absolutely no Watchy Watchy from the Liverpool Band as they sang every song with perfectly accurate content and with fantastically clear diction. My admiration for this quartet grew by the minute as they showed their complete mastery of the Beatles catalogue and their own skills as instrumentalists and singers.

This was a long show, starting with those amazing 3 minute wonders from the early sixties, perfect gems that are over almost before they have begun: they had to because that was all that would fit onto one side of a 45rpm single record. Then the band moved on to the later material from the White Album and Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and they played and sang with effortless ease those polyrhythmic figures and complex harmonies, one song after another without putting a foot wrong.
I do not know the names of the members of The Liverpool Band but apparently they started in 1997 and have been working continuously on this material since, and it shows. In between versions of complete songs they played little fragments of so many other songs, teasers for another gig, another night. I am full of admiration for their individual musical skills and for their superb ensemble togetherness as well as their perfect vocal harmonies: there seems to be nothing these musicians cannot do.

As the gig I saw was in the summer there were many Brits in the audience and I suppose many of us have Beatles stories to tell. I enjoyed a Paul McCartney concert in Madrid in the nineties and that took me back to early days of listening to the Wings albums, trying to contain the guilt at enjoying this music which was the result of the break up of the Fab Four.

In 1963, I believe it was, The Beatles returned to Liverpool from their first triumphant tour to the USA. This was a historic moment because the popular music charts had up to then been the absolute domain of American artists such as Perry Como, Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley, and here were these four young men from Liverpool who had broken the mould, taking over the highest places in the pop charts the world over, and especially significantly, in the USA. You have to remember that the Liverpool of that time was drab, grey and still showing the scars of the tragic effects of the 1939-1945 war. How could they have dared to achieve so much?

On the day the band returned to Liverpool there was a line of people on the streets from the airport to the city centre: I know because I was one of them. As my memory has it, and I could be wrong, I walked, or rather I was taken, since I was only 6 years old, along to the main road where they were due to pass by, and waited a hugely long time until finally a cavalcade of big black cars drove by. The window of one of the cars was partly open and a hand appeared through the window to wave. The hand belonged to Paul, or maybe George or John or Ringo… or maybe one of their assistants, and then they were gone. 
Many years later Paul McCartney gave one of his free concert at the Liverpool riverside, called the Pier Head, and someone my age was there with her teenage daughters. When the great man appeared on the stage there was near hysterical applause before even a note had sounded. One of the teenage daughters said: What are they all clapping for, he hasn´t done anything yet. To which her mother replied: It’s not about tonight, it´s about the last 50 years that everyone is applauding.
All these memories of the original Beatles only go to increase my respect and admiration for The Liverpool Band, and I look forward to catching up with them the next time I am in Denia.


Sunday, 23 September 2018

Sense of Occasion by Harold Prince: review

Sense of Occasion by Harold Prince: review

Going to the theatre should always be an occasion, something special, different, say, from going to the cinema, the movies or going shopping.

That the combined efforts of a handful or dozens of individual persons to present a live show, something in the moment and fleeting make a special occasion is something that I completely agree with and the title of Harold Prince´s 2017 book is entirely appropriate. It harks back to Henry Purcell and his colleagues in 17th century London who referred to their work in the theatre as Spectacle and Entertainment, something very much out of the ordinary.

The first part of Sense of Occasion is a reprint of his earlier book: Contradictions, Notes on 26 years in the theatre from 1974 with commentary and self evaluation on that earlier book. That the time in question includes ground breaking works such as West Side Story should give a clear enough hint that this is no small time endeavour.

The remainder of the book is a collection of  Mr Prince´s experiences over seven decades of success in the theatre and especially in musical theatre. I was drawn to this book by reading Andrew Lloyd Webbers´s Memoir and the quintessentially English Sir Andrew ´s experiences of collaborating with the totally American Mr Prince.

I came to the book as an admirer: I have enjoyed Evita and Phantom of the Opera and have seen both several times both in London and New York. So, imagine my surprise at learning that not everything Mr Prince touched turned to gold.

“Not every show is going to work, and in a long career you have to expect disappointments” he says in the opening sentence to Chapter 32. How can it be that the producer/director of magnificent pieces such as West Side Story, Evita, Phantom of the Opera, Sweeney Todd, and so many more successes, can also turn in some shows that were commercial and/or critical disasters?  

Isn´t that precisely why going to the theatre is an Occasion? As a spectator, we put our trust in the producer, director, writer and performers without any guarantee that the show will be to our liking. We spend our hard earned cash in the hope of, but without any guarantee of, a good time being had by all.

Among Harold Prince´s frustrations we read of his battles with the musicians´union who insisted on a certain number of players to be employed, not according to the needs of the score but according to the size of the performance venue. This leads to the ridiculous situation of musicians being paid to not play, literally to sit reading during an entire performance just to satisfy a quota system. This section of the book drew me back tom Blair Tindall’s book Mozart in the Jungle, where she describes this and many other craziness examples of the NY music scene.

Back to Mr Prince, my favourite part is where he describes his work as providing the minimum of staging so that he audience can supply the rest through their imagination. Once and again he repeats the mantra that if too much is spelt out and up front, there is nothing left for the spectator to bring in terms of her/his own imagination.

After reading page after page of the book, and after seeing numerous performances of Mr Prince´s producing/directing work on stage, I am left with the impression of a strong and likeable personality. It was striking to read an article in this morning´s London Sunday Times  where he is described as “A dictator and not a nice man” by actress Patti LuPone.  Mind you, according to the same interview she also “fell out with Andrew Lloyd Webber”.  

Each to his/her own: I am left with a sense of admiration for Harold Prince who has been an essential part of some of the great successes on Broadway and London´s West End, and who has been an inspiration for so many of us who have worked to pass on his legacy to our students, albeit in much more limited circumstances.  

Saturday, 22 September 2018

Andrew Lloyd Webber: Unmasked review

Andrew Lloyd Webber: Unmasked review
I have still have a worn and well used copy of the songs from Jesus Christ Superstar from the 70´s, back in the day when we used to actually pay money for sheet music: a quaint custom when viewed from today´s internet free for all grab what you want world. I don´t know how to love him was easy and I was so happy to be able to play that and impress anyone who could bear to hear me play it. On the other hand, there were those tunes in 5/4 and others with such a curious rock rhythm that I honestly could not make them out.
We all came to Jesus Christ Superstar as a kind of graduation from Joseph. Joseph was enough, everyone knew you meant Joseph and his amazing technicolour dreamcoat, sorry, that is Technicolor. When I say everyone, I mean parents, teachers and my fellow school students and myself. Joseph was brilliant: clever, funny, tuneful and, at last, a piece to sing at school that was not embarrassingly old fashioned.
One of my audition pieces for music at university was a piece by Lloyd Webber senior: I couldn´t really play it and I know the professor noticed but I suspect they were short of trumpet players so I got in anyway.
I spent a summer in ´77 ish going to West end matinees and saw Elaine Paige, David Essex and Joss  Ackland in the first cast of Evita and even I, a young music student, could tell that this was the future and A Chorus Line, which I saw the day before, was the past of musical theatre.
So in 1980-ish when I started working in London and spent more than I should have to see the ground breaking crazy show without a story on a revolving stage at the New London Theatre called CATS I was knocked out by basically everything but especially by the song, THE song, which you were kept waiting for until after the interval, wondering what the fuss was all about and then realizing this was what you really came for: Memory of course.
Last year I directed a performance of CATS with my students at school and was overwhelmed at how students from many nations knew and loved these great songs and laughed at all the clever lyrics.
I saw Song and Dance and was entranced by songs like Take that look off your face and by Wayne Sleep´s athletic dancing.
I love music theatre and thought very carefully about finding a show that would introduce my son to the genre and inspire him. The show was Starlight Express in London and the combination of great singable melodies and roller skating virtuosity was everything you could ask for to inspire a young child and a young at heart adult.
Phantom of the opera in New York a few years later confirmed for us all that musical theatre can appeal to all the family and engages us on so many levels, from the sheer spectacular stage effects to the emotional power of the music and lyrics.
With all this background I came to read A L W Unmasked and I was totally unprepared. I thought that Sir Andrew had an easy time of it, what with his famous father, establishment connections and early success. Nothing could be further from the truth, as we can see from page after page in the memoirs.  
What stands out in the book, time after time, is Lloyd Webber´s unfailing passion for musical theatre and his perfectionist´s striving to achieve the best result in every show he writes. What is a total surprise for me is the large number of shows which either failed commercially or took so many attempts to get off the ground.
I especially enjoyed Lloyd Webber´s accounts of his collaboration with other major players in musical theatre, such as Harold Prince, and this lead me to search Prince´s memoir, Sense of Occasion, which I will review shortly.
The memoir only gets up to the opening of Phantom of the opera:  I look forward to the next installment, full of expectation and admiration.    

Washing up is good for mindfulness: book review

The real title of this book is Washing up is good for you and it is published by Aster, a division of the Octopus Publishing Group. I was happy to find a copy in Waterstones in Cambridge, UK, on a weekend visit there, and to know that my sister had been attracted by the title in the listings of her monthly book club offering. See

Why was I happy? Because one of the contributors to the book is my friend and colleague Annabelle van Nieuwkoop-Read and anything that she is part of has to be good.

Annabelle writes a chapter called Meaningful Messabout where she explores the importance of letting our children play freely, including taking risks, and letting the inner child in ourselves as adults be free. There are two separate issues here: playing as children and play in adulthood.

She is right to insist that our children grow healthy by taking risks and that a few scratches and bruises are worth the price if it makes our children strong and resilient. Numerous writers are expressing concern about the current generation of youth who are reluctant to face challenges, be they emotional, philosophical or physical. You only have to google Why is everyone so sensitive these days to find a plethora of articles. One of the most recurrent themes is that children who were kept indoors and prohibited by anxious parents from playing in the street or local outdoor spaces, typical of the early 2000´s, are now at universities and colleges where they find themselves unwilling to accept criticism or correction because they see it as a personal attack. The rough and tumble of early childhood knockabout is a vital preparation for young adult life. If we don´t learn that we cannot have everything our own way as children, how are we to deal with setbacks in adulthood?

One of the many great things about the Netherlands is that adults are actively engaged in play: adults typically arrange their working week to be able to take part in a huge network of activities, they play sports and they play in orchestras or sing in choirs. The positive impact of this active participation in playful activities, be they in sports or the arts, certainly contributes to the high position of the Netherlands in rankings of happiness indicators and quality of life. Here is a symphony orchestra in The Hague that I am happy to be a member  of, a great example of citizens playing and improving the quality of life for themselves and for their community.

Of course Annabelle is not the only contributor to Washing up is good for you. I really enjoyed Meredith Whitely´s  chapter What´s on your plate, my life washing up which charts her early life in Perth, Australia and the lessons she learnt while working in a bakery there.

Mindfulness has become a trend in life and in education. I am not convinced that all the implications have been fully dealt with regarding the introduction of Mindfulness, capital M, into schools. Even so, we can all take some tips from the various writers here and find that life´s mundane tasks can be a source of peace and inner harmony. Maybe it´s true, after all, that Washing up is good for you.     

Monday, 15 February 2016

Wizard of Oz: Displacement & Identity 1899/2016

“Wonderment & joy are maintained and the heartaches & nightmares are left out”

 – this is how writer L Frank Baum compared his fairy tale to those of earlier authors such as the brothers Grimm and Andersen.

 Baum´s own account of his intentions in his introduction to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1899 is clear so we should not try to read too much into his fairy story. Even so, as I start to rehearse the RSC version of The Wizard of Oz with my students there are themes which have a curiously topical and serious resonance.

Firstly, because I am teaching at an international school in The Netherlands where there are students from nearly 90 nations. Secondly, because we are living at a time when millions of persons, among them innumerable children, are living in a foreign land, far from their roots. I should say that these notes are my personal thoughts and are not meant to represent the school in any way.

The US government has posted a version of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz on line with the lovely illustrations by W W Denslow  

On page 44 Mr Baum puts these words in the mouth of his characters,

“No matter how dreary or grey our homes are, people of flesh and blood would rather live there than in any other country, be it ever so beautiful.  There is no place like home.”

What is home for our students?
 Many of them have lived in several countries already in their short lives. 
Many of them have parents from two different countries and they have never lived long in either of those countries. 
For all of them English is the language they use to study and to communicate with their school friends, while for many of them it is not the language of their country of origin.

What is home for my colleagues? For some it is where they have elderly parents or siblings; for others it is where they have a property for which they are paying a mortgage; for others it is the place where special possessions have been left in safe keeping: a pet, a pony, a piano.

“But now we are all, in all places, strangers and pilgrims, travellers and sojourners …”.

This is not a quote from L Frank Baum in 1900 nor from a United Nations  worker attending the needs of Syrian refugees in 2016. 

Robert Cushman was a pilgrim who fled persecution in England in 1622 and was exiled in Leiden here in The Netherlands, a short train ride from my school.  During their exile, more than 30 family members died and were buried at the Pieterskerk, as shown on the plaque in the photo.

Exclusion can be suffered in many ways, whether its origin is in cultural difference or religion, race or gender.
I cannot help quoting a lovely line from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, delivered by the Scarecrow on page 38,
 “I am stuffed so I have no brains at all”. 

In these days of our so-called  knowledge  economy, far too many young people who have been labelled as stupid by our education system are experiencing this sentence the other way around, ie

 I have no brains at all, so I am stuffed.

I hope we will stay true to Mr Baum´s intentions as we work with our students on his wonderful story full of great and important themes such as friendship, courage and the imagination. I trust that our production at the end of June will avoid the nightmares and the heartaches and that our students and their audience will experience wonderment and joy. 

At least during two hours each evening for 3 days we will all know where home is: it will be what is conjured up in our hearts and minds by the wonder of Mr Baum´s imagination in the dark rows of theatre seats, each seat filled by a person with their own experience of displacement and identity in 2016.

Sunday, 27 September 2015

Guadalupe Álvarez in a Tribute to Joni Mitchell in Madrid July 2015: review

It was my friend Michael who first alerted me to Joni Mitchell’s   health  problems earlier this year. It is clear from his Facebook page that he has been a devoted fan for many years, I mean of Joni Mitchell, not of me. I confess I have not followed her with the same devotion: for me Joni Mitchell from a distance has been a combination of a thinking person’s Madonna and a Bob Dylan alter ego with a better voice.  I suppose Both Sides Now is the song that I would think of as essentially hers, Joni Mitchell’s, I mean, not Madonna’s. Yes, in part due to the scene in Love Actually, sorry.

So, when I got back to Madrid for the summer I noticed a Tribute to Joni Mitchell concert in the listings. Normally I would run a mile rather than go to a Tribute To … concert as I can live without a bunch of wannabees cynically living of other artistes’ achievements. Still, with Michael’s heartfelt messages in mind, and with the confidence I have in the Café Central,   in Madrid  along I went.

Guadalupe Álvarez is a fantastic   singer  and this concert was wonderful. I had never heard of her before (sorry!) but she is a renowned singer in her native Argentina and has many achievements and recordings to her name: here´s just    one example. She can take a song from a whisper to a 10 force gale in the space of a line, her jazz phrasing is rhythmically excellent, and her pitch control in the many angular phrases of these interesting songs was superb.

On top of all that is her expressive power. There is a myth in show business that you can only be really expressive as a performer if you have suffered in real life, as if the real life suffering were the true inspiration for great performances. I saw this earlier this month in an article by Dan Cairns, who should know better, writing about Cilla Black in the Sunday   Times  (paywall).

I don’t know whether Guadalupe Álvarez has suffered in her life or not: I hope not.  She certainly is able to perform these powerful songs in a way that brought tears to her eyes, and to mine. I think there are other things you need to be able to express deep emotions in music: among them are a well developed technique on your instrument/voice; a careful choice of material/repertoire with arrangements that present the material at its best; and an accompanist or band who present your work in the best light.

On this occasion at the Café Central Guadalupe Álvarez showed that she has all this and more.  Her own technique and performance standards are superb, and she has surrounded herself with excellent musicians who, as far as I can see, have all contributed to the interested and varied jazz arrangements of Joni Mitchell’s songs:

Toni  Brunet, guitar & vocals; Josué Santos, piano & alto sax; José Vera, bass; and Pedro Barceló, drums.

There was a lot of noise, in the best sense of the word, of high energy power music in this concert. One of the most interesting points was a solo by Toni Brunet, accompanying himself on guitar. This was among the quietest few minutes I have heard at the Café Central in more than 20 years of going to concerts there: a wonderful performance.

All the songs were arranged in a very interesting and sensitive way. These were not just copies, they were genuine arrangements with a strong jazz flavor. I would like to hear this same group of musicians play a straight jazz set: something to look forward to.  And in the end, there it was, Both Sides Now, sung with passion, pain and power from the very depths of her being to the most needing points of my heart. Wonderful.

So, thank you, Michael for many things: most recently for jogging my mind so that I saw this concert.
And thanks to Guadalupe Álvarez and musicians, and Café Central, for an excellent evening of music.

Quartet Mezza Voce in Denia: review. Classical music in an original performing space

One of the nice surprises in  Denia  this year was to hear a concert of string quartet music in a relaxed atmosphere with views overlooking the historic castle. Young talent and ancient views combined in a very enjoyable occasion on 6 August at the  Jauja Port   venue.

Sadly I missed the first part of the concert because this area was new to me even though I have been holidaying in Denia in Spain for more than 20 years. It was certainly worth the effort required to find the concert.

The Quartet Mezza Voce performed Mendelssohn’s Quartet Op 13 no 2 in A minor. Of course the playing was excellent, after all these young players are students at the Conservatorio Superior de Música de Aragón. (I missed the Haydn Op 76 no 3 in the first half of the concert.)

Yes but … the moving thing for me was to see a string quartet whose players have rehearsed painstakingly throughout the year and who have been able to arrange a tour which takes them so far musically and geographically. Denia is more than 400 km from   the conservatoire in    Zaragoza, where they are based. Much more important is the musical journey they have undertaken together. It was clear from the standard of playing and from the quality of their ensemble technique that they have performed this repertoire in several concerts.

The history of music is full of quartets which have started with great promise and yet have faded away. The point is that there are so many difficulties involved in maintaining a quartet: from the logistics of having a rehearsal venue to rehearse together for several hours a day in addition to the hours of individual  practice the players need to keep up their technique; the financial demands; adjusting to each member’s taste in choice of repertoire, and finding venues to play which will keep the quartet alive.

Many of these problems are explored in the fictional story of a string quartet based in New York City: an entertaining film,  A Late Quartet   starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, among others.
Thankfully, the young players of the Quartet Mezza Voce are young enough not to face the pressures of those fictional musicians, and, more importantly, have had the benefit of coaching  from the members of one of the leading string quartets active today, the Cuarteto  Quiroga .

The debate about getting music out of the strict formalities of the concert hall is alive and well: some musicians are exploring alternative venues including car parks. There are advantages in using venues which are not formal concert halls, even though we have to put up with little children running around and the clink of wine glasses being collected by the bar staff while the musicians are playing. On this occasion, the disadvantages were outweighed by the pleasure of listening to this lovely music.

According to the programme, The Quartet Mezza Voce are Eva Laliena Sanz & Eva Ortells Pecheco, violins; Carolina Úriz Malón, viola; and Violeta Mur Minguell, ‘cello.

A concert in this venue would have been impossible just a handful of years ago. The Balearia shipping company have made substantial improvements to the port facilities to provide docking for larger vessels, including an entirely new dock area for their ferries, and there are many improvements in hand which are making Denia a more attractive place every year.

Thanks to the Balearia company for making this concert possible, and thanks to the wonderful young players of the Quartet Mezza Voce for their lovely playing. I hope to hear you all playing together in 20 years time.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Fairy Tales & Nightmares at the Korzo Theatre: review

The show Fairy Tales & Nightmares started before it began: the playback tango music set the scene while the 5 actor/dancer/musicians were already on stage as the audience took their seats.
I had read in the programme notes that this show is made up of modern dance set to the music of Prokofiev. The first music we heard after the lights went down was a scratchy war time rendition of a patriotic Russian song so I wondered whether the show was going to be a portrayal of that composer´s treatment at the hands of Stalin and his henchmen. In fact there were moments when the dancers mimed an attack on the violinist and this even included pelting him with missiles, some of them hitting the wall behind him, some of them hitting his body or his violin.

This theme was not developed as the show went on but that does not mean it lost interest. In fact I suppose this show is more of a divertissement, an entertainment which features movement and music, not always at the same time. The show was devised by the pianist   Shuann Chai , whose incredible playing of the difficult Prokofiev pieces deserved a better instrument than the  one used last night. Still, the piano was part of the show: moving it around the stage marked the different scenes in the show. Shuann Chai  was also story teller: her telling of the Baba Yaga tale reminds us that fairy tales were not always the saccharin product Disney likes to pretend.     Shunske Sato  is a wonderful violinist and all round artist: how many violinists you know would allow someone to throw missiles at their violin, be used as a foil for comedy routines, partner a dancer in over and under movements while playing perfectly in tune, and be smothered into “unconsciousness”, only to be revived in time to play a duet with a film of himself playing the other part?

The choreography was created by dancers    Ederson Rodrigues Xavier   and    Masahiro Yanagimoto and included extended solos and duets and action which involved the pianist and violinist. A scene like a wrestling match to grasp control of a gas mask included drama and comedy. Movements involved mainly floor work with angular poses. There were moments when the dancers joined the audience as spectators to the music interludes.
These four performers filled the stage with humour, drama and skillful interpretations of the choreography and music and they moved between each others´ roles as the dancers played the piano and the musicians danced.
The fifth member of the cast is in fact a life size, dismembered latex puppet created by   Duda Paiva . He, sorry it, is manipulated with such skill by Ederson Rodrigues Xavier that he, sorry it, takes on the role of a character and is movingly expressive.
This was an enjoyable and entertaining show.  If I had to split hairs I would say that I would prefer to hear less of the phrase happy ever after: it never sounds in my nightmares and in my fairytales it only comes once, when all else is said and done.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Is culture crashing? Scott Timberg: Part 2 review

I often tell my students that if they enjoy my lessons they should thank the rulers of the former Soviet Union. When they start to laugh I tell them that the story goes that the launch of the first Sputnik rocket in 1957 sent shock waves through the intellectual class of the USA. How could the world´s greatest country have been beaten into space by the USSR? The missing link, it was decided, was original thinking, so a new generation of bright sparks needed to be produced in no time at all. But how?  Creativity was the answer. 

Thanks to those lawmakers in the USA who expanded arts provision, the more genteel but equally ambitious rulers in London followed obediently and introduced music and drama courses at all levels of education  in a way that was unthinkable a short time before.

That generation of creative minds was meant to restore prominence to The West not in the arts themselves but in what really counted: geopolitical dominance. Of course it was not called that then: lots of things changed their names over the years and the decades.

Scott Timberg nails it in his   Culture Crash , The Killing of the creative class. In Chapter 6 he describes how those early days when the creatives were to save The Free World gave way to the view of those same persons as Idle Dreamers: the curse of the creative class. He cites Dan Quayle, intellectual giant as he is, VP that other man renowned for deep thought and er … well, maybe not. Anyway, he cites Quayle as using the expression cultural elite as an insult in a speech in 1992 in California. I am not going to quote the passage, better you buy the book for yourself, it´s worth it just to have yet another laugh at the mighty thinking power of Messrs Q & B.

Mr Timberg details how, while snide comments from people who know nothing like to describe those in the creative industries as cosseted and privileged, the real statistics show that  earnings in this field are lower than average incomes and working conditions are arduous and precarious.

I enjoyed Chapter 7: The end of print. It is a sad story that has been told many times and it has to do not only with the technological revolution. More profoundly it has to do with greed among business leaders and failure of governments to regulate properly.

Yes the digital dawn has played its part. Mr Timberg refers to the Guardian, a British newspaper founded in 1821. Here´s a thing, my beloved father bought it even when it was still called The Manchester Guardian. In 1959 they dropped the local tag as it aspired to be a national newspaper, and so it was and so my father bought it every day probably for 40 years even as the price rose from a shilling to I suppose 60 pence. Now I read the Guardian and I dip into it several times a day and find new stories constantly appearing, excellent graphics and high quality writing and beautiful photographs. Yet not only am I paying less in 2015 than my dear father paid in 1965, I am paying nothing at all. No wonder its owners are losing money daily: as Mr Timberg remarks, the Guardian continues to operate thanks to its almost unique support from the trust which owns it.

Today,  Will Hutton  writes in the Guardian/Observer about  different levels of internet connectivity available in different parts of Britain. What is the good of having all the world´s knowledge at your fingertips if the rate of download is so slow as to be ineffective? How is there a broadening of democracy and an increase of freedom if you access to information depends on the profit your neighbourhood provides to the cable provider? These are big questions and not all newspapers are prepared to ask, much less answer them.  

Mr Timberg makes an insightful comment about the loss of theatre and music critics in many newspapers in recent years. He points out that specialist bloggers may well write about local plays or concerts so apparently the loss of coverage in the press is not significant. Yet, he says, the danger is that the arts “become a tiny subculture, losing their connection to a mass middle-class public, surrendering their ability to be discovered accidentally.”

I agree totally, and I think the “ability to be discovered accidentally” is similar to the effect of large numbers of school students taking musical instruments to and from school daily. When it is seen as a natural thing to do to carry that strange long box  with a trombone, or that short flat almost weightless case holding a violin, other students are much more likely to adopt playing an instrument into their life than if selected students attend  specialist courses out of the normal school routine.

 Mr Timberg concludes that the artist and the journalist, two groups of workers who are suffering, are committed to uncovering the truth, be it of the human condition or of institutions. Truth, no matter what the cost “is something we cannot live without.”

Looking forward to reading the next chapters. Thank you Mr Timberg.  

Music, culture & politics: Somaliland at the Korzo in The Hague

Last night´s concert by the Sahra Halgan Trio at the  Korzo   Theatre in The Hague raises lots of questions.  It all added up to a fascinating evening of music, culture and politics, sponsored by the   Alliance Française  in The Hague.

First the music:  Sahra Halgan   was accompanied by 2 French musicians, Maël Salétes on guitars and Aymeric Krol on  percussion and kamala ngoni. Sahra has a wonderful voice which ranges from jubilation to powerful protest. Her fellow musicians are excellent: technically virtuoso and totally assured in this musical style. This was basically a presentation of their cd Faransiskiyo Somaliland, recorded recently in France. By the end of the concert the audience were on their feet, joining in the dance to the African rhythms and singing along to the call and response melodies.

I recognized the music as being very much in the style of other African music I have heard so my question was whether these songs were traditional or original? When I asked M Krol after the show as I bought the cd he said that all the music was original to the trio. I remembered that in the documentary Sahra Halgan pays tribute to a Somaliland elder musician called Abdul Nasir, saying that when she was young he taught her all the songs she knows. So I asked M Krol and he said no, some of the lyrics are traditional but others, and the melodies, are original to the trio. I am not sure how Mdme Halgan learnt the traditional songs as lyrics only and how she would have remembered them over 20 years in France, but if that´s how she sees it it´s fine by me. I suppose it is not important to get hung up on the matter of authorship in what is fundamentally an oral tradition of  music.

In the Q & A session after the concert one question was whether Mdme Halgan was influenced by English (I think the questioner meant American) blues or by French music. She replied that definitely not English, but yes, by the French musicians she worked with all those years away from home. She was very emphatic that when it came to singing she only sang in her own African language. 
Sahra Halgan describes herself  as a cultural ambassador for her home country, Somaliland. She has been resident in France for many years and recently decided to return to Somaliland. This is no small matter as the country is not officially recognized as an independent state by the world community: in 1991 it broke away from Somalia and declared its independence. Is Somaliland a country or a region?

Before the concert there was a showing of the informative and moving   documentary  made by   Cris Ubermann . He details Sahra Halgan´s difficult life in France and the challenges of returning to her home country. The documentary includes interviews with her 16 year old daughter, first in France, a European teenager full of admiration for Sahra Halgan as mother, singer and cultural ambassador; later we see her in Somaliland as a student of the American school, quite frank about the difficulties of adapting to boarding school and to dressing to fit the local codes.

Sahra Halgan describes her life in Somaliland in the documentary. She describes her achievements as an entrepreneur setting up a restaurant which employs 19 local people. Added to the normal difficulties of setting up a new business are the restrictions on women as owners and as bank account holders. She blames these restrictions on the international community´s refusal to recognize her country. Are these problems as a woman to do with the international community or more to do with the country´s own decisions on how it is to be run?

Was I the only one in the audience who was ignorant about Somaliland and its bid for international recognition? I notice on youtube there are numerous films about the diaspora returning to Somalia and the surrounding region, not just from France but also other European countries. There is also a UN mission to Somalia which, according to local reports,  is regarded as a threat to the continuance of Somaliland as an independent state.
Clearly there is a need for cultural ambassadors like Sahra Halgan to explain her view to the world.

Thanks to the Alliance Française in The Hague for this fascinating evening:  many questions were raised and some were answered, about Somaliland and its music, culture and politics.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Culture Crash by Scott Timberg: Review part one

First off: I bought a paper copy of this book in a specialist book shop because I was browsing through the Philosophy section and it jumped out at me. Yes, yet another great thing about living in   The Hague   is that there are quality bookshops which stock a wide range of new work in English.

The Killing of the Creative Class is the subtitle to this fascinating book. I have only read the first five chapters but the author has already made a big impression.

Scott Timberg   is one of the many victims of the first years of this millennium: you could say he was careless enough to be born at the wrong time. He explains how he was brought up to believe that hard work plus talent equals a middle class life style. In a few short years he found himself without a job and losing his home and at risk of living without medical insurance.

Quite apart from his professional  disappointments, he is angry at the way his bank foreclosed on his mortgage instead of working out an alternative solution. Yet his anger is dignified and contained. There are many  around who, by good fortune, were not so cruelly affected by the crash of 2008 but who share the despair of people like Scott Timberg and who are waiting for individual citizens who were responsible for bad decisions to be brought to justice: wrong things were done and the wrong doers should be held to account. Sadly, governments around the world, in the USA and in Europe, have failed, and failed miserably, they have failed the citizens who elect them and they have failed to live up to the standards that can rightfully be expected of the holders of high office.

Scott Timberg sets out his plan in the Introduction: that new technology, globalization and deregulation have changed the game in a few short years, with tragic consequences for a  whole swathe of people, including the citizens he calls the Creative Class. He includes in the creative class workers in recorded music and book stores, and I was struck this week by news of the closing of a renowned shop selling printed music in New York. After 80 years in business,   the shop   is closing down this month. Free downloads of often inferior quality prints have killed this supplier of high quality music scores.

One of the many things I like about Mr Timberg´s book is that he does not get stuck in distinguishing between art for art´s sake and commercial use of the arts: to him, the arts and creative artists are all one, whether they be clerks in a book store or musicians on the road.

Mr Timberg writes about how remuneration for creative work has been driven down over a decade. This strikes a chord. I know of musicians in Spain who in 1992 were paid 40,000 pesetas for a performance and who, in 2010 were offered 100 euros for the same type of gig. That sounds fine until you do the conversion: 40,000 pesetas is equivalent to 240 euros.  So a job that was paid 240 euros has been driven down to 100. This is one of many examples that bear out Mr Timberg´s  thesis.

I look forward to reading the rest of this interesting book over the weekend. Of course, not all of the creative class are penniless and homeless. Mr Timberg points out that the heavy hitters of the entertainment industry can still pocket huge amounts of money, but he rightly points out that  they are the exceptions. Recent  reports  of the court case brought by the family of Marvin Gaye claiming their share of the success of a recent hit tune by Pharrell Williams talk of receipts of 17 million dollars in sales of a single song. Clearly  the majority of the workers in the creative class will never come anywhere close to this kind of money.

To be continued … 

Extreme graffiti or ghost tram in The Hague?

There I was, huffing and puffing my way along the luxury 2 metre wide cycle path  (Boris please take note, that´s how it should be done!) and I was overtaken by a ghost. I mean,  I am used to  being overtaken by The Hague´s swish blue-liveried super-luxury trams travelling at 15 km per hour, yes a bit pathetic, but  I do it to get fit not because I am fit. And there it was, the silver lightening vision, gliding along, windowless and totally different. Lots of locals turned their heads at the vision, but only I had the inspiration, or the time to waste, to jump/fall off my bike and take some photos.

Monday, 9 March 2015

How to treat our heroes? Hoorn has the answer

All countries have heroes. I suppose we all want to have people to look up to: those larger than life figures who have conquered far away lands or who have won unwinnable battles at some time, usually in the dim and distant past.
What happens when objective historical research shines its light on these heroes? In many cases, in the cruel light of day our heroes turn out to be human beings and their imperfections are all too obvious.
I remember when I was a t school in Liverpool in the 60´s I learned how Sir Francis Drake  was a hero who brought riches and honour to the court of the English queen Elisabeth I. Thirty years later I visited the maritime museum in Tenerife in the Spanish Canary Islands and found myself reading an inscription beneath a portrait of the same Sir Francis: “the English pirate who stole from defenceless traders as they sailed the high seas”. At what point did my history teacher´s hero become a Spanish museum curator´s villain?
In Spain the issue of the civil war which ravaged the country from 1936 – 39 is still very much alive.  In recent years numerous statues have been demolished or removed to hidden destinations and street names have been changed to respect current sense of right and wrong.

In Liverpool, England, there has been a vigorous debate about a proposal to re-name streets which were originally named after respected civic leaders who later were regarded as pariahs because they made their fortunes on the misery of their fellow humans who were bought and sold in the most miserable conditions and called slaves as they passed through the port of Liverpool as merchandise in much the same way as bales of cotton and sacks of corn. Some said we should take down the street signs bearing the names of the slave traders, as if re-naming the streets we all know and have walked along would somehow right a dreadful wrong in the city´s history.

Last weekend I was in the Dutch port city of Hoorn and I saw yet another example of the Dutch ability to put things in perspective. In the town square of Hoorn there is a monument to one its sons and heroes: Jan Pieterszoon Coen, born there in 1587. He was a founder of the incredibly successful and world-defining Dutch East India Company (VOC), which not only inspired the English to copy their working model, but opened trade routes which were previously unimaginable. At first sight Pieter
szoon Coen must be an indisputable hero, a model for all wannabe entrepreneurs who have never had it so good.

But take a  look at the inscription on the plinth of his statue and you see that there is a more complex story: the fortune which Pieterszoon Coen made for his investors was not without cost, and the price was paid by the human beings who inhabited the lands he decided were targets for his trade empire, among them were those who were murdered or deported from their own land for contravening his instructions.
So what do the sensible Dutch do? They do not tear down his statue and hide it in a municipal warehouse, neither do they change the name. Their practical, sensible solution is to maintain the statue in situ and to add a plaque in Dutch and English which explains the facts: that on the one hand here is a local hero and on the other hand a human being who was responsible for the terrible suffering of fellow human beings.

Thanks to the good citizens of Hoorn in the Netherlands who have given us all a lesson in how to treat our heroes: undoubtedly persons who have achieved great things, and who in some cases have achieved greatness at the cost of their fellow human beings.    

By the way, Pieterszoon Coen died in 1629 in the city which he called Batavia, now known as Jakarta, half a world away from the picturesque port of Hoorn.