Category Archives: Concert

Fine and Dandy

ADAM ANT: Friend or Foe

Symphony Hall, Birmingham, Tuesday 26th November, 2019

 

Years ago, back when the Odeon on Birmingham’s New Street was a music venue, I saw Adam and the Ants play, with a huge pirate ship filling the stage.  Adam Ant was up and down that rigging like nobody’s business.  It is a fond memory of one of the first gigs I ever attended.  Now, many years later, he is back, sans Ants, with a concert version of his solo album from 1982, Friend or Foe – the one with hits like Goody Two Shoes and Desperate But Not Serious, both of which prove to be highlights of tonight’s set.   The exuberant brass section that colours the album is here replaced by guitars (along with the signature pair of drummers) giving the set a heavier, raunchier overall sound.

The theme from old TV series The Saint plays the band onstage, setting the tone nicely (and dating most of the audience!) and the set opens with the album’s title track.  Ant looks fabulous, of course, belying his age and he’s in excellent voice.  This is quickly followed by Something Girls, which includes some of the best whistling since One Man and His DogPlace in the Country is faster, reinvigorated; we are rattling through the album at quite a lick.  Hello, I Love You (a cover of The Doors) is just about perfect, followed by the autobiographical Goody Two Shoes, which is joyous – anything that follows this banger is bound to sound weak by comparison, so Crackpot History and the Right to Lie seems like the wrong kind of gear change.

The album concludes with the instrumental, Man Called Marco which affords Ant the chance to step and trip around with those snake hips of his – he is wearing the skinniest fit trousers and tight boots that give his legs a spindly, insect-like aspect.  Perhaps he is turning into an ant after all.

“Here are some more songs you might enjoy,” he says, ushering us into Greatest Hits territory, kicking off with Dog Eat Dog – which is like Ennio Morricone doing metal.   Antmusic provides the best moments of the night; it’s just fantastic, and I enjoy the opportunity to revisit older tracks from his early punk days, such as Zerox and Car TroublePrince Charming is an anthem and a call to arms, with its war cry introduction and its mantra, “Ridicule is nothing to be scared of” – words to live by, indeed!   Puss In Boots is great fun, and Kings of the Wild Frontier is stunning, with its darker edge, but it is Stand And Deliver, closing the set, that proves the most exhilarating.  “The way you look,” Ant sings, “you’ll qualify for next year’s old-age pension.”  Well, the lyrics might be catching up with him, but you’d never guess to see and hear him play.  The outfits are less flamboyant but he still cuts a dashing figure.  The man who brought theatricality and fun to post-punk music is still going strong.

The encore is comprised of three ancient tracks, Press Darlings, Red Scabs, and You’re So Physical and while it’s a rare opportunity to hear them with this richer, fuller sound, I kind of hanker for something poppier, like Apollo 9 for example, so we can have a good old singalong before we go.

A wonderful evening that reminded me why I loved him so much in the first place.  Antastic!

adam ant

Adam Ant (Photo: Barry Brecheisen)


Concerted Effort

COSI FAN TUTTE

Town Hall, Birmingham, Friday 8th November, 2019

 

Sometimes you see plays that are ‘reconstructions’ of radio studio recordings, where the cast stand behind microphones, holding scripts, and the action is limited, leaving it to the audience to imagine setting, costume and everything else.  This concert performance of the final collaboration between Mozart and librettist Da Ponte reminds me of such plays, with the microphones replaced by music stands and the scripts by scores.  With this material, it works very well, thanks in no small part to a company of singers who can act their heads off.  With them facing out most of the time, we see the characters’ expressions to their best advantage.  And sometimes, they interact, where the limited space allows, bringing out the humour of the situation.

Richard Burkhard is a marvellous Don Alfonso, enjoying his masterminding of the plot’s central scam.  Tenor Matthew Swensen sings stirringly as Ferrando, but he could do with lightening up a bit, especially at the outset of proceedings.  Guglielmo is performed by possibly the most handsome man in classical music today, the mighty Benjamin Appl, who is wonderfully expressive facially and vocally.  His comic reactions and his musical phrasing are both sublime.

Ana Maria Labin, fighting a chest infection but you wouldn’t know it, shows remarkable range and poise as Fiordiligi.  Her ‘Per Pieta’ commands the stage – a virtuoso rendition.  Martha Jones, a late substitution as Dorabella, the giddier of the sisters, is delightfully funny, but the funniest performance of the night comes from Rebecca Bottone as Despina the sassy, savvy maid.  This is a Despina to savour, as Bottone wrings every shred of comedy from the role, distorting her soprano to depict the characters she assumes as part of Alfonso’s plan.  At one point, she dons a pair of steampunk goggles, and it’s the little touches like this that make this concert performance more engaging.

Ian Page conducts The Mozartists with a light touch, bouncing on the spot like Tigger in a black suit, almost teasing the music from this superlative orchestra.  And such music!  From the woodwinds chasing each other through the rousing overture, to the abundance of trios, quartets and quintets, this is playful yet passionate stuff.  Mozart is an exquisite dramatist, blending farcical humour with insightful glimpses into human psychology.  It’s a profound, sweet and silly piece of work, like receiving words of wisdom from a master chocolatier.

The material shines through this pared-down treatment and I enjoy it very much, but I still miss the knockabout comedy of the ‘Albanians’ pretending to poison themselves.  I still want to see their comedy moustaches!

Classical Opera 29 January 2019

Conductor and artistic director, Ian Page

 

 

 


Strumming my pain with his fingers…

Miloš: Voice of the Guitar

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Sunday 22nd September 2019

 

Miloš Karadaglić continues his mission to unite the worlds of classical and pop music by means of the acoustic guitar with this concert of a variety of pieces which he describes as a musical journey from Bach to the Beatles and beyond.  Backed by string quintet, 12 Ensemble, (who get the evening started with a Brandenberg Concerto by JS Bach), Miloš is a quietly intense figure, focussed on his fingers as he extracts audio beauty from his guitar.  It’s marvellous to behold and even better to hear.

He’s quite slight, in his skinny fit, black suit and black shirt, and handsome, like a lost Jonas Brother, with a charming, gently self-deprecating humour when he addresses the audience to tell us what’s coming up.  A native of Montenegro, he seems bemused to be in Wolverhampton – but, who wouldn’t be?  The sumptuous beauty of the Grand Theatre is an appropriate setting for the music we are about to hear.

After the quintet’s Bach opener, Miloš responds with a Bach solo, before they all play together a stirring and dynamic Boccherini fandango.  Other highlights include Tarrega’s Lagrima, wistful in its sadness, plucking at your heartstrings; a piece from De Falla’s Three-Cornered Hat, a bold and rhythmic flamenco; and the famous Spanish Romance, here exquisitely arranged for guitar and strings. Piazzolla’s rousing Libertando rounds off the first half nicely, and I already feel like I’ve been through the wringer – but pleasantly so!

The second half kicks off with a Villa-Lobos prelude in E minor, followed by pieces by Pujol and Savio – all favourites in the guitarist’s repertoire.  A real treat is when Miloš is joined by the first violinist from the quintet for a Piazzola duet, originally written for guitar and flute, that is just lovely.

And then we move onto more recent fare with the title track from the new album, Paul Simon’s Sound of Silence.  There is a danger, I always think, that pop songs rendered as instrumentals can sound like lift music or on-hold music, but the arrangements here add depth to the pieces.  Divested of their lyrics (an important part of any pop song) numbers by Radiohead and the Beatles take on new colours – and you can’t help singing the words in your head anyway.  The Fool On The Hill is given a rhapsodic treatment and it’s just marvellous.  It all sounds great but I prefer the classical pieces, the slow tangos with their bittersweet melancholy.  Probably just the mood I am in tonight!

A splendid evening with a rich and varied programme, showcasing the versatility of the instrument and the virtuosity of the performer.

Miloš Karadaglić

Strumming and fretting his hour upon the stage: Miloš Karadaglić

 

 

 


Cliff Tops

CLIFF RICHARD: Diamond Encore 2019

Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich, Monday 1st July, 2019

 

Sir Cliff reprises his show from last year, commemorating sixty years in The Business, in this open-air concert set among the beautiful buildings of the Old Royal Naval College, where the burger bars and portaloos look woefully out of place, yet the rainbow flag seems apt, bringing a splash of colour to the grey edifices.

The set is comprised of hit songs from each of Richard’s six decades, with a change of jacket for each era, each one snazzier than the last.  Move It, the first rock and roll record by a British artist retains a raw power – and Richard is still in great voice and is still able to move it.  It’s as if the years drop away when he’s on stage.  From where I’m sitting, he’s a tiny figure on the distant stage but he can’t half shift himself.  Huge video screens flanking the stage afford close-ups and, when the stage lighting hits him in a certain way, he’s still the handsome heartthrob of yesteryear with cheekbones that go on for days.

In the 60s section, it’s Summer Holiday that really gets everyone singing along, as well as Living Doll – a song changed forever by his Comic Relief collaboration with The Young Ones.  And, of course, the song that gave the comedians their name, is still splendid.

When it comes to the 70s, there’s Devil Woman which is perfectly rendered here, but as a cover, Sir Cliff doesn’t opt for any glam, disco or punk hit from the decade.  Instead, he gives us a haunting rendition of the Art Garfunkel number from Watership Down, composer Mike Batt’s wistful contemplation of death, Bright Eyes.   The songs are linked by funny stories: Cliff is both falsely immodest and self-deprecating.  He takes a swig from a plastic bottle, grimaces and complains to someone in the wings, “This is water!”

Miss You Nights is just beautiful and Wired For Sound goes down excellently well but it’s a shame his hundredth single (“I release one a year”) is a bit of a dud.  Renowned for his religious bent, Richard keeps the sermonising to a bare minimum with From A Distance – tonight is more about the party.  New song Rise Up obliquely refers to surviving the recent hard times he was unnecessarily subjected to by an ill-advised broadcast of a police raid on his home.  Again, Sir Cliff keeps things light: we are here to enjoy ourselves, and the die-hard, dyed-hair fans are out in force.

The evening comes to an end with his biggest hit, We Don’t Talk Anymore.  A phenomenon in British pop culture, Sir Cliff shows no signs of retiring, even with his 80th birthday looming this October and it’s a genuine pleasure to see him play live after being a presence in my life since my childhood.  As showbiz veterans go, he tops the lot.

cliff

 

 


He Is What He Is

JOHN BARROWMAN: FABULOUS

Symphony Hall, Birmingham, Sunday 30th June, 2019

 

He arrives on stage to a rousing welcome from the Birmingham audience and the appreciation never dips from that point.  Shimmying around in a blue suit and black shirt, Barrowman exhorts us to ‘Celebrate good times, come on!’.  This is a party as much as a concert.  The premise is a retrospective of his thirty years in The Business – he deals with his stage and screen appearances in a jokingly curt manner, but I am reminded of his early days on Saturday morning television, and a younger, nervous me going to the stage door after a matinee performance of Sunset Boulevard and meeting a younger, just-as-handsome him.  There were about three of us at the stage door on that occasion; nowadays there are mobs.  He signed my programme and I stammered out a couple of compliments.  (I met him again years later, at a pantomime launch, and managed to get my words out that time!)

There is an emphasis on fun.  Barrowman swaps dick jokes with the on-stage sign language interpreter.  He shows us photographs and video clips of his family and his pets.  And he sparkles and shines every minute.  There’s a bit of Q&A about his time in the celebrity jungle, and there’s more upbeat numbers so we can clap along.  It’s a bit wedding singer at times, but Barrowman can pull off the cheese by dint of energy alone, and the support of his excellent band.

What works best though are ballads like Barry Manilow’s I Made It Through The Rain and the Perry Como classic, And I Love You So – the latter being perfect, beautiful in fact.  Songs like these and show tunes are better platforms for Barrowman’s vocal stylings.  He performs a doctored version of The Wizard and I (from Wicked) and I prickle with shivery nostalgia.  His Doctor Who character, Captain Jack Harkness, was a ground-breaking representation of non-heterosexuality in prime time TV and gave the openly gay actor’s career a jump start.

Barrowman gets us all to wave our hands in the air while he records a clip for Instagram with a rainbow flag in the foreground.  It’s World Pride Day, after all, and we gays (especially those of us who are no longer twinks, twonks or twunks) should be proud of the positivity Barrowman represents.

In the second half, he brings his octogenarian parents on stage.  No ‘slosh’ from them this time, but Barrowman père can out-sauce his cheeky son any day of the week, while Barrowman mère surprises us all into a standing ovation for a well-sung, beautiful song.  She may be visibly frail but there’s clearly nothing wrong with Marion’s vocal pipes.  And we see where he gets it from: the humour from his dad, the singing from his mum.  There is also an appearance from Barrowman’s handsome husband Scott – clearly not at home on the stage, Scott acquits himself with a decent and enjoyable rendition of Quando Quando Quando.

I can do without the In Memoriam section for audience members’ dead dogs; I’d much rather he invited us just to think about loved ones we have lost while he sings Goodbye My Friend – but that’s just my taste, I suppose.  He makes up for it with a gobsmacking performance of the empowering anthem, I Am What I Am.  ‘Fabulous’ has never been more applicable.

The show overruns – we won’t let him go – and it finishes with a soaring version of Loch Lomond.  You can’t accuse John Barrowman of not giving value for money – although at fifteen quid a pop, the souvenir programmes are a bit steep!

Uplifting, funny and inspirational, Barrowman is one of our finest entertainers, with talent as big as his onstage personality.  I can easily imagine being back in another thirty years for more.

To revert to an earlier catchphrase: Fantastic, fantastic, fantastic!

fabulous

 

 

 


Knocking it out of the Park

CHRISTOPHER PARK in recital

Town Hall, Birmingham, Monday 19th June, 2017

 

The longest piece on the programme opens the show, Variations & Fugue on a theme by Handel by Brahms.  It’s the ideal piece to commence the evening and establishes Christopher Park’s virtuoso status from the off.  At times florid, light, jaunty and sombre, the piece is a little like switching through television channels, and Park handles the sometimes abrupt changes of mood and tempo with ease.  Every gear change Brahms throws at us is skilfully handled – we are in safe hands, but are his hands safe?  When it’s over, Park announces he has to leave the stage to fetch a plaster.  He has cut his finger, and I’m not surprised.  Such robust, intense playing could result in a keyboard like a butcher’s shambles.

He returns for a couple of Chopin pieces, the Nocturne Op 9 No 3 and his own transcription of the Larghetto Op 2 from Piano Concerto no 2.  This is how I like my Chopin, moody, stirring and romantic, melancholy as a rainy day.  This is the highlight of the evening for me.

After the interval comes Olga Neuwirth’s 2016 piece, Trurl – Tichy – Tinkle (you what, mate?).  It begins percussively and its seemingly random nature reminds me of when people see modern art and say their two-year-old could draw better.  I think that’s the point.  Neuwirth captures the primitivism of someone idling at the piano, a child before the rigours of classicism are introduced.  But that’s not all.  This piece gives us atmosphere, sometimes eerie, sometimes playful, it’s like a soundtrack to a cartoon we can’t see.  You won’t be whistling this one on the way home but it certainly demonstrates the versatility of the instrument and, yet again, the mastery of Christopher Park.

We finish with Stravinsky: Trois mouvements de Petrouchka.  Some assertive, heavy-handed yet melodic pieces as though Park is fighting off the Russian army.  It’s stirring, vigorous stuff and seems conventional coming after the Neuwirth.  It culminates in a bashing crescendo and, I don’t know about Park, but I am spent.

Park returns for an encore, a comparatively frothy bit of Beethoven.

There might be blood on the piano but there is also the risk that my hands will be reduced to bloody stumps from all the applause.

christopher park


Take Me To Your Lieder

BENJAMIN APPL

Town Hall, Birmingham, Monday 18th April, 2016

 

German baritone and rising star, Benjamin Appl treats the musically discerning folk of Birmingham to a sublime evening of lieder (German art songs) that displays not only his range as a vocalist but also his impressive expressiveness as an interpreter.  Each song becomes a dramatic monologue; the programme runs the gamut of emotion and experience for a stirring, moving and astonishing performance.

Standing tall and slender in black suit, shirt and tie, Appl is an elegant figure and the voice that comes out of him is as rich as dark chocolate – but chocolate that comes in many flavours and sizes.  Appl uses dynamics, contrasting ff and pp to dramatic effect.

The first half is all Schumann, with words by the poet Heine.  And it’s in German, a language I haven’t studied since Year 9 (apart from what I’ve gleaned from The Magic Flute and Deutschland 83) – and yet I get the gist, thanks to Appl’s expressive interpretations.  Du bist wie eine Blume (which I think means ‘you are like a flower’) is just lovely.  Belsazar, though, is like a mini-opera in itself and really gives Appl the chance to strut and fret his hour upon the stage.  When he declaims “I am the King of Babylon” (or so I think he says) you believe it.

Then come sixteen Dichterliebe (I don’t dare attempt a translation of that one!) – All of them brilliantly presented but highlights for me include the fast tempo Die Rose, die Lille, die Taube, the stunning Wenn ich in deine Augen seh’ and the striking Ich grolle nicht.  The aching melancholy of Hor’ ich das Liedchen klingen takes the prize though, in my ears.

The second half is given over to Schubert songs, and to The Last Letter, a piece by Nico Muhly especially commissioned for Appl.  This five-song cycle takes its text from letters sent by various people during WW1 – again, an opportunity for Appl to do some character work.  It’s a striking work (and in English!), encompassing yearning and loss, humour (a woman writes asking to have her husband back from the front for a conjugal visit!), selfishness and cruelty (a woman ditches her POW husband and bungs their kids in an orphanage so she can start a new life with a new man).  Through it all, Appl acts up a storm, wringing humanity from every angle.

But it’s not all sturm und drang.  The programme closes with some lighter Schubert pieces, including the jaunty Der Musensohn and the dramatic Der Wanderer.

Accompanying Appl on the piano is Gary Matthewman, providing sparkles and splashes, mood and colour, brio and thunder, where appropriate.  It makes for a great pairing – if the piano is like an orchestra in a single instrument, then Appl is like an opera company in one man.

So, if you’re looking for German art songs, impeccably performed and entertainingly delivered, remember there’s an Appl for that.

Wunderbar!

appl

The Appl of my ears