Tag Archives: Town Hall Birmingham

Book of Reevelation


Town Hall, Birmingham, Sunday 23rd September, 2018


Simon Reeve has been making documentary series for the telly for 15 years, during which time his travels have taken him to some pretty (and ugly) extreme and dangerous places.  Tonight he’s in Birmingham, promoting his autobiographical new book – a brave man indeed.

He seems extra-pleased that we have come out on the evening the BBC is broadcasting the final episode of its gripping drama, Bodyguard, and consoles us with a reminder that catch-up TV exists.

He begins with talk of his pre-telly existence and it’s quite a revelation.  He hails from Acton, West London, a far cry from the Oxbridge stomping ground of many of his TV predecessors and peers.  He speaks frankly of troubled teenage years, of underage lunchtime drinking, gangs, riding in stolen cars, and of a period of mental illness that brought him to the brink of suicide.  Who would have thunk it of the good-natured, affable chappy from the telly?  Goes to show you never know the battles someone may be fighting.

Within a couple of years, Reeve’s life had changed unrecognisably and he worked his way up from a job in a newspaper post-room to investigative journalism, before writing the first-ever book about Osama bin Laden.  9/11 happened and Reeve was called upon to speak onscreen as a pundit.  His own career in television was soon to ignite.  It’s not my aim to recount all the details of Reeve’s story – he does it so much better.

His is an infinitely likeable personality and his anecdotes (whether they be of getting lost in a minefield or of precarious toilets in faraway places) are gripping, informative and entertaining.  The man seems to embody what the BBC is all about.  Much of what he relates is funny; some of it is moving, and all of it is thought-provoking.  Reeve is visibly moved telling the story of a young boy his team rescued from a beggar’s shackles.  That boy went on to become a leading light in tiger conservation.  How many are denied their potential?  It is incalculable.

There is a clear message for everyone: the best time to do something, to go somewhere, is and always will be now.  And (here is where things turn a little bit school assembly) he recites his rules of How To Travel (responsibly, respectfully, sustainably, adventurously…)

The show runs over and there’s still a brief Q&A to come, but no one seems to mind.  I am so inspired by the spirit of adventure, I am happy to risk missing the last bus.

I queue to get my copy of his book signed and suddenly there he is, bright-eyed before me, alive with the adrenalin of having just come off stage.  I burble inanely, absurdly awestruck, as we shake hands and he signs the frontispiece.  I hand over my phone so we can pose for a selfie together.  We smile at the lens and it’s not bad.  It looks like Simon Reeve grinning next to a mortified bust of Shakespeare.  He thanks me for coming and I intone “Goodbye” like a weirdo and bumble my way to the exit.

When I look at the phone, the picture is gone.  I must have fumbled and deleted it.  Damn.

But I have the memory of the taking of that photo and the words we exchanged (mainly about the couple next to me who had a sotto voce barney just before showtime) and that is kind of the point.  Reeve is all about living the moment rather than experiencing it through a phone.  And I am inspired to do more, to go farther, and to crusade against single-use plastic – but first, there’s that final episode of Bodyguard on iPlayer…

simon r



Knocking it out of the Park


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

Apollo Mission Accomplished


Town Hall, Birmingham, Saturday 10th June, 2017


A marvellous evening of Mozart kicks off with the Symphony in G major (K45a), the ‘Lambach’, a chocolate box of a piece, sweet and soft-centred with the occasional note of dark-but-never-bitterness.  Classical Opera’s ongoing and long-term project to play out Mozart’s work in chronological order over decades is as laudable as it is ambitious.  The playing here is smooth under the baton of Ian Page, easing us in before the drama of the evening’s programme begins in earnest.

Up next is Grabmusik, a trio of lieder set at Christ’s tomb.  The mighty baritone Benjamin Appl is the ‘Soul’ getting off to a rousing start with plenty of sturm und drang, calling down thunder and lightning on the perpetrators.  Appl storms it, in fact.  He is a compelling presence, as facially expressive as he is vocally – and that voice, rich and versatile, is both a balm for the mind and a prod to the emotions.  The Soul is answered by the ‘Angel’ – Gemma Summerfield’s searing, soaring soprano – before the two sing together, having taken us the full gamut of emotions from anger to forgiveness.


Apple of my ear: Benjamin Appl

I need an interval drink after that!

Mozart had reached the grand old age of eleven when he penned his first opera – what took him so long, the slacker? – and it’s a treat to hear it get an airing this evening.  The plot is basically a love triangle: Zephyrus loves the boy Hyacinthus but so does the god Apollo.  Zephyrus fingers Apollo for the death of Hyacinthus, but the boy’s dying words reveal the truth.  Meanwhile, Oebalus is hoping to marry his daughter Melia to the god – but the murder of his son casts a shadow over that arrangement.

Stripped to the bare essentials, the staging brings the music to the fore.  Standing in a row like actors in a radio drama, the cast does not stint in expressive delivery.  It is the human emotions of this mythological scenario that matter – and that is the heart of Mozart’s genius, whether it’s Christianity as in the Grabmusik, or older mythology, it is the humanity of the situation that touches us.  The prayer to Apollo, where the cast of five is joined by Appl as the Priest, is as stirring and lovely as any of Mozart’s pieces to the Christian God.  The man could dramatize anything.

Benjamin Hulett is marvellous as King Oebalus, despite being rooted to the spot behind his music stand.  Similarly, Klara Ek’s Melia gives us all the delighted anticipation of a young woman before her wedding to a celebrity.  Gemma Summerfield’s Hyancinthus is blooming great (ha ha) and her dying words, so simply and effectively scored by Mozart, are extremely moving.  Countertenor James Hall is the villainous Zephyrus, while another countertenor Tim Mead makes a regal and dignified Apollo.  When all five sing together, I miss the baritone undertones of Appl – Mozart was writing for a cast of schoolboy performers, after all.

It’s a lovely piece in which each character gets an aria, a moment to shine, a moment to explore their emotional state.  They are human beings in a fantastical situation and that’s what speaks to us across the centuries.

Le The a l'Anglaise chez le Prince de Conti, Salon des Quatre-Glaces, Palais du Temple with child Mozart at harpsichord...

Take Me To Your Lieder


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.



The Appl of my ears



Everything Rhymed


Town Hall, Birmingham, Monday 29th February, 2016

 A couple of years ago I was reawakened to the music of Gilbert O’Sullivan, a figure fondly remembered from childhood viewings of Top of the Pops.  What I remembered most – apart from the songs – was how distinctive he was.  Among the long-haired rock stars and emerging glam scene, he stood out as an individual.  With his flat cap and awkward suit, he was a Peaky Blinder among hippies, delivering one catchy pop hit after another.  Then came a relaunch: the cap was superseded by a mane, which he retains to this day, at the age of 69.

He walks onto the town hall stage, sprightly and striking in skinny fit black trousers and a black shirt with billowing white sleeves.  There is something puritanical in his appearance, like The Crucible’s John Proctor with hair by Charlie Chuck (I’m only bitter because I haven’t got a barnet like that).  As soon as he sits at the keyboard and plays, the warm welcome given by the crowd of die-hard fans is justified.  The excellent band strikes up and we’re off on a trip down Memory Lane with a few stops to look at some new stuff along the way.  Behind him, pictures and footage from the past are projected but I barely glance at them – just enough to see him as I remembered him compared to how he is now in front of me.  He has barely changed.  Age has etched its presence on that strong forehead but his eyes still twinkle and his voice, that familiar old instrument, is still as sweet as any Stradivarius.

The hits keep coming.  O’Sullivan carved his own niche in the landscape of British pop and continues to plough it, yet there is no suggestion of being stuck in a rut.  He doesn’t keep us waiting long for the seminal Nothing Rhymed, a particular favourite of mine that epitomises his style: intelligent, quirky lyrics that capture a conversational style, wedded perfectly to organic, serpentine and unforgettable melodies.  The character in the song questions what is ‘good’ in the world?  Is it giving up your seat to an elderly lady or man on the bus?  And how does that square with gorging on ‘more than enough apple pies’ while watching real human beings starve to death on the telly?  It’s a striking note, a sobering thought, that still jars today.

Other songs are lighter in tone.  We Will begins like an Alan Bennett monologue as a parent tries to send his kids to bed – the genius of O’Sullivan’s lyrics lies in his unerring skill at taking colloquial speech, crafting it into rhyme and setting it to irresistible music.  There is something of the wistfulness of Victoria Wood here too and the down-to-earth bathos of John Shuttleworth!

New material shows he has lost none of his powers as a songwriter and he remains a capitivating performer.  There is an intimacy to his delivery that makes you feel like he is singing directly to you and just to you.

The innocence of the avuncular outpourings of Clair closes the first half and I already feel I’ve had more than my money’s worth.  The second half brings more unearthed treasure.  O’Sullivan quips that people believe him to be ‘dead, retired or disappeared’ and, to the inevitable astonishment that his voice is the same he gasps, “Why wouldn’t it bloody be?”  Clearly, he is in tune with what we’re all thinking.

He dedicates Lost a Friend (written after the death of John Lennon) to the appallingly long list of music business greats that have already been culled by 2016, this most philistine of years.  Bowie, of course, gets a namecheck but O’Sullivan is generous enough to include the late Sir Terry Wogan in the number – many of us feel we lost a friend there too.

A highlight for me, in a show that is all peaks and no troughs, is Happiness is Me and You.  Just O’Sullivan’s vocal, a guitar, and a flute solo in the middle.  It’s an achingly beautiful moment.  The jaunty What’s In A Kiss? is deceptively, toe-tappingly simple but it’s the encores that get us all on our feet.  Alone Again (Naturally) marries a cheerful tune to thoughts of suicide and the deaths of parents – upbeat melancholy and fatalism, it is light years ahead of Morrissey.  Devastatingly brilliant.  Sing-a-long-a-depression.

Matrimony is sheer perfection.  How can you not love a song with the line ‘we show up an hour late like two frozen peas’?   Finally, Get Down gets him up on his seat, one foot on the keyboard – as if we need a reminder of his star status!  I sing along from the second row, exhilarated.

A thoroughly enjoyable evening in the presence of one of the true greats of British music, supported I must say by a superlative band of musicians.

I queue for ages afterwards – it seems like everyone wants to meet him – to shake his hand and burble out my gratitude and admiration.  He signs my programme (left-handed, like all the best people) and puts his arm around me for a photo.  Instantly I am transported back to the living room of my childhood, the television and my sister’s pop star magazines, reconnecting with memories and with an artist that ran through those days like lettering through Blackpool rock.  The youngster that I was never envisaged that such an encounter was even possible or that all these years later I would still be in love with the songs.