Thursday, 18 June 2009

A Happy Tune - The King and I at the Albert Hall

I do love a good show; whether it’s a live orchestra playing, well, anything frankly, a talented singer doing what he/she does best, or indeed a glitzy Broadway/West End show. The latter took me further west last night - Kensington in fact - where Rodgers & Hammerstein’s sumptuous musical The King and I is currently enjoying a lavish revival at the Royal Albert Hall. It’s only the second time the glorious Victorian arena has staged a full blown musical – the first time being the Tenth Anniversary production of Les Miserables back in 1995 – and once again the hall was brought vividly to life with music, dance and colour. Of course this show is one of the old school Broadway spectaculars of the 1950s, the pair’s fifth ‘modern’ musical together, and like Oklahoma!, South Pacific and The Sound of Music, it’s littered with memorable melodies, larger than life characters and oodles of charm.

Leading a large ensemble cast were Maria Friedman and Daniel Dae Kim – as Anna Leonowens and The King of Siam – while fine support was given by the likes of well known screen actor David Yip and soprano Jee Hyun Lim, not to mention the many other faces and voices of the royal household. Miss Friedman is of course one of the stage’s brightest stars and she shone brightly in this perfectly cast role, in fine voice and emitting a wide-eyed warmth in a series of elaborate dresses. Mr Kim, most recognisable from TV’s Lost, made his London stage debut with this show and while he was by no means the strongest singing voice in the cast, he won us over with a charming and at times humorous portrayal of a man courting the modern world, but one who refuses to bow down to it. From their first moments together on stage I found it hard to imagine that the pair would gel and become a believable duo – but that’s the point of the story I suppose, they’re as opposite as opposites can be and the feelings between them are buried way beneath the surface. Later the bristles soften of course and their joint success at impressing the British envoy and his party, celebrated with a joyous dance lesson was truly delightful, not to mention their emotional, but understated parting.


Of course the Albert Hall is not a theatre per se, and so this production was performed ‘in the round’, the actors performing in the centre of the hall with the audience surrounding them. The setting of a musical in this way is quite a different experience for both performer and audience member alike, as for the former the space and direction of projection is increased and for the latter the performance is that much more immediate – for some it was literally right before their eyes. It was a challenge for sure, particularly for those creative minds tasked with staging the show and creating the world before us. When you’re being seen from all angles there really is nowhere to hide and the team can be congratulated not just for creating a lavish setting – replete with bodies of water, boats and indoor fireworks – but also for doing it relatively conservatively. Don’t get me wrong, there was bags of opulence in the Siamese Palace, but the use of space and the change over between scenes was well executed and required little fuss. There is definitely a weightier focus on performance and costume when there isn’t a myriad of backdrops and moving scenery and in this case it was a real winner.

This was my first viewing of this particular show and I went into the hall imagining all the music would be new to me; that was na├»ve of course as I instantly recognised many of the songs. Staple repertoire fillers such as I Whistle a Happy Tune, Getting To Know You and Shall We Dance? were instantly recognisable, while Hello, Young Lovers and I Have Dreamed were new to me and I shall certainly seek them out and listen to them again. The latter saw beautiful performances by Ethan Le Phong and Yanle Zhong as the young lovers Lun Tha and Tuptim, who cannot be together as she ‘belongs’ to the King. Le Phong was especially impressive and he would have made a fine King – I’d like to have seen/heard him perform A Puzzlement, the King’s big number, which was probably the weakest song in the show sadly.

Dance of course played a role in the show and the set piece for choreographer Susan Kikuchi was the performance of The Small House of Uncle Thomas, during which Princess Tuptim addresses her hatred of the King through her interpretation of an American story about slavery. To be honest this part was a tad lengthy and it was easy to lose focus – a casualty of the ‘round’ setting perhaps, being that the effects had to come from props and lighting on the ground, rather than the all encompassing and changeable surround of a proscenium stage.


Performing the music on the stage proper – though cloaked behind flowing drapes and ornate columns – was the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, conducted by seasoned Musical Director Gareth Valentine. The usual acoustic was somewhat dulled by their shroud – though to be fair it was the voices that were the main focus here – but they did a wonderful job as ever. The score represents one of Richard Rodgers’ finest and most incandescent, with the March of the Siamese Children being a wonderful musical set piece and highlight as Anna meets each of her new pupils, just some of the King’s many heirs. The children themselves were warmly received and each turned in a lovely performance – though at times it seemed Prince Chulalongkorn was lost somewhere between Hackney and Bangkok, as his accent flitted between the two quite often. Neither he or young Louis – performed here by Tony Nguyen and Lewis Cornay – were given their chance to shine vocally as their song, the Reprise of A Puzzlement was excised from the show for reasons unknown. Of course I wouldn’t have known otherwise having never seen the show before, but my companion actually played the part of Louis in the 1990/91 production (starring Susan Hampshire as Anna) and so he immediately drew my attention to it.

Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II rejuvenated the Broadway stage with shows like The King and I in 1951 and this week it’s happening all over again with this gilded spectacle at the Royal Albert Hall. This is a rare opportunity to experience musical theatre as never before and while the likes of Hairspray, Avenue Q and Wicked are perhaps more flavour of the month with the younger generation, they owe their existence to shows like this. The old ones really are the best and no mistake.


The King and I is at London’s Royal Albert Hall until June 28th. Tickets are still available priced between £21.50 and £62.50. Group discounts and hospitality packages are available. Visit www.royalalberthall.com for further information or ring 020 7838 3100 to book tickets.

With huge thanks to Jodie Jenkins at the Royal Albert Hall.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

On The Desk III

My desk is almost tipping over under the weight of CDs at one end, so the toy TARDIS has had to move to the other end to keep things on an even keel… Of course I jest (though, not about the TARDIS). The in-tray is somewhat heaving though at the moment and so I feel it’s time to give some time to more albums that are ‘On The Desk’…

First up and well overdue for a mention is La La Land’s release of Lisa Coleman and Wendy Melvoin’s music for the hit NBC drama Heroes. Now I am about to commit a cardinal sin and admit that the entire phenomenon has passed me by (yes, terrible I know). I understand it’s rather good… (understatement of the decade perhaps) It’s certainly popular and the series has made stars of its, well, stars, spawned a committed fan following, and a top selling soundtrack album to boot. While the hip ‘n trendy tracks add much (to the record companies wallets no doubt), it’s the contemporary licks of Coleman and Melvoin that give Heroes its real voice and musical identity. The album from La La Land appears at first to be somewhat thin on the ground – with just ten tracks – but the majority of the selections go way past the five and six minute mark. Yes it’s something of a suite frenzy, arranged by the composers to reflect each of the series’ main characters and ending with a couple of set piece moments – including ‘Kirby Plaza’ from the finale of Season One. So, as the composers’ state in their nicely personal sleeve notes, each character is given their own ‘overture’ of sorts. But don’t get me wrong, there are no grand gestures here, no big themes; instead a sort of chillout set which re-creates the atmosphere of the show. ‘Claire’ offers a glimpse of a main thematic on piano – and a good one at that – echoed in parts of ‘Sylar’, while both he and ‘Mohinder’ are painted with Satie-esque piano hues. The selection is of course awash with synthetic textures, some airy, some industrial and all very listenable in their own ways. Not a groundbreaking, ear-shattering, pulse-racing selection by any stretch of the imagination, though fans of the show are sure to lap it up.



Up next – and staying with La La Land Records – is John Murphy’s take on The Last House on the Left, the latest Hollywood Horror makeover from Rogue Pictures. Wes Craven’s 1972 original – indeed his directorial debut – paved the way for countless films that followed with its gritty ‘realism’. The impact, however, is somewhat diluted all these years later and the film represents probably one of the titles most in need of a re-hash. And so fast forward to 2009 and Dennis Iliadis takes the reigns on this suped-up, sexier version of the story, which sees a family holiday home invaded by a violent gang who find themselves suffering at the hands of the angry parents of their victims. It’s all rather unpleasant of course, but the score manages to rise above mere shock and spatter, instead offering a mature take on the emotions running high throughout. ‘Saving Mari’ and ‘Going to the Guest House’ offer typical horror tones and general unease, while the likes of ‘After the Assault’ and ‘The End’ see more tonal ideas, achieved with solo piano – particularly in the latter. Murphy is no stranger to the darker side of film, thanks to brilliant turns in 28 Days Later and its follow up 28 Weeks Later and with The Last House on the Left he applies subtle atmospherics to a largely orchestral score, creating a bristling balance of light and shadow offering far more than your average horror score.

As I’ve touched on before, composers often feel inclined to send me promotional material of their latest work and I was delighted to receive a couple of discs from British composer Jennie Muskett. Jennie is one of the UK’s little known shining lights, having provided highly imaginative scores for small documentaries, prime-time television series’ and glossy Hollywood films alike. She is well on the heels of current trends and strives to keep on top of technological developments – with that in mind you can always count on Jennie for an immediate sound, straddling the genres of contemporary digital music and traditional classical approaches. Most recently the composer delivered Compulsion, for the ITV film drama starring Ray Winstone and Parminda Nagra. It’s an atmospheric and at times darkly sensual score, featuring deliciously exotic colours and a well-honed contemporary edginess. I’m always impressed by Jennie’s music and am always left wanting more – I think there’s still a lot remaining for her to achieve and she has well and truly set herself up to become on of the UK’s major voices on screen.


Finally to one of MovieScore Media’s most colourful releases in a while, Darren Fung’s Just Buried. The film is a darkly comic look at funeral homes, as a young man inherits one such establishment only to find the young female mortician he falls in love with is doing away with the locals to keep the ailing business afloat. Taking its lead of course in many respects from the likes of Six Feet Under and Pushing Daisies - the lighter side of death has certainly been in vogue of late – the film is given life (ahem) thanks to a delightfully perky score by Darren Fung. Eclectic is something of a buzz word when it comes to this type of score, but it truly fits Just Buried as Fung has arranged a frisky melange of instrumentation to create a bustling musical accompaniment. Headed by piano, we’re well and truly in Thomas Newman territory in many respects, but more playfully so I feel. The scampering pizzicato, glockenspiel, strings and cimbalom that skip through the likes of ‘Vehicular Manslaughter’ are immediately likeable, and indeed infectious, while the pseudo-gothic classicism found in ‘Pickles Has The Stick’ are both tongue-in-cheek and brilliantly applied. The track titles alone here are enough to raise a smile – and an eyebrow perhaps – each perfectly exhibiting the type of film this is. Personal favourites are ‘I Dropped a Mini-Van On Him’ and ‘You Screwed My Dad!?!?’ – need I say more. Joking aside, both cues offer some of the more dramatic brassy moments on the disc - the latter seeing an amusing shift on the wedding march. This is a delightful score and no mistake – a real breath of fresh air for the ears.

Heroes (LLLCD1091) and The Last House on the Left (LLLCD1092) are both available from www.lalalandrecords.com, while Just Buried (MMS-09003) is available on CD via www.screenarchives.com and as a download from the usual platforms. For more information visit www.moviescoremedia.com.

If you’d like to know more about Jennie Muskett then take a look at her newly launched website where you can see and hear what she’s all about –
www.jenniemuskett.com.

With thanks to Beth Krakower at Cinemedia, Mikael Carlsson at MovieScore Media and Jennie Muskett.

Monday, 8 June 2009

By George! - George Fenton and the LSO

I’ve mentioned my early obsession with television theme music when I was growing up; I’d sit with a tape recorder next to the television set and record tape after tape of themes. Of course I had favourites and it has transpired that many of them were composed by people I’ve since had the pleasure to meet, get to know, and whose music for the big screen I admire still. George Fenton is one such person whose career began on that box in the corner of the living room and his music for the likes of Bergerac, Telly Addicts and countless BBC News themes and stings most certainly appeared on my cassette tape ‘compilations’. George is an absolute gentleman and with an enviable career as a screen composer; he is without doubt one of the largely unsung heroes of film music. His early collaborations with directors like Richard Attenborough and Neil Jordan, followed swiftly by those with Ken Loach, Stephen Frears and Andy Tennant have allowed the composer a lingering presence on screen, with assignments on boths sides of the Atlantic. His music, I find, is consistently good; it’s thematic, listenable, strong and varied – which is the hallmark of a great composer. Any film is in safe hands when George Fenton is on board.

Last night George was able to present a selection of his works at London’s Barbican Centre, with more than a little help from the London Symphony Orchestra. Ever humble, the composer/conductor seemed truly honoured to be able to stand before the illustrious band. The orchestra last worked with Fenton in 1993, performing the score to Attenborough’s Shadowlands and so it was something of a long-overdue reunion. From the podium, the composer presented his own music in his own understated way; this wasn’t a big showy event by any means, instead it was a safe and strong presentation of just really very good music. It was the personal touch that gave the evening a sense of warmth and intimacy, with George leaving the podium himself to bring on his soloist guests at times.

It must have been a difficult concert to programme, mainly because of the wealth of material composed over the last thirty years or so. That said it was a fairly inclusive set-list, with just a touch of the composer’s early small screen gems presented in a trio including the themes from The Jewel in the Crown, The Monocled Mutineer and The Blue Planet. The latter was of course the most recent of that selection and one of George Fenton’s biggest triumphs, the music itself being performed in its own concert tour in recent years. With that in mind it’s understandable that there wasn’t more from the groundbreaking BBC series being played at this concert – though a performance of ‘Sardine Run’ would have gone down very well I think.

The film selections that made up the majority of what remained took in many highlights and key collaborations in George’s career so far, with emphasis on his variety of style here and there. Sweeping, orchestral romance was a firm fixture with suites from the likes of Ever After and Stage Beauty whisking us off our feet, while the likes of China Moon and Land and Freedom offered more contemporary orchestration choices and Spanish hues respectively. The brass and percussion were able to exhibit their famously fine voices throughout, with Valiant being a brilliant second half opener, while first half closer Land and Freedom was positively Herrmannesque in places with crashing brass chords and all kinds of jarring harmonies.

As I said, soloists played a key role on the stage and the second half saw some stunning performances by Martin Robertson and Andrew Findon who took on the likes of Duduk, Chinese flute and Irish pipes in selections from Planet Earth (itself a moving suite), Beyond the Clouds and one of my all time favourite Fenton scores, High Spirits. John Parricelli and Tom Howe did the honours on acoustic guitars for Dangerous Beauty, a lovely suite and another highlight for me personally as I’ve enjoyed the score on album for many years (though I didn’t recognise the title in the programme as my album is called A Destiny of Her Own).

Singer Nicola Emmanuelle provided an edgy vocal for Le Vampire, a standout moment from the first half. The music was composed by Fenton for Neil Jordan’s 1995 film Interview With The Vampire, though it was replaced with a score by Elliot Goldenthal… It is a classic example of ‘why on earth?’ as the music is simply brimming with gothic romance and fire. I am a fan of the replacement score though, which is perhaps slightly edgier still; certainly more chaotic, but no less romantic in my view. Emmanuelle returned in the second half with a group of singers for the finale piece, from Richard Attenborough’s 1987 apartheid drama Cry Freedom. The music was a tour-de-force which saw the conductor leave the podium to perform piano and ‘mumble’ (as he put it) the end title song he wrote at the last minute at Attenborough’s request. It was a stunning end, with the voices of the passionate vocalists ringing out over the orchestra and the rhythm section inspiring many a toe to tap in the audience. George returned to the podium to bring the ensemble together (though they never missed a beat without him) for a thrilling cadence of percussion, brass and voices.

While my companion and I were sad not to hear a burst of Newsnight or The 6 O’Clock News as an encore (appeasing ourselves by humming it all the way to the pub), we did leave in no doubt that George Fenton is one of the industry’s strongest voices, and a composer who is sure to do marvellous things with music for a long while to come. Come on George, release a compilation album and include a few bonus tracks of news stings… please?


With thanks to Dvora Lewis PR.