Sunday, 14 November 2010

Michael Nyman: An Anthology, at Colston Hall

I’ve had the pleasure of hearing Michael Nyman’s music live on three previous occasions. It’s always a divided experience I find, as his music is itself divisive. His compositions stray from the engaging and almost hypnotic to the benign and tragically beautiful, by way of the occasional bout of sheer ennui. The driving, repetition of much of his music is the well tested trademark of the artist (and he is an artist in every sense of the word) and one who successfully (or otherwise) traverses the realms of film music and music for music’s sake.

‘Michael Nyman: An Anthology’, with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (Bristol’s orchestra too apparently… though I can’t imagine those on the south coast really want to share?) was markedly different to any of the Nyman ‘fests’ I’d been a party to before and this was noticeable on two counts. Firstly no ‘Michael Nyman Band’ and secondly – and perhaps most importantly - no Michael Nyman… I was under no illusion that he would be there though, so it wasn’t a big surprise and in fact the evening threw up (for want of a better term) a whole host of interesting nuggets for a film music fan, and indeed a Nyman fan, of which I am both.

I go to a lot of film music concerts and to be honest – and you’ll agree with me if you do too – it’s very much ‘same old’. The classic film music repertoire is to be expected at the majority of film music events these days, so it’s a breath of fresh air and actually brilliant to be able to sit in the company of an orchestra as they perform great chunks of score live. The engorged ensemble meant we were able to enjoy treats such as Gattaca – Nyman’s first major ‘Hollywood’ film score – and the 17 minute selection more than did it justice. This larger orchestral fare of Nyman’s doesn’t get heard in concert as he usually – and quite regularly – tours with his smaller ‘band’, performing chamber works and scores (such as the Greenaway entries) and of course everyone’s favourite The Piano.

We weren’t spared those delights though, because delights they are, and when given over to a symphony orchestra they took on a far grander tone as one might expect. The 20 minute selection from Greenaway’s Drowning By Numbers offered some wonderful moments, including the infectious ‘Wheelbarrow Walks’ and the Mozart inspired ‘Trysting Fields’ and ‘Knowing The Ropes’, while the ubiquitous ‘Chasing Sheeps Is Best Left To Shepherds’ from The Draughtsmans Contract brought a smile as ever. Such scores are Nyman gold; bawdy, cavorting and somehow deliciously saucy (in fact I always picture tarts in powdered wigs being chased around a drawing room when I hear this stuff).

The Piano was of course a highlight as the ensemble were able to take on the larger scale cues such as ‘To the Edge of the Earth’ and ‘The Embrace’. ‘Here To There’ suffered thanks to the usual frolicking woodwinds being replaced by pompous brass, which was a shame and changed the feel of the cue entirely. The subtle beauty and furtiveness of ‘Lost and Found’ was indeed lost thanks to some very shaky trumpeting – again replacing woodwind (!). It’s always the brass that lets ensembles down for some reason… the sound is so naked that any error, however slight, is glaringly obvious. The pitch of the requirement in this selection from The Piano was obviously too much for the poor old player.

The only selection I wasn’t familiar with – and the longest at 21 minutes – was a suite from The Diary of Anne Frank. It was in fact something of a premier as this arrangement of cues from the score – by Andy Keenan – had never been performed before. The animated film was produced in Japan in 1995 and seemingly inspired the composer to come up with some of his most beautiful, melodic and lyrical music. I adore Nyman when he’s in this mode and this lengthy selection was a real treat full of emotional peaks and troughs; ‘Concentration Camp/Silent Separation’ was suitably dark and emotive, while ‘If/Why’ – written for songs – showed just how lyrical the composer can be when working within such parameters.

Ending the concert was the audacious ‘Memorial’. I know the piece from its use in Greenaway’s classic The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, but its dedication to those who perished during the 1985 Heysel Stadium Tragedy gives it a far more soulful underpinning. Still, it remains a classic with its stalking, stomping, unrelenting nature which, when applied to a symphony orchestra, truly made the hairs stand on end somewhat triumphantly. It got a big applause from the not so big audience and invited an encore. Something ‘lighter’ was promised by our conductor Pete Harrison and we got ‘In Re Don Giovanni’… a perfectly sprightly Nymanesque ending.

With such a grand ensemble at their disposal it’s a small shame that perhaps more time wasn’t given over to some of Michael Nyman’s other larger film scores. Shorter selections from the Greenaway scores might have allowed time for something from The Claim or The End of the Affair, a concert suite of the former is certainly available… A thought for future programming perhaps.

Whether the BSO really is Bristol’s orchestra too or not, I’m very pleased that they have a home at Colston Hall. The venue has come on leaps and bounds since its relaunch last year and really is quite a lovely space in which to mingle and enjoy music. And the future looks interesting as Bristol City Council are to no longer run it, instead allowing it to deal with its own affairs under a new ‘Bristol Music Trust’. I for one hope it means more concerts like this one will be entertained…

With thanks to Paul Preager and Sarah Hodson at Colston Hall.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Is there a Doctor in the house?

What better way to spend Halloween than in the company of some monsters, and that was just the kids. Yes there were a lot of little people present at the final Cardiff show of the BBC’s Doctor Who Live yesterday but you know what? The kids are alright…. Because this show is all about them. There was much to enjoy for the young at heart as well though as all the best monsters from Series 1-5 of the BBC’s flagship Sci-Fi spectacle were wheeled out before us under the guise of an intergalactic circus, of sorts.

The ringleader was the colourful bouffant-haired Vorgensen, played by the brilliant Nigel Planer, who began as a showman with a gimmick to show off – ‘the minimiser’ to be exact – and ended up the perfect Panto villain as his gimmick turned out to be a rouse to capture The Doctor alongside his plethora of Cybermen, Scarecrows, Smilers and Vampire Vixens (aka The Vampires of Venice, aka Saturnyne) – a veritable zoo of Who beasties. I won’t give any more away, but as with any Doctor Who adventure all is not quite as it seems and a deeper evil may just be behind the events unravelling before us.

The Doctor himself was of course not present in physical form, but on screen in a series of well played-out exchangess with Vorgensen – and the audience. This, and the entrance of various monsters into the auditorium, obviously takes its cue from the wonderful Doctor Who Proms whose physical interactions with favoured (or feared) villains remains a highlight of both years in the Albert Hall. This new ‘Live’ concept though works on a different level, with a story at its heart, and in that sense is a far more enjoyable ‘show’ for the key demographic – i.e. kiddies.

Once again – and ultra important from my perspective – music played a huge role in the proceedings, though this time scaled down from full orchestra to a scintillating band of thirteen. Under the command of The Doctor’s favoured conductor and arranger Ben Foster, these guys and girls made an awesome sound, which I simply wasn’t expecting. They brought to life Murray Gold’s themes with heaps of pizzazz and a dollop of chutzpah, absolutely giving the BBC National Orchestra of Wales a run for their money. Themes from across all five series made an appearance, supporting both the monsters running amok and also big screen montages of some of The Doctor’s adventures. Filler this might have been, but it worked beautifully; I am in fact a sucker for a good montage and these, underscored so eloquently, inspired some eye-watering… but only a bit.

With tickets starting at £25 this would by no means be a cheap trip for a family and when you add in the endless merchandise available – including the ubiquitous glossy £10 programme – there is a sense that the BBC is cashing in somewhat on its prize pony… but that said people are lapping it up and having a bloomin’ good time while they’re at it, and who can say fairer than that when the outside world is so chock full of real life doom, gloom and monsters.

Monetary matters aside, this is a wonderful show, a sci-fi pantomime of sorts and everyone involved ought to be mighty proud of it. Doctor Who just keeps getting bigger and better doesn’t it?

Just a final word I think, as I’m bleating on about the good Doctor and his music. Silva Screen Records have come up trumps with not one, but two lavish, immense and brilliant collections of original music from the series’. It seems Doctor Who soundtracks are like buses… you wait two years for a new one and two come along at once (well, ish).

‘Series 4 – The Specials’ hit stores a few weeks ago and it has been a long time coming. Indeed I was at the recording session for ‘The Next Doctor’ over two years ago and then ‘The End of Time’ this time last year, so I for one have been chomping at the bit to hear some of this stuff again. It’s all great stuff of course, but the second disc – devoted to ‘The End of Time’ – is just extraordinary, showcasing what is absolutely Murray Gold’s finest work. ‘Vale Decem’ is on repeat currently… Check it out if you haven’t yet.

‘Series 5’ is on CD this week… oh yes, it’s another double disc set and is another stunner I can tell you. Having written the programme notes for the Prom again this year I was already party to some of the tracks and arrangements on this new album, but there is far more besides, in fact there is something from each of the thirteen episodes of Matt Smith’s inaugural series. It’s a brilliant collection, setting out on CD just how versatile a composer Murray is. The depth of emotion so apparent in prior series’ remains, but there is a fairytale elegance to some of this recent stuff, not to mention a maturity, that speaks volumes for how much he has grown as an artist, how much braver he has become and just how talented he is. Listen to ‘The Time of Angels’ against ‘Amy’s Theme’ and then ‘Battle in the Sky’ and you’ll know what I’m talking about.

The team are busily getting the Christmas Special music together, so there is – as ever – plenty more to look forward to. Good times, Doctor.

Doctor Who Live continues it’s UK tour in Liverpool on 2-3 November, then finally in Belfast on 6-7 November. Silva Screen Records’ two new albums – plus soundtracks for Series 1/2, Series 3 and Series 4 – are available right now at

Big thanks to Ben Foster, and David Stoner at Silva Screen Records.