Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita braid tales of Wales and Senegal

Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita braid tales of Wales and Senegal

After seeing Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita once again last night at the Liverpool Philharmonic Music Room, and to celebrate an outstanding concert, here’s a repost that records the first time we saw the duo – in October 2014. Continue reading “Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita braid tales of Wales and Senegal”

Van Morrison at the Phil: in good voice and totally committed

Van Morrison at the Phil: in good voice and totally committed

On Tuesday evening we sloshed our way through the first real rain of this autumn to the Philharmonic for a performance by a man whose lyrics have revealed a man who loves nothing better than to walk in gardens wet with rain – Van Morrison. With a notorious reputation for grumpiness and offhand behaviour in his concerts, we were a little apprehensive about what we might get. But Van was in fine form and, supported by an excellent band, crammed 90 minutes with a stellar selection of songs from a career in which he has recorded an astonishing 36 albums. Continue reading “Van Morrison at the Phil: in good voice and totally committed”

The Simon and Garfunkel Story: passing time and frail memories

The Simon and Garfunkel Story: passing time and frail memories

Time it was
And what a time it was, it was
A time of innocence

If he ever got back to the twentieth century, Paul Simon wrote in a recent song, he would ‘open the book of his vanishing memory.’ Listening to a succession of glorious songs from his catalogue in The Simon and Garfunkel Story at Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall on Sunday night, made evident how many of Paul Simon’s songs right from the early days were concerned with the passing of time and the frailty of memories. Continue reading “The Simon and Garfunkel Story: passing time and frail memories”

Blood and Roses: The Songs of Ewan MacColl

Blood and Roses: The Songs of Ewan MacColl

‘The world that I knew, it has vanished and gone,’ sang Eliza Carthy during Blood and Roses: The Songs of Ewan MacColl, a special concert at the Liverpool Philharmonic this week that marked the centennial of the songwriter and Communist activist’s birth. It was a marvellous evening of passionate songs of politics and love which caused me to reflect on the significance of MacColl’s songs in our changed times. Continue reading “Blood and Roses: The Songs of Ewan MacColl”

Seckou Keita in the Phil’s new Music Room

Seckou Keita in the Phil’s new Music Room

On Monday evening I went along to Liverpool’s newest live music venue – the Philharmonic Hall’s Music Room – to see Seckou Keita give another outstanding performance on the kora. I say another because a year ago we saw him, along with the Welsh harpist Catrin Finch, in what we decided was one of the best concerts we had ever attended. Continue reading “Seckou Keita in the Phil’s new Music Room”

Donovan at the Phil: disappointing and bizarre

Donovan at the Phil: disappointing and bizarre

I was so disappointed by Donovan’s concert at the Liverpool Phil a couple of weeks back that I couldn’t summon up the enthusiasm to write about. For the record, though, the following review by Del Pike pretty much sums up how three of us sitting on the front row (myself, and friends Joe and Annette) felt about it. Continue reading “Donovan at the Phil: disappointing and bizarre”

The Heritage Blues Orchestra’s triumphant return to the Phil

The Heritage Blues Orchestra’s triumphant return to the Phil

Two years ago, in February 2013, I wrote an adulatory review of a concert at the Liverpool Phil by the Heritage Blues Orchestra.  At the time they were pretty much an unknown quantity in the UK, having only recently released their first album, And Still I Rise.

Last night they were back – and gave a show that like the first was a tour de force, and a tour of the blues in all its historical forms. With some variations, the numbers performed were the same as the last time (I had thought there might be more new material since a second album is imminent). This time the orchestra was an eight-piece, since trumpeter Michel Feugère was absent. Continue reading “The Heritage Blues Orchestra’s triumphant return to the Phil”

One Man Breaking Bad

One Man Breaking Bad

How to explain the phenomenon of Breaking Bad? I pondered this as we waited for One Man Breaking Bad to begin last night in a sold-out, packed Liverpool Philharmonic.

The fact that Miles Allen, a Los Angeles-based actor and comedian could fill the place with his 80-minute précis of five seasons of a series never shown on UK television is quite something. Asking for a show of hands at the start, Allen confirmed that all but a handful of the audience had seen the entire series. Indeed, there would be no point in attending if you hadn’t. Continue reading “One Man Breaking Bad”

Dr John at the Phil, Liverpool: Such a Night!

Dr John at the Phil, Liverpool: Such a Night!

Professor Longhair, Fats Domino, Allen Toussaint – three of the piano-player greats who have emerged from New Orleans, that laboratory of musical invention, the city where every stream of American music has converged and shape-shifted. None have transmogrified the music to the same degree as a fourth pianist, Mac Rebennack who reinvented himself as Dr John, fusing voodoo psychedelia with New Orleans R&B, gospel and funk.  Last Monday he materialised at the Liverpool Philharmonic, still cooking up a righteous gumbo at 75 years. Continue reading “Dr John at the Phil, Liverpool: Such a Night!”

Michael Nyman’s Hillsborough Memorial

Michael Nyman’s Hillsborough Memorial

Hillsborough Memorial

The Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Youth Choir perform Nyman’s Hillsborough memorial in the Anglican Cathedral

On Saturday we joined the crowds pouring into Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral on a beautiful summer’s evening for the public première of Michael Nyman’s Hillsborough Memorial Symphony performed by the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Youth Choir.  It was an intensely moving experience which transcended the usual boundaries of a musical performance.

Memorial programme

The programme cover

The Symphony consists of four movements.  In the first, ‘The Singing of the Names’, mezzo-soprano Kathryn Rudge sings the name of each of the 96 who lost their lives at Hillsborough Stadium on 15 April 1989. It took me a few moments, in the cavernous soundscape of the cathedral, to locate where Rudge’s voice was coming from (the pulpit to the left in the photo above) and to tune into the words she was singing as being the names of those who died.  But, I soon adjusted to the rhythm of her delivery as each name, carefully enunciated by Rudge as the orchestration shifted and eddied beneath her voice, soared to the cathedral vaults.

Memorial

Pages from the programme: The Singing of the Names

It was intensely emotional, as Kathryn Rudge’s declamation shifted between tenderness and something that sounded close to anger. Listening I wondered how it must have felt for relatives of the dead, listening to it that afternoon when and the Memorial was played for a private audience of family members of Hillsborough victims.

I thought, too – perhaps because we’re at this historic juncture one hundred years on from the outbreak of World War One – of the parallel with the naming the dead on First World War memorials, and the biblical phrase, chosen by Rudyard Kipling, who had lost his own son in the war, inscribed on many British war memorials: ‘Their Name Liveth For Evermore’.  I thought of Liverpool’s beautiful memorial – outside St Georges Hall – to those who fell in World War One, and the inscription it carries: ‘The victory that day was turned into mourning unto all the people’. This music, and the two memorials to the Hillsborough victims that now exist in Liverpool, will ensure that the names of the 96 will not now be forgotten.

Cenotaph Cenotaph detail 2Cenotaph detail 1

Beautiful detailing by Herbert Tyson Smith from Liverpool’s memorial to those who fell in the First World War

With the second movement, ‘Family Reflections’ we were in familiar Nyman territory: the signature insistent pulse and repetition of slowly changing chords that gradual transform into long, arching phrases. Nyman coined the term minimalism for this kind of music, and it shares an affinity with works by Terry Riley or Philip Glass.  The entry of the youth choir, singing a wordless aria above the orchestration, lifted the hairs on the back of my neck.

In the programme notes, Nyman explained how the third movement – entitled ‘The 96′ – drew on the numerical symbolism of ’96’, repeating a 4-bar phrase made up of three chords so that the piece consists of (96 times 3 divided by 4) bars.  If that sounds coldly mathematical, it wasn’t.  The movement built relentlessly to a heart-stopping point when the orchestration fell away and young voices of the choir came to the fore.

The final movement was simply titled ‘Memorial’, an uplifting requiem in which I thought I could discern elements of the George Martin/Beatles arrangement on ‘All You Need Is Love’, with trumpet and horns superimposed above a repeating choral line.  When the end came, the audience leapt their feet to greet orchestra and choir, and conductor Josep Vicent with rapturous applause. The 70 year-old Nyman was in the audience, and was encouraged to come forward to thunderous acclaim.

Michael Nyman

Michael Nyman

Earlier, Nyman had told the Liverpool Echo that he had sounded out representatives from the family groups before taking on the commission. He added that he felt they had been ‘treated like scum and not given their voice. You might say they’re getting their voices back now. But it’s 25 years too late.’  Speaking of the Memorial Symphony, he said, ‘It’s a piece without any surface politics. There’s no text which deals with evidence. It’s basically a very human and warm and strongly emotional piece. For the first time in my life I will own up to writing a piece whose sole purpose is to have an emotional, cathartic, beneficial influence on a situation that is still unresolved and extremely painful.’

Nevertheless, in the programme Michael Nyman writes that ‘unspoken, unsung, beneath the surface of this Symphony is the history of family pain and my personal anger with the corruption of the Thatcher government and her duplicitous police force.’ Amen to that.

There’s a rather curious story involved in how Nyman came to compose the Memorial. At the time of the Heysel disaster in 1985, he was part way through composing a new work to be performed in a disused power station in Rouen. One evening he sat down in front of the TV to watch the Liverpool -Juventus match – and on seeing the events that unfolded he immediately decided that the piece he  was writing should be a memorial piece. The finished work was performed – just once – in Rouen. He attempted to have it performed in Liverpool, without success. The last movement was later used by Peter Greenaway on the soundtrack for his film The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover.

Then, on the afternoon of 15 April 1989. Nyman was in the recording studio, coincidently revisiting his ‘Heysel Memorial’, when news of the disaster at Hillsborough began to unfold. In the weeks after Hillsborough, he decided to build a new memorial work around the piece he had originally dedicated to the Heysel Stadium disaster.

A recording of the Symphony will be played in Liverpool Cathedral at 15:06 on Wednesday 6 August, 3 September, and 17 September, and a CD will be released in September.

Meanwhile, up the road in Warrington, the inquests into the deaths of the 96 at Hillsborough continue. They began at the end of March and are expected to conclude in July 2015.

Hillsborough Memorial Anfield

 The Hillsborough Memorial outside Anfield

10/10’s Swedish Smorgasbord: tight trousers, trombones and car wrecks

10/10’s Swedish Smorgasbord: tight trousers, trombones and car wrecks

Christian Lindberg conducting Stockholm Early Music Festival 2012

Christian Lindberg conducting in Stockholm wearing that aubergine shirt

It’s not every night you get to see a a man in impossibly tight trousers and an aubergine silk shirt conducting whilst playing a trombone, adding emphasis to his musical directions with sinuous ballet moves across the stage. But that was what we got at the Epstein Theatre on Tuesday during a hugely exciting evening of contemporary music haunted by the shades of Zappa, Brecht and Weill.

The occasion was a concert by Ensemble 10/10, the brilliant and award-winning contemporary music group of the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. Packaged under the title Swedish Smorgasbord was an entertaining and stimulating collection of pieces mostly, though not exclusively, having Swedish connections.  The Swedish flavour was personified in the lively form of Christian Lindberg, renowned conductor and trombonist and Artist in Residence with the Phil this season, who directed the Ensemble with an infectious energy and enthusiasm.

The concert opened with Stravinsky’s Octet for Wind Instruments composed in 1922-1923 for an unusual combination of wind instruments: flute, clarinet, two bassoons, trumpet in C, trumpet in A, tenor trombone and bass trombone.

The Octuor began with a dream in which I saw myself in a small room surrounded by a small group of instrumentalists playing some very attractive music. I did not recognize the music, though I strained to hear it, and I could not recall any feature of it the next day, but I do remember my curiosity – in the dream – to know how many the musicians were. I remember too that after I had counted them to the number eight, I looked again and saw that they were playing bassoons, trombones, trumpets, a flute and a clarinet. I awoke from this little concert in a state of great delight and anticipation and the next morning began to compose.

That was how Stravinsky wrote about the Octet’s conception, in words that echo Paul McCartney’s account of how the melody for ‘Yesterday’ came to him:

I was living in a little flat at the top of a house and i had a piano by my bed. I woke up one morning with a tune in my head and I thought, ‘Hey, I don’t know this tune – or do I?’ It was like a jazz melody. My dad used to know a lot of old jazz tunes; I thought maybe I’d just remembered it from the past. I went to the piano and found the chords to it, made sure I remembered it and then hawked it round to all my friends, asking what it was: ‘Do you know this? It’s a good little tune, but I couldn’t have written it because I dreamt it.’

At this stage of his career Stravinsky was abandoning his neo-primitivist Russian phase style which had produced works such as The Rite of Spring and The Firebird for works in a neo-classical style that combined formal, structured composition with modern sounding harmonies, rhythms and counterpoint.

The result was a woodwind divertissement piece that consists of a theme and five variations that are exciting for the listener, whilst reputedly offering an exercising challenge for the performers.  Aaron Copland attended the premiere in Paris and later wrote:

I can attest to the general feeling of mystification that followed the initial hearing. Here was Stravinsky now suddenly, without any seeming explanation, making an about-face and presenting a piece to the public that bore no conceivable resemblance to the individual style with which he had hitherto been identified. No-one could possibly have foreseen that the Octet was destined to influence composers all over the world.

Copland later recognised that the piece was destined to influence composers everywhere by openly reverting to the forms and textures of the pre-Romantic era.  The Times reviewer declared that ‘without claiming for it, after the manner of the composer’s more violent admirers, that it is a seventh Brandenburg Concerto’, it displayed ‘a complete mastery of the medium’. Though ‘moments of unaccustomed discords’ prevented him judging it beautiful, the critic concluded that ‘there is so much to admire in the work that it cannot be dismissed as a piece of buffoonery’.

The second piece was a world première by the young composer Patrick John Jones who began his musical career aged seven playing the trumpet, inspired by the Jurassic Park soundtrack. Unfurl was described in the programme notes (as usual at a 10/10 concert, thorough and tremendous value) as ‘a contagious clarinet flourish that spreads through the ensemble’.

The first half culminated in a piece by Swedish composer Jan Sandstrom, and introduced me both to a composer who was new to me, and a painter of whom I had never heard.  Christian Lindberg gave a short introduction before the work – Wahlberg Variations for trombone and ensemble – to explain its background.  Sandstrom is, he said, a close friend, and the work derives from a stressful period in his friend’s life, living in Paris in the early 1980s and being suffocated by the over-intellectual atmosphere of IRCAM the French institute for avant garde electro-acoustical art music, the institute to which he was attached.  Fortunately, Sandstrom fell in with a colony of Swedes living there at the time, one of whom was the artist Ulf Wahlberg, who (in the words of the programme notes) ‘led him to several weeks of euphoric and happy discovery in the Marais and surrounding districts … to undreamed of adventures amid the banality of life’.

Ulf Wahlberg, Landscape, Tijuana, Mexico

Ulf Wahlberg, ‘Landscape, Tijuana, Mexico’

What emerged from this experience some ten years later was Wahlberg Variations, an irreverent tone poem in which each movement is inspired by a certain Wahlberg’s paintings or an experience instigated by him during those bohemian days in Paris. Ulf Wahlberg is most renowned for his paintings of wrecked American cars from the 1960s, and in the first variation, ‘Car Wrecks’, we hear the artist checking the engines, starters, horns and car radios in these beautiful wrecks. ‘La Pallette’ evokes ‘a watering place where the Swedish colony was accustomed to spend many an evening. With its sly humour and debunking of artistic pomposity, this movement brought to mind Frank Zappa because in it we ‘hear our hero experiencing great difficulty in trying to teach a group of musicians from Ensemble Intercontemporain, Pierre Boulez’ world-famous contemporary music ensemble (who were based at IRCAM), to play the jazz tune ‘On A Slow Boat to China”.

This eccentric music lesson does not progress without certain complications, and ‘to create a new pedagogical perspective’ the artist takes his c0mpanions with him to the Paris Zoo. In the next variation, ‘The Gibbon Ape At Vincennes’, an ape dances a proud tango, following an indescribable pattern of movements. ‘The zoo in the woods of Vincennes was a popular haunt of artists in their thirst for experience’.

‘Les Chimeres de Notre Dame’ references the terrifying gargoyles of the cathedral. The music counterpoints their hoarse cries with the prayers of the nuns of St Gervais. There is more than one portrait of the chimeras in Ulf Wahlberg’s work, and in the final piece Sandstrom makes reference to another feature of Wahlberg paintings in which he often adds a pointed nose to the figures he portrays – ‘to make people take notice of them’. Perhaps this is why the piece ended with Lindberg and members of the Ensemble barking like a penguins.

One of composer Sandstrom’s most-performed works is the Motorbike Concerto and, like the machine to which the piece is dedicated, Sandström is constantly exploring whatever aspect of life and music takes his fancy: ‘Every morning when I wake up, I want to be surprised by whatever I might think up today!’

Nothing could have been more surprising during the performance of Sandstrom’s piece, than the sight of Christian Lindberg energetically conducting whilst also playing the trombone.

Ulf Wahlberg - 001

Ulf Wahlberg, ‘Classic Chevy  in the Granberg Dals Foundry’

After the interval we were treated to another world premiere – Eyeliner Suite, an arrangement by Jarle Storlokken of pieces by Lars Hollmer, a Swedish composer, keyboardist and accordianist who died in 2008.  In the late sixties and early seventies Hollmer played with a progressive rock band, and later collaborated with experimental guitarist Fred Frith and several Japanese jazz musicians. Eyeliner ranged between lyrical, folk-based melodies and complex passages with a rock feel.

Christian Lindberg in Poland

Christian Lindberg in Poland

The final piece was conductor Christian Lindberg’s tour de force: the second part of his own on-going trilogy, Kundraan’s Karma for narrating trombonist and ensemble.  This time, Lindberg not only conducted and played trombone, he also narrated the piece which had echoes of Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale in its Faustian story of the disillusioned conductor Kundraan who is constantly tempted by Lucifer.  There seemed to be something deeply-felt in Lindberg’s satire of the international music business. As the piece begins, Kundraan is perilously balanced on a narrow bridge above hell.  He falls into the clutches of Lucifer, who bribes critics and journalists into boosting his reputation.  As a result he gets a prestigious gig in New York, conducting Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.  But the unimpeachable critic Messerschmidt demolishes Kundraan’s lamentable performance.  At the end Kundraan is back on the narrow bridge, but someone – an angel, maybe? – hovers close by. Is he saved? We’ll have to wait for part three.

The whole thing was witty and thoroughly enjoyable: both for the music, and the dynamic multi-tasking of the irrepressible Lindberg, who was called back by an enthusiastic audience for four ovations.

Remarkably, this concert was reviewed in the Guardian, though I think the review fails to communicate the excitement of the music and the atmosphere of an event at which the audience gave every sign of appreciating the energy and musicianship displayed on stage, calling back Lindberg and the 10/10 Ensemble members for repeated ovations.  This is music that I think you must experience live in order to enjoy it to the full.

Here’s a YouTube video of Christian Lindberg performing trumpet concertos by Mozart and others, with the Swedish Radio Orchestra:

And another, very much in the spirit of Tuesday night, in which Christian Lindberg and pianist Roland Pöntinen perform a czárdás, a traditional Hungarian folk dance:

Paul Lamb and Chad Strentz: Hootin’ And Tootin’

Paul Lamb and Chad Strentz: Hootin’ And Tootin’

Paul Lamb

Hootin’ And Tootin’: Paul Lamb

According to his Wikipedia entry, Newcastle-born blues harmonica player Paul Lamb ‘has had a four decade long career … with fans around the world’ so I must apologise for never having heard of him before seeing him perform a blistering set last Saturday night at the Philharmonic’s Rodewald Suite.

The advance publicity spoke of Lamb being known by aficionados and music press around the world as one of the greatest blues harmonica players of our time. He generally performs with his band The King Snakes, but either because space at the Rodewald is limited, or because the Phil’s budget won’t extend to a band, what we got was Paul as one half of an acoustic duo with King Snakes guitarist Chad Strentz.

Chad Strentz and Paul Lamb

Chad Strentz and Paul Lamb

Lamb began playing the harmonica as a boy, inspired by Sonny Terry, with whom he later performed.  He’s been playing clubs since the age of fifteen, sometimes alongside heroes such as Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, and Brownie McGhee.  I’m often wary of the ‘white men playing blues’ thing – although the recreation may be accurate, it rarely seems truly authentic.  But, supported by superb  guitar-picking from Chad Strentz, Lamb’s blowing and wailing harmonica was truly impressive.  Adding to the pleasure of seeing masters of their instrument put on a storming performance was their repertoire: branching out from traditional blues to embrace soul, country and pop numbers in terrific versions of songs such as ‘Take These Chains’, /’Folsom Prison Blues’ and ‘Games People Play’ .

There’s a detailed review of the show on the Blues in the Northwest website, from which I quote:

The show started with their own ‘The Underdog’ – one of only a few originals on the album – before a first dip into the Ray Charles songbook for a passionate ‘Take These Chains’, beautifully sung by Chad, with Mr. Lamb adding some glorious acoustic harmonica. Other first set treats were the Professor Longhair number ‘Ya Ya Blues’, taking us back to N’Awlins; then another cover from a soul giant – the late Solomon Burke’s timeless ‘Cry To Me’.

Paul Lamb’s showcase tribute to Sonny Terry, ‘Hootin’ And Tootin’” saw him amply demonstrate his brilliant harmonica playing; with a most enjoyable first set ending with a Ray Charles/Johnny Cash medley on ‘I Got A Woman’/’Folsom Prison Blues’ . . . given a rockabilly feel by Chad Strentz’s driving acoustic guitar and, of course, wonderful vocals.

After a short break the duo were back, opening up with their adaption of the George Gershwin  tune, ‘Summertime’, retitled ‘Summertyne’ as a nod to Paul’s native North East, with some quite beautiful chromatic harmonica playing. Chad was back in the spotlight on a Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland number, ‘Today I Started Loving You Again’, before a dip way back in time for Stick’s McGhee’s ‘Drinking Wine Spody Ody’. Paul Lamb took a solo turn on some classic Sonny Boy Williamson (II), and delivered more virtuoso harmonica on ‘Fattenin’ Frogs For Snakes’ . . . taking alternate vocal and harmonica lines.

This special night ended with a brace of Big Bill Broonzy songs, ‘Feel So Good’ and ‘Key To The Highway’, broken up in the middle by the gorgeous ‘Careless Love’, an often-covered song that saw Chad featured. A much-demanded encore saw some audience participation on the traditional tune, probably best known for Leadbelly’s version, ‘Midnight Special’ . . . a rousing end to a most enjoyable evening from two great musicians.

Goin' Down This Road_ cover

Their latest CD: Goin’ Down This Road

Afterwards, I bought a copy of the duo’s latest CD, Goin’ Down This Road that features a generous selection of the songs featured in the show. The album is acoustic and contains a mix of pure blues, some soul and jazz flavours with covers of songs by the likes of Big Bill Broonzy, Roosevelt Sykes, Sonny Boy Williamson, Ray Charles and Lloyd Price. The album opens with ‘The Underdog’, the Lamb/Strentz original with which they began the Liverpool show, and also features that great version of ‘Summertime’.  There are lovely accounts of the songs that stood out in the live show: ‘Careless Love’, the Solomon Burke tune ‘Don’t You Feel Like Cryin’ and a fine version of Joe South’s classic, ‘The Games People Play’.

Another outstanding moment in the show had been ‘Hootin’ And Tootin’, Lamb’s tribute to his hero, harmonica legend Sonny Terry, and I was glad to see that that was on the album, too. Chad Strentz provides most of the vocals (he has a very good voice) and plays excellent acoustic guitar throughout. Years of playing together mean the pair have an almost telepathic understanding of each other – something that was apparent on stage and is also obvious on the CD.

Paul Lamb and  Chad Strentz perform ‘The Underdog’

Paul Lamb & Chad Strentz: acoustic session in Kirchdorf, Austria performing ‘Drinking Wine Spo-De-o-Dee’, ‘Cry To Me’, ‘Games People Play’

Paul Lamb plays ‘Summertyne’

Paul Lamb and Chad Strentz: ‘Hootin and Tootin’