Saturday, 30 April 2016

Then all the colours will bleed into one…


It’s strange how life’s roads diverge (and not always “in a yellow wood”); yet, sometimes, then cross, run in parallel, until they meet again at some glistening, memorable moment. I have known (of) Martin Roscoe (above), on and off, for most of my life. In fact, many years ago, I was the choirmaster of the church near-enough-next-door to where he lived – his prodigious practising forming a wonderful, intermittent soundtrack to my Friday nights: trekking to the same pub with the adults of the choir, that he would later also retire to. We once even played the same piano in the same concert (but, sadly – from my perspective – not simultaneously…)! And I have thus admired him from afar; and occasionally bumped into him at his recitals.

I also met Peter Maxwell Davies – always ‘Max’ – many times: initially when he was leading The Fires of London. And, again, I would “bump into him” now and again. When I was a young musician, he was extremely generous with his time: those vivid inquisitive eyes twinkling acutely as he demanded to know more about my life, my experiences, my compositions. He was a great man; a good bloke… – as well as one of our greatest composers… – and there are many who already miss him sorely. Including me.

Many of these paths therefore lead back to the RNCM: where Max and Martin (and Peter Donohoe) were students; where I spent a lot of time when much younger; and where some of my greatest musical mentors happened to teach. Some of these paths therefore lead to last night: when Martin – after a masterclass in playing Mozart, accompanied by the Orchestra of the Swan – returned to the stage and played Max’s Farewell to Stromness.

I used to sob gently, simply trying to perform this. So I held my hands in prayer; bowed my head; and let the tears flow. For those few minutes, Max was with me; and yet I was alone with Martin’s beautiful, heartfelt, heart-probing rendition. We three had met at one of those glistening, memorable moments. And the globe paused on its axis.

The subsequent applause was, therefore, quite a shock. It turns out that I was surrounded by many, many others – also rapt, I think.


We were all there – in Northampton High School (with its fantastic setting and facilities) – for a superbly-programmed (and yet free!) concert involving a wonderful conjunction of forces: not only OOTS; but the school’s Senior Orchestra; Senior Choir; Junior School Choir; and Ladies’ Chamber Choir.

This concert is… an amazing opportunity for our girls to work and perform with one of the top chamber orchestras in the country. Nearly one hundred performers from year 6 up to Sixth Form and including our Ladies’ Chamber Choir will be rehearsing with the Orchestra of the Swan in the afternoon, and then will join them in the concert to perform three choral pieces at the beginning of the programme.

Perhaps you would expect, though, at a free event like this one for the music to be of a lesser quality; for the playing to be a little more (shall we say) relaxed? But with the Orchestra of the Swan the centre around which everything revolved – and in a school where music seems to flow keenly and readily; and the girls wear a constant variety of smiles – of course, everything was as wonderfully accomplished and emotionally affecting as always.

The varied programme began with U2, Coldplay, and John Rutter – the extended forces led with great precision and verve by Joanne Drew, Director of Music. (I do so like a choir that sits and stands on the button!) After being stunned by the “quick fire of youth” that is Edward’s Boys, earlier in the year, last night the proceedings opened with voices wearing “the rose Of youth… from which the world should note Something particular” – that is, who were ‘lit’, ‘way live’, if not quite ‘savage’. (I may be “old and reverend”, but nottoo old to learn”, I hope, how to be ‘down with the kids’. Um.) Seriously, they were well wicked.

I do apologize – somewhat (but especially to my older demographic) – for the above, er, slang: but, in a past life, I conducted a prize-winning girls’ choir, and yet I was truly amazed by the evening’s wonderful singing – the purity of tone; the enthusiasm; the cohesiveness; the dynamic control. And there were some sensationally good solos, too!

U2’s I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For – “among the greatest tracks in music history” (and one I am proud to have heard live, nearly thirty years ago…) – especially with its “gospel qualities”, is perfect for such powerful choral work. And yet I could not imagine how on earth the orchestra could replicate The Edge’s matchless guitar playing. Credit must therefore go to arranger Mark Benham for producing something as exhilarating as the original. And, of course, to the choir for giving it their all. Wow. (That the members of OOTS – following on from the lovely hushed opening of the school orchestra – all treated this as an equal to the works that followed, says much about their enthusiasm for education and their delight in joining forces.)

Coldplay’s encomium for lost life, Fix You, has similar yearning characteristics, of course: but here – with amazing maturity – was rendered almost as a religious anthem. Again arranged by Benham, this simply grew in ecstasy; and merged “the boundaries of popular and classical music” perfectly.

We were then treated to John Rutter’s The Lord bless you and keep you – I suppose, in a way, a short transitional work; a benediction that led even more obviously to the music that followed. And here, the choir truly excelled themselves: especially those high notes at the work’s “Amen” climax.

This was as thrilling and rousing an opening to a ‘classical’ concert as I have experienced in a while; and one you might think hard to follow….


I suppose I had been drawn to the event by the variety of the works on offer – a little bit of intrigue, especially with regards to the U2 and Coldplay that opened the evening. But this curiosity was accompanied by a profound and long-lasting love for both Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins (BWV 1043) and Mozart’s Symphony No.29 (K201) – which were to follow after the interval.

First, though, fellow Lancastrian and “celebrated British pianist Martin Roscoe [with] his prodigious technique and authority… customary grace and lucid phrasing” was to play Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.21 (you know, the slow-movement one from Elvira Madigan – which is, as Roscoe rightfully stated, actually quite a boring film…).

I think maybe that’s my favorite melody in the world, but then I always feel that every time I hear a Mozart melody no matter what it is.

Let me get one thing out of the way, here: the orchestra and conducting were great, as you would expect – it’s just that I spent the whole work concentrating on Roscoe’s understated, lustrous illumination of music I believed I knew well. There is something intensely mesmerizing about his insightful mastery; and he made the Yamaha CFX concert grand sing in all registers: revealing new relationships between notes, phrases, chords, scales, echoes of themes. This was never a competition with the orchestra for supremacy, either – the balance was perfect; and, as with all such great musicians, communication between all involved was conspicuous and generous.

I suspect this is as perfect a performance as I will ever experience. There was a purity of thought, of technique, of engagement with the music that transcends any of my clumsy attempts to describe it (that’s for sure…).

That it was followed by the Maxwell Davies encore… – well, what can I say…?

Tears stream down your face
When you lose something you cannot replace
Tears stream down your face and I
Tears stream down your face
I promise you I will learn from my mistakes
Tears stream down your face and I

Lights will guide you home
And ignite your bones
And I will try to fix you
– Coldplay: Fix You


After the interval (a deep gulp of fresh air, and reminiscences with the affable Roscoe), we were down to core OOTS for the Bach. After criticizing Curtis, previously, for not taking the helm for this, tonight it just worked so very, very well. This is probably down to the fact that both soloists are foundational members of the orchestra – and their rapport (as well as their delight) was astounding.

Adding a trio of the school’s talented musicians (two cellists and a viola player) to the ensemble helped give the accompaniment a more continuo-like feel; and enabled Le Page and Leech to soar over it – their close relationship painted plangently with equality and tonality to die for. I so love this work; and last night it fulfilled my heart’s deepest desires. This is as it should be. Impeccable musicianship and emotion.


And so it was, too, with my favourite Mozart symphony. I could simply have repeated my earlier review – but with only sixteen musicians on the stage (rejoined by Curtis), somehow yet more magic was conjured. You could follow the line of every single instrument with ease; and yet the melodies floated cohesively into the air, with stunning contrasts of light and shade. (The image that came to mind was what my mum calls “an Edward Seago sky”.)

Special mention must be made, though, of the subtleties and dynamic variations of the self-propelling second movement. Also: the peerless horn playing of Francesca Moore-Bridger and Laeticia Stott. You could tell from Curtis’ generous applause and gentle smirk that even he knew this was so very special… – as was the whole evening….


I may have to stop reviewing OOTS concerts soon: as I have run out of ways to explain and describe their majesty; their translucence; their ability to conquer all the peaks they face; to produce flawless radiance at the drop of a baton. That the forces of Northampton High School meshed so perfectly with them just piled on the amazement. My thanks therefore to every single person involved. I could not have been happier….

Thursday, 28 April 2016

No end is limited to damned souls…


Although I have previously done so twice… for some reason, yesterday, exiting the nestling Swan Theatre in daylight – after yet another bedevilling performance of Doctor Faustus – felt so very wrong: even with “the entrails of yon labouring clouds” parting, between “thunder, whirlwinds, storm, and lightning” (or so it seemed), to reveal that luciferous “empyreal orb”.

I am not completely sure why. All I know is that, even on a sixth viewing, this drama continues to grow on me; to grow in potency. That the dying moments of “Accursed Faustus” are so distressingly beautiful may explain much – if not all. Every aspect of the production, though, is thoroughly remarkable – especially in the way it insinuates its way into your deepest thoughts; and particularly in its continuous transformation with each repeated viewing: from disturbing to delightful; from callous to comforting; yet always with “more to admire and intrigue”. However, perhaps the play’s affect also stems from an unwillingness on my part to even anticipate uttering those distressing words: “Now, Faustus, farewell…” – knowing that I will never see the like again (after another two showings, that is) when, sadly, “belike the feast is ended” (as “good Wagner” says).

[I understand why productions in the Swan cannot currently be filmed; but I would readily “assure [my] soul to be great Lucifer’s” for a recording of this (but only if it contained both Oliver Ryan – who I saw today – and Sandy Grierson in the title part). “O, how this sight doth delight my soul!”]

Oliver Ryan (Doctor Faustus) and Sandy Grierson (Mephistophilis) – photo by Helen Maybanks/RSC

I am of the opinion that some of the production’s forcefulness, its vigour, stems from that cunning, providential interchange of the two principal rôles. Seeing Ryan as Faustus somehow reveals additional passion not only in his performance (although no-one could ever say “Look you” as intensely, as beautifully, as menacingly as he does…); but also that of Grierson.

And likewise with “Sweet Mephistophilis”. Grierson’s laconic (his rendering of “Ay, Faustus…” always amazes and salves) is the perfect foil to Ryan’s frenetic. Both are intelligent, ardently-considered inquisitions of the text – albeit with occasionally divergent, contradictory responses. Reflections and refractions magnify such contrasts: enhancing the clarity; intensifying the colour; throwing meaning into mordant relief.


One major divergence, this time around (adding yet another layer), resulted from me sitting in my favourite seat (in my favourite theatre, of course…) – A33 in Gallery One (opposite the captions). Peering downward, for the first time in this run – although not quite a God-like experience (yet not that far off) – heightened (sorry) the significance of the painted pentagram; and reinforced the effects not only of “the force of magic”, but of the resultant destruction, and its persistence, as the house lights rise.

[Should you not have seen this “Tragical History” yet – and should you manage to obtain tickets – I would make three recommendations. Firstly, try to see it more than once: if possible, on the same day (see next point). Secondly, pray to whichever god, fallen angel, malevolent spirit, talisman or idol you have faith in… that you experience both actors in the title rôle (which you will, should you attend a single day’s matinée and ensuing evening performance). And, finally, aim to sit in one of the galleries; or on the front row of the stalls. Only thus, I believe, can you be fully immersed in Maria Aberg’s wonderfully-skewed, insightful, tumultuous, spiralling, collapsing, engrossing worldview.]


One final factor – and which, in advance of this year’s Deaf Awareness Week (entitled ‘Common Purpose’), made a tremendous difference – was the captioning.

My congratulations, therefore – and a thousand thanks – to Janet Jackson, for managing to communicate such a complex play (textually, musically, and sonorously) with such great intelligence and skill. Despite my previous doubts – and despite my previous boastful claim to “already know huge chunks of the text by heart” – her understanding of (and fascination with) the source shone through: illuminating aspects I had not espied before. I am therefore very much looking forward to her return – and my final visit – “O my God, I would weep! but the devil draws in my tears” – on 28 July 2016; just before the run ends on 4 August 2016. (The play then transfers – as I am sure you will be delighted to know – to the Barbican: from 7 September to 1 October 2016.)

But let my soul mount and ascend to heaven!
O, half the hour is past! ’twill all be past anon.
O, if my soul must suffer for my sin,
Impose some end to my incessant pain;
Let Faustus live in hell a thousand years,
A hundred thousand, and at last be sav’d!

From my perspective, she (and those who helped her prepare: including deputy stage manager, Lorna Earl; and music director, Jonathan Williams) therefore deserves as much applause, and as many cheers, as the rest of the performers and creatives. [She was also responsible for The Two Gentlemen of Verona – my first real experience of captions at the RSC – and, more recently, Don Quixote, amongst others… – and I therefore owe her a huge heap of gratitude for all her hard work (“hard” in both effort and difficulty – although I can only begin to imagine the huge amounts of concentration required).] Bravo!


Monday, 25 April 2016

Remembers me of all his gracious parts…


I started writing this, relaxing in the warming Monday afternoon sun – between April’s typical “cruellest month” steely downpours… – listening to yesterday morning’s Radio 4 Sunday Worship – a service I attended, in Stratford-upon-Avon’s beautiful Holy Trinity Church: gently led by the humane, sincere and companionable Vicar, the Reverend Patrick Taylor.

The reason I was there (initially) was yet another appearance – in a week where they appeared to have set up home on the West Bank of the Avon (both at the church and at the RSC – the nearest thing Stratford has to a ‘cultural quarter’, I suppose) – by the indefatigable David Curtis and his Orchestra of the Swan (a very early start, after a late, celebratory night). However, come for the music, stay for the ceremony!


As I said to Revd Taylor, after the service, I simply cannot remember “the last time I sat on this side of the action”: first, having sung in cathedral and church choirs from the age of five; then having been a parish church choirmaster. When I have wriggled in worrying wooden pews since, it has always been for mainly secular music, or the inspiring architecture (and the atmosphere which that engenders); and yet – atheist that I am (although one with demonstrable admiration and respect for many aspects of faith, I hope…) – I found myself rapidly and happily immersed in the long-familiar liturgy; the consolatory customs of soothing ceremony. (It really did feel like – albeit oddly, at first – ‘coming home’.)

Admittedly, this was aided by the dominance of some truly beautiful English music (including Walton, Morley, Stopford, Finzi – Fear no more the heat of the sun, attractively communicated by David Pike – and Holst, as well as the church’s own wonderful Benedict Wilson); but I am happy to admit that I also effortlessly found ease within those sympathetic words of observance.

If thou hast any sound or use of voice,
Speak to me.
If there be any good thing to be done
That may to thee do ease, and grace to me,
Speak to me.
– Shakespeare: Hamlet (I.i.129-133)


The service – commemorating, of course, “the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare” – was entitled ‘From Grief to Glory’, and subtly followed the rites of the Church of England funeral service: from “the priest meeting the body at the church door” to “Paul’s absolute confidence in the resurrection”.

The service therefore opened with David Suchet powerfully proclaiming Constance’s lament for Arthur, her son – a possible reflection of Shakespeare’s own desolation at the loss of his own Hamnet, in August 1596, aged just eleven… – mourning, movingly, over Walton’s heartrending Death of Falstaff passacaglia, from Henry V

Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form;
Then, have I reason to be fond of grief?
Fare you well! Had you such a loss as I,
I could give better comfort than you do.
I will not keep this form upon my head
When there is such disorder in my wit.
– Shakespeare: King John (III.iv.93-102)

The first five lines would later be repeated in a radiant choral work by choirmaster Wilson; and we were also treated to a striking new anthem by Philip Stopford, with words by The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s Paul Edmondson (who also delivered the affecting sermon).

If I was surprised by my own reaction to such religion, one could only be astonished at the stamina of conductor and orchestra. (Although it has to be said, Curtis’ directing of the outgoing voluntary, from Holst’s St Paul’s Suite, was extremely laid-back… – and rightfully so!)


As I finished drafting this, I started listening (again) to Dobrinka Tabakova’s Immortal Shakespeare – which was broadcast on Radio 3, also on Sunday. Yet again, its power stopped me in my tracks. I therefore simply closed my eyes, and let the music flow through me – especially the compelling Never doubt I love (and its gobsmacking choral entrances). This, for me, seemed the most fitting way to celebrate Shakespeare’s life. (“Mine eyes smell onions, I shall weep anon.”)

Music! Awake her! Strike!
’Tis time; descend; be stone no more; approach;
Strike all that look upon with marvel. Come;
I’ll fill your grave up. Stir; nay, come away;
Bequeath to death your numbness; for from him
Dear life redeems you.
– Shakespeare: The Winter’s Tale (V.iii.98-103)

What a week that was! Happy Birthday, Bill!


Saturday, 23 April 2016

Music to hear… (23 April 2016)


A sonnet for Dobrinka Tabakova, David Curtis, and Nick Hodges;
and Immortal Shakespeare (on the occasion of his 452nd birthday)

My heart is readily undone: two strings
     unbow my reason; tears come easily.
     The keys of words and music equally
unlatch such salt; its masochistic stings
threading my cracked cheeks; such confluent springs
     whetting my lips, weighing so heavily
     upon my tongue; yet fetching hope, fully-
formed – bursting as my freshened spirit sings.

That I am unashamed in my parade;
     that I am not so singly passionate;
          that I am glad to let my weeping flow –
impelled by truth; no paltry masquerade,
     but honest force that does not personate
          affect – is such compels my soul to grow.

Friday, 22 April 2016

Then to burst forth – we float…


It felt like careering along on a rollercoaster of emotion. Or surfing upon pounding, ever-increasing waves of the ineffable. At one point – at the climax of Never doubt I love (words that already have special resonance for me… – a meaning which now has multiplied…) – I knew how Gerontius felt, standing before his God. It was not just soul-rending. It was as if someone had reached deep within my heart and mind; unearthed my personal definition of the sublime, the divine, the celestial… and – for one extended moment – magnified it and presented it back to me a million-fold. Truth and beauty are my religions: and tonight, I prostrated myself before their joint altar; and communicated with rapturous angels of the empyrean.

The above movement is the stunning pivot around which Dobrinka Tabakova’s magnificent, essence-shattering Immortal Shakespeare revolves: circumscribing the perfect arc of man’s “exits and entrances” in music of such devastating purity and other-worldly harmony, that to say it was not out of place amongst – nay, was an equal of – three of the greatest works of transcendental radiance by Vaughan Williams, speaks volumes. (However, that is in no way going to prevent me from adding a few more said volumes myself….) This new work – performed here, in Holy Trinity Church – Shakespeare’s resting place – faultlessly (and with great gusto, and even more subtlety) by the Orchestra of the Swan and their Chamber Choir, under artistic director David Curtis, for the very first time – was itself the centrepiece, therefore, of a concert of quite the most “tumultuous and unquenchable power”.


The evening began with RVW’s paean to that most ephemeral of birds, The Lark Ascending. I have heard this orchestra, with the unsurpassable Tamsin Waley-Cohen on violin, play this many times (and if you haven’t yet got their CD of it, go and buy it now…) – and yet everyone involved managed to eke out yet more exquisiteness.

I felt the skylark rise, disturbed, from beneath my feet; the flutter of its rapid wings beating pulses of air into my inner being. I could see it, high above me, rapidly beating above the chalk downs; its loud, distinctive melodic call and warbling trills echoing, echoing…. Then parachuting; before climbing again. And again….

Waley-Cohen performs, interrogates this with such striking intensity – her tone, sublimely matched to the music, ranging from hushed earthiness to a beatific, soaring, incommunicable luminosity – that such images, such feelings, appear readily. This is her work: it flows so beautifully from her bow. And, needless to say, the orchestra are her match. All you need to know about them all is contained within this single piece of wonderment: their celestial dynamics; their shrewd tempi; their translucence….


And then Tabakova’s “Cantata for choir and orchestra” – five words that do not even begin to define this masterpiece. “Dobrinka says of this that it contains some of her finest music to date”, writes Curtis, in his introduction to the programme – and I would not, could not disagree. (And if you haven’t got the CD of some of her previous “finest”, String Paths, go and buy it now. Be warned, though, it will shred your heart and soul with its addictive, profound beauty….)

To me, her music sounds – and feels – both extremely modern, and yet extremely romantic (the nearest comparison, for me, I suppose, is Howard Skempton). And – thinking, for example, of the titles of the movements of her Concerto for Cello and Strings (‘Turbulent, Tense’; ‘Longing’; ‘Radiant’) – and her setting, here, of Never doubt I love (“Hamlet’s letter to Ophelia”) – it is also extremely emotional (which is, of course, A Good Thing).

That it is, in some ways, also ‘simple’ (although with many turbulent, technical undercurrents and textures flowing beneath the surface beauty), implies that I also find her music easy to listen to (again, A Good Thing…). However, it provokes intense feelings that I struggle to describe – in her own words, “music that grabs you and has something to say”.

But it is listening…. This is music that you can’t simply hear…. It pulls you in; questions you; forces you to pay attention – and there aren’t many composers who have that ability. (Few contemporary composers – to me… – seem keen to expose their own hearts – in the way, say, Schubert, Elgar, or, indeed, Vaughan Williams did. The ones that come instantly to mind include the late Peter Maxwell Davies; James MacMillan; and Arvo Pärt.)

But I am evading the issue. How am I supposed to “struggle to describe” what I heard, felt, tonight…?


I have lived with this work for a few months: but only in the form of its orchestral score. That its brilliance shines from the page is testament to Tabakova’s obvious talent and inspiration. Perform it – as it must be performed – and it evokes elation; bliss; ecstasy; and deep, deep turmoil.

If you weren’t there (and if you were…), then you can hear the work broadcast on Sunday at 16:00 on BBC Radio 3 (preceded by Choral Evensong, with this selfsame orchestra and choir, also from Holy Trinity). However, here are my (vivid) reactions – reading back through that now-autographed (and therefore treasured) full score.

The Prelude begins “With excitement”, growing into “wonder and anticipation” (the composer’s own markings) – which I found ethereal; and which the orchestra played with typical great feeling. The soundscape is stunningly original – Tabakova has a way of combining disparate instruments to render something fresh, something (sometimes) disturbing: and her instructions throughout are of great clarity – which is reflected in the resultant music. We are introduced to themes that will reappear – forming that “perfect arc” – one of which is a simple motif ‘spelling out’ the Swan of Avon’s own name. (This is almost a choral symphony: such is its grand scale and structure.) Our attention is grabbed; and the ground is laid.

And then the choir enters (directed, and trained – amazingly – by Suzanne Vango… – oh, my goodness, what power…). “All the world’s a stage”. Words at once so famous, but here so fresh, original. Now we know what we are in for: orchestral and choral delights. That opening phrase grows from mezzopiano to forte – and we will never hear them the same way again. Their magic is unleashed in this short movement. (And I wouldn’t be surprised, if Bill, looking down from his memorial, was grinning from ear to ear!)

This is followed by the somewhat deceptive Brave new world. With The Tempest also lending Prospero’s “set me free” to the seventh section, Dobrinka describes these textual excerpts as “little gems: which bookend the piece; give it symmetry” (more of that “arc”). Commencing with a “Playful, light”, almost jazz-like, syncopated motif for flute, clarinet and vibraphone; the strings and harp enter like little spirits, creeping almost imperceptibly, but adding quiet notes of menace. And then, one of the most gorgeous, rising themes I have ever heard appears (and, remember, we have just listened to The Lark Ascending…). “Arise” – and it does; and how. But, what’s that we hear? The ascent is completed by none other than Waley-Cohen, rising from the string section, with a descant of such purity that my heart may have stopped.

This is so very inspirational – paying tribute, almost; but taking us in glorious new directions. Again, this figure will re-emerge – and it does not lose its vigour in doing so. I stared at that beautiful wooden roof. How could I not? And the first of this work’s many tears streamed down my face. (Sorry, Dobrinka….)

It is a movement of “blessings” in so many ways. There is an air of mystery provided by the violin’s marvellous counterpoint; and yet the choir’s proclamations advance imperiously, wondrously. The trumpet calls, doubling Waley-Cohen momentarily; and yet we keep on ascending with the wonder of it all. “How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is!” The music illustrates Shakespeare’s words with heaven-filling accuracy, potency and grace. And then the opening syncopated motif reappears: gentler, this time; and we go to meet the angels; all earthly matters left behind.

For one moment, there is a hint of a Vaughan Williams-like, gentle, melodic folk-tune “in the shoulder of your sails”. Such beautiful singing; such perfect pauses from Curtis. “And you are stayed for.” The orchestra here provides intermittent, gentle accompaniment (a magical scrape of the cymbal from the uncredited Jan Bradley – my player of the night: mastering the vibraphone, five temple blocks, a tambourine, the timpani, and those cymbals… – indicating “hoops of steel”). This is as magical as choral writing can be…. (In fact, it seems obvious – for example, reading the rhythms of the word-setting; as well as the ‘controlled’ – and, I think, relevant – use of melisma… – that Tabakova really, really enjoys choral writing! We certainly enjoyed the results….)


And then, just when you think you could not possibly be moved any more, tiny earth-tremors appear, in the form of what appears to be a simple, incessant ground bass, split, in fifths, between the violas and cellos. But you have to be wary, assuming anything here is “simple”. This is the movement that probed my very essence…

Doubt that the stars are fire,
Doubt that the sun doth move his aides,
Doubt truth to be a liar,
But never doubt I love

…these powerful words initially, incisively, crisply whispered by the chorus (sending shivers down my spine); again, accompanied by that transcendent solo violin. Gentle murmurings from the bassoon and horn lead to the quietest zenith of spread harp chords and wind for that last line. How could we possibly doubt anything, on this evidence…? (I have written “Phew!” in the score at this point. That just about hits the spot, I think.)

A sustained high note – “Moving forward…” – from Waley-Cohen – and the pressure starts to build. Oh, so, so gradually, though. Those magical spread chords again. (Where did I put my soggy handkerchief?) And there is choral writing – but for the violins and harp. Such magic. The solo violin re-enters: as gentle as rain on a summer’s day. But this feels like a funeral procession, such is the state of my soul. The violin sighs with passion – “Hold back” writes the composer; and Waley-Cohen judges her rubato to shattering perfection. The build continues. Every member of the orchestra is playing, but we are merely at mezzoforte. There is so much more to come.

And then the violin, flute and trumpet deliver a descending theme, which, repeated, gathers with it spread chords of vehement perfection. “Hold back…”. This is it. And then the choir enters, singing those piercing words with instructional fortitude. No, this is it. But it continues to build. “Hold back…”. We have string writing that even Vaughan Williams may have been a little envious of. We fade to pianissimo. “But never doubt I love…”. How could I…?


Curtis paused. We all needed time to recover. And then gentle thrumming strings – “Tense, with suspense” – begin the next movement….

The King John “be fire with fire” speech, which forms the basis of this thrilling fourth section, features some of Shakespeare’s most powerful words (and on a level with anything Henry V declaims). And, again, the music matches it. A side drum alerts us to distant battle; an approaching army launches fanfares; and the choir instructs us not to “see fear”. But this is fearsome stuff.

Those fanfares grow in confidence; but the choir’s is greater. This is a battle of wills (with some superb percussion writing and playing). And suddenly the strings interject with growling, terminated crescendos. The battle is won; and fades away.

The fifth and sixth sections – Truth will come to light and All the world’s a stage – are conjoined; and reintroduce those earlier themes. As Edmund says in King Lear – “The wheel is come full circle, I am here.” But this is no simple repeat. Yes, the solo violin returns; but the music is developed, opened up (the nine-part choral writing at “many parts” is both illustrative and stupendous). Echoed motifs lure us on to the end. But it comes not yet…

…to that glorious “Arise” theme from Brave new world, we move seamlessly into the seventh section – Set me free, also, of course, from The Tempest. This feels inevitable and just. It (just) had to happen.

When it came to the seventh section, Tabakova admits that “I find old age difficult…. So much of what Shakespeare wrote about old age is depressing”. And one only has to take a sideways glimpse at, say, the above-mentioned King Lear, to concur. But, in his “farewell to the theatre”, The Tempest, she finally found what she was looking for. “It felt like a huge relief. The words are a little lighter than Julius Caesar – which was a potential contender. Prospero’s words – especially ‘set me free’ – felt more natural. They hint at immortality.”

So we dissolve into “Ethereal, resolved” woodwind and harp quavers, unsettling motions beneath the choir’s sustained music. But not for very long. The rising theme asserts its stunning supremacy. (But not for very long.) The woodwind and harp return, floating, bobbing almost… until those magical words: “set me free” – and then Shakespeare’s own theme cascades from trumpet to clarinet to flute, to oboe… finally to the strings, who ponder it, quietly, before taking us, even more gently, heavenwards.


The Postlude is an extended miracle of unaccompanied choral writing – a “chorale” – with just gentle support from the organ. In a way, it brings everything back to reality – “a poignant ending that I hope everyone in the church will experience and feel”, says Tabakova. And I believe we did.

The music, in these dying moments – a full-orchestral ppppp – is even more astonishing than that which precedes it. It truly is rivetingly beautiful. It gives Shakespeare’s memorial the life, the humanity, it describes. And we are left with the chorus hanging in space and time….

It therefore took me several extended, sobbing, moments to remember how to applaud. Let’s just say that Holy Trinity’s roof also hovered, raised by joy and amazement, for many, many minutes. We knew that we had witnessed, well…

Spirits to enforce, art to enchant…
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.

This is a work that will have a long, long life – far surpassing ours. The rest is silence.


Except, of course, it wasn’t.

Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis demonstrates both his unquenchable ability to write string music of magical qualities; and the Orchestra of the Swan’s ability to render them fresh, involving, edifying, even. Curtis explored the depths and the heights; the silences and the waves of sound. Simply put: yet more perfection. (He tells me that I am “generous” in my reviews. However, others tell me that I am simply stating it as it is. And I am.)

We ended the evening with the emotional pounding that is the same composer’s Toward the Unknown Region. And I simply cannot understand why this is not more frequently performed. Its setting of the splendiferous Walt Whitman’s Darest Thou Now, O Soul is appositely glorious and meaningful.

Here, Curtis’ mastery was in full flow. It would be easy to go full-out, hard-hitting the earlier summits of emotion; but the choir and orchestra held just enough back so that the final climax walloped you full-on with all its manifest glory.

Then we burst forth – we float,
In Time and Space, O Soul – prepared for them;
Equal, equips at last – (O joy! O fruit of all!) them to fulfil, O Soul.

I am still floating. And will be for several days. (I also still have tears streaming down my sodden face. But I am happy. This was a remarkable evening. And I would not, could not have missed it for the world.)


Yet again, the full moon guided me home. I am so glad it knew the way. I felt lost, tiny in a gigantic world of beautiful sound. It cradled me. It cradles me still. (Thank you, Dobrinka. Thank you, David. Good night, all.)

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

That this huge stage presenteth nought but shows…


Yesterday, sat in the wonderful, Escher-like foyer of the Royal & Derngate, I wrote that I was…

Returning… to see the all-important captioned performance of King Lear (“lured”, this time, by every single member of the company…) – knowing, as always, that there would be elements which had evolved since the preview we saw; as well as moments of magic that I had not entirely absorbed….

Michael Pennington (King Lear) – photo Marc Brenner/Royal & Derngate

As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods,
They kill us for their sport.

This allusion to Escher’s Relativity seems even more pertinent when you consider both the “experimental” language and structure – the texture – of Shakespeare’s lines. Not only, characteristically, do we seem to be stepping between different worlds (ones driven, held together – however flimsily – by madness and sanity; religion and atheism; faith and deception; love and hate; fortune and misfortune; anger – of people of gods, of weather… – and peace (all dark and light, if you will)); but, in this production, in particular, the number of characters addressing us, the audience, directly (even if only for a moment, as in Goneril’s “No”, in Act 5, Scene 1), immerses us in different, contradictory, orthogonally-opposed, world-views (more formally, that wonderful word ‘Weltanschauungen’).

There is one scene (Act 3, Scene 6) – “A chamber in a farmhouse adjoining the castle” – which will stay with me for a very, very long time (as will the whole night): where Kent, Gloucester, Edgar and the Fool… – all seem to be talking at cross-purposes. Everyone is, essentially, mad; pretending to be mad; professing madness; scared of going mad; or attempting to see through Lear’s own madness (if it is such…). This was given full, chaotic, rein – and reminded me how ‘experimental’, when compared to the majority of his plays, Shakespeare really can be. Not only do we get characters driving on the story with expositional soliloquys; but there was an almost Beckett-like intensity, here. Is this the template for Endgame – 350 years ahead of its time…?

Scott Karim (Edmund) – photo Marc Brenner/Royal & Derngate

Seeing it again brought home to me that attempting to multitask (i.e. watching words and action separately/alternately) in this way actually removes you from the action quite a bit: not acting as a barrier, per se; but leading to a lesser immersion (and increased distraction…).
     I wonder whether the captions for King Lear will hamper or assist…?

Although (as above) I have repeatedly questioned the value of captions for those, like me, without much ability to hear, this time they proved their worth, their usefulness: opening up those different spheres – both exploding them, enabling greater forensic examination; and shedding a crystalline light.

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears. I come to praise Captions, not to bury them.

This may have been down to the Visual Sound Live system used (new to me), and its placement (effectively, two large HD television screens, either side of the stage, level with the actors’ eyes). However, I am also starting to wonder if there is a ‘quality threshold’ in performance: that is, when a production is utterly wonderful – as this one undoubtedly is – the captions become almost subliminal, and add mightily to the experience. If it is not already so involving, then they simply act as that “increased distraction”.

Michael Pennington (King Lear); Caleb Frederick (Knight) – photo Marc Brenner/Royal & Derngate

As well as I know the play, I do think you need this clarity of language to fully appreciate its rich “texture” – and this was helped, here, by the company’s consistently distinct delivery (and in many natural accents – which, for me, added even more exquisiteness and strength: this was a court composed of subjects from the four corners of Lear’s Britain). There were thus quite a few occasions when I realized I had not looked at the captions for quite some time!

Tom McGovern (Kent) and company – photo Marc Brenner/Royal & Derngate

I therefore did espy many “elements which had evolved since the preview we saw; as well as moments of magic” – the most touching of which revolved around Lear’s love of those who love him. His repeated tight, tender grasp of the Fool – surely one of Shakespeare’s most beautifully-etched relationships – for comfort (of both of them); his gentle kissing of the top of the blinded Gloucester’s bald pate; and, of course, his (and Kent’s) reunion with Cordelia.

When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down
And ask of thee forgiveness.

Joshua Elliott (Fool); Michael Pennington (King Lear); Tom McGovern (Kent) – photo Marc Brenner/Royal & Derngate

There was also more laughter than I remember the first time around – as if both the audience and company had somehow jointly gained in confidence in their exploration of this great work… – bringing yet more contrast; more profundity. Pennington’s energy, as he cavorted from “this great stage of fools”, eluding his captors, was a thing of joy and amazement – and brought the house down!

Then there’s life in’t. Come, and you get it, you shall get it by running. Sa, sa, sa, sa.

Shane Attwooll (Cornwall); Reginald Edwards (Servant) – photo Marc Brenner/Royal & Derngate

Having listed every member of the cast – “all of whom were equally astounding” – last time, I will not reiterate their strengths here. (I will make amends, however, for not mentioning Alison de Burgh – director of some truly vicious fights – and Karen Habens, “Deputy Stage Manager on the Book” – i.e. the crucial kingpin on which the whole evening revolves; and perfectly so.)

I should also stress how much – even after such an incomparable preview – ‘tighter’ the production feels; how little details (which I may have missed, then) add depth; how the whole performance has, somehow, grown. This is the King Lear to beat (not that I think it can be…) – and I am almost (almost) tempted to return my ticket for the RSC’s production, beginning in August (were it not for Paapa Essiedu as Edmund, and – God be praised… – David Troughton as Gloucester (yay)).

Adrian Irvine (Albany); Sally Scott (Regan); Scott Karim (Edmund) – photo Marc Brenner/Royal & Derngate

So there’s not really much more to be said. This is Shakespeare as (I believe) he should be: uncannily relevant and insightful; with coherently-defined and clear-speaking three-dimensional characters (whose motivations you – eventually – comprehend); and lucid plot-lines that bob and intermingle, diverge and re-emerge, but finally entwine – ensuring that three hours of drama “Holds in perfection but a little moment”.

I have a journey, sir, shortly to go…


Initially lured by the phenomenon that is Michael Pennington, simply being King Lear, I now know that I will be returning to the marvel that is Northampton’s Royal & Derngate many times in the future – purely because of its very own distinct fascination and delight. In some ways similar to the RSC – two auditoriums (but with the added advantage of an 88-seat cinema; as well as the TOP-like Underground spaces) linked by cunning foyer architecture and captivating facilities – there are some major differences (principally derived from my local’s ‘national’ – if not international – status and greater heft) that I feel the RSC could learn from (especially the ‘vibe’ that comes from being in a good regional arts space – itself part of the town’s burgeoning Cultural Quarter).


Returning to Stratford-upon-Avon just over five years ago, when we had decided to make our home here, we were drawn into The Courtyard Theatre (as it was then) not just by our last-minute tickets for King Learanother unforgettable production: starring Greg Hicks, Kathryn Hunter and Tunji Kasim – but also by the friendly atmosphere of its café, and its substantial heaps of freshly-cooked food. In fact, we ate there most days.

Although now resurrected as The Other Place: bringing back, for me, happy memories of its previous ‘tin hut’ existence… – and it is, admittedly, early days for the refreshed venue… – I feel it currently lacks both the length and breadth of menu, and natural, unforced informality, that made the previous almost-greasy-spoon (a complimentary tag) so welcoming. (And where you could easily find yourself comfortably sat next to the luminaries you were about to see on stage.)


At the R&D, The Wicked Way Café comes so much closer to this ideal of a relaxed and relaxing theatrical eatery – especially with its range of extremely-good-value, quirkily-named, scrumptious Pieminister Pies! – as it combines the best casual bits of the Riverside Café, Rooftop Restaurant and new Susie’s café bar (which, despite my grumbles, has great service, and is a splendid place to sit for a couple of hours, watching the world go by, whilst pretending to author blog posts, fuelled by some of the best coffee and cake in town). Crucially, the R&D also has its own equivalent of Stratford’s famous Dirty DuckBar Hygge! (No theatre or concert hall is complete without such a place of respite!)

Michael Pennington (King Lear), centre; and company – photo Marc Brenner/Royal & Derngate

Returning, therefore, yesterday evening, to see the all-important captioned performance of King Lear (“lured”, this time, by every single member of the company (as well as the prospect of a toothsome dinner…)) – knowing, as always, that there would be elements which had evolved since the preview we saw; as well as moments of magic that I had not entirely absorbed… – I decided that I should review the R&D’s access provision as well as the play itself (especially as I find myself relying increasingly on such amenities).

But I nearly fell at the first hurdle… – the theatre’s website indicated that I could not book a table in the café without the use of a telephone! (As much use to me as a fashion magazine; or a margarine cafetière!) However, the @RoyalDerngate Twitter bods could not have been more obliging: responding to my initial query with due thought and attention – even though it was quite late on Monday evening….

So it was that I woke up, yesterday morning, to find that they had gone out of their way to reserve one for me; and asking “if we can help with anything else”; as well as wishing me “a wonderful evening”! [This, to me, demonstrates two things: firstly, that access policies are only useful if they are implemented by knowledgeable and kind-hearted employees; and, secondly, that the tightly-knit team at Royal & Derngate – as you will also see in a couple of paragraphs’ reading… – are compassionate angels devoted to customer care beyond the remit of any rules or regulations! (Thank you.)] Asking for the table booked in the name of “The Bard of Tysoe” was therefore only a tad inglorious!


By the way, I hope that this proves that the R&D is not in any way ‘backward’ with regards to technology: I just do not think my request (and requirement) – and the resulting facility – to book things online, or by email, is as common as it should be (yet). For instance, the venue has its own iOS app (something, again, that the RSC should take onboard) – which, although, essentially, a neatly-packaged mobile version of its comprehensive website, was obviously designed effectively to fulfil both purposes. As it stashes your user details, as well as your order history (so you can check where you sat, previously), it is an incredibly handy tool for planning and booking a visit.

Michael Pennington (King Lear) – photo Marc Brenner/Royal & Derngate

This impressive customer service and friendliness extends in other directions, too. I fully appreciate the RSC Press Office’s initial reluctance to deal – on an equal footing with the mainstream media, anyway – with the exploding plethora of theatrical bloggers (like myself); but the R&D marketing team (especially Amanda Howson, Press Manager, and Box Office Manager, Erica Mynard) were almost tripping over themselves to supply information and photographs for my first review; and their swift replies to emails and tweets was genuinely refreshing. [This is not to besmirch the RSC – I simply sense a little reluctance from them (some of which may be caused by that titanic “heft”…). Now I have finally made it past first base, for instance, they are happy to email me photographs – on request. And yet I feel am still on probation: as I do not quite receive the privilege of, say, Michael Billington: who will have complete, direct access to the RSC’s comprehensive image database and press archive, etc..]


Anyway… back to my deaf and disabled assessment. Physical access is just as easy as at the RSC, despite the structural complexity of the site. There are many lifts and gently-sloping walkways (although some of these also feature short runs of steps: so look before you limp…). Entry to the building is level; and there are plenty of allocated (free) parking spaces for Blue Badge holders in the Albion Place surface car park, adjacent to the main entrance. (More information on all this can be found here.) The only place I really struggled – with my habitual wobble and walking stick – was the gentle climb up through the stalls, after the performance. But this is more to do with my own infirmity; and the deleterious effect of being seated, entranced, for prolonged periods.


Although I have not made use of it – as I have struggled with such systems in the past, and therefore much prefer to rely on induction loops (because of their direct interaction with my hearing aids and Streamer) – the venue provides a “Sennheiser Infra-red Enhanced Hearing System”: which is best accessed from certain seats, because of its directionality. I accept that, as my hearing continues to fade, I may well have to resort to this at some point – although I found the acoustics at the front of the stalls to be extremely clear.

Here, the RSC – with its loop(s) passing under every single seat – wins hands-down (ears up?!) for me; although I do understand that such high-granularity systems (where every punter receives an identical top-notch signal, wherever they sit) are incredibly expensive to design and install.


In November 2015 Royal & Derngate achieved Level 3 in the Space to Change campaign. This campaign enabled the general public to suggest the installation of much-needed facilities within various organisations.

Having booked online, I have not had to deal with the box office staff directly – but I noticed the requisite loop sign on the counter (as well as at the various “bars situated throughout the building”); and it is clear that they take their duties in this direction extremely seriously. (They also have a dedicated Text Relay number, and a “new mobile service” – although I am not quite clear how this latter resource functions.)

Apart from not being able to book my table as I would have wished, you will be pleased to learn that I had no problems, in person, ordering my ‘green goddess’ open top pie with ‘groovy gravy’ and ‘skin on fries’: as those serving me had obviously noticed the habitual international deaf symbol badge I wear – or had been forewarned! (A nice touch with your pre-theatre meal is being able to order a programme to be brought to your table – a great way to pass the time, if you are on your own.)

[As an aside… the RSC carefully stores details of its patrons’ disabilities and related requirements in their box office database (although I am such a ‘frequent flyer’ that many of the staff recognize me; and know that they may have to gently raise their voices, or face me so I can attempt to lip-read). There is therefore always an implicit recognition and understanding of where I need to sit to view any captions; and unforced acceptance of my preference for left-hand end seats, because of my neurological deficits. The system also keeps tabs on which sections – even which rows – of both theatres ‘work’ best for me. Not only that, but I am consistently asked (confidentially) on building tours, etc. about my ability to manage steps; how the guide or presenter can aid my understanding – usually by ensuring I am sat next to them; although they also seem willing to wear the tiny microphone I carry with me (when I actually remember) that interfaces with my hearing aids – and they are extremely generous with their assistance at all times; and with permanent, authentic smiles! To cap it all, the RSC’s Access tickets – no matter where you sit – are remarkable value at just £16: a price which a regional venue like the R&D cannot possibly match. (This is not a complaint; merely a fact of life. Small theatres simply do not receive the funding, or huge numbers of visitors, of such ‘national’ institutions as the RSC.)]


The Royal & Derngate (and all its constituent parts) is therefore a great facility – disabled, or not… – although, for me, it is, sadly, not that easy a place to get to. It is, however, definitely worth the tribulation – in this case, you could say, arriving (and staying) is a much better thing than travelling painfully…. [My review of the actual performance – with superb captions… – will follow a little later…]

Monday, 18 April 2016

Everyone has their own obstacles…

Joshua Elliott (Fool); Michael Pennington (King Lear) – photo Marc Brenner/Royal & Derngate

In the week leading up to the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s (and, approximately, Cervantes’) death, I find myself immersed in theatre. Last Saturday, both Doctor Faustus and then Don Quixote – and, tomorrow (Tuesday), I will be returning to Northampton for King Lear. (This is not the place – yet; especially writing under the sobriquet The Bard of Tysoe… – for a discourse on why so much early modern literature has such ranked male titles: but it does feel extremely uncomfortable; never mind discriminatory….) Later in the week, I will also be attending the première of Immortal Shakespeare at Holy Trinity Church: music which sets “a selection of texts from Shakespeare’s plays which chart the seven ages of man: from Infant to Old Age”.

I have already seen all three of these plays: so this is not so much a critique as a brief examination of repeat viewing – something most professional critics do not get the chance to partake in; but something that I am extremely keen on (although I accept that I may be unusual in this – as in other things…).

Oliver Ryan and Sandy Grierson – photo by Helen Maybanks/RSC

A match made in hell
In the case of Doctor Faustus – a work whose power continues to grow even on the fifth viewing (and I still have two more to go…!) – I am taking the experiment to extremes, I know: but the play both speaks to me (and in a way no other has truly done); and features two exciting, great actors alternating two exciting, great rôles. Ironically, being hard of hearing, only those two remaining performances will be captioned – and I already know huge chunks of the text by heart. (If I have a complaint about the RSC’s access policy, it is that, quite frequently, captions will only appear – and then only twice – towards the end of a run: making my navigation through each play’s arc trickier than I feel it needs be.)

No performance has been a simple repeat, however. On Saturday – greeted with childish glee by the impish Oliver Ryan – Sandy Grierson’s match failed to light: condemning him instantly to the part of Faustus. His amused frustration, I believe, gave the responsive audience permission to laugh… – as with all great tragedy, there are quite a few moments of shoulder-shaking comedy (and vice versa). Perhaps it was simply a matter of contraposition: but the final scenes – the Helen of Troy ‘ballet’, and Faustus’ extended countdown to midnight – this time around, were almost unbearably sorrowful (even more so than what passes for usual). Ryan’s calm, moving, caesura-laced, goddess-struck rendition of Marlowe’s most famous words; and Grierson’s prolonged meditation on life and impending death, God and cursed Lucifer, heaven and plagued hell; were timed to unearthly perfection. Such silence, after that last cry of “Mephistophilis” – always unique… – longer and deeper than I think I have ever experienced at the end of any drama. And rightly so….

Gabriel Fleary (Huntsman); Amy Rockson (Emerencia); Ruth Everett (Duchess); Rosa Robson (Puppeteer) – photo by Helen Maybanks/RSC

Stockholm syndrome
With Don Quixote, the situation is reversed – and in many ways. Comedy, laced with tragedy. Sound and fury, touched with a little quietude. Understatement is not the name of the game! (I suppose the play could even be described as ‘metafiction’; or even ‘presentational theatre’. Whatever, it is very self-aware!)

Additionally, my first viewing was subtitled: and – although familiarity with the plot may also have helped here – seeing it again brought home to me that attempting to multitask (i.e. watching words and action separately/alternately) in this way actually removes you from the action quite a bit: not acting as a barrier, per se; but leading to a lesser immersion (and increased distraction). And, because Rufus Hound is playing Sancho Panza (and winning), it also meant that, previously, in sticking to the written word, we had missed out on all his boisterous ad-libbing, and the accompanying, uproarious audience involvement – which, this time round, added a deep polished layer of laughter to his portrayal (and to the whole night).

Sad, I thought – walking back through the RSC’s gardens – that this earlier – still wonderful; but not quite ‘whole’ – performance will have been most deaf people’s experience of the show: when so much extra, immersive, jollity was absent. I wonder whether the captions for King Lear will hamper or assist…?


– Helen Hoyt

The shadows under the trees
And in the vines by the boat-house
Grow dark,
And the lamps gleam softly.

On the street, far off,
The sound of the cars, rumbling,
Moves drowsily.
The rocks grow dim on the edges of the shore.

The boats with tired prows against the landing
Have fallen asleep heavily:
The monuments sleep
And the trees
And the smooth slow-winding empty paths sleep.

Saturday, 16 April 2016

The internal limit of all thinking…


The problem with ineffability is that it is hard to express. Okay, I admit that this is the great-grandfather of all terrible wordplay… – but, reading back my review of Tamsin Waley-Cohen’s riveting performance – and then the score – of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto made me realize that me being glued to my chair (figuratively – just about) throughout, awestruck, had meant that some sensations could only be conjured up, magicked into words, much, much later: when my heart and mind had managed to process the wonder of it all. (On the night, all I could say to her was a reticent “beautiful”, accompanied by a sputtered thank-you. I was truly ‘beyond’ words.)

To be blunt, firstly, I wimped out…

Waley-Cohen brings both ferocious intelligence and emotion to the stage. The first movement, in particular, was one of great contrast: with both incredible power and gauze-like delicacy on display. In the Andante, she then demonstrated a lyrical sensibility second to none. Her communication with – and obvious admiration of – the orchestra came into its own, though, in the final Allegro vivacissimo. Her rapport with Curtis was also quite staggering.
     Her maturity is never in doubt…. She is never afraid to play quietly: knowing that the orchestra’s large numbers are no indication of its transcendent accompanying subtlety. She is also willing to become an integral part of their limpid texture – an equal member – when necessary; and the joy she displayed – inbetween all that praiseworthy fireworks and tracery – when observing them at work, I believe demonstrates both generosity and a keen appreciation of their skills.
     Thus a work I had never really admired before now spoke volumes: its flow insinuating itself deep within me. This was a great, very special, utterly exceptional performance. And the rapturous reception said so much more than any of my words ever can.

…and, secondly, my only later addition (to that chunk of missing-the-mark assessment) was a limerick (and that of only average quality…) –

A keen fiddler called Waley-Cohen
Gleaned reviews that were always most glowin’ –
With technique confounding
And emotion astounding,
She’s really fantastic at bowin’!

…which, I think, shows just how much I struggled with the awareness that I had witnessed some sort of rare phenomenon but was unable to translate it into common language (a challenge most reviewers face, I know). As the conductor David Curtis so rightfully said – on the Orchestra of the Swan’s new blog

Yesterday was amazing, I felt really privileged to be standing next to Tamsin…

…and I too felt honoured both to witness her commitment during the rehearsal; and then her stunning assurance and devotion during the concert itself, and at such close quarters. But I did (do?) not have the vocabulary to render it concrete.


Now, though, four days later, I close my eyes, and three particular captivating instances instantly spring to mind. Firstly – a reverberation, a timbre… – that almost growling G string entrance in the first movement; followed by a beautiful, explorative, lark-like ascent… – a thoughtful, restrained announcement of intent: not so much barging in through an open door, as gently pushing it ajar, having checked that no-one else was in the way. How she crammed so much emotion into so few notes is beyond me.

Secondly – a vision… – the bracing, emphatic, triple- and quadruple-stopping that proclaims the commencement of the cadenza. It is evidence of the craftsmanship of “the Italian family Stradivari” that her magnificent violin survives such powerful down-strokes with ease, and only sang in pleasure (not howled in pain), 295 years into its long life. It is also an exemplification of Waley-Cohen’s immense strength, proficiency and agility.

Finally – a blend of sound and sight… – her left-hand sliding down the strings toward the neck, pressing hard into the the fingerboard, in a chromatic, stopped descent of quite startling power and accuracy. Somehow, even though I have the evidence replaying in my head, it still seems quite baffling that this should be possible – let alone made to appear relatively matter-of-fact….


Then I return to the score: and much of her playing is resurrected in my mind. The sweetness of the main theme in the first movement: the vocalization transmuting into flashes of anger, before returning to that earthy bottom string and a recapitulation of Tchaikovsky’s honeyed melody. The customary trill at the end of the cadenza forming a sparkling bridge between her and Curtis: a mute, acknowledged signal for the orchestra to rejoin her journey. Her range – of dynamic, of tone, of mood – seeming infinite: everything from that romantic succulence and plaintive, ruminative lyricism; through delicate, lighthearted staccatos; thoughtful grace-notes, and joyful arpeggios; to angst and soaring passion.

In the Canzonette, there is more of that singing (of course); considered, subtle moments of rubato – and maximum immersion in the instruction to perform molto espressivo. This is a serenade of aching, yearning beauty… – nuance, where others may be tempted into extravagance.

And then the Finale explodes; and she enters, this time, with gusto – now booting that selfsame door wide open! Even the strummed pizzicato chords have an air of menace (interpolated, again, with that dark, rasping G string). Each entry of the orchestra – as a result of that “quite staggering rapport with Curtis” – is as crisp and cleansing as a spring snowstorm; and there is unashamed radiant delight at the cellos’ rumbustious, extremely Russian-sounding (almost raunchy) procession of fifths, which she responds to with true concomitant grit. All tempo changes are handled deftly; and synchronized perfectly with Curtis and the orchestra.

And a final memory: after the horns blare out the main subject towards the end, some of the most tender harmonics (perfectly spherical – rather than the spikiness one can sometimes hear…) – yet another example of her inconspicuous technique.


How do you capture this combination of music, movement, magic, majesty – and mystery – with dumb fingers and dull rumination? Can you ever really represent the paradise you experienced – in all its multidimensionality – on the page, so that others can grasp it? It’s easy to say “you had to be there”; or “you’ll see what I mean, next time”; but, when so many such encounters are so especial, how do you mark this particular one out as that rare, transcendent, ultimate, unsurpassable, incomparable, ineffable ‘happening’?

I don’t know the answer. My only response is to keep trying….

The music is over;
     the notes linger on.
The memories are formed;
     but the moment has gone.