There is a point in Mairi Campbell's one-woman coming of age show 'Pulse' where in an attempt to convey inarticulable emotion she writhes on the ground speaking gibberish. As she plays wild notes on her viola, animated scribbles light up the backdrop. Struggling with unrequited love for a priest, travelling alone in Mexico, in a culture she doesn't understand, she has lost her way.
The crisis is powerfully embodied by Mairi on stage and I was not the only audience member who saw the show in Massachusetts' Shea Theater who was moved to tears. There was laughter too, as she enacts various characters she meets on a journey that brings her home to Scotland, changed.
A theme is Mairi finding her own rhythm, and creating harmony. 'The bossy bow' looks as if it is making everything happen – but in order to make the music sing, it has to follow the left side, which is quiet and strong. Mairi has to reconcile different traditions, as well as the desire to innovate and the desire to hold on to the past. This is, she says, like dancing: 'one foot on the ground, one in the air.'
This journey is not over and 'Pulse' is part of it – brought to Massachusetts by Serious Play after a connection made at the Edinburgh Fringe. Mairi and I are friends, and since its first performance two years ago, I can see her developing as a stage performer, making an emotional connection with the audience – 'she makes it very easy to be up there with her,' someone commented at Shea, a recently renovated 300-seat theatre in Turner Falls.
At the finale of the show as Mairi stands, bow and viola in hand, a huge shadow rises behind her, a symbol of the powerful and strong woman she has become, who has not so much found a place in the world as made one. Mairi Campbell is in Boston for the month of December, where she is starring in WGBH's annual 'Celtic Christmas Sojourn' at the Cutler Majestic Theater.
For one ghastly moment I thought Sir Gerald Nabarro had been reincarnated. I don't wish for a moment to tarnish our thespian royalty – one Sir Kenneth Branagh – with any suggestion of nasty Nabarro's odious political opinions, but, blimey, that moustache certainly brought back the awfulness of the 1970s.
In all of its ginormous grey bristly glory, that moustache (and the curious hairy thumb-print under his bottom lip – an attempt at a goatee? a shaving error? an inky smudge?) dominates the recent re-make of 'Murder on the Orient Express,' Branagh's self-confessed vanity project, having always wanted to play Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. And he had lots of his bessy mates on board too – Dame Judi Dench, Sir Derek Jacobi, Michelle Pfeiffer, Penelope Cruz, Olivia Colman. There again, this film has always managed to attract stellar theatrical and Hollywood names – the 1974 version with Albert Finney as Poirot also featured Lauren Bacall, John Gielgud, Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Perkins, Richard Widmark and our very own Sean Connery.
But stars do not a fine movie make and this was no exception. The plot, of course, is familiar – they all dun it. But whether it was the general fug in the densely-packed, tiny auditorium at the New Picture House in St Andrews – 'Paddington 2' had corralled the larger space, where there was room to breathe – or the release of tension in realising, with relief, that they hadn't re-written the script and that Johnny Depp (worth £200 million, 14 homes around the world, restraining order against his former wife, can't act for toffee) was still getting his come-uppance early on in proceedings, I must confess I fell asleep. Discreetly, of course, no snoring and no lolling my head on the shoulder of a stranger, but still soundly and appreciatively out of it.
Sadly I woke before the final credits, in time to admire the glorious set of majestic Alpine scenery, all of it computer generated (and so obviously so). It ended, as we know, with Poirot accepting his next case – Murder on the Nile. But if you're going to be in it again, Kenny, please trim the tache, even just a little, perhaps to a slightly more restrained Jimmy Edwards next time?
It is hard to think of a more delightful way of spending Sunday afternoon than listening to an outstanding concert in the Usher Hall. At 3pm on 12 November, we were captivated once more by Stéphane Deève; that was just when he spoke. His conducting of the Brussels Philharmonic Orchestra was as spell-binding as ever. We particularly enjoyed the Scottish premier of Turnage's 'Passchendaele' and the superb playing of Bruch's 'Violin Concerto No 1' by Nicolai Znaider on his 1741 violin.
On 19 November we had the wondrous Heinz Holliger conducting the Basel Chamber Orchestra, with Mendelssohn's 'Hebrides Overture' and his own 'Meta Arca,' followed by the superlative Stephen Hough playing Mendelssohn's 'Piano Concerto No 1.' I do have to say that after the interval, we christened Schubert's Symphony No 9 'The Interminable,' with a second name: 'The Meandering.' However, as a pair who finds Mozart sometimes rather modern, we still loved these 'Sunday Classics.'
Now we look forward to the Academy of St Martin in the Fields on 21 January, with Vivaldi's 'Four Seasons,' conducted by Joshua Bell. 'Sunday Classics' at the Usher Hall attract not just crumblies like my beloved and me, but young modern dressers and even wonderfully behaved children. I am thinking of organising a demonstration outside the Usher Hall to demand that these life-enhancing concerts take place every single Sunday. Anyone for a banner?
We spent Saturday evening with a 'fallen woman,' a term deliciously politically incorrect, though if it's an opera set in Paris, performed in Italian with a Russian diva and a Glaswegian original director it causes less of a scandal today than its London premier in 1856. The final performance of Scottish Opera's 'La Traviata' was on 2 December.
I'm not an opera 'natural'. My enjoyment depends on my prep. YouTube makes prep a doddle, and Scottish Opera's programme notes, particularly 'what to listen out for,' do the rest. I love the opera because I love the prep. And oh, the post-opera discussions! Surely music, not love, is the 'heartbeat of the universe'? Was the date on Violetta's gravestone accident or design? Who are Scottish Opera's 'anonymous donors' and would they like to fund a re-run of 'The Ring'?
It is not often that you get to witness the birth of a theatre. Actually,
gestation as well as birth. For the past nine months in Perth, we have
watched the scaffolding go up and then gradually come down on our brilliant new £16 million theatre, and what has emerged is a big, bouncing beauty of a building, which welcomed its first audience on Saturday evening (9 December) to its opening production – 'Aladdin', our Christmas panto [including an unscheduled visit from the local fire brigade – Ed].
I say 'our' in a possessive sort of way, because I am chairman of the
Horsecross Arts company, which runs the theatre, and though I cannot claim fatherhood, I might pass myself off as godfather – and a very proud one. The old Edwardian auditorium has been lovingly restored, the rest is brand new, the work of architect Richard Murphy, and a wonder to behold. Under the artistic direction of Lu Kemp, Perth Theatre will, I know, be a valuable addition, not just to the cultural scene in Perth, but to Scotland as a whole. Come and watch it grow up.
When the barriers between amateur and professional disappear, the result can often be something special. The Mahler Players is a chamber ensemble formed in 2013 in Inverness by rising young conductor Tomas Leakey. Its members are professionals, semi-professionals, music teachers seeking a chance to perform, and highly skilled amateurs. Together they have given a series of truly remarkable performances of reduced orchestrations of many of Mahler's symphonies and song cycles, in a range of venues across the Highlands.
Having exhausted the available Mahler options, they've now moved on to
the greater challenge of Wagner, in concerts last week in Ullapool, Lossiemouth and Inverness (undaunted by storms and snow). An hour-long compression of 'Parsifal', scored for just 20 players and no singers, ought to be a recipe for disaster, but it succeeded triumphantly. That's partly due to the extraordinary arrangement by Iain Farrington, but above all to the
commitment of the Mahler Players and Tomas's increasing skill as a
Since their very first concert five years ago, performing Mahler's 4th with just 14 players, I've tried to grasp why I find these reduced versions so enthralling, and indeed moving. First, it's the sheer alchemy of the arrangements. If you know the music well, you keep thinking that 'this next climax will be a bit flat,' and then it isn't, it's physically overwhelming.
But more than that, I think it's a quality of, well, heroism, on the part of the players. Four violinists standing in for 40; two horns, a trumpet and a trombone representing an entire brass section; single woodwind where the
original score has triple numbers. These reduced orchestrations expose
the individual players and push them to their limits and beyond. And the challenges for the conductor of achieving balance and focus are perhaps even greater than with a full orchestra. Somehow, it all exposes the bones of the music, and makes the familiar unfamiliar.
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