Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Penguin Cafe

Mr Gnome, ever receptive to quirky individuality, is a longtime fan of the upbeat, sprightly syncopations of The Penguin Cafe Orchestra.

The orchestra's composer and presiding genius Simon Jeffes died in 1997, but his legacy lives on through recordings and ongoing live performances.

Back in the 1980s Jeffes created a suite of music for the ballet Still Life at the Penguin Cafe, which remains in the repertoire of the splendid Birmingham Royal Ballet.

To describe the piece one is obliged to mention that along with penguin waiters, a menagerie of creatures dance their way across the stage: mountain sheep, a bug, a kangaroo rat, a zebra ....

Sounds twee?

It's not.

By turns funny and touching, the dances created for these engaging creatures (by choreographer David Bintley) celebrate the beauty, strength and vulnerability of the animal kingdom - and hint at the threat posed to all of them by human mismanagement of the world's resources.

The match between music and movement is, for me, pitch-perfect - intoxicating.

And perhaps its no surprise that a voiceless art can so successfully speak up for our voiceless fellow residents of Planet Earth.

Sunday, 26 April 2009

Bard, birtrhday and bunny

To Stratford-upon-Avon on a breezy blue Saturday for the celebrations of William Shakespeare's 445th birthday.

Delegates from a selection of London embassies (some excitingly costumed) join theatre luminaries, local dignitaries, academics and troupes of local schoolchildren for a cheerful round-the-town parade.

Most wear a sprigs of rosemary ('that's for remembrance') and carry a posies of spring flowers, which are laid on the grave in the chancel of Holy Trinity Church - the end of the procession.

The atmosphere is celebratory, good-humoured and far from po-faced. Very English, I guess.

Later, I saw the brand-new production of As You Like It in the Courtyard Theatre.

Perhaps the show's most memorable effect came during the interval, expressive of the rustic themes of daily life in the Forest of Arden.

As the audience returned for the second half, Corin the shepherd was busily occupied skinning and butchering a freshly caught rabbit. The creature had been pre-gutted.

I felt this chimed with the production, which had suffered a few cuts of its own: some very familar chunks of the text were missing.

Fortunately, the 'Seven Ages' speech ('All the world's a stage') was spared the chop, and was performed brilliantly by the fine actor Forbes Masson (top centre).

Here's Charles Spencer's review from the Daily Telegraph.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Good Will ambassador

Ever ready to boost the Bard, Mr Gnome is abandoning himself to a few days of Shakespearean shenanigans.

Today, St George's Day, is Will's 445th birthday - and the 493rd anniversary of his death. (Both dates are rough guesses based on the records of his baptsim and funeral.)

Here's a very blond Kenneth Branagh doing v well with possibly the most famous of the Bard's 'best bits'....

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Claim to fame (deux)

Back in January, I noted the slightly icky fun to be had from the innocent game variously known as 'claim to fame', 'my brush with greatness' - or 'top tenuous'.

It's all about dredging up a connection (the ropier the better) between oneself (non-entity) and an, er, entity (aka 'celeb').

And, in my version of the game, when it comes to magnitudes of fame, B-list definitely trumps A-list.

Which brings me to the splendidly bespectacled, fag-dangling gentleman pictured above: the roi soleil of avant-gard French cinema Jean-Luc Godard.

Way back in the gloomy winter of 1969-70 I found myself briefly sharing a table in a coffee bar with the celebrated auteur.

Left-bank of the Seine? Sadly not. The setting for this richly random rendez-vous was the bleak concrete campus of the University of Essex.

I've no idea what J-L G was doing there. But him, it most definitely was. I drank my coffee in silence. So did he. He puffed. I didn't.

In terms of studenty melancholy and alienation, this was, I guess, something of an epiphany.

Afterwards I reflected, maybe he was casting for his new movie L'etudiant qui souffre.


Wednesday, 15 April 2009


A random internet moment today brought the information that 16 April is the birthday of Dusty Springfield - almost unbelievably it would have been her seventieth.

Here she is as I and countless others remember her in her glory days: elegant, beautiful, - and with that flawless, unique voice and extraordinary musicality that set her head-and-beehive above any potential rivals. (Sandy? Cilla? Lulu? Oh, please....)

And check the hand gestures. Up there with Piaf, in my view.

I saw her perform (with backing group The Echoes) at the Pavillion Theatre, Bournemouth, in the summer of 1967. Callow teenagers that we were, we knew that this one was special - effortlessly cool.

The quintessential Dusty experience? I choose the 1965 LP (we didn't say 'album', we said 'LP') Everything's Coming Up Dusty.


Friday, 10 April 2009


To Symphony Hall, Birmingham, for the annual Good Friday performance of JS Bach's St Matthew Passion.

I'm a bit of a late-arriver as far as Bach is concerned, kept away for years by the assumption that a soft-hearted Puccini-boy such as me would have little in common with this austere northern genius.

Was I wrong!

Attracted by the fact that the Birmingham performance (a) was in the afternoon, (b) to be given in English and (c) would feature a spacious interval for tea and buns, I decided to take a chance on JSB.

That was twelve years ago. With the exception of one year, I've been back for Bach every Good Friday since.

Those first performances were by the London Bach Choir and the English Chamber Orchestra, under the direction of Sir David Willcocks, for whom this was an experience of profound devotional, as well as musical. significance. The audience was asked to refrain from applause, the performance beginning and ending in silence.

These days there's clapping but, more importantly for this listener, the text is still given in English.

The Matthew Passion was created to be part of a Good Friday liturgy - it's for a congregation, rather than an audience.

At its heart is the simple delivery of St Matthew's narrative of the final hours of Jesus' life, given in clear, wonderfully expressive 'recitative' (sung speech) by the tenor in the role of the Evangelist.

A bass takes the part of Jesus, his words against the background of strings, providing a kind of musical halo.

The narration is interspersed with many choral passages, giving the onstage choirs the opportunity to take on the role of the crowds, calling for the release of Barabbas, clamoring 'Let him be crucified' and, in a moment of great beauty, offering the Centurion's words: 'Truly this was the Son of God.'

More frequently, though, the choral passages simply invite the hearer to a personal meditation on the significance of the events being played out. This invitation is extended further in six or seven 'chorales' (hymns) in which the original hearers would have joined.

Similar passages for the solo singers continue the theme of transferring these external events to the inner, spiritual world of the individual listener.

For me, the most powerful moment of the entire piece comes immediately after the words 'and he gave up his spirit' and before the opening of the hushed opening of the chorale 'Be near me, Lord, when dying': a silence - long, spacious, profound.

The work's extraordinary power is linked to this constant connecting of the outer with the inner world. History connects with my story. And every time I hear the Matthew Passion, new connections emerge, I discover new aspects. I'm always surprised.

Created for ordinary churchgoers (which meant the whole community), the St Matthew Passion is remains accessible, powerful and beautiful - and popular. I'll be back next year.