A bit of culture

Over the past few weeks we’ve been busy soaking up a bit of culture

The Thursday of my week off work we had tickets for a production at the Theatre by the Lake in Keswick. We’d planned to combine that with a lower level walk in the Borrowdale Valley, but plans had to change after J sprained her foot. Luckily she’d recovered enough to have a look around Keswick before a pre-theatre meal in the Fellpack restaurant

Our theatre tickets were for a performance of The Ladykillers, a play based on the 1955 Ealing Comedy a favourite film of mine that starred Alec Guinness, Herbert Lom and Peter Sellers. The play is based on the film, not the other way round and it had first been produced back in 2011 at Liverpool Playhouse, starring Peter Capaldi.

The plot followed that of the film, with a few differences. As with previous visits to the Theatre by the Lake we enjoyed the production. Is was well acted, particularly Dominic Gately as the Professor, who brought a real comic touch to the role. Devesh Kishore wasn’t as sinister as Herbert Lom as Louis – who could be – but I thought Luke Murphy made more of the part of Harry than Peter Sellers.

This week the weather mid week has been awful with heavy rain (we didn’t get it anywhere near as bad a further east and south, mind). We had tickets for two events – a play at the Royal Exchange on Wednesday and a musical performance at the Halle’s small venue in Ancoats on Thursday so we braved the rain and drove into Manchester two days on the trot.

Another pre-theatre meal, this time at Mowgli’s in the Corn Exchange

Light Falls a new play by Simon Stephens, with music by Jarvis Cocker, at the Royal Exchange, has had good reviews and was almost sold out, even on a wet Wednesday evening.

Connecting five relatives in five disparate English towns, from Blackpool to Durham, LIGHT FALLS is a richly layered play about life in the face of death, about how our love survives us after we’ve gone – and about how family, community and kindness help the North survive.

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As with just about everything we’ve seen at the Royal Exchange it was a good production with some excellent performances by the cast. Mind you, the first half in particular really lived up to the saying that “it’s grim up north”. It started by somebody dying before moving round the north of England to “visit” her husband and offspring who all had their own problems. Things resolved themselves a little at the end at the funeral and the ending was a little more optimistic.

Thursday evening and we were back in Manchester to see a performance by a young Polish pianist Hania Rani ( short for Raniszewska) at the Halle St Michaels venue, a converted church, in Ancoats. I’d come across her via Spotify, which has a “Discover Weekly” feature, where tracks are suggested based on your playlists. One week it had included one of her piano pieces from her recently released LP, Esja, and as I liked it I followed the link and explored the LP and some of her other music, including her LP with cellist Dobrawa Czocher.

Looking at Hania’s website I spotted that she was performing in Manchester at the start of a European tour so decided to get along. I had to buy the tickets online and was surprised to see that the start time was given as 7 p.m., which seemed rather early. Turned out that it was! We arrived in Manchester just after 6, parked up and walked across the city centre and Northern Quarter towards Ancoats, stopping off for a drink in a bar. We arrived at the venue at about quarter to 7 to discover that they were still conducting sound checks and that the doors were not due to open at 7:30. An apology would have been nice but the guy on the door seemed indignant that we’d turned up early (as had other people). So, a little dischuffed, we went back to the Northern Quarter for another drink.

I really enjoyed the concert, though. It’s a small venue, rather like the Liverpool Philharmonic’s “Music Room”, but it was pretty full. Hania played a fairly long set – about an hour and 20 minutes, without a break. I recognised many of the pieces from her LP but she also included a number of other pieces including 3 songs.

Hania is originally from Gadansk but now shares her time in Warsaw and Berlin. Her label, Gondwana Records, is Manchester based, which is why her tour was starting there. I think that her style is best described as minimalist classical – rather like the music of Michael Nyman, Philip Glass and Max Richter – with jazz and other influences.

Here’s a couple of her pieces, both from her LP

and here’s a piece performed with Dobrawa Czocher

Lunasa in Keswick

Quite a few years ago now, during one of my first trips to Ireland with work, I picked up a CD of music by, Lunasa, an Irish band I’d heard being played in a shop selling traditional Irish music. I’ve played it many many times since and they’ve become my favourite Irish band. A few weeks ago I found out that they had a short tour over in England and the first date was in Keswick at the Theatre by the Lake, so I booked a couple of tickets, planning to combine the concert with an afternoon in the Lakes.

Lunasa are named after “Lughnasadh”, an ancient Irish harvest festival. They’re very accomplished musicians who play a modern take on Irish traditional music on traditional instruments such as Uilleann pipes, fiddle and flute combined with guitar, and double bass.

There’s no singing, they are purely an instrumental band. Well, usually as on their most recent album they feature a number of guest singers. But in Keswick there was no singing just extremely well played music – plus some banter from the Brummie born (!) flautist from County Clare (I spotted his accent) Kevin Crawford .

The other current members of the band are  Trevor Hutchinson (double bass), Ed Boyd (guitar), Seán Smyth (fiddle and low whistle) and Cillian Vallely (uilleann pipes and low whistles). Although the line up has varied in the past.

Seán is a practising GP in Mayo and doesn’t appear on all their Youtube clips, presumably due to not always being able to Ed Boyd is from Bath and has worked with other musicians, including Kate Rusby. We’re sure we saw him playing in her band during one of her Christmas shows.

Their set included traditional tunes from Ireland, Scotland and Brittany, as well as some of their own compositions.

We also managed to combine the concert with a short walk along the east coast of Derwent Water followed by a vey delicious meal in the Fellpack restaurant in Keswick. It was a bit of a grey day, but it’s always good to be up in the Lakes

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Vishtèn at the Phil

Last Saturday we went out for the second evening on the trot, having been to a concert by the St Petersburg Philharmonic at the Bridgewater Hall on Friday. Almost unheard of these days! This time we drove into Liverpool for a performance at the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall’s Music Room by the Canadian Arcadian folk band Vishtèn. We hadn’t heard of the band before I saw the advert for the concert, but having checked out their website I thought they looked like a good bet for an enjoyable evening – I wasn’t wrong!

Wikipedia tells us that The Acadians 

are the descendants of French colonists who settled in Acadia during the 17th and 18th centuries, some of whom are also descended from the Indigenous peoples of the region.

They were expelled from Canada by the British, and some migrated to Louisiana forming the Cajun population in the USA. But some managed to hang on in Canada.

The trio comprises multi-instrumentalists Emmanuelle and Pastelle LeBlanc from the Evangeline Region of Prince Edward Island, and Magdalen Islands’ native, Pascal Miousse……. Together, they pay homage to their traditions and to the historic and strong musical connections between their two island Acadian communities (Band’s website)

Their music is a mix of French, Irish and Scots influences, including energetic reels and lively balads sung in the Acadian French dialect. There were some similarities with Cajun music which I like.

Pastelle, the male member of the band played fiddle and guitar while the two female members, who are twin sisters, played various instruments, including keyboard, accordian, mandolin and tin whistles. They also provide percussion, with their feet! They efffectively tap danced while they were sitting down playing their instruments.

I really enjoyed the evening and have been following up the concert during the past week listening to a CD I bought at the concert and via Spotify. I’d certainly go to see them again if I get the chance.

Kate Rusby at the Bridgewater Hall 2018

Last Wednesday afternoon we travelled over to Manchester. We called into the City Art Gallery to take a look at the Martin Parr exhibition currently showing there, then had a look around the Christmas Market. But our main reason for the visit was to see Kate Rusby’s Christmas concert at the Bridgewater Hall.

Kate Rusby is an award winning folk singer from Penistone in South Yorkshire, very well known on the folk circuit, who’s had a number of albums that have sold well and made the album charts. Her Christmas concert is based around old traditional versions of carols as sung around the pubs in South Yorkshire . Some of the songs were well known carols but sung to a different tune – for example While Shepherd’s watched sung to “On Ilkley Moor B’aht ‘at”. She performed 3 versions in all of this well known carol, all set to different tunes. Other songs  included the familiar carols, “O little town of Bethlehem” and “Joy to the World”. 

She played with her band – a guitarists (her husband), a bouzouki player,  an accordionist, a double bassist (who also played a Moog synthesiser) and a drummer, plus a five piece brass ensemble. The brass band gave it a real northern Christmassy feel.

For someone who isn’t so tall (!) she has a big stage presence and twinkling eyes and a smile almost as wide of the stage and chatted away between the songs. She really did seem to be enjoying herself, a true performer. 

As with other of her Christmas shows we’ve seen, the concert was in 2 halves, finishing, after the encore, at 10. So they were on stage in total for over 2 hours, but it didn’t seem that long. So another enjoyable night out. And Christmas starts here!

A night at the Opera

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Sydney Opera House is one of the world’s iconic buildings; designed by Danish architect Jørn Utzon who, at that time, was a relatively unknown young architect.  His dramatic concept, caught the eye of the judges of the international competition held to decide on a design.

Last time I was in Sydney (3 years ago) I joined a guided tour and also went to see a play  being shown in the Drama Theatre, one of the 4 smaller venues in the “basement” of the building, but wasn’t able to see a production in one of the large auditoria. So before we set out for Australia we checked the Opera House’s website and were able to get tickets for a night of opera in the main auditorium, the Concert Hall.

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We had a meal in one of the restaurants that line the east side of the Circular Quay and then headed over to the Opera House to have a look around inside the building before the start of the concert in areas only accessible for concert goers or on a guided tour.

There were views over the harbour from the large windows at the end of the building

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Inside the auditorium, ready for the concert to begin

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The main piece was a on Act opera by Bela Bartok based on the rather gruesome story of Bluebeard. A quite heavy piece and not exactly a light hearted pre-Christmas concert, but enjoyable nevertheless. I’m not really up to critiquing a serious Classical  concert but this review sums it up I think.

And after the concert

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A good experience and an enjoyable evening.

Performance Art at the NGI

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Just after I’d arrived at the National Gallery of Ireland on Sunday and was starting to explore (I had a couple of hours before my time slot for the main exhibition), when I wandered into the Shaw room, a rather grand large room close to the Merion Square entrance, it was clear something was going on. I could see a group of people with musical instruments who were clearly setting up to perform and several people setting up easels.

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It didn’t take me long to suss out what was going on. Like most Galleries holding major exhibitions, the National Gallery of Ireland has held a number of events to accompany the Vermeer and Masters of Genre Painting Exhibition, and this was one of them.

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Many of the paintings in the exhibition feature musicians and musical instruments from the Dutch “Golden Age”– virginals, lutes, harpsichords, violas and the like as well as singers. So the Gallery had organised a collaborative event – Performance Art – with the Royal Irish Academy of Music (RIAM) and the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA). Musicians from the RIAM performed music from the Dutch Golden Age on instruments of the time, while members of the RHA had set up their easels so they record the scene live – sketching and drawing.

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A good crowd gathered to watch the musicians and the artists at work. It was an enjoyable event and I stayed for a good hour, only leaving because it was getting close to my time slot to see the exhibition.

The musicians were Catriona O’Mahony playing baroque violin, Miriam Kaczor who played the recorder and baroque flute,

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David Adams on harpsichord, Andrew Robinson, who played the viol and lute,

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who also told us a little about the instruments and the type of music that was played during the Golden Age

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and soprano Clodagh Kinsella.

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The artists were Una Sealy, Blaise Smith, Cian Mcloughlin, Sean Molloy and Comnghall Casey. They didn’t seem to be at all put off by everyone watching them at work and taking photographs.

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PJ Harvey at the Victoria Warehouse

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On Thursday we went to see PJ Harvey performing at the Victoria Warehouse in Manchester. I was rather a latecomer to her music. I’d always liked some of her songs but it was the release of Let England Shake 5 years ago, with it’s socially aware and political lyrics about Britain’s role in war from Gallipoli to Afghanistan, and effects on people – combatants and civilians –  set to simple but imaginative music, that got me interested in her work and which led me to exploring her back catalogue more thoroughly. She continued the political theme in her release earlier this year The Hope Six Demolition Project, with songs inspired by visits to the Middle East and Washington DC.

The audience was made up of a real mix of ages, with quite a high proportion of “oldies” so I didn’t feel out of place.

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PJ was accompanied by a band of 9 accomplished musicians, including long time collaborator John Parrish and the show started with them marching in line onto stage beating drums and playing saxophones for the first song, Chain of Keys from Hope Six Demolition Project. This led into a theatrical performance comprising songs from the last two albums with a few older numbers. They moved from one song to another without pausing to introduce the numbers. They only stopped for Polly Jean to introduce the band members (a mix of nationalities – she’s not a Brexiter) towards the end of the set.

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The performance was dominated by Polly Jean, a tiny, incredibly skinny, figure dressed in black with long trailing sleeves.

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It was an excellent show which I thoroughly enjoyed, reinforcing my admiration for a talented artist.

Fortunately we arrived early. The venue, as the name implies is a former warehouse, a large open space, standing only. We were stood within 10 metres of the stage, close to the front, and had a decent view. However it wasn’t the same for everyone. There was a barrage of complaints from people who arrived later and were stuck at the back and whose view of the stage was blocked by other people. Some tweeted that they couldn’t even get inside the main room.

The venue have responded

“In response to suggestions that this event was ‘oversold’, we would like to clarify that ticket sales were within our licensed capacity and the promoter was working strictly to our guidelines in this area. The safety of our customers and staff is always our main concern. The issues that have been flagged up are operational ones.

“Although this was a very popular gig, there was in fact room for all ticket holders, with space available towards the middle and the front of the crowd. This has been confirmed by feedback from patrons situated in these areas. However, because there was no support act, there was little movement once people had found some space to wait in.

“The Victoria Warehouse loads from the rear, which meant that as more people arrived and the initial crowds remained static, there was a concertina effect that lead to a very busy area towards the rear bar. Those caught up in this have understandably interpreted it as ‘overselling’ of the event. We sent response teams into the crowd to try to move people forwards but with little success.

I don’t think that’s good enough. It is the venue’s responsibility to manage the crowd. By their own admission they clearly failed to do this and the result was that a lot of people were disappointed and their memories will be of these problems rather than an excellent performance.

I have to say I was not impressed by the venue management. I’d contacted them earlier in the week as I wanted to check on car parking near the venue. Once they realised I wasn’t enquiring about parking for the hotel on the site, they clearly weren’t interested and didn’t have the courtesy to respond. So the bad crowd management seems to confirm that the management are only interested in taking the money from their customers and once they have that customer service goes out of the window.

A concert of two halves

 

On Friday evening we went to see the Michael Nyman band perform at the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall. I've been a fan of the composer ever since we saw the Draughtsman's Contract many many years ago. I have several cds of his work. So I was very much looking forward to the concert.

His band comprised 11 musicians – a string quatet, an electric bass player and brass section (saxaphones, trumpet, trombone, French horn) plus Nyman himself on the piano. They played a selection of his well known works, many of which he had composed for the films of Peter Greenaway.

I have to admit that I was disappointed with the first half. The instruments were all miked up and amplified. The sound balance was wrong with the brass completely overpowering the strings and with the barritone sax too loud in the mix. And I thought that the overall volume was too high making it feel like a “wall of sound” at times and difficult to appreciate some of the subtelties of the music. I noticed that a few people had left at the interval, unless they'd moved to different seats as the large hall was not completely full.

Fortunately things improved dramatically in the second half. I don't know whether they had made some changes to the set up during the interval or whether it was just the particular pieces they were playing were less affected, but in any case I enjoyed the second half and so came away happy enough.

The composer's music is very distinctive, built on repetitive riffs or “ground bases“. The strings being frequently used as a rythymn section, playing incedibly energetically. By the end of the concert one of the violinists bow strings were badly broken and the chellist was obviously suffering from cramp as I noticed him shaking his hand several times during the concert. The female viola player was playing particularly energetically. The works often start with the strings dominating with the volume building as the brass sections take the lead.

The concert started with two favourite pieces from the Draughtsman's contract, Chasing sheep is best left to shepherds and An eye for optical theory. The poor mix became particularly noticeable on the latter and became particularly bad during the two pieces from A Zed and Two Noughts that followed, probably partly because these are not the most melodic of his compositions.

Michael Nyman is keen on football and a fan of Liverpool football club. The piece with which the band started the second half – Memorial – was written in the aftermath of the deaths at the Heysel Stadium during the European. Cup final in 1985 and will be reinterpreted as part of his Symphony dedicated to the Hillsborough disaster which will be performed for the first time at Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral on July 5th. It's a moving piece. The half ended with three melodic pieces from his Water dances, the last of these, Splashing being particularly beautiful.

The band received extremely enthusiastic applause from the audience, a large section giving a standing ovation. And we were treated to three encores, the last a solo piano performance by the composer. For me, it turned out to be a good night, but, to borrow a footballing cliche, very much a “concert of two halves”

 

Christmas Starts Here

Last year we went to see Kate Rusby perform in Warrington the week before Christmas during her annual Christmas tour. We really enjoyed the concert so this year got in early to book tickets for her performance at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester that took place last Tuesday, managing to get tickets towards the front of the the stalls.

I finished work a little early and we managed to get on a train to Manchester just before ten to five, do we arrived at Victoria about 5:30, which gave us a good 2 hours before the concert was due to start. We ues this as an opportunity to saunter through the Christmas market.

It’s massive, extending all the way from the Corn Exchange through to Albert Square with stalls packed into all the pedestrianised areas. We weren’t buying – even if we’d wanted to we didn’t want to be carting anything into the concert – but we had a good browse. However, we did end up buying some cheese off one of the stalls having been tempted by a sample.

We made our way to Albert Square which was very busy even at 6 o’clock. It was the original location for the Christmas Market which has expanded outwards over the years. There were lots of stalls selling food and drink of various types and nationalities so there was plenty to choose from and choose we did.

After eating we strolled through the final part of the market and then made our way over to the Bridgewater Hall, arriving at 7. So we had time for a coffee (for me) and mulled wine and a minced pie apiece (adjusting my insulin shot accordingly!)

And then it was time for the concert. We enjoyed it enormously again. Kate Rusby is an excellent singer – a beautiful voice – and she’s such a cheerful character, with a big smile permanently on her face.

She has a band – double bass, guitar, bouzouki (a traditional Yorkshire instrument?) and accordion –  who were supplemented by a small brass ensemble of 5 musicians. Her Christmas concert is based around old traditional versions of carols as sung around the pubs in South Yorkshire (a tradition that’s probably died out by now). Some of the songs were well known carols but sung to a different tune – for example While Shepherd’s watched sung to “On Ilkley Moor B’aht ‘at” (one song to the tune of another – if you ever listen to “I’m sorry I haven’t a clue” on Radio 4 you’ll know what I’m referring to). The brass band really make it feel Christmassy.

The concert was in 2 halves, finishing, after the encore, at 10. So they were on stage in total for over 2 hours, but it didn’t seem that long. So another enjoyable night out. And Christmas starts here!

The Hallé at Jodrell Bank

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Although the Autumn Equinox is a few weeks away, for me, the 31st August effectively marks the end of the summer. This year we celbrated it by attending the concert by Manchester’s Hallé Orchestra that took place at Jodrell Bank, the site of one of the massive Radio telescope, which is part of Manchester University’s Department of Astronomy. The concert was part of a series of one day concerts, Live from Jodrell Bank: The Transmissions, that have taken place there for a number of years. Previous Transmissions events have featured concerts by The Flaming Lips and local band (well fairly local, they’re from Bury) Elbow. This year there were two events. On Friday night there was a rock concert headlined by the Icelandic band, Sigur Rós, with the Hallé concert on the Saturday.

The blurb for the concert told us that it would be

A concert inspired by the stars will feature Jupiter and Mars from Holst’s The Planets, classics by Strauss, Mozart and John Williams, as well as a selection of out-of-this-world film music such as Star Wars, Independence Day, E.T., Apollo 13, Close Encounters and more.

We had planned the day as a family outing a few weeks ago and had our fingers crossed that the weather would be fine, especially after a good summer this year. We weren’t disappointed. Although it had turned cooler, with a fairly strong wind, it stayed dry, with only a few minutes rain towards the end of the concert. And as there had been relatively little rain in Cheshire over the summer the ground was dry – so no wellies needed!

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Although the concert wasn’t due to start until 8 o’clock, we arrived about 4 o’clock. There was music – a DJ playing “cosmic music” interspersed by live performances by songs from Musicals and the James Bond films. There was also a talk by Professor Tim O’Brien from the Observatory who told us about the history of the telescope and played sounds it had been recorded going right back to when it tracked the Sputnik launch in 1957. There was also a Science Arena with lots of hands on experiments and  demonstrations of scientific principles by students from the various science departments from the University. So there was plenty to keep us amused. And the telescope was a towering presence in the background.

We’d packed a pic-nic with sandwiches, crisps, Doritos, cheese, biscuits and treats from Marks and Sparks. Some people had really gone to town with x bottles of sparkling wine, food and candles laid out on portable tables. We’d taken a couple of folding chairs and a pic-nic blanket.

8 o’clock soon came round and the Hallé came on stage starting with the introduction from Also Sprach Zarathustra. The acoustics weren’t anywhere near as good as the Bridgewater Hall, the orchestra’s usual home, but the setting , with the stage in front of the giant dish of the telescope, made it a great spectacle.

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Part way through the first half, as the light was beginning to fade, the dish, which up until now had been facing away from us, began to turn around until it was facing directly toward the audience.

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And it became the ultimate big screen as images were projected onto it’s surface.

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The dark drew in and during the interval  a film about Sir Bernard Lovell, the founder of the telescope who died, at the age of 99, last year. Fittingly, Saturday would have been his 100th birthday.

At several points during the film a giant image of the dish was displayed on the real thing.

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During the second half of the concert, the dish really started to come into it’s own as images were projected on to it to accompany, and complement, the music being played by the orchestra.

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It kept dry too, except for a short burst of rain. But even that added to the experience as it came down at a point when searchlight beams were being shone out into the audience and the raindrops were scattered by the light creating their own dramatic effect. It was almost as if it had been planned.

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And at the end of the concert, the finale – what else but the theme from Star Wars – was accompanied by a firework display.

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And then an encore – the Doctor Who Theme – accompanied by more fireworks.

A great end to the night.

As I’d expected, getting off the site and the car park was a rather chaotic experience and so although the concert finished at 10 we didn’t get home until after midnight. But it was a memorable night. A good concert with music we all enjoyed and a great experience too.