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.

The Spaghetti Western Orchestra at the Lowry

On Friday I went to the Lowry in Salford to watch a performance by the Spaghetti Western Orchestra. They’re a group of Australian Musicians who’d featured as the novelty act at the Proms last year. I don’t normally watch the proms, but caught their performance by accident when it was shown on BBC4 one Friday Evening and enjoyed it. I’m quite a fan of Spaghetti Westerns – especially Sergio Leone‘s “Dollars Trilogy” and Once Upon a Time in the West (one of my favourite films) and their scores composed by Ennio Morricone and enjoyed their novel interpretation of the music

I got the ticket for the Salford show as a Christmas present from my daughter and I went along with her and my son. It took place in the Quay Theatre, the smaller of the two auditoria at the Lowry and started at 5 p.m. – almost a matinee performance. There was another taking place later in the evening but it had sold out and so they scheduled a second show at the earlier time, which also sold out. I guess their tour had been set up earlier last year when they weren’t well known and so they went for the smaller venue, and their performance at the Proms has boosted their popularity and ticket sales.

They’ve also appeared on Later with Jools Holland.

The show is a really a musical comedy act rather than a concert. The ensemble are made up in very stylised make-up as stock characters such as a bank teller and bar tender. The only one who speaks is the “Storyteller” who provides a running commentary and interacts with the audience. The show is slickly put together and choreographed. Based around Morricones’s music they incorporate comedy, mime, set pieces from Westerns such as a bar room brawl and unusual and novelty instruments such as a one stringed home made fiddle, beer bottles and a Theremin. A major feature of the act is the use of sound effects, some tunes played entirely using various movie “Foley” effects. This is consistent with the Spaghetti Western tradition as Morricone incorporated sound effects into his scores. One highlight was the  “gunfight soundscape” which included the use of cornflakes.

But the group are also very competent, trained musicians, and this comes across in their act. Between them they played double bass,  trumpet, bassoon, keyboards, vibraphone, mandolin, drums and percussion as well as the assortment of miscellaneous objects.  I was particularly impressed with their jazz rendition of Chi Mai, which started with the band playing on beer bottles

Audience interaction was encouraged and it was great fun to join in with a vocal interpretation of the Good the Bad and the Ugly during their encore.

After the show, as is usually the case at concerts, there were CDs for sale and two of the band, Graeme Leak (the Bankteller) and Jess Ciampa (the Lieteller) were available to sign the sleeves. I managed to snap them using the camera on my phone.

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Vivaldi, Jim, but not as we know it

On Sunday we went to the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall to see Nigel Kennedy perform Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and a selection of pieces from his new album “The Four Elements”, as part of his current nationwide tour. Nigel cemented his reputation about 20 years ago with his performance of Vivaldi’s Concerto, which he also recorded for a very successful album. For his current tour he is accompanied by his his Orchestra of Life – an ensemble of classical, jazz and rock musicians and even four vocalists. Nigel was dressed very unconventionally for a classical concert. No monkey suit and dickey bow for him – to go along with his well known spikey haircut he was wearing bondage trousers and an Aston Villa replica shirt underneath his loose jacket. It was pretty clear that this wasn’t going to be a traditional classical concert. I wondered what the older members of the audience were going to make of it.

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Picture source: Wikipedia

The musicians were predominantly relatively young and a high proportion of them were rather attractive young women. An article I saw in the Guardian a few months ago referred to his ensemble as Nigel’s “mid life crisis orchestra”. They were probably not far off the mark!

The first half of the concert was devoted to The Four Elements – three of the four movements (air, earth and water – he missed out fire) and the underture, a piece written as an overture but played last. According to the publicity for the tour,

the Four Elements is a highly descriptive composition, inspired by the elements of earth, water, air and fire, which takes the listener on a journey of exhilaration, contemplation and celebration.

The pieces were a fusion of styles – classical, rock and jazz, and included vocal sections. I enjoyed the music, although had some reservations about the vocals. I’d listened to the album before the concert by Spotify and didn’t think some of the vocals worked, particularly on Earth. However, I have to say, that they came across much better live.

The second half, after the interval, was devoted to the Four Seasons , with a couple of Bach pieces interjected between Spring and Summer. It was a very different interpretation. It started off more or less in a traditional classical style (even if rock and jazz instruments were being played) but as the concert proceeded through the seasons more rock and jazz elements were introduced and Nigel switched from his acoustic violin to his electric one. He used effects pedals and in some sections his violin could have been mistaken for a rock guitar. There was input from the vocalists and even spoken sections of poems. It was very different to a traditional interpretation.

I enjoyed the concert. It was a  little self indulgent and I thought some aspects didn’t completely work, but there’s nothing wrong with trying out new approaches. Without experimentation music would ossify. Nigel clearly enjoyed himself and lapped up the adulation.

As for the audience – I think he won over the overwhelming majority. There was sincere, enthusiastic applause at the end with a large proportion of the audience on their feet – and he came back to play three more short pieces. I think just about everyone went away satisfied by an enjoyable, if flawed, performance. It was a good night. And Nigel certainly can play the violin.