Bristol Ensemble, Notes For Women – St George’s

Saturday 28th April, 2018

This was another ticket I picked up in Bristol’s culture flash sale. It made tonight’s ticket just £9, which for live classical music is a complete bargain. Bristol Ensemble are a flexible orchestra, and the only dedicated one in the City. This concert was to celebrate the contribution of female composers, and was dubbed Notes for Women, the Early Years. A feminist classical celebration of creative women. For £9. You can see why I booked a ticket.

It was my second trip this week to the beautiful St George’s and I was back up in the gallery. As the front row was almost completely empty I moved forwards so that I had a great view, just over the tip of the stage, as well as a great position to listen from.

The concert began with a piece composed by Hildegard of Bingen, who died over 800 years ago. Famous as a writer and prophet as well as musician and composer, she left many pieces for us to still listen to centuries later. How amazing is that? That almost a milennia after she wrote it, her music is still being performed and heard.

Next we were treated to a harpsichord suite and some gorgeous violin and cello by the ensemble. Add in the supremely talented soprano, Mariana Flores, who’s dramatic and passionate performance carried the whole thing and you had a first half that flew past in moments.

After the interval there was the first violin sonata composed by a woman, Isabella Leonarda, in 1693, and it was lush. I found it very moving and a tremendous emotional release.

Mariana came back and sang like an absolute angel. It was proper spine tingling stuff, hairs standing on end and heart soaring to the sky stuff. What an incredible voice! So wonderfully backed by the cello and harpsichord. I shouldn’t be surprised anymore that I fall in love with styles of music I would not expect to, but I seem to be developing a love of the Baroque.

Bristol Ensemble had saved the best until last, however. We jumped forwards in time to early classical, for Violin Concerto 3 by Maddalena Sirmen and oh wow was it lovely. The violin soloist, Natalia Lameiko was astonishing. I had no idea the violin could be so delicate and beautiful. Her brilliance blindingly obvious even to me, who knows almost nothing about virtuoso performance. But talent is talent, and you know it when you hear it. Just like when Jeff Beck picks up a guitar. The programme confirmed what I had deduced, multi award winning Professor of Music, hailed by Lord Menuhin. I feel very lucky to have heard her play. It was pure brilliance.

My only complaint about this evenings concert, it was over too soon. I loved it. It was fabulous to have women’s contribution to music celebrated in this way, stretching back over the centuries to reach us anew in the 21st Century.

Joan as Policewoman – St George’s Hall, Bristol

Wednesday 25th April, 2018

I had oscillated between going and not going to this gig for ages and I’m not at all sure why. Every Joan As Policewoman song I’ve heard played on 6 Music is brilliant. I love the venue. By the time I talked myself into saying yes to getting a ticket, it was almost too late. The only seat I could get was a restricted view one on the ground floor (not great for a short arse like me) but the acoustics are so good that I decided to go with it. I know St George’s as a classical, jazz and spoken word venue. This was to be my first contemporary gig there and I wasn’t at all sure how it would work. Was Joan too groovy for a seated gig? Was the usual audience there a bit staid for alt rock? Was I, as usual, over thinking everything?

It has been a tough few weeks. I’ve been unwell. Not sleeping. Tense. In need of some musical release.

As much as I’m getting older and find standing for hours trickier, the upside of standing gigs is that people tend to arrive earlier. Seated ones seem to attract people who aren’t interested in hearing the support acts, which is such a shame. The wooden floors and ushers torches didn’t help either, as they ferried people in during the songs. During classical concerts they make you wait outside between pieces and only let you enter during breaks. Should not the same courtesy and respect be extended to all musicians?

Fyfe Dangerfield did a good job in those circumstances. He played half a dozen songs, but required 3 instruments and as many costume changes. As much as I love an old joanna, I preferred the ones he played on guitar. Possibly because I could see him, rather than the back of his head covered in a blue towelling dressing gown. Eccentric and charismatic he was. Bit like a musical Yoda. If I saw he was playing locally I would go.

Joan’s band came out, looking way cooler in their plum satin jackets than I ever could. I was coveting one at the merch desk, but £75 on the day you quit your job, well it wouldn’t have been sensible.

The opening trio of songs were all from Damned Devotion, the latest album, and the ones I knew from BBC6 Music. This left the rest of the gig as an open learning experience for me, as my ears were new to every other track. Joan’s voice is every bit as brilliant live on record, almost too perfect at times. Jazz influenced, sharp as a tack and wonderfully understated, it filled the hall.

It did take me a while to relax into this gig, if I managed that at all. That was all me, not the music. It felt odd sat near the back, with the light and angles making it possible to be aware of most of the rest of the audience. I find it very hard to get lost into the music like that. I was really tired and perhaps not in the right frame of mind to let go. Towards the end I even considered leaving, something I never do.

There was so much to like and admire and enjoy. The politics of The Silence. The love of What Was It Like. The groove of Human Condition. The brilliance of the re-imagining of Kiss. The overall talent of each musician, led by Joan. I was simply too tired is the truth. Which is such a shame, because on another day, perhaps in another venue, I feel as if I would fall in love with Joan as Policewoman.

Sometimes the right music finds you and sometimes you aren’t ready for it when it arrives. Musical relationships are much like any other, subject to the whims and fancies of fate. Most of all though, they are about timing and circumstance. Stars align at times and you float, skimming the stars. Other times much like ships passing in the night you miss each other by the tiniest of fractions.

I’m not sure I enjoyed a contemporary gig at St George’s. It isn’t dark and intimate feeling like the Lantern. I couldn’t close myself into the music as a result. Or maybe I need to book earlier and spend more money on better seats next time. Joan as Policewoman deserved more from me as an audience member than being too tired to enjoy it. Excellent songwriting craft, exquisite vocals and great tunes deserve more. I’ll be better next time, Joan. I’ll be better.





The Paraorchestra & Friends – Bristol New Music, Colston Hall

Saturday 21st April, 2018

There were so many reasons to want to see this performance. Charles Hazelwood, who would be conducting, among them. His fantastic BBC documentaries about music are part of the reason I now go to see classical music. The Paracorchestra another reason to show up. In the same way the Paraolympics give platform for disabled athletes to compete, Paraochestra gives musicians a platform to play. Representation matters. To be able to show my son examples of people with differences being highly successful and brilliant at what they do is so important.

I wasn’t bought up in a household that played or heard classical music, I had no tradition or way in. It can seem a closed and scary world. Opening music up, making it affordable, showing that anyone can make music, this matters. Otherwise classical music and live music remain the preserve of the privileged and they absolutely shouldn’t. As I’ve been discovering classical music can be soothing, beautiful, emotional, stirring, moving, uplifting, frightening, twee or experimental depending on which orchestra and composer you are seeing. I am deeply grateful to Colston Hall for making today’s event free, it meant I could risk bringing a highly sensitive boy along knowing we would be able to leave without losing anything. Giving him freedom to move around also helped! It was beautiful to see children weaving in and out of the musicians, and the sight of a newborn baby being held up to hear a violinist was gorgeous.

The orchestra was deconstructed, spread out across all 4 levels of Colston Hall’s foyer, which for those who don’t know it is very high indeed. Each member of the orchestra, dressed in white, like a shining angel, was placed on a small platform and we were encouraged to move around them, and the space, during the performance. It was a very unusual and engaging way to experience a concert.

They were to play Steve Reich’s Four Sections, which I know nothing about, so I can only say how much I enjoyed hearing it today in this strange and brilliant manner.

We started at the top, among the brass. What a glorious sound that was! My boy whispered as much as we moved downstairs to the next level to find the strings and wind – all mixed together. To be able to stand between a violin and a clarinet was glorious. A position no ordinary punter would be lucky enough to be in. I closed my eyes and listened, really listened. My left ear full of one, my right the other, my brain adding them together with all the other instruments. It was joy. I stood so close to a flautist I thought I would knock her over. What a beautiful and delicate sound. And a bassoon, I have never heard a bassoon up close to know what it sounds like before. It is a sound I will not forget, and I will now be better able to identify and understand when I next hear a full orchestra.

On the ground floor, we weaved in and out of the pianist, drums and glockenspiel.  To see the inside of the piano as it was played, showing my boy how it worked, was glorious. Standing between 2 glocks, not daring to breathe in case that nudged me too close and I knocked an arm, even more so. It was immerse and inclusive and brilliant.

The way the sound changed, depending on where you were, was very special. When near the bottom you had to concentrate to find the violins with your ears, rather than eyes and vice versa when at the top for the drums and piano. I wonder what the music would sound like in a more traditional set up. Perhaps one day I’ll find out, but if I don’t it was still a brilliant piece of music.

I asked a couple of the musicians afterwards if having people so close was a distraction, both said no as they were concentrating so hard that it made little difference, other than worrying that their music stands would be knocked over! They seemed to have really enjoyed this different way of playing as much as we had.

Thank you Colston Hall for showcasing the talents of a brilliant orchestra in such a unique way. Thank you Paraorchestra and Charles Hazelwood for playing and conducting. I loved it. My boy enjoyed it. He has never heard an orchestra before, he has never seen live music before, what a way to introduce him!



Hannah Peel – Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Saturday April 14th, 2018

As soon as this gig was announced I wanted to go. Drawback being I was signed up to volunteer, all day, at the Coeliac food fayre in Bristol. I thought I wouldn’e be able to go. But it played on my mind that I was unlikely to get another opportunity to see Hannah play Mary Casio again, especially with Tubular Brass. Two weeks ago I was in London, meeting a friend for coffee and I found myself standing at the South Bank Centre box office purchasing 2 tickets. I knew, just knew in my bones, that this was too special a gig to miss. I withdrew from my commitment to the food fayre (I’d planned to stand down from the committee next month anyway) and booked me and Tom some coach tickets. I’m not sure which of us was most surprised or excited.

I wound up still helping at the food fayre for an hour and had a frantic bus run back to drop off my goodies to the fridge before high tailing it back to get the coach. We made it to London with time to spare, so we took in a stroll along the South Bank and wandered through the new foyer with its very cute installation about the Festival of Britain.

Then there was confusion about where the Queen Elizabeth Hall was and how to find our seats once we were inside. Given that the venues have just been refurbished I was really disappointed in how poor the signage was, how few female toilets there were and crucially how indifferent the staff were to receiving feedback. They could, and should, have done better. Good, clear signage is a must in every public space. The band on in the foyer were also far too loud, the tables were blocking people flow, creating bottlenecking as you came in, all of which led me to walking in feeling quite anxious.

We were seated 2 rows from the back, high up and far removed from where I usually feel comfortable at a gig. This was more gutting in that the venue had released last minute seats only yesterday much lower down (about 3 rows worth). Who knows why. My impressions of the South Bank Centre are not high, that’s all I can say.

Oh and the woman sat in front of me was wearing incredibly strong and not particularly pleasant perfume. I was not at all in the right frame of mind to enjoy myself. I felt panicked and tense. If I hadn’t have been trapped in the middle of a row, high up in the dark, I may well have walked out.

Why put myself through that, you may well be asking yourself. Hannah Peel is the answer. If you don’t know the background to the Mary Casio album, please find an interview with Hannah and listen. From the moment I first heard Sunrise Through The Dusty Nebula and Hannah talk about the meaning of the music on Mary Ann Hobbs’ breakfast show on BBC6 Music I knew there was no going back, that I would fall in love with this record and find deep resonating meaning within it.

The way Hannah marries electronic and brass, creating stunning soundscape vistas, that lift you and take you spectacular places, is sublime. The journey of Mary Casio is moving, powerful stuff. Live it is that to the power of infinity. I was in tears. Floods of them. Proper heaving sobs, with snot dribbling into my mouth crying. Music unlocks emotions, bubbling them up to the surface, however much we restrain them. Music lights up all areas of the brain at once, it is unique in this. It reaches us in ways and at times nothing else can. It touches our soul.

Hannah, Mr Peel, I am so sorry that you and your family have known and continue to know the pain of losing someone you love to Alzheimer’s. It is a cruel and slow grief, you mourn while the person still breathes. Yesterday my Mum would have been 70. She died of Alzheimers at just 66. That will never seem fair, nor just, nor uncruel. Being able to take flight on the spaceship with Mary, leaving Earth and journeying among the stars, to beautiful nebula and galaxies far away, does ease that pain. How could such a journey not? It is hours later now, and I am fighting tears as I type this. Music makes me very emotional, I cry at lots of gigs, but I have never had such a strong reaction to music as I did today. I was unable to speak. I couldn’t feel my body, it had floated off into space I think. I was utterly transported and transformed. It wasn’t just the hairs on the back of my neck that stood up, it was every hair across my whole body. A couple of times when the brass kicked in I was completely flooded with emotions. The beautiful, melancholic quality of brass is used to full effect so brilliantly by Hannah and in Tubular Brass she has collaborators who are master players.

After an interval (which I really needed to compose myself) Tubular Brass played their interpretation of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells. It was brilliant stuff. So different emotionally, brass is considerably more versatile than I thought! It was a masterful reworking of an already masterful album. If you are able to hear it live, do.

The finale was a gorgeous version of Bowie’s Life On Mars, with Hannah on vocals and music box. It was a gentle way to bring us back down to Earth, and a fitting way to end the concert.

Afterwards we met and talked with Hannah and her lovely Dad (it was very touching to see them together). I think I may have overwhelmed Hannah with my emotions. What I didn’t have the power to say then was this; thank you for articulating musically, and with such warmth and humanity, so may of the emotions I have experienced. I wish you didn’t understand why your music made me feel the way it did, I wish I didn’t either. But because we both share that pain, and you have found the most beautiful and creative way to express it, we are all healed. Thank you for Mary Casio. It has meant so much, so very much. Hearing it played live was a cathartic experience. I shall carry it with  me for a long, long time.

Chineke! Orchestra – St George’s, Bristol

Wednesday 11th April, 2018

One of the new found joys of 40 gigs was a renewed love of classical music. Before last year I had only been to 2 or 3 classical concerts in my life. I now scour St George’s programme looking for classical concerts. This one caught my eye as Chineke! have been lauded as a brilliant orchestra, and as a champion of black and BME musicians, they clearly wish to make this genre of music as open and available to as wide an audience as possible. Besides they were going to play some Beethoven, and he’s a genius.

I adore St George’s, it has the best acoustics in the City. It’s an intimate venue, steeped in history and the sound quality is superb in every seat.

Somehow Chineke! squished more people on the stage than I thought possible, I’ve seen orchestra’s play at St George’s before, but not in this number. So many violins. They played 3 pieces in the 1st half and then Beethoven’s 4th Symphony in the 2nd. I knew none of the music beforehand (I’m more familiar with Eroica, the 5th and 9th symphonies, you know, Beethoven’s big hits).

Of the first halves pieces the one that stood out, for me, was the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Romance in G. It had lush strings, was incredibly beautiful and romantic and made me close my eyes and smile. I felt quite dreamy. The tone of Dream Song was very different, and that is the utter beauty of an orchestra. The range of emotions evoked by such a variety of sounds within a programme. How each instrument, individually and together, can produce such range.

According to the programme Beethoven’s 4th was regarded as wild and undignified at the time. The changes of pace and rhythm patterns would have made it seem so then, I guess, but now, simply sounds as how a symphony should. That was and is Beethoven’s genius. The original rebellious muso.

The passion and playfulness of conductor, Anthony Parnther, was evident and the joy the orchestra took in playing this piece was also obvious. It looked quite a physical effort, requiring real stamina to manage all the changes of rhythm and emotional tone.

There really is something entirely glorious about hearing an orchestra live. The vibrations of the strings, the thumping of the timpani drums, the sheer visceral thrill of it all coming together in your ears. There isn’t anything quite like it, especially in such a lovely venue. Thank you St George’s and Chineke! Orchestra for re-lighting my love of classical music. Making it affordable and accessible is so vital. Keep on “championing change and celebrating diversity in classical music” it makes a difference.

Public Service Broadcasting – New Theatre, Oxford

Thursday 5th April, 2018

I missed PSB when they played Bristol towards the end of last year and regretted it so when Tom offered to get us tickets to this tour I was very pleased. Oxford is usually very easy to get to by train from Bristol, with the last train back leaving after midnight. For some reason this wasn’t to be the case this week so a day off and a hotel had to be arranged on top. At one point I even suggested that we didn’t go. I’m very glad that Tom is even more stubborn than me and insisted we did!

The New Theatre Oxford isn’t usually a place I’d go to for a gig. They are owned by the same group as the Bristol Hippodrome, where I take my son for Panto and the occasional musical, so I wasn’t sure what it would be like as a gig venue. We had seats towards the back of the stalls and had a pretty decent view to be fair. Steeped and staggered seating meant I could take in most of the stage. Huge bonus. It was a very mixed age crowd, older folk you wouldn’t usually see at a gig, families with pre-teen kids, everyone. When music touches generations like that, you know its good. My son is a PSB fan, Go! is his favourite song. He is very jealous I went last night.

Jane Weaver was an inspired choice of support. The tone was set and her music was the perfect complement to PSB’s. The Architect was one of the stand out tracks, and not just because it was the one I knew best, having heard it played on BBC6 Music a fair bit. Backed by a drummer, guitarist and keys, she was able to display her brilliant voice and dramatic presentation to full effect. By the end of her set I found myself feeling quite spacey, in a state a deep relaxation and slightly like I was in another world. On that basis I would really like to see Jane Weaver headline a small show somewhere.

In the interval we met up with one of Tom’s twitter friends, Happy Cakes, who had rather splendidly baked us some cupcakes. A special set of gluten free red velvet one for me, and a mix of red velvet and chocolate for Tom. With sugar paper images of his face on! It was suitably eccentric for this gig 🙂 They were delicious, so if you live in Oxford area and need some cakes look her up.

Public Service Broadcasting were a perfect fit for a theatre, I needn’t have worried at all. Their light and sound show work in total harmony with the music to produce an all senses experience. The opening section, with lamps descending as if we were entering the mine, the pit wheels behind the band, and the intercut archive films coming together with the driving music to paint sonic pictures was so clever. PSB are art rock, prog rock, heavy pop, social historians, filmmakers and lots of other things. They play multiple instruments each in an almost bewildering display of talent. They may look like geography teachers (or nice boys as my Mum would have said) but they are passionate musicians and documenters of history. There is some kind of alchemy at work, clearly, because almost anyone else making music about Spitfires, the space race, Welsh coal mines, Everest and the like, would be utter nonsense. Yet, when PSB put it all together it is heartfelt, beautiful, joy bringing and enraging in equal measure. They somehow manage to be romantic about the past without wallowing in nostalgia. There is deep respect for the people whose stories they are telling. And they don’t forget the importance of the role of women, they tell the stories of the Miner’s wives as well as Valentina Tereshkova.

The encore was a mixture of that rage, a song dedicated to Orgreave (one of the T shirts on their merch stall was raising money for the families in their ongoing quest for justice) and joy with Gargarin, which is so groovy it was a shame we weren’t able to dance. A brilliant brass section and some dancing cosmonauts joined them on stage for that. It was so uplifting and smile inducing. PSB make music that documents the best of us, whilst never shying away from the darker moments of humanity. All while making us dance and smile. They are rapidly becoming part of the legacy they celebrate, music as an art form informs, educates and entertains.

Public Service Broadcasting were simply superb. I am very glad I got to see them live, and I hope I get to do so again one day, with my son.