Beethoven’s 9th – Barbican, London

Saturday 28th December, 2019

Knowing my son would be with his Dad for part of Christmas and not wanting endless days of being home alone, I had booked myself a day trip to London to see this concert. The chance to see a fine orchestra play one of the finest symphonies written by one of the finest composers wasn’t one I felt able to pass over. 2020 will be the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, but I thought I would start celebrating a little early.

This was my last gig of 2019. The 103rd of the year. Seeing out such a busy musical year with Beethoven seemed sort of fitting.

I am not from a classical music background, it wasn’t the sort of music the working class community I grew up in listened to and my University was a former poly and we didn’t go back to ‘digs’ to listen to LP’s (we were too busy getting wasted in the SU bar and listening to Britpop). I knew Ravel’s Bolero only because of Torvill and Dean and Oh Sole Mio because of the ice cream advert! Four Seasons was a pizza, not a piece of music.  Classical music was still high culture, the rarified air that posher people than me breathed until a few years ago when 40 gigs made me try all sorts of music for the first time.

Even with my limited knowledge, I knew that Beethoven was one of the greats. Your basic troika are Bach, Beethoven and Mozart. You can’t go far wrong with any of them. Beethoven’s 9th, with its rousing Ode To Joy finale is one of his most famous works and even if you have no idea that you are listening to Beethoven, you will recognise its stirring ending. I have never heard it performed live before and as it such a famous and revered piece I thought I would take the chance to here the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra play it.

The Barbican is a vast place and the main hall is huge, but it does have excellent sound right to its rooftops so a balcony seat was purchased (the only level in my price range) and round its maze of steps I went. Entering at that top level provided me with weird flashbacks of my graduation ceremony, where I had been left in charge of the VIP guests and had gotten lost with them. I could see clearly the steps to the stage that I had almost fallen from whilst wearing ridiculous platform shoes (the 90’s was a strange decade). The area where the photographer had taken my photo; no need to tell me to smile as I beamed with pride as the only member of my family to have ever completed an education of any kind beyond 16; it shone out of my face like a sunbeam. My Mum and Nan both speechless at meeting the VIP’s afterwards (Lord Rix and Honour Blackman) and then being left alone in that vast hall, watching the throng of students in caps and gowns peel away with their families, off out to lunches and celebrations. It was just me. On my own, walking into an unknown future. I am in much the same position now, except it is my choice to be alone. I am comfortable in my own skin and am self reliant in a way that would make both Mum and Nan proud I hope.

As usual I have wandered off, but that is me and this is my writing. Music is a key that opens up doors, memories, sensations, experiences and I write about them all. It has never been just about the music.

The Royal Phil was joined by Daniel Lebhardt on piano for the opening piece, Beethoven’s piano concerto number 5 and an excellent job he did too. I was finding it hard to concentrate on listening as all the memories of being in the Barbican more than 20 years before spilled into my head, but I did enjoy the music nonetheless.

After an interval where I ascertained that I would need to leave pretty sharpish at the end of the concert, due to the later finish time than first advertised, I prepared myself to be blown away by Beethoven. The first movement is gentle, setting up the sweeping musical motifs that will circle their way throughout the symphony. The second picks up (and is probably my favourite part), hinting at the crescendo that will come at the end. Paces slows again, like waves crashing slowly in, before building back up and up before reaching the thunderous conclusion of choir and orchestra in an ending so famous that even I knew it before hearing it tonight. Perhaps it was because I was worried about time, but the ending was less than I expected it to be. I was imaging crashing and chaotic noise, but it felt too restrained. Maybe it was because I was so high up. Maybe my expectation was set too high. Or perhaps it was too politely played, by an orchestra and choir in back tie playing to the same rarified air audience I am not a part of. I wanted to see an orchestra almost lose control of themselves, to play with wild abandon and passion. To play as if their souls depended on it. I don’t think that is possible in an evening gown, playing to a polite audience! I want orchestras full of musicians playing for their lives, giving me everything they have, sweeping me up in a wave of tumultuous emotion. It is possible, I have heard classical music played that way. I have heard all sorts of music played in that way and it is the music I love the most.

I was expecting greatness and got acceptable. This wasn’t how I wanted my gigging year to end, but perhaps I am too exhausted from it all, or to jaded or spoilt by wonders. Next year there will be fewer experiences, of that I am sure. Perhaps I will hear more Beethoven (I hope so, I’ve yet to hear Eroica live) and perhaps I will be blown away by that. For now, I am glad I went, even if it did not meet my expectations.

2019 has been a very busy year. 103 gigs. I’ll be wrapping them all up in an end of year report soon.

 

 

Philharmonix – St George’s, Bristol

Wednesday 18th December, 2019

Not quite the last concert of the year, but number 102 of 2019. Yes, it has been a very busy year.

This was another ticket I picked up in the culture flash sale, making my back corner seat just £8. Okay so the view was pretty restricted, but for that price I wasn’t going to complain. Especially when the sound in St George’s is so superb that I could hear everything perfectly.

Philharmonix are an unusual group – made up of musicians from the Berlin and Vienna philharmonics who play a mixture of classical and pop music that they have re-arranged to bring fun and lightness to the music they play.

I have never heard Beethoven done jazz before, nor Queen played by a mini orchestra. Violin, cello, oboe, piano and double bass combined to make Beethoven swing. You could easily have gotten up and danced to it, that is how jazzy it was! As for their version of Bohemian Rhapsody well it has to be heard to be believed I think. Proving that a great piece of music is a great piece of music however it is handled, they managed to make it sound as if it had been composed for a string quartet rather than a rock band. I would love to hear it given full operatic vocals alongside.

In a packed programme there were also bluegrass versions of Waltzing Matilda on violin, a German bossa nova with cod Portuguese lyrics sung by the violinist (not something you see or hear every day) that was the oddest mixture of Brazilian dance beats and classical styling. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas became Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life and Feliz Navidad (one of the few Christmas tunes I can actually stomach) became something quite wonderful by being rearranged for this classical grouping. There was also Hungarian folk, klezmer music and Brahams. Told you it was a packed programme. Closing with Englishman In New York was masterful – it had all the jazz swing and swagger you could wish for.

Philharmonix clearly love and relish the freedom they have given themselves to create anew music they have played before, or to reinvent modern music in a different way and were having a whale of a time up onstage. If I were to see them again I think I would have had a rollicking good time myself. The only reason I didn’t at this was the time of year. Christmas season (which seems to begin in October now) can be a rough time of year for me and I have had a difficult few days. The music did lift and brighten at times, but I needed something more to lift the gloom completely. Learning from last years terrible mistake of attending Christmas concerts (what was I thinking?!) I had hoped that the music I’ve experienced this December would be more a distraction from the pain, and in the main it has worked. That Philharmonix could cut through as much as they did shows how good they are. I would like to hear them again, their creativity of spirit was wonderful to behold.

I have one more gig this year, Beethoven’s 9th, which I am hoping will rouse me sufficiently on the 28th December. Then I will round up and review 2019.

My plans for 2020 are to attend a lot less. My finances and my health need me to scale things back. Perhaps I’ll go back to 40. Yeah, 40 seems a whole heap more manageable.

Merry Christmas from this Grinchy Scrooge.

 

Daylight Music – Union Chapel, London

Saturday 14th December, 2019

I had decided to treat myself to staying over in London, rather than getting a late coach home, which also meant I was able to get to Daylight Music for its last hurrah of the year. Daylight Music has been celebrating its 10th birthday in 2019, which is such tribute to Ben and all the volunteers who make it what it is. On most Saturdays in the year you will find them beavering away at the fabulous Union Chapel. There are always at least 3 acts, tea, cake and smiles. It is about the perfect way to spend a Saturday lunchtime in my book.

This Daylight Music was curated by the wonderful Lost Map record label, of whom I am a postcard subscriber and I was looking forward to hearing more from this quirky little label.

Callum Easter had the unenviable job of playing first, as the huge crowd were still thronging in. As a result I didn’t get to hear as much of him as I would have liked. A singing accordion player with electronics in the background, I liked him and will keep my ears pricked for an opportunity to see him again.

The in between act was playing Last Christmas on the church organ (covers are allowed under the rules of Whamaggedon so I’m still a survivor!) and hearing the Wombles theme tune played on a 150 year old church organ is something I will not forget in a hurry.

Rozi Plain, a Bristol local, was up next. I had heard as part of This Is The Kit at the BBC 6 Music festival a few yeas back, and despite everyone else loving them (and on paper them being a band I should love) I was underwhelmed. I am sad to say the same happened today. For whatever reason, Rozi’s music doesn’t sit with me. She is very talented, it just isn’t for me. I really could have done without the very long communist speech from the saxophone player in the middle of the set – I felt the band were about to launch into Internationale! I’ve no problem with politics in music, but an entire speech on a Saturday lunchtime for an audience that were not yours. No, lad, no. Rozi herself, speaking from the heart, about the need to draw together, was considerably more powerful.

Pictish Trail were next and I loved them, they were easily my favourites of the day. Looking like Aussie mechanics in boiler suits and caps, with a wonderful sideline in surreal comedy, possessed of a beautiful voice that filled the chapel, I was a happier bunny now. This was more my sort of thing. The right sort of strange. I think I would be quite happy on the fictional Scottish island of Egg with Pictish Trail. Given that politically I may well need to move to Scotland in a few years (thank you Scottish Grandma) this bodes well.

Glasgow Dreamers were last up and I also liked them. They played a series of Ivor Cutler covers and the surreal humour was a much needed and welcome release. Cow bells echoing out across and around the beautiful Union Chapel was worth showing up for all by itself. They closed with all the other acts of the day joining them onstage and singing Women of the World Take Over. If only, if only. That moment would have had a lot more power if there were more than 3 women on the stage, surrounded by three times as many men. Just saying, lads, if you want us to take over, you have to make space, by giving up some.

This was the musical tonic I needed. Saying a brief hello to Ben and Kate – good, good people who care, and being there with my friend Ian to share in the music and friendship was what was needed this weekend. I had taken myself mostly offline since the election results, I needed time to breathe and grieve. I wanted to concentrate on being in the real world and with the things that matter; music and people. I am still mourning for the country I thought Britain was; a place of more tolerance and caring than this. I am still frightened about the future. More than half of my income comes from the state in the form of various benefits. All of it if you consider that my earned wage is from the NHS. I am a single parent with multiple chronic long term health problems to a child with additional needs. Everything we depend on to make our lives worthwhile is publicly funded. I have no partner, almost no family and very few friends. No state help and I am finished. The very real threats to my livelihood, financial support and the school support my son needs are terrifying.

My return coach to London cost £12, entry to Daylight Music is free and my Air BnB was £27. Little luxuries like these will go soon. There will be others (perhaps me, who knows) who lose a lot more. Homes, jobs, lives.

I needed time to remember what is good, and what matters. Music. Friendship. I hope those things last. I will be clinging to them both with all the hope I can muster for the next however many years we all have to endure this cold and cruel government. At some point I will find the strength to think about how I can help ensure there are better days ahead, even if I don’t live to see them. Like old folk who plant trees in who’s shade they will never sit. I have to believe in the power of art to change lives and indeed the world. For now, while I still could, I enjoyed the warmth of the community of music.

BBC Symphony Orchestra – Barbican Hall, London

Friday 13th December, 2019

I had planned this trip some time ago, not knowing there was going to be a General Election the day before. One in which the result would bring me profound grief and fear. I am very glad that I had some light to enjoy in the darkness, in the form of friendship and music.

I spent the afternoon hanging out with James and Josie at Soho Radio, being among good people, playing music and having fun. It was what was needed.

The Barbican is such an odd place. Baffling and bewildering, even when you have been there before. Credit to them for attempting to brighten up the place and improve the signage so that it is possible to find your way around the vast building. For those who have never been, the Barbican is an arts complex, modernist and brutalist in its architecture (with an attached housing complex to boot). Purpose built, housing a theatre, concert hall, cinema, gallery, restaurant and bars; it is a huge concrete monolith in the heart of London, surrounded by business district and high rise buildings.  It sort of hides despite its vast size. It is a place I’ve visited a number of times for a number of reasons (photography exhibitions, Indiana Jones film marathons, concerts and indeed my own University graduation ceremony) but it is still not a place I find I can love. There is something about it that still feels off putting, cold and the public spaces between venues have horrible swirling acoustics that hurt my ears as the cacophony of noise swirls within it. Yet, I end up going back there as the concert hall is superb and it is the home of the BBC SO, one of the finest orchestras in the country.

I have never heard any Mahler live, and his reputation as a stirring composer drew me to buying this ticket. As external events unfolded, I wondered if his bombastic style would be the right response!

Before we could get to Mahler there were two modern compositions by Brett Dean and Judith Weir. I preferred the second of the two, an oboe concerto. There was a dialogue between the oboe and the other instruments, chiefly the strings. It soars and flies like a bird above and was a gentle, light piece.

Then we got to Mahler and it was nowhere near as stirring and bombastic as I was expecting! The first movements in particular were considerably more gentle sounding, with a slow and winding build up. There were also echoes of Jewish music at points, at least to my ears, and bursts of frenetic strings. There were elements I enjoyed, but as a whole it didn’t entirely work for me. Perhaps Mahler isn’t my sort of composer, much as I like some bands within a style, I don’t like them all and maybe I’m just more of a Beethoven girl. The only way I’ll find out is to keep listening, which I intend to do.

There is always something impressive about seeing an orchestra play; the combination of each individual contributing to the whole, like worker bees or ants in a colony. Every player must be superb, even when you rarely hear them as an individual.

I am still very new to classical music and my comprehension of the language is almost non existent, yet as the old adage goes, I know what I like. The thing is, with all music, not just classical music, having an open heart and ears is all you really need to understand anything. How does the music make you feel? Don’t like one composer or one piece, try another. Classical music is as broad a genre as any other so why not try something? I did as part of 40 gigs and now I’m a semi regular classical listener! New musical worlds can await you if you are prepared to listen.

 

Three Cane Whale – St George’s, Bristol

Thursday 5th December, 2019

This is a long overdue entry, this gig was 10 days ago.

It has taken so long to write this as I’ve not been in the mood to write at all. There has been a lot going on, both in my life and the country. That swell of emotions and my physical health not entirely holding up added to the usual difficulties of dealing with Christmas season (always a hard time of year for me) and the words have just not wanted to come.

I have wanted to see Three Cane Whale for a while, but their Bristol gigs always seemed to sell out before I could get a ticket. Popular, local, folk, all good things. Would they be worth the wait?

There was a support act, playing folk as a string quartet, who I did really like, but I’ve no idea of their name! They played a mixture of original and traditional compositions and the mixing together of the folk and classical traditions was fun.

I also enjoyed Three Cane Whale, who treated us to the whole of their mini album as well as some other tracks. It was all rather gentle, calming and nice. Not a bad way to spend an evening at all.

 

Book review – Lowborn, Kerry Hudson

I had been wanting to read Lowborn ever since I read Kerry’s columns in the now, sadly, defunct, Pool online magazine. Her writing felt familiar, like I knew her, the warmth, honesty and humanity with which Kerry writes made me feel somehow at home with her words.

Hardback books are expensive and difficult for me to hold, with arthritic hands, and although I think audiobooks are wonderful things, they don’t really work for me in the same way, I resigned myself to waiting ages for the paperback version. Then I went to a writing workshop, organised by Kerry, that was completely free to attend and designed to help boost the confidence of marginalised writers.  I came away inspired and have written the first 15, 000 words of my book as a result. We were given a goody bag, which included a copy of Lowborn. I was thrilled, especially as I got to meet Kerry, give her a great big cuddle and get her to sign my copy.

That was back in the summer, on a fearsome hot day and I have only now, in the bitter cold of winter, finished reading Lowborn. It isn’t even a very big book! I am simply not the reader I once was and have little time for the pleasure of reading anymore. I also have this love hate relationship with books I enjoy, where I want to complete them whilst also never reaching the end. There are also some difficult things to read in Lowborn. Hard truths about Kerry’s early life and that of the people who didn’t escape the hardships as she has. It is a book that makes you look at all the things you would rather look away from; that collectively we have as a society all looked away from. Grinding poverty, addiction, child abuse and neglect, sexual assault and the ripping away of public services and support from those who are most in need. I could sense the pain Kerry felt, both as a child, and as an adult revisiting her life, altogether too keenly at points.

Her story resonated. I was a rung above Kerry on the ladder of poverty. My parents were together, worked and we had a family network nearby that meant we never went without. I did, however, grow up on a sink estate on the fringes of a town on the fringes of a city and I was surrounded by people barely getting by. Mum used to take a pen and paper with her on the weekly big shop to the supermarket, writing down the prices of everything, totting up a running total as she went, to ensure she had enough money to pay for everything. I remember asking if I could have a 3.5p back of sweets and being told I’d have to wait until the end to see if we had enough. Some weeks we did, some weeks we didn’t. I know my Mum worked just about every job going to top up Dad’s milkman’s wage. Cinema usher, bar maid, shop assistant, sewing jobs, she did them all. I remember wanting Barbie and My Little Pony and school shoes from Clarks but being given market stall rip offs and my cousins hand me downs instead. I never went to bed empty tummied or had holes in my shoes, and I knew I was lucky in that sense because there were kids on my estate who did. But I also new we lived in the wrong part of town and that we were considered poor. Growing up on a council estate in the Thatcher ensured you knew your place in the pecking order.

I physically left that place in 1987 when we moved to a rural Hampshire village but psychologically I have carried it with me all of my life. The estate I grew up on is in the process of being destroyed and rebuilt. I went back to visit three summers ago. I felt I needed to see it, to say goodbye. Those are feelings I share with Kerry and why I felt Lowborn so keenly. The sense of rootlessness and longing for stability and home has never left me. I am so glad that for Kerry there has been some resolution and that in her wonderful husband, Peter, she has the love she has always deserved. One day perhaps I will be able to put down the burdens I have carried about relative poverty, of class injustice, not having a family or a place to call home. One day, perhaps, I will find my Peter too.

Lowborn is most definitely Kerry’s story, but parts of it felt so familiar that they could have been my own. I wish I did not share some of her sense of loss at robbed opportunities. I wish we all lived in a world where we could say that those things are in the past, that the bad days are over, but I know we are not. Years of austerity have taken us back decades in terms of the progress that had been made in lifting children out of poverty. As soon as the coalition government removed the words Every Child Matters from the Sure Start programme I knew that kids like the ones Kerry and I had been would be forgotten. We have no idea how much talent and wonderousness is thrown away as a result. How many lives lived in the shadows when they should have been supernovas.

Reading Lowborn has been at times difficult and at times glorious. I felt seen and represented in ways I rarely am in any art form. Kerry is a generous and open hearted writer, who lives her life as she writes, with compassion and kindness. Those are lessons we could all learn from.

Thank you Kerry for being brave enough to share your story, for the writers workshop and being you. If you are ever round Bristol way, let me know and I’ll stand you a cup of tea and a bun.

Richard Spaven – Colston Hall Foyer, Bristol

Wednesday 4th December, 2019

I missed out on seeing Richard Spaven at Rough Trade earlier in the year, and as a jazz drummer with a love of hip hop and dub, he seemed interesting enough to try to catch this time round.

This was the first time I’d been to a gig in Colston Hall’s foyer that wasn’t seated, which came as a surprise (lesson: read the read the small print) but I must thank the very lovely staff who got me a chair so that I could be comfortable.

Being sat at towards the back did mean that I couldn’t see anything on the stage and that I was exposed to the talkers. I fail to understand why people spend money going to gigs and then chat during the music! Yes, even during the support act I expect you to listen. If you want a chat, go to a pub. If you aren’t interested in the support then either show up later, or go away and come back. Your talking spoils things for others and is disrespectful to the artists. End of rant.

There was a support band, Sydney, who I think were a bassist, keys, guitar and electronics but I cannot be sure as I couldn’t see them! I liked them and they were a good choice of support for Richard stylistically.

The crowd was a lot younger and hipper than I and I was feeling a bit out of place (especially sat down). There were a lot of young, white men in the audience and the only other women I could spy appeared to be there with blokes. We really do need to change the culture of going out so that women, alone or in groups, feel comfortable and welcome everywhere.

Richard Spaven is indeed, as promised, a jazz drummer who throws down hip hop, trip hop, dub and club culture beats with his drums. I liked that he is pushing jazz in a less traditional direction, I like that it was attracting a different and younger audience (no music, not even orchestral music, can survive preserved in aspic forever, it has to adjust and change with the times it finds itself in) and on another night I think I would have been really enjoying myself. As it was I did enjoy all the music I heard, I had taken on too much in one day and was exhausted.

I let before the end to catch a bus as they only run every half an hour and I wanted my bed.

I think I am going to have to seriously scale back the gigging next year. This was gig number 98 of 2019. That is too many.

 

AKA Trio – St George’s, Bristol

Thursday 28th November, 2019

I had been looking forward to this one for a while. AKA are the initials of the three musicians, and I’d seen the K, Seikou Keita play before. He is a kora player and it is such a beautiful sound that for that alone this gig would be worth showing up for. The two A’s are Antonio Forcione and Adriano Adewale an Italian classical guitarist and a Brazillian percussionist. Add them together, three musicians from different continents, cultures and playing styles and you get a fusion of lovely music. Their latest album is called Joy and that is what I went to hear. It was what I heard, the music was lovely. I was just not in the right headspace or physical place to enjoy it at all.

My arthritis/fibromyalgia/nerve problems/whatever the hell it is flared up badly and I was in pain. Far too much pain to enjoy being there and to be able to concentrate. I had to leave at the interval to get home to painkillers, hot water bottles and bed.

Pain steals from you. It steals experiences and memories. Tonight it stole this gig from me. It is almost impossible to describe what chronic pain feels like to those fortunate enough to have never experienced it. Whatever short term, reasonably predictable pain you have experienced in your life from accidents and the like is very different to the chronic, unreliable and confusing pain of long term conditions. Nerves get fired and inflamed and they never really learn to calm down fully. I have learned to live with a level of background pain that would probably floor most people. I’ve become inured to it; I’ve had to. But sometimes it breaks through and you have no choice but to listen to it and pay attention. You have to stop, take the damn drugs, and hope. That is what happened at some point on Thursday evening.

I had to miss gigs on Friday night, Saturday and Sunday evening too. Perhaps I need to slow down the gigging and learn to do something else with my time instead.

I hope that I get to see AKA trio again as what I can remember of what I could hear and focus on was good. They were a real harmony, each of them playing to compliment the other two and not to try to dominate, it was gentle and it was fun. Another time. Another time.