Been plenty busy of late between work commitments and the rigours of the festival season taking its toll. I've seen quite a bit but can't really draw on that enthusiasm to write a lot of stuff up. We went to the Traverse the first weekend for some 2 for 1 preview action and really enjoyed the Almeida production of Adam Rapp's Nocturne. It's a beautifully constructed monologue about grief, family breakdown, loneliness and trauma. But entertaining for it. The entire thing hinges on Peter McNamara's stunning performance as the nameless narrator, a writer still grieving over his accidental slaying of his sister in a car accident. The monologues slowly unpack the narrators stacks of baggage in a humane and artful fashion depicting a fraught atmosphere of family tension where the piano, a Steinway, is an ever-present, impassive and malignant presence. The narrator repeatedly invokes Greig, Chopin, Tchaikovsky", names spat out by the narrator, personification of his torment at the familial expection to perform. Each scene is intercut with beautiful, haunting and jarring bursts of piano music, little miniatures of pressure, rhythm and tension in a glorious hour and a half of haunting and musical language. The work really put me in mind of some of Michel Faber's darker short stories with tragedy spun in a scintillating web of gorgeous language.
Last week we pottered on to "Etcetera" at the independent Universal Arts venue on Hill Street. A wordless 50 minutes of puppetry by Polish company Teatr K3 is a wee gem. It's difficult to describe this piece as it suggests much more (play, automation, commercialism, our "metro, boulot, dodo" culture) than it initially appears(three evil sisters tormenting dolls). There's something mythical about it with the three performers stalking the stage selecting their next manikin victim and then, to some wonderful wonky/spooky music, pulling them in hundreds of different directions until they tire of it, discard it hanging on the wall and move in search of their next candidate. The piece is poetic, funny and haunting, the greatest draw being the palpable pleasure the performers take in their exertions. A fantastic piece which seems to have been overlooked by a lot of critics.
Monday evening involved an orgy of classical music with a double header at the International Festival. First up was the Estonian Philharmonic Choir conducted by Paul Hillier. As we took our seats in the top circle of the newly (and not-quite finished) refurbished Usher Hall (after a climb up a scaffolded staircase! one wag said it was a bit more like a Fringe Venue!) I was a bit worried we weren't going to get the full benefit of this well-regarded Choir. That all changed once they launched into Veljo Tormis' "Jaanilaulud"- starting with sounds like the wind in trees or a distant sea at night. The repertoire stayed around the Baltics with Finland and Estonia taking centre stage. Highlights included Toivo Tulev’s 2006 work "Summer Rain" which had a peculiar. lollopping cadence and Arvo Part's beautiful "Magnificat" and “Nunc dimittis”. The final piece, Bergman's "Lapponia", a non-lyrical semi-improvised evocation of the Lapp landscape in winter and summer was a bit more challenging with the 2nd movement "Yoik" integrating LKSDJ song techniques evoking a desolate arctic wilderness. A final piece from (I think) Sibelius left us home with something a bit more tuneful. Not a bad evening's entertainment but the programming lacked a bit of fun and levity after the first, flush of enthusiasm. It got some very positive reviews from people who know far more about this stuff than I do.
Then it was a quick dash through Tattoo Traffic, a quick fortifying Malt in the Bow Bar and on to St Giles Cathedral and Naji Hakim's second performance as part of the Messiaen centenery. The first night was very well reviewed. The performance skewed a little more in favour of Hakim's own work with the second piece Offrande au Saint Sacrement instead of the programmed Offrande et Alleluia from the Livre du Saint Sacrement. This was a little disappointing and confusing for the audience who didn't applaud in the break between "Offrande au Saint Sacrement" and Hakim's "Sakskøbing Praeludier”. I always find this the most offputting aspect of classical music where the neophyte often doesn't know when to clap for fear of appearing to be some sort of thick tongued teuchtar dragging muck in on someone's nice carpet. Still, Hakim was a blast, hammering through the Messiaen and then firing into his own two compositions. The Messaien (a composer I know very little about) sounded to me very like some John Carpenter scores. What I love about Faure, Satie and Poulenc, who are all forerunners to Messaien, is their playfulness, the lightness and beauty that lurks even in their strange works. A few years ago me and the missus went to "Punch Drunk Love" on Valentines Night and she described it as being like a lovely light pudding. That's how the more beautiful modern French music sounds to me, whimsical, slightly bonkers but amiable nonetheless. There were aspects of this in the Messaien along with more discordant spookiness staggering off down the Cathedral to the dark. I expected it to be a lot more difficult and less enjoyable than it was. Someone with more education about this might smirk at my artless listening skills but there you go. The "Sakskøbing Praeludier" is a collection of hymns that seem to come from outer space. Really entertaining, overblown and completely, utterly original. I can't imagine the kind of church this comes from, sort of like looking at the weird space creatures in the bar in Star Wars. Some pieces were quite like video game music, partifularly Hitoshi Sakimoto, the God King of Japanese video game composition who wrote the influential music for the Final Fantasy series. There was also some John Carpenter, but less menacing. The half hour of Sakskøbing Praeludier and the Glenalmond Suite was as entertaining, fresh and enjoyable as I've enjoyed musically for ages. After some well timed applause from a very mixed crowd Hakim treated us to some improvisations which were similarly witty and playful before he tickled us all with a big cheesy deconstruction of Scotland the Brave and some other Scottish airs. He took his heartfelt applause with a big smile that reflects the openness, good humour and accessibility of his music. There's a good youtube of him merrily improvising away for himself here!
As I’ve previously intimated here I’m not all that into stand up comedy. This is largely due to overdosing on mediocrity in the first couple of years in Edinburgh and the frustration that comes from spending extensive amounts of cash to sit and listen to a bare hour of complacent, smug and faux-intelligent wittering. By cutting out the comedy I've had the money to spend on tickets for much of the above so i feel my instinct is right for me. This year I made an exception for both of the Amsterdam Underground Comedy Collective going to both Micha Wertheim and Hans Teeuwen. Wertheim was reasonably funny, largely because he’s quite an astute physical comedian with a really amiable manner. He seemed a little rusty though (this was in the first weekend) and at one stage looked like he was about to corpse. Teeuwen is a class act, a sly and sneakily intelligent comedian as well as accomplished pianist. The hour we spent listening to bizarre ranting setups that blossomed into delicate and intricate routines was as good I think as I’ve ever seen. Days later I’m still unpicking parts of the performance, the interplay of music, language, physical theatre and edgy surrealism left everyone I’ve spoken to about it completely stunned.
More to come during next week, hopefully more theatre at the Traverse and a stroll through some more highlights in galleries.