Nina, Birmingham REP

March 9, 2018

Written by Susannah Shepherd

 

In three words, I would describe Nina as passionate, stirring and insightful.

Nina is a one woman show performed by Josette Bushell-Mingo about her own life and the career of Nina Simone which touches on the civil rights movement and Black Lives Matter. Despite the implications of the title, the show is as much about the woman onstage as it is about Nina Simone, if not more so, as well as things larger than either one. Bushell-Mingo showcased her huge personality, passion and boundless energy throughout the show, as well as her beautiful voice. The first half of the one act show took the form of an extended monologue, peppered with songs and accompanied with images from the civil rights movement as well as Black Live Matter. The second half took the form of a Nina Simone concert, with Bushell-Mingo introducing herself as the understudy. In the second half, Bushell-Mingo’s vocal talent is immense, and her performance was utterly captivating. However, it was not her singing voice that drew my attention, but rather her voice in a different sense – that of an activist and a passionate black woman – which she used fully during the first half.

She began by singing ‘Revolution’ by Nina Simone, but before the song was over the show took a sombre turn, as she claimed there had been no revolution, referencing the many black men and women killed throughout the 20th and 21st century. She also touched on forgiveness and religion, speaking about her mother’s death in a particularly moving section of the show. A darker turn was to come however, with Bushell-Mingo playing out a hypothetical situation in which shoots every white member of the audience, which included her imagining her family pleading with her to stop.

One-woman-shows automatically put me on edge, as they can be stirring, provocative and imaginative, but they can easily be cringe-worthy and over-dramatic. I was surprised and thrilled that Nina was an outstanding example of the former.

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Puccini’s La Boheme

March 3, 2018

Written by Chiara Longmore

On the 26th February LANS students went to the Midlands Art Centre to see a cinema screening of Franco Zeffirelli’s production of Puccini’s La Boheme. La Boheme tells the romantic story between a vulnerable seamstress Mimi, played by Sonya Yoncheva, and a romantic poet Rudolpho, played by Michael Fabiano, set in poverty-stricken bohemian Paris. The story is simple, yet powerful, as the doomed romance between the two lovers is played out in 4 Acts.

The first Act begins with a comical exchange between Rudolpho and his best friend Marcello, played by Lucas Meachem, as they joke about the poverty they inhabit. Rudolpho comments on how he is poor yet happy in life and Fabiano delivers this beautifully with his strong tenor voice. This is a theme throughout the opera where characters continuously try to make the best of their situations through humour and friendship. Meachem has a deep, rich voice which throughout the performance captivated audiences. His character Marcello is witty and feisty, and a clever contrast to that of Rudolpho who is more sincere and idealistic about life and love. The two men are joined by their friends Schaunard and Colline and the jovial display of friendship and camaraderie set in a decrepit attic makes this scene even more impactful as it shows that happiness can be made even when living in abject poverty.

The men leave to go to the Latin quarter, but Rudolpho stays behind. This is where he first meets Mimi who comes to ask him to light her candle. The famous arias that follow are Che gelida manina’ (‘Your tiny hand is frozen’) and ‘Sì, mi chiamano Mimì’ (‘Yes, they call me Mimi’) and both beautifully outline how both Rudolpho and Mimi are happy in their humble jobs and lives. Fabiano and Yoncheva delivered these arias beautifully and faultlessly, and this was concluded with the duet ‘O soave fanciulla’ (‘O lovely maid in the moonlight’). What struck me in this scene was the power both singers demonstrated in their voices without the tone being compromised, and this helped to make the scene particularly moving for the audience as the instant love both characters felt for each other was beautifully translated through their voices.

The second Act is set in the Latin quarter and it was interesting that between Acts we were able to see the scene changes behind the curtain. The set design for the second Act was incredibly impressive, filled with great amounts of detail that perfectly imitated the backstreets of bohemian Paris. This scene included many more performers on stage and chorus songs which was very enjoyable to watch, and in this scene we are also first introduced to Musetta, played by Susannah Philips, who is Marcello’s love interest. Philips has a strong voice and she brilliantly portrayed her character Musetta as a feisty and sensual tease who drives Marcello crazy, and the exchanges between Musetta and Marcello bring a comical element to the opera.

The love between Marcello and Musetta is a great contrast to that of Mimi and Rudolpho, and this is cleverly portrayed by Puccini in Act 3. Marcello is outwardly cynical about love, although it is clear that he is infatuated with Musetta, and their constant bickering is a great juxtaposition against the idealistic love between Rudolpho and Mimi. We soon find out, however, that this love is tragically doomed in Act 3 due to Mimi’s illness which we find out is terminal, and Rudolpho and Mimi have a heart wrenching moment where they agree to not be together anymore as neither can bare the pain of Mimi’s illness and potential tragedy it will bring.

The opera reaches its narrative climax in Act 4 when Musetta brings a dying Mimi to Rudolpho’s apartment and in this scene, we see the true nature and kindness of the characters emerge as they do everything they can to help save her. Musetta, who we often saw as being materialistic and selfish, sells her jewellery to buy Mimi a muff for her cold hands and Marcello comments how kind and selfless Musetta is. We see the love between Musetta and Marcello rekindle in this scene as they are tragically brought together over the lost love between Mimi and Rudolpho as Mimi dies in his arms. In this scene there is also Colline’s famous bass aria ‘Vecchia zimarra senti’, known as the coat aria, which is a shy yet powerful tribute to Mimi as Colline talks about pawning his old coat to buy medicine for Mimi, literally selling the clothes on his back to help a friend.

Although the opera has a tragic ending, the last scene demonstrates the kindness and selflessness of characters who, although impoverished, give the little they have in order to try and save Mimi. This is an emotive conclusion to Puccini’s La Boheme which, although has a relatively simple storyline, is filled with beautiful music and powerful themes such as love, kindness and grief.

 

Matthew Bourne’s Cinderella

February 13, 2018

Written by Abi Pilkington

 As the war sirens engulf the room with the clever use of surround sound, it is clear that this version of Cinderella is not the fairy-tale we are all accustomed to. Matthew Bourne’s interpretation of this classic as a World War II love story works surprisingly well. Bourne stays true to many elements of the fairy-tale, such as the poor treatment of Cinderella by her evil stepmother and sisters, the lavish ball and of course, the lost shoe; however, he adds and alters so much more.

 Bourne taints the elements of the story that are usually depicted as pure and good, dimming them somewhat with darkness. For example, the Prince is an injured RAF pilot, seemingly traumatised from the war, the fairy god-mother figure is an ambiguous phantom-like character who seems to have both good and evil qualities, and the notorious ball is set in the Café de Paris- a venue that hosted and still hosts a range of performers, but during the Second World War was bombed causing a number of fatalities. This intriguing mix of good and evil is a fitting reflection of the war. The prince-like character as an RAF pilot highlights the glorification of fighting for your country. Yet, this status came with a price- leaving many survivors traumatised, shell-shocked and injured. Still, this glorification is present throughout the entire performance, including the other male characters dressed in uniform, as all the women in the piece clearly want their attention. However, this idealistic image of a war hero is shattered when you consider the brutal and murderous nature of war. This conflict in honouring the men who went to war and showing the reality of it is depicted in Wilfred Owen’s poetry. Although Owen was a soldier in the First World War, the messages he conveys are still extremely relevant, particularly the preface we wrote to his poetry anthology:

‘This book is not about heroes. English poetry is not yet fit to speak of them.

Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except War.

Above all I am not concerned with Poetry.

My subject is War, and the pity of War.’

Furthermore, this dark undertone is evident in the costumes they use. Every costume we see is a shade of grey- even the extravagant ball gowns- depicting the bleak reality of the war that is constantly hanging over each character’s head. The evil stepmother, however, is very clearly always seen in black. This immediately reflects her dark qualities and makes her stand out from the others, often helping her to steal the attention of the scene as her character so clearly loved to do. In addition to this, the fairy godmother and Cinderella both wear white costumes- the fairy-godmother throughout, and Cinderella at the ball. This may be to show the ‘good’ characters, however, the fairy godmother seems both good and evil, particularly when playing the doctor character, or when hovering over the ball seemingly causing the explosion. Therefore, the white may instead be used to show what is supernatural, perhaps Cinderella never did attend the ball or really have a fairy godmother.

This dark and grey aesthetic is also reflected in the well-thought-out stage design. However, moments of intense colour such as the hellish bombed scene that act II began with, stood out against the mundane costumes and background colours. The set transported the audience to so many realistic and magical places. The London underground stood out for me as it captured exactly what it feels like. The surround sound of a tube arriving successfully added to this. The lighting and music also aided the overall atmosphere of the performance. Moments of intense colour from the lights depicted the time of day, the weather and much more, whilst the music added to the suspense of each scene.

Furthermore, it seems Bourne was inspired by the music for Cinderella, as the time period in which Sergei Prokofiev was writing it was during World War II, hence the setting of this ballet. The anxiety of this time period is mimicked in both the tense, dramatic music that leaves the audience in constant suspense, and the constant threat of a bomb, foreshadowed by the sirens and films they play throughout on ‘how to be safe’ in the event of an air raid. When eventually an explosion does go off it separates the two lovers, a twist that allows the story to be grounded in reality, instead of the spell wearing off at midnight like in the original. However, when the fairy-godmother character then comes on and seemingly reverses time and allows Cinderella to attend the ball, the story becomes increasingly more magical and supernatural, especially when Cinderella eventually arrives in her spectacular dress.

Although the ball that follows in one of impressive dancing and vibrant set design, it seems to go on for slightly too long and confuses the storyline when Cinderella seems to leave the prince before going back to him. Despite this, there were moments that were flawlessly executed. For example, when one-by-one the males attending the ball all began to dance with Cinderella, forming an almost ‘conga line’ sequence. The canon and different levels used in this section of the dance looked beautiful on stage and framed Cinderella’s transformation into a blonde ball-gowned beauty perfectly.

However, the scene that followed was by far my favourite:

We are met by the prince walking on stage where Cinderella sleeps in a bed. They are both in their 1940’s style underwear which immediately creates a vulnerability to the scene. As Cinderella wakes up the lighting starts to brighten slightly to a beautiful orange colour, creating the feel of a sunrise, or perhaps a fiery reflection of London burning outside. Cinderella and the prince then begin to perform a stunningly intimate dance, full of lifts and other dynamic movements that capture all the magic and romance that is expected in a performance of this classic fairy-tale.

Overall Bourne’s stylistic interpretation of Cinderella was something completely unexpected. Although moments of it left me confused and questioning certain plot holes, I thoroughly enjoyed watching this stunning piece of art take over the hippodrome stage.

An evening of Music and Dance

One Friday evening in January (19th, to be more specific), a group of LANS students went to see ‘An Evening of Music and Dance‘ with the Birmingham Royal Ballet and Royal Ballet Sinfonia. This one-off concert consisted of an alternating mixture of classical music and dance excerts performed in the beautiful symphony hall, with introductions by the director of the Birmingham Royal Ballet, David Bintley. The pieces were generally light-hearted and joyful, and we all left with smiles on our faces.

Evening dance 2The six dances showcased an impressive range of style and skill from the performers. The show opened with the Act III pas-de-deux from The Sleeping Beauty, a classical piece requiring a perfectly executed balance of strength and grace. This was contrasted with others, such as the far more contemporary After the Rain: pas-de-deux and the comedic La Fille mal Gardée clog dance, an entertaining fusion of ballet and tap performed in (you guessed it) clogs. My personal favourite was the finale: pas-de-deux and solos from Don Quixote. It was a fiery and exciting dance with many leaps and jumps culminating in a series of seemingly never-ending spins from the ballerina.

The music performed came from a variety of sources, including dance (The Miller’s Dance and Final Dance from The Three Cornered Hat), opera (prelude to Hansel and Gretal) and film (The Adventures of Robin Hood: suite). Beyond being able to say the pieces were performed very well, I do not know enough about music to be able to comment on them, so I turned to my more musically talented friends for advice (shout out to Alice Sharp and Joanna Stell)! They commented on the excellent Cor Anglais solo, as well as on the overall high-quality performance and well-chosen, entertaining pieces. They also liked how the music of Spartacus had repeated themes that changed subtly to reflect the emotions of the characters in the dance, with a more innocent variation for Spartacus’ wife that switched to a note of apprehension when he considered the war.

Evening dance 3, Giselle-Iain-Mackay-as-Albrecht-photo-Bill-Cooper-681x1024This concert was also of significance as it was the second to last performance of principal dancer Iain Mackay, who has been with the Birmingham Royal Ballet for 19 years. He and his partner, Jenna Roberts, danced After the Rain and Spartacus: adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia. According to the Birmingham Royal Ballet’s website “Iain created the role of the Prince in David Bintley’s Cinderella which premiered in 2010 and was broadcast on BBC Two to millions of viewers on Christmas Day that same year. He is also known for his outstanding performances as Romeo in Romeo and Juliet, the Third Seminarian in Carmina Burana and most recently for creating Prospero in David Bintley’s 2016 production of The Tempest.”1 He took his bow here to a standing ovation and huge round of applause.

1 https://www.brb.org.uk/press/birmingham-royal-ballet-principal-dancer-iain-mackay-to-leave-the-company-after-18-years

Contributed by Eleanor Teather, LANS year 1

Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition

birmingham-symphony-hall stageOn Wed 7th Feb 2018, the Symphony Hall housed another classical music evening, a concert that combined well-loved classical repertoire, as well as unusual yet enchanting compositions is sure to be a hit with classical music lovers of all ages- and this performance of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition was no exception.

Performed by the fantastic City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO), the first half of the concert was a wonderful mix of calm, soothing melodic lines that filled the entirety of Symphony Hall, and sharp, energetic rhythms that could catch anybody’s attention. Listeners were treated to the upbeat and whimsical ‘May Night: Overture’ by Russian composer Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908), and then whisked off to Spain during Falla’s (1876-1946) ‘Nights in the Gardens of Spain (1915), featuring talented pianist Javier Perianes.

After the interval, Modest Mussorgsky’s (1839-1881) music took central stage. The famous ‘A Night on a Bare Mountain’ opened the second half, using the orchestration of his friend and admirer Rimsky-Korsakov; a piece as delightfully eerie as expected, that also served as a nice introduction to the main feature of the concert- ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’.

ELP, Pictures, Album cover

One of the many ‘takes’ on the “Pictures at an Exhibition” – the cover of the Emerson, Lake and Palmer album presenting their interpretation.

This piece, originally created as a piano work, was presented in the more famous format, orchestrated by the renowned French composer Maurice Ravel (1875-1937). The piece depicts various pictures seen at an art gallery, from gnomes to hens, the music perfectly captures the weird and wonderful artistry seen in such galleries. Featuring memorable musical motifs depicting beauty as well as comedy, the overall experience was thoroughly enjoyable and uplifting.

Hearing classical music being played live is always an amazing experience for anyone – a fellow classmate commented on the fact that being able to see all the instruments working together to produce such a sound gave her an appreciation of classical music and orchestration in general.

In conclusion, the concert was a great night out for all who attended- a memorable event for sure!

Contributed by Alice Sharp, Y1 LANS (Music)

A brief history of (English) music

contributed by Jennifer (Qian) Zhang, LANS Y1

What else could bring you the music of the Middle Ages England on a Friday evening? The answer surely is a Cultural Event!

On 17th Feb, we went to the Solihull Core Theatre for an educational treat. It was an ‘intimate’ experience according to Jennifer Bainbridge (Yr4) that pulled us close to some English folk music 600 years ago, and presented some interesting aspects of that culture.

Brief History of Music

After a brief introduction, the two presenters/musicians started off playing the oldest surviving English song (so old, that I forgot its name!). The show moved in chronological order. Most songs were cheerful and genuinely pleasant to listen to. Throughout the whole evening, the same two people kept the show going and I really appreciated their stamina, as they were either playing an instrument, or singing, or explaining the background of music and presenting the various instruments – non-stop.

One feature picked out by many was the interesting explanations offered for each song. The performers would give an idea of when the song was composed, the occasion it was played in, and so on. There was one really loud instrument which musicians would get paid and use it to wake people up at certain time. Abi Pilkington Yr1 mentioned: “they combined the comedy and education elements really well and successfully, plus I came away with more of an appreciation of the background of instruments.Jennifer Bainbridge Yr 4 also reviewed: “I liked the balance between music and explanations and felt like learned a lot.

Almost none of us knew what to expect, as it was rather difficult to fathom from the online description; it was difficult to imagine what it might contain before actually experiencing it; but everyone would agree that we were drawn to the uniqueness of it and, on the evening, everybody enjoyed it. It is true, having some random songs were played, using some old blaring instruments might not sound that attractive (pun intended!), but the overall value came from such a straight forward way to presenting and experience the culture of a time long past.

To end this blog, I would like to mention another thing that made me enjoy the event which was the witty and cheeky lyrics. The song repeated:

My thing is my own,

And I will keep it so still

Yet all the young lasses may do as they will.

More comments on “A brief history of music”:

Miriam Wallis Yr2: I absolutely loved it. It was also really funny which was a nice surprise. Definitely one of the better events I’ve been to.

Abi Pilkington Yr1: I really enjoyed the show, however I wish they’d shown the more modern/ current pieces of music too so I could relate.

Jennifer Bainbridge Yr4: I really enjoyed it. I wouldn’t say it has inspired me but I’d definitely be interested in attending similar events to do with folk music/ history of music 🙂

Katy Potter Yr2: I really enjoyed it! It was great how many instruments they used. It doesn’t link really to anything I do haha but I really enjoy music so I thought it would be a good thing to attend.

And also,  thanks to Alice Heaps who would like to share her blog on this event. Click here to see her blog with amazing and quality details on the event: A Brief History of Music – just one second: https://justonesecondalice.wordpress.com/2017/02/18/a-brief-history-of-music/

Reflections on an evening with Angela and her Bach.

contributed by Lizzie Slattery, 2nd Year LANS student

Last Friday a group of LANS students and staff members attended an Angela Hewitt piano recital at the Birmingham Town Hall where she played six suites by Johan Sebastian Bach. Hewitt is arguably one of the most accomplished pianists alive today, having started her piano studies at the age of three in her home of Ottawa, Canada. She has since performed all over the world and is particularly known for her cycle of Bach recordings which took her over ten years to complete.

I am certainly no expert on classical music or piano playing and so cannot comment technically on the performance. However it appeared evident that Hewitt is a pianist of astonishing skill, and is deeply emotionally connected with the music of Bach. It is quite something to sit through six Bach suites, particularly if, like me, you are unaccustomed to doing so, and I sometimes found my attention wandering. It was always brought back, however, when I focused in on the music and listened to the weave of incredibly complex harmonies and rhythms which are constantly interacting in Bach’s music, as well as the dazzling gold dress she wore.

I asked some of those who attended to share their thoughts on the evening:

“Riveting. Ravishing. And Radiant. The whole performance was surreal. Angela Hewitt did not just play piano, she performed with her body and soul. It was extraordinary to watch. A definite must see for anyone who loves piano or classical music!” – Kimberley, year 2

“I’d never seen someone just play solo like that for a whole show which was really cool and it’s not something I’d go to otherwise. I did enjoy it, but I don’t think it was that amazing so I doubt I’ll go to something like it again, but I’m glad I went especially because the venue was so impressive.” – Joe, year 2

“I thought it was a lovely evening and very sophisticated. The playing was amazing, the standard too. And the riff at the end that she played was a funny, I can’t remember what she said now, was it what inspired Bach? Either way the history and playing was lovely.”  Miriam, year 2
“I thought it was an interesting experience. She was extremely talented. I think it may have been a difficult choice of music if you had never seen classical music before. But overall I enjoyed it.” – Sophie , year 2

And if you would like to read a professional journalist review of this show, you can always check the local press’ views