Monday, June 30, 2014

Brass comps

I'm playing for the National Brass Band Competitions next week, in Invercargill. At the moment there are two contestants playing one of my favourite brass pieces. Variations on a Welsh Theme by Peter Kneale. I've written about this piece before on this blog, and possibly I've written about it at some other time as well!  The great satisfaction about this piece is that the piano part is as interesting as the soloist's. That's not entirely unusual in brass band solos, but this one in particular is a delight to play.

Another contestant is playing Mace by Philip Sparke, a conductor and prolific composer whose music is played everywhere brass players play. Mace has a lovely slow melody opening the piece, but then it goes crazy. As far as I can make out it was originally written for soloist and piano, rather than soloist and band. The soloist has a hectic part in the fast section, with hardly room to breathe, and a massive cadenza.The pianist doesn't really have anything like as much to do, except make sure he or she keeps up: there's a constant shifting between 2/4 and 3/4 and counting beats (for me, anyway) is a major task. There are only a couple of awkward spots, one with impossible to play thirds. The rest of the time it's a matter of making sure you and the soloist stay together. It'll be interesting.

Another player is doing a piece called Concerto No 1 for Tuba and orchestra (although the soloist here is a bass trombonist). It's by Alexej Lebedjew, another prolific composer, especially for the tuba. This accompaniment, interestingly enough, even though it was composed for orchestra, sits under the pianist's hands very well. There are some nasty moments but in general it's more pianistic in style than orchestral. Perhaps the composer rewrote it himself for piano, rather than someone just transcribing it from the orchestral score. It's a big play and I'll probably leave the soloist behind while I'm enjoying myself...

There are some other pieces which are more traditional in style: the old thing of the pianist just having to keep hammering away while the soloist does all the fiddly bits. They have their place, but it's good that modern composers have moved well away from this style.

Friday, June 27, 2014

The Bletchley Circle

Things have been a bit quiet on the blog scene in general of late because I've been focusing on writing the first draft of the sequel to Grimhilda! This has been completed (insofar as you can ever say that a first draft is 'completed') and I've now scribbled all over the printed-out version of it, making notes galore, amending, re-writing, fiddling, reconsidering, and generally hacking it to pieces. As you should with a first draft. The beginning and the ending both need thorough rewriting and expanding (now that I have a better idea of how things fit together) but there are some sections between them that are pretty satisfactory. Two lines in the entire draft actually made me laugh out loud when I came back to reading them again. Two lines! That's promising.

So the next job is to get on and do the rewrite. Should be fun.

We watched all three episodes of the series The Bletchley Circle last night because I had to stay up till one am to ring the US about something that couldn't be done any earlier. A very-well crafted series, with meticulous attention to detail of costume and design, and excellent photography.

Anna Maxwell Martin plays the main character, one of four women who'd worked at Bletchley during the war and were now effectively twiddling their thumbs nine years later, not using the gifts that had made them so valuable a decade earlier. I don't find Martin my favourite actress, perhaps because when I saw her in Bleak House as Esther Summerson, she seemed not to have got hold of the character: too lacking in the almost irritating modesty that Esther exhibits, and too little warmth.

Here she's given strong support by Rachael Stirling, Sophie Rundle and Julie Graham. The four re-unite, after a bit of dubiousness, in order to solve a series of murders that have obviously been done by the same man.The police are at a loss, but Martin's character sees links in the locations of the murders, and believes she can predict where the next abduction, murder and rape will take place - at least as near as anyone can - and will hopefully prevent another death.The police pooh-pooh her rather, and her husband thinks she's acting oddly. Certainly she's suddenly out and about a lot more than she's been in a long time.

The plot has a few holes - you want to know who's suddenly looking after the kids when Martin is gallivanting around, and also why she goes hiving off on her own, at night, to a place that's obviously closed down and inhabited by one person. Who she realises is the murderer she's looking for. That peculiarity apart (although it's common enough in suspense stories for the woman to do that daft thing of putting herself in considerable danger in a dark house with a stranger) this was well-worth watching. The other three women are great, and though the men mostly come off looking a bit like twats, the story is absorbing enough to keep us involved throughout.

The series was originally a one-off piece, but there's been a sequel. This was done a couple of years later, and should be worth looking out for. Hopefully it lives up to the standards of the first series.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Assassin of the Tsar

We recently got a package DVD which includes ten movies - mostly from the 90s, I think - and have only watched a couple so far. Last night it was the turn of a strange movie called Assassin of the Tsar. Made in Russia by a Russian director and with a Russian cast and crew, it stars Malcolm McDowell who plays a psychiatric patient, Timofeyev, with his usual intense on-the-edge approach, and also plays a real-life person, Yurovsky, the man who, along with a number of 'comrades', murdered the Tsar and his family. The other main actor, Oleg Yankovskiya well-known actor in his native country, plays the new doctor at the asylum where McDowell has been hospitalised for many years, as well as the Tsar. Confused? You should be. 

Even for people who know the story of the assassination, and the botched assassination of the Tsar's father (which is also in the movie), I suspect this film would appear confusing. Timofeyev believes he is Yurovsky, and on a certain date each year (July 16th, if I remember rightly) a wound appears around his neck, a circle like that of a hangman's rope. On another date in August, he also shows extremes symptoms of a stomach problem. Both of these are somehow related to the assassinations. In due course the doctor takes on the role of the Tsar in order to try and treat Timofeyev, but in the process comes to see himself actually as the Tsar, and dies - though not by assassination. Why he comes to take on the Tsar's persona isn't adequately explained, except with a bit of psycho-babble. 

The scenes set in the past where the Bolsheviks are planning to kill the imperial family are full of tension. The scenes in the asylum seem random and unrelated to the rest of the movie, and the whole nonsense of the doctor dying makes no sense. Then there's the woman who's lost her child and who's waiting outside the residence where the Tsar and his family are confined. We have no idea what she has to do with the story. Some reviewers see the film as a kind of releasing of guilt of the Russians in modern USSR. I have no idea, and couldn't see the connection.

The film is in English, presumably with the Russian cast dubbed. Curiously, while they all have accents, McDowell for the most part doesn't. By all accounts there's a version in Russian in which McDowell is dubbed. The soundtrack is also odd: there's music playing a good deal of the time, the usual sort of music that accompanies any film, but it seems to be coming from another room, and is often quite faint.

How this film came to be made and how McDowell got involved in it isn't obvious. McDowell gives it his all, as you'd expect, and is worth watching. But beyond that the film makes too little sense to really engage an audience. 

Monday, June 02, 2014

A couple of movies from 1993

The Warehouse had a sale of DVDs on the weekend, so we picked up a few to replace a bunch that were surplus to requirements, movies we'll never watch again (wouldn't want to watch again) and some that we had double-ups of for whatever reason.
On Saturday night we watched a DVD of The Remains of the Day, which we'd seen at the cinema when it first came out. Neither of us could remember much about it; in fact there was very little of that visual recognition you usually have when you're seeing a movie again. Perhaps we're losing our visual recognition as we get older, which is a bit scary!
Anyway, this movie, with Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson both at their best, is a story about a butler in a large aristocratic home, Darlington Hall, owned by Lord Darlington. The Lord, though he is an honourable man, is an amateur in his political dealings; he foolishly sides with the Nazis during the war, and probably should have been charged with treason. Hopkins, the consummate butler, always there, always perfect in behaviour, claims he never hears what goes on around him: he's too busy doing his job. But in fact he's closed off to human relationships for the most part. When he employs his own father as an under-butler, he calls him Mr Stevens rather than father. It's only as his father is dying that he manages to speak as though there is some relationship there. Even when his father is lying dead upstairs he believes his duty is still to serve his Lordship first.
Thompson plays the housekeeper who gives as good as she gets from Hopkins, but also falls in love with him. In spite of himself, he's in love with her, but his nature is such that he can't admit to it, and so both their lives go awry as a result.
There's a top-notch cast including Hugh Grant, Christopher Reeves and Ben Chaplin among the more familiar faces. The direction by James Ivory is quiet and assured, and the script by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala gives the performers ample room for subtlety and subtext. A great film, with much in it to be admired. 
In the same year, Michael Keaton and Nicole Kidman starred in a much less well-known movie, My Life, which, if it had been done as a TV movie with a TV actor would have ended up requiring a box of tissues. It narrowly avoids this because of Keaton's solid performance in which he has ample room to both clown and play to his serious side. 
Keaton plays a man who has only a few months to live because of cancer, and like many in that position he doesn't want to die, especially as his wife is expecting their first child. He manages to stay alive long enough to see his son grow through his first months before succumbing to the continually invasive cancer. As in too many movies about illness, the cancer gets put on the back-burner too often: it has a brief dramatic appearance at the beginning (sorted out by some magic pill that works instantly) and hardly turns up again until the end. In the meantime, unlike most cancer patients, Keaton, on the surface at least, appears to be as healthy as the next man.
Before he dies he makes a series of home movies that he wants his future child to be able to view, but in the process he comes face to the face with the fact that he's never forgiven his own parents: he particularly felt that his father was never there for him because he worked so hard at his business. But he has to face the fact that he's actually no different: he's a workaholic too. 
For the most part it's Keaton who makes the movie work (Kidman has a bit of a wishy-washy role that doesn't give her room for much depth unfortunately) in spite of its forays into occasional silliness. The rest of the cast, including Bradley Whitford (from West Wing, and sporting the worst false moustache you've ever seen - it looks as though belongs in the 70s rather than the 90s), Michael Considine and Queen Latifah don't really get much chance to get to grips with their roles because they're basically underwritten. Latifah doesn't appear till almost the end, comes in with a whiz and a bang and is then given nothing to do.