Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Competition: Manchester Jazz Festival

The 20th annual edition of Manchester Jazz Festival launches this week with its ever-impressive array of time signatures and styles, continuing from Friday 31 July through to Sunday 9 August.

While limelight stealers include the Robert Glasper Trio and the Mercury Prize nominees Gogo Penguin (whose Festival Pavilion show is now reportedly sold out), there’s also a keen eye on ensuring plenty of events remain accessible and free to attend. Jazz North’s northern line showcase extends across Monday 3 August at a few of the partner venues – Matt & Phred’s, Central Library and St Ann’s Church among them – and other newcomers remain free under the ‘introduces’ banner.

Elsewhere, there’s a strong local presence, both old and new, with the likes of Charlie Cooper & The CCs, Hans Prya (who formed after meeting as participants of Snarky Puppy’s Brighter Sound residency at Band on the Wall in 2013), Cinematic Orchestra guitarist Stuart McCallum and Lamb double bassist Jon Thorne.

Look out for reviews of some of the festival’s events in our September issue, which will appear here.

We’ve teamed up with Manchester Jazz Festival to give away a pair of tickets to the Riot Jazz Brass Band / Baked A La Ska double bill at the Festival Pavilion on Saturday 8 August. All you need to do to enter is like and share the image at the other end of this link (making sure it’s set to ‘public’ so we can see that you’ve entered).

We’ll announce the winner on Thursday 6 August.

Good luck!

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Back Seat Betty @ Joshua Brooks, 02.07.15

Recently I heard a great piece of advice whilst chatting about producing work and starting ideas: be a cat. The reasoning is that because cats are only where they choose to be, they are the masters of their own fate. If their curiosity kills them, then so be it – they went down swinging (space permitting). When watching Back Seat Betty I projected this thought onto the team behind the piece, and I’m confident they are always going to be somewhere wonderful.

Written by Joshua Val Martin, the 40-minute monologue is from the perspective of a working-from-home prostitute, and is part of this year’s Greater Manchester Fringe.

Monologues can be a minefield for actors. On viewing the challenge in front of you, one can be fooled into thinking it is quite straightforward, ignorant of the lurking danger. Confidently you venture on stage, too far to turn back and then BOOM: you trip on some tricky poetry, narrowly missing a joke, leaving you detached and disengaged from the piece. You sound like you are remembering words rather than talking, and although you’re alone you have forgotten to use the audience.

Luckily, this isn’t a trap Jo Dakin fell into. Instead, she dominates the piece, breezing through the lines and ticking all the boxes. She is terrifying and menacingly dark, yet likeable enough to stay with on the journey.

This versatility is a cornerstone for a Val Martin piece; the writing style is a hybrid of comedy, politics and a David Bowie album. He is one of the most promising emerging writers around.

Despite reassurance that “it’s not real” when I’ve refused to watch horror films, my response has always been that the film may not be real, but the ideas are; and no cheesy special effects can stop me from feeling terrified. The same can be said for Val Martin. He creates characters and stories so vivid they become a living and breathing reality.

Director Esther Dix has done an excellent job of controlling the parameters of the narrative; she has allowed the realism to come through and be believable, with neither the writing nor the acting rule over the other.

Looking back on my review, it may seem that I haven’t really commented on the piece and the truth is I haven’t even began to touch the surface. To comment on any part of the story would be telling too much. Instead, all I can advise is next time you have the chance to see a Val Martin piece do so: you will not be disappointed.

Words: Kate Morris

Image: Courtesy of Cobbled Haze Club

Monday, 13 July 2015

MIF: Arvo Pärt @ Bridgewater Hall, 12.07.15

Arvo Pärt’s compositions are the most performed of any living composer in the world, but his music grows seemingly from the very birth of music itself. Drawing on deeply spiritual and contemplative themes, his Gregorian chant-inspired vocal and string repertoire transcends the present tense and has not only won him the highest of accolades from the most educated of music listeners, it has also touched a vast, perhaps less-discerning audience searching for serenity and purity, found in his accessible musical vocabulary.

Performed tonight by the Manchester Camerata under the direction of Gábor Takács-Nagy, alongside long-time Pärt collaborators Vox Clamantis, an Estonian choir, the eloquently selected programme is allowed to resonate and shine in the presence of Pärt himself. ‘Drei Hirtenkinder aus Fátima’ is a new composition dedicated to MIF collaborator Gerhard Richter. This short vocal piece is inspired by a visit to Fatima in Portugal, the site of a Marian apparition of the Virgin Mary in 1917, in which she is said to have appeared to three shepherd children and prophesied the Second World War. However, Pärt focuses on the light and joy of the children, relayed by the eloquent, bouncing “hallelujahs”.

‘Fratres’, translated as ‘brothers’, follows a repeated six-bar string theme with an unerring flow, countered by a striking percussive interlude on claves and bass drum, both directly cutting and billowing at once. Opening with a sublime stillness and a grounded bass drone, the piece hesitantly repeats, growing into itself, reaching grandeur of strings in full flow before retreating back into its subdued self.

Pärt’s ‘Stabat Mater’, a medieval poem based on the sufferings of Mary, Jesus’ mother, during his crucifixion, seems only too perfect a subject for his music. The serene start develops into an almost conversational interplay between the strings and choir before bursts of frantic and expansive energy portraying her intense pain disappear as soon as they’ve developed. This, along with most of this evening’s events, are seemingly relentlessly disrupted by sporadic coughing from the audience as if the plague has fallen upon Manchester, perhaps nervous interruptions from an audience not used to such extensive stillness and reflection. The death of this drawn-out sorrowful suffering (Mary, not the coughing) is preceded by what could be considered two last gasps for breath, for which the audience can only withhold theirs, before the final chord slips away into silence.

‘Da Pacem Domine’, written in memory of the 2004 Madrid bombing victims, is a prayer for peace and is now performed annually in Spain. Setting text from a sixth century hymn, its almost plea-like nature is accentuated through the withheld melodic progression.

To close, ‘Como Cierva Sedienta’, featuring soprano soloist Polina Pasztircsák and a full orchestra, offers a setting of Psalms 42 and 43 in Spanish. Its exploratory nature is in great contrast to much of tonight’s programme, flitting between frantic woodwind flurries, brass fanfare and Stravinsky-esque modernist dissonance. But it does retain some of the serene moments that we are used to hearing from Pärt, and like each of his pieces, without doubt, every note matters. Each has been carefully considered by Pärt and the performers have no choice but to follow suit. Don’t be fooled by the apparent simplicity of his music, the concentration and detailed execution required from each performer in creating such tonal, textural and sonorous eloquence cannot be underestimated. Perhaps it’s this which aids the seemingly infinite power of his music. His ability to create such seemingly simple soundscapes through complex fundamental historic compositional techniques, often foregoing generations of music history, allows Pärt to transport the listener to a place of deep spiritual contemplation and that much closer to purity.

Words & photos: Simon Bray (@simonbray / simonbray.co.uk)

MIF: Neck of the Woods @ HOME, 10.07.15

Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf? Certainly not me in the MIF production of Neck of the Woods. There were far worse things to fear. If you go down to the woods today, you will be leaving underwhelmed.

On paper, this ‘collaboration’ ticks all the boxes and garners expectations of something special. An acclaimed casting choice (Charlotte Rampling), check. A concert pianist (Hélène Grimaud) playing a phenomenal repertoire, check. An eclectic and culturally diverse choir using their voices to create the soundscape, check. A new multi-million pound venue to host the event, check. And all under the reign of a Turner Prize-winning visual artist (Douglas Gordon) – big check. But, heartbreakingly, no. In fact, there was barely any collaboration, and these components struggled to come together resulting in something fractured and unconnected, which is a real shame.

Neck of the Woods is a vague retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, while drawing on the many different takes of wolf mythology in literature and a very loose metaphor of the animal of man. “Mostly wolves represent a bad man […] I think men are worse than wolves,” says Gordon.

The play opens in complete darkness with the sound of a tree being chopped down with an inevitable crash. This is probably the most impressive part of the production and, with the almighty sound, the audience is immediately immersed. The HOME acoustics are so good that it was truly terrifying.

The production is hugely self-indulgent, with Gordon listed in the programme for concept, direction, design and performance. None of which met par. That’s not completely fair, the concept is very interesting and I think there is something there. As for everything else, I felt it was very safe and riddled with clichés. There’s talk about blood, wolves and snow, so you can bet there was red lighting, fake snow and a fluffy shag pile with a wolf head.

This project clearly hosted a lot of talent. Grimaud’s playing is a beautiful silver lining to this piece. The Sacred Sounds Women’s Choir, first formed at MIF 2013, is abundantly talented, but drastically underused in this production. Rampling did have a few fluffs, but overall I felt she didn’t have much to work with, which I imagine is quite restrictive.

Regrettably this piece hasn’t met the standard set by other MIF productions, the responsibility for which falls on Douglas as he struggles to harness the hot ball of talent he had at his disposal and utilise it effectively. Instead, he rides on the coattails of other people’s talent and uses it for his own gratification. Douglas is indeed the wolf, and a house of straw or sticks has more solidity than this piece.

Words: Kate Morris

Neck of the Woods continues until Saturday 18 July. For tickets and more info, click here.

Friday, 10 July 2015

MIF Acoustic Stage @ Albert Sq, 04.07.15

The denizens of Manchester are enjoying these weekend festivals. Following the popularity of Manchester Day, it’s no surprise to find that Albert Square was thronged for the opening weekend of Manchester International Festival.

In glorious sunshine illuminating the festival tent, balcony bar and acoustic stage, it's not just the food stallholders and ice-cream sellers who have smiles on their faces.

Throw in four sets of musicians to perform from early afternoon to evening and it all added to the relaxed atmosphere that people savour. The downside for a musician is that an open-air arena, with young children freely running around and taking advantage of the kid friendly area, is not the best location to demonstrate the quality of your works. Mix that with the background chatter and the performers are relegated to the level of sideshows.

Playing an instrument called the handpan, Matthew Bailey eschews vocals to focus on comfortable, percussive sounds that match well with the atmosphere. To the untrained eye, the instrument looks like two distorted cymbals taped back to back, but the sounds are languid and fluid.

Charlie Cooper appears in different guises, both as a solo artist or part of a band, and for this afternoon event she was supported by Rachel Lasham on drums. It turns out be a wise choice that provides substance to support Cooper’s keyboards which could have otherwise rapidly floated away in the warm air.

Josephine, minus her surname Oniyama, is well-known and respected amongst the music followers in the northwest area, but when it comes to competing with the chimes of the town hall clock, first at 6pm then 7pm, even she will come off second best. The first time she used the interruption to signal the start of her set, but the second time, occurring mid-song, pretty much destroyed the effects of her stories.

Still, it’s a positive move to promote local talent of varying styles, and the approach will be replicated during the remainder of the festival at its Albert Square base.

Words & photos: Ged Camera

The Festival Square Acoustic Stage schedule continues until Sunday 19 July.

The Invisible Dot Cabaret @ MIF, 09.07.15

The Invisible Dot have been tasked with bringing comedy to MIF for the first time, and while it may be moaned about that they have predominantly invited acts who’re based outside of Manchester, they have served up a winning piece of late night entertainment. The line-ups will change throughout the cabaret’s run, but if they keep up this high calibre, you're guaranteed some late night laughs. In true cabaret style, they present us with a variety of comedic forms and the mix works well.

Neurosis seemed to be the theme of the night as compère for the evening Mae Martin shared jokes about worried mothers and the emotional anguish brought on by Brian Cox. A Canadian, Martin had good fun with English accents, but needs to worry less about whether we have seen things over here. Relaxed and playful, she kept the evening ticking over nicely.

Phil Ellis (the only local on the bill) always thrives off the audience, his energetic performance dragging us helplessly along in his wake. He's easily distracted by new ideas and, although a veer towards darker material at the end of his set threatens to derail the audience's goodwill, Ellis makes for a great opener.

Natasha Demetriou and Ellie White followed as the Sexy Dangerous American Girl Cousins. There were some lovely lines and it's a very physical performance, but ultimately the characters came off a little one-note for me, and the intentionally “so bad it's good” finale didn't quite land.

The night was rounded off by Sheeps, a sketch trio who play with and deconstruct the sketch form in smart, but rarely too-clever-for-their-own-good ways. It took them a moment to kick into gear, but soon had the audience following them with every twist and turn. Sketch topics veered from a preview of their new musical based on Oliver Twist (“We've spotted a gap in the market”) to a violent ruckus between Chuckle Brothers via cat-based whimsy. A great way to close the night.

The 90-minute show flew by without an interval and proved to be a great night in all, but, although the Invisible Dot has a roster of excellent comedians, perhaps next year we can show off more home-grown talent instead of relegating it to the fringes. Hopefully next year the comedy offering will grow and we will see even greater and braver variety.

Words: Sean Mason

The Invisible Dot continues each night until 17 July. For more info and tickets, visit its MIF web page.

Monday, 6 July 2015

Re:Con Sensored @ Contact, 27.06.15

While suffering severe writer’s block I set myself a challenge: to write one thing a day, using a quirky book of writing prompts. For example, I was challenged to ‘write about a place you love’. That pesky barricade was no problem for me: I wrote about theatre. Theatre for me is not a mere place but an experience, one I believe makes me understand more of the human condition and the world. Where else do you actually experience someone else’s existence, stepping into their shoes and seeing through their eyes? However, that only extends to seeing and hearing...so what would it be like if we actually got to physically experience another person's reality? Re:Con - the young production team from Contact, have explored this idea with Sensored.

Sensored is a programme of art and performance that allows the audience to experience the world without one of their five senses. Depending on your remaining four, you approach theatre in a new way with rewarding results. The nine events tantalize or suppress the senses and range from performances, to panel discussions, to a dinner in the dark.

There were also some clever activities and aesthetic choices at the venue itself that added to the experience, like bubble wrap on the arms rests (fun to feel and a satisfying to pop). There was also some ‘market research’ to gauge how much you could taste without your sense of smell (in case you were wondering cheddar cheese is still pretty potent).

As for the work itself, it was nothing short of penetrative. I first lost my sight as I was asked to do someone’s makeup blindfolded for Francis Kay’s Make Me Beautiful. The one-to-one performance explores how the loss of sight can affect everyday tasks.

Next I watched Hiatus – a performance which is deprived of sound. Wearing earplugs and earphones you imagine your own score to accompany the two dancers, one non-disabled and one wheel chair user. Both move beautifully with shared strength and power.

Having worked up an appetite I visited the Empty Kitchen, only to be informed by two ‘waiters’ that the kitchen had no food. Instead, we are served up a three-course meal of delicious words and food you can feel but not taste – the first time I’ve had a jalfrezi made of screws and marbles!

A new kind of theatre is coming, and Contact is leading the way.

Words: Kate Morris

Image: Courtesy of Contact