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Arts & Entertainment - Reviews

Review: Remember, remember? Fame is a trip down memory lane for parents

Rosie Amos as CarmenRosie Amos as CarmenRemember the kids from Fame? I do. I was 10 when the TV show began airing on BBC in 1982 – a little too young to fully appreciate some of the topics being explored, but you couldn’t move for the Irene Cara’s theme song at school discos: “Baby remember my name (remember, remember…)” she implored. I didn’t. I had to look it up for this article.

Anyway, like last year’s We Will Rock You, the St John’s Academy production of Fame is aimed squarely at a parental market, although I’m sure the ongoing 80s revival in fashion and music helps it feel not too irrelevant to the cast (in fact the only time the stageplay feels dated is when fame-hungry Carmen fantasises about fighting off autograph hunters – today they’d all be taking selfies).

Like the movie and the TV series, the musical is set at New York City's High School of Performing Arts. Pre-X Factor and YouTube, young people had to go to college for a shot at success, a fact of which we are reminded in the opening song, a full company rendition of Hard Work.

Here singers, dancers and musicians triumph or fail, fall in love and fall back out again. They also swear and take drugs – something I’m sure was cut from the BBC teatime show but remains intact for this production, giving the cast members the chance to (legitimately) use four letter words on school grounds.

Thus Sam Austen as Hispanic acting student Joe Vegas gets to sing (quite graphically, and with superb comic timing) about his sexual prowess (I Can't Keep It Down), while dancer Carmen Diaz (Rosie Amos – a terrific actor, dancer and singer) substitutes breakfast for drugs to stay skinny and alert, drops out of school to seek her fortune in LA, and has to do God knows what to earn the money to get home again, all the while shooting the audience sassy looks that could stop traffic.

Archie Fisher as TyroneArchie Fisher as TyroneNew York, of course, was and is a cultural melting pot, and class and ethnic tensions are a running theme throughout Fame – not easy for an all-white cast to convey.

So top marks to Archie Fisher (hip hop dancer Tyrone), who manages to rap (quite capably) about growing up poor and black in the Bronx. “No-ones gotta tell me what its like to be black,” he raps, without flinching.

The lad can dance, too. And besides some great dance performances from Sophie Little (ballet dancer Iris) and Rosie Amos, the role usually filled by “chorus members” is a stage-commanding dance troupe, while the backing singers huddle around the band in the orchestra pit.

School musicals normally demand acting and a bit of singing. Throwing dance into the mix is ambitious, and it says something about the St John’s – which offers music, dance and drama as part of its syllabus – that it has produced young performers who can handle all three – with aplomb.

Images courtesy of Sally Bere

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Review: local author's vivid tale of a woman's unequal struggle for independence in Victorian Britain and its violent Empire

Do not go down to your local bookshop to buy The Planter's Daughter by Jo Carroll - known locally as a writer through her widely-read columns for Marlborough.News.  This is her first novel and it is only available to download from Amazon to a Kindle (a bargain at £3.50) - or you can download a sample of the opening chapter as text.

Previous books by Jo Carroll have been her travel series of Over the Hill titles - about her adventures in Nepal and Ecuador.  The Planter's Daughter was born from a story she heard on her travels in New Zealand in 2005.  

It is a novel full of absorbing characters that stretches across the world of Britain's Victorian-era Empire and is as serious as it is entertaining.  In each section of the book the story is told through a different person's eyes.

We first meet Irish-born Sara Weldon in Liverpool.  We see her through the eyes of her Aunt's maid, Kitty.  It is 1847 and she has come to England escaping the potato famine and eventually she leaves Liverpool having become tangentially involved in working class politics - she leaves as a criminal transported to Australia having fallen foul of her scheming Uncle.  But before she leaves she provides her Aunt with a purpose in life - we will not spoil that surprise.

In Australia we see Sara through the eyes of a religious zealot Grace, who saves her from the slave market and takes her in as maid to her troubled family.  Life near Melbourne on a barely viable small-holding - with a side-line in making tools for the country's many thousand gold prospectors - is vividly drawn and based on sound research.

Grace is not an easy character to read about and you can tell quite early on that her relationship with Sara is based more on Grace's pious views of what people should be like (with the Lord's help) than on any realistic view of Sara's character and how she might make her way in the world.

One of Grace's stepsons takes Sara with him when he leaves home to join life among the rough and tough prospectors. They are mostly men and almost all of them are deprived of female company.  Sara's escape and her attempts to support herself financially take her several rungs down the ladder of despair.

Jo Carroll first heard about the 'notorious character' Barbara Weldon when she was in Hokitika (on the west coast of New Zealand's South Island) in 2005 and the book, she says, has been 'simmering' ever since.

The novel turns Barbara into Sara Weldon and it is from Australia that she is sent to New Zealand for using 'obscene language in a public place' - she is transported again.  The British Empire's rough and ready legal system could not send its unwanted any further away than antipodean New Zealand.

In New Zealand a magistrate named Grenville, who has been shipped from Scotland to work for the Empire, falls for her undoubted charms and lures her - with promises we know he cannot keep - to Hokitika where he is the local magistrate and where he lives with his starched-pinny of a wife and their two sons, Rupert and Alistair.  

He sets Sara up as his mistress in a cabin by the sea - just far enough from the town to keep her from prying eyes.  But can she keep away from the men from whom she can make money by selling the only thing that is by now her own - her body?  Will she ever save enough to get home to Ireland or to Liverpool?  Can Grenville fulfil his promises?

Throughout this section of the novel the magistrate is only referred to by his surname - he is just 'Grenville'.  As his relationship with Sara unravels, she refers to him with increasing sarcasm as 'Mr Magistrate'.  He ends up abandoned by his wife: "And you - you can walk into the sea for all I care.  You might as well.  There's not much left for you here, Mr High-and-Mighty Magistrate."

Each historical and geographical part this book has been carefully researched, yet the research is not obtrusive.  That it is true of this section.  But of all the stages in Sara's story, it is this one that really comes to life both in terms of the characters and the descriptions - especially the descriptions Grenville's state of continual panic as he realises his duplicity will be discovered.

It also lives strongly with Jo Carroll's descriptions of the bleak scenery of the sea shore blasted with winds from the Antarctic, of the little town with its disreputable cast of seekers after gold and of Sara's prisoner-like existence.  Some of the scenes reminded me of those desperate beach scenes in the 1993 film The Piano - also set on New Zealand's west coast.

Sara's attempt (in Jo Carroll's words) to 'steer an independent path' in the male dominated nineteenth century, ends badly.  Barbara Weldon's life also ended badly - in the words of the real life New Zealand magistrate, it ended "casually and by misfortune".   

Jo Carroll could not leave us with Sara simply being "swept along by a tide of events".  So she gives us one last chapter that helps explain how Sara ended up on this one-way ladder.  

The author takes us back in time to the potato famine that led to Sara's initial move from Ireland to the unpleasant rule of her Aunt and Uncle and to the mayhem and inequalities of Liverpool's burgeoning capitalism.   

The descriptions of the Antrim countryside and its inhabitants destroyed by the potato blight are grim.  And overlaid onto the disaster of starvation is Ireland's all to blatant religious divide.  Sara was, after all, a planter's daughter - and the incoming, colonising Presbyterian planters held out strongly against the native Irish Catholics.  So the book ends by taking us into the divides that still blight that part of Ireland to this day.

One of the major accomplishments of this novel is that the story flows so clearly. There are no unlikely coincidences to perplex the reader and undermine the veracity of the tale.  This is as close to the real story of such women as Barbara Weldon as we are likely to get.

However, coincidences do happen.  No sooner had I finished The Planter's Daughter and put away the Kindle, than I spotted a report in my morning newspaper datelined Hokitika and headlined "Miners pile in for latest gold rush in New Zealand".  

In the 1860s gold rush, Hokitika, this report says, had 72 hotels and few women: "Just as today, the original miners were secretive about their claims, often laying false trails and misinformation to lure their competitors away from prosperous sites."

Magistrate Grenville's pot of gold was Sara herself - and his false trails and misinformation led to his downfall and to Sara's death.  His was 'fool's gold' and she paid the price for his folly.

We can look forward to Jo Carroll's next novel - whether it is available between hard or soft covers or online.

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Review: The Snow Queen at Bristol Old Vic

The Flower Witch, photo by Mark DouetThe Flower Witch, photo by Mark Douet

A fight between good and evil with an icy darkness – Milo Davison (10) reports from Bristol Old Vic's Christmas production.

The Snow Queen at Bristol Old Vic made a unexpected start. The two main characters, Gerda and Kai, were introduced as puppets.

In the small peasant Village of the Yellow Roses both began as swaddled blankets, then as toddlers and young children both were puppets controlled by actors - learning to crawl then as young children until actors Steven Roberts (Kai) and Emily Burnett (Gerda) took over.

The songs were catchy, the music and lyrics were relevant to the scenes and I often wanted to dance.

I liked when Gerda and Kai called each other names in their first song to show how good friends they were, like ‘a factory full of farts’ and ‘the stickiest, stickiest kind of glue’.

Thousands of miles away in the Antarctic, I think, two goblins had captured bad-tempered children to feed the Snow Queen with their angry thoughts.

Doctor Boffin, played by Joanna Holden, and a goblin apprentice, played by Dylan Wood, were pulling a giant machine.

This machine looked handmade and I really liked all the gadgets they could pull out. Then a shadow projection of the Snow Queen appeared and we heard her speak - Gwyneth Herbert, the musical director, made a voice that sounded like it extinguished all hope.

Then back in the village Kia was captured for his big heart which was turned black by a magical shard. So started Gerda’s adventure to find her friend.

In one scene she swam with the turtles and these were my favourite costumes - they had green clothing a big shell on their back and it looked like their bellies were resting on a skateboard or a platform with wheels so they could scoot along really smoothly.

Gerda washed up on a beach where the Flower Witch, played by Miltos Yerolemou, found her. He had a hilarious costume of a flowery body with a fake beard with artificial flowers stuck to it.

He also had a companion called Parrot, played by Jessica Hayles. Her costume was quite cool with feathers sticking out here and there and a head-dress with a row of multicoloured feathers along the top which kind of reminded me of a centurion.

The Flower Witch had been bullied by other humans but Gerda made friends with him and liked him for his different style, just like her friend Kai who preferred dancing to football.

My favourite song was by the evil Duchess which was robotic and electronic and my favourite character was the Snow Queen.

Her costume had a giant icy ribcage a long snow battered dress night black beady eyes and a rugby ball shaped head with icicles sticking out - how she looked was how she was inside.

The set was great too, especially the smoke effects making icy fog.

A soul devouring, heart touching, laughing happiness, heartbreaking, icy sunlit performance.

The Snow Queen runs until January 15. For tickets, visit www.bristololdvic.org.uk/snowqueen

 

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“This orchestra gets better and better" - a review of Marlborough Concert Orchestra Winter Concert

Marlborough Concert OrchestraMarlborough Concert Orchestra“This orchestra gets better and better.” ...was a comment overheard on Saturday 3rd December, when the Marlborough Concert Orchestra gave its Winter Concert at St. Mary’s Church to a highly appreciative audience.

There was a strong ‘young’ element to the evening.  Alexander Webb, currently a Conducting Scholar at the Royal Northern College of Music, came to the podium at very short notice and conducted with aplomb, giving fine, clear direction.  The two professional soloists in the first half were Irene Enzlin (‘cello) and Verena Chen (violin) who gave us a superb rendition of Brahms’ Double Concerto; in this they were ably supported by the orchestra.  It is said that Brahms was very diffident about this concerto.  On the basis of this performance, there was no need for such modesty.

Following the interval, when raffle prizes were collected (one lucky family appeared nearly to scoop the pool), there was an impromptu encore from the soloists – a delightful Passacaglia by the Norwegian composer, Halvorsen.  After this, the orchestra set forth with Invitation to the Dance by Weber, described by one member of the orchestra as “not as easy (to play) as it sounds”.  These playersd did make it sound easy, David Edwards, (1st ‘cello) set the standard with the opening solo part.

Next came the Vocalise Op.14 No.14 by Rachmaninov, in which momentum was well-maintained under Alex Webb’s baton and the familiar ‘sob factor’ of this composer shone through.  Finally, we had Variations on a theme of Haydn by Brahms, where each section of the orchestra came to the fore separately and collectively, demonstrating fine musical abilities in dealing with the changing pace of these variations.  The comment at the opening to this review was right, this was an evening of splendid music, well-played.

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REVIEW: Brilliant, young and international - the Castalian Quartet at St Peter's Church

The Castalian Quartet - l to r: Daniel Roberts, Sini Simonen, Charlotte Booneton, Christopher GravesThe Castalian Quartet - l to r: Daniel Roberts, Sini Simonen, Charlotte Booneton, Christopher GravesIn February Christopher Graves brought Alison Rhind to St Peter’s Church to perform a joint piano and cello recital.  This time (Sunday, November 20), Christopher brought more of his friends - friends who have formed the Castalian Quartet.

Having started their training variously in Helsinki, France and Britain, they graduated together with Masters Degrees in Chamber Music in Hannover in 2014, the year they released their first recording to considerable critical acclaim.  Just recognition came quickly.

They won the First Prize at the 2015 Lyon International Chamber Music Festival, and have developed an extensive repertoire and an impressive range of bookings.  They are a group on the ascendant, and we were very privileged to welcome them in homely Saint Peter’s since they were to play the same programme later in the week in a grander setting in Frankfurt.

The evening began with Ravel’s String Quartet in F Major. It is the only string quartet he wrote.  It was written in 1903 while he was still one of Faure’s students at the Paris Conservatoire.  It opens with a sweeping, delicate adagio movement, like gossamer shimmering in a gentle breeze - beautifully and delicately played.   

The second movement has another sweeping melody batted from one instrument to another, the remaining members of the ensemble playing pizzicato for much of the time.  Ravel was imitating the sound of gamelan music from South East Asia, being  one of many artists profoundly influenced by eastern music at the turn of the last century.   

This is followed by a slow movement, the plangent musical lines delicately shaped and played with immense intensity. The work concludes with a fast and furious movement with the theme introduced in the first movement rising above the agitated playing of the lower strings. This was a superb performance, full of energy and intensity.  The subtle changes in dynamics and abrupt shifts in rhythms were adroitly conveyed.   

The second work in their concert, Four Quarters by Thomas Ades had been written for the Emerson String Quartet and first performed in 2011. Thomas Ades studied music at King’s College Cambridge. He is an accomplished pianist and was runner up as BBC Young Musician of the Year in 1990. However it is as a composer than he is better known. He is now Benjamin Britten Professor of Composition at the Royal Academy of Music and has written a wealth of both orchestral music and a series of operas.

Never slow to incorporate new ideas, his ‘Polaris’ is written for piano, orchestra and five video screens! This work, ‘Four Quarters’, requires less demanding resources, but is technically very challenging.  

The work is a time sequence, each movement exploring a different stage of the day. ‘Nightfalls’ is quite remarkable.  The upper four instruments playing a series of high pitched individual notes interacting with one another over the steady continuo of the cello.  Tiny droplets of crystal, sparkling like stars: a brilliant portrayal of the vastness of the heavens.  ‘Morning Dew’ is almost entirely played pizzicato, the whole movement finishing with a series of upward-sweeping octaves.

The last movement ‘The Twenty-fifth Hour’ was quite amazing. The rhythmic sequences are very complex and into their mathematical pattern is woven a wild dance-like fury, slowly dying  away until the fragile harmonies give way to complete silence.  

This was stupendous playing by a group of musicians who revelled in the musical and technical opportunities which Ades had provided. The audience was left utterly amazed both with the virtuosic playing, but also at the complexity and compositional ingenuity which the music had portrayed.

The second half of the programme was devoted to Brahms’s String Quartet No 3 in B Flat. This was music that fitted within the ‘frames of reference’ which the audience recognised! It is a lovely piece in which the first movement begins with a series of hunting calls followed by a pastoral rocking theme, in which Brahms uses his ever-favourite two time signatures at the same time.  

The third movement, an adagio, consists largely of a wonderful and languid viola solo. It is written as a waltz, but the music is surprisingly dark and tormented. The clouds clear for the last movement, a Finale in the form of a theme and variations in which the initial hunting theme from the first movement plays a significant part.  

The diversity of mood in these movements was subtly expressed and the viola playing was really lovely.  The group played as one, the eye-contact being ample evidence of how melded they are as chamber players.

What a concert! Three dramatically different works from three different centuries and different musical traditions, one of which took us out of our ‘comfort zone’.   They gave us great pleasure - their warmth of personality and their musical skill appreciated by us all.    

The Quartet are: Sini Simonen (violin), Daniel Roberts (violin), Charlotte Booneton (viola) and Christopher Graves (cello).

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All aboard the ghost ship - ss Great Britain serves up spooky tales for Hallowe’en

Dorothy Collins as Emily LancasterDorothy Collins as Emily LancasterWe’ve all heard of ghost ships, right: The Flying Dutchman or the Mary Celeste, drifting at sea with no living crew on board?

Well, on Saturday night - for one night only - Bristol’s ss Great Britain became a ghost ship, or rather a ship possessed by the ghosts of its passengers, each with a gruesome story to tell.

During a seemingly normal guided tour of the vessel, we encountered a number of spectres, who offered an alternative history than the familiar “the longest ship of the period” and “she crossed the Atlantic in 14 days”.

(It’s worth remembering, of course, that the Brunel’s famous ship has its own back-from-the-dead story to tell: being retired 40 years after its 1845 maiden voyage, and scuttled in 1937 before – in 1970 – limping back to the Bristol dock at which she was built, to be restored to her former glory.)

Some of the ghosts – portrayed marvellously by young actors in a joint production with the Bristol Old Vic – were based on historical characters. Others were embellishments, or their fates imagined.

The first ghost our tour group met was Mrs Gray, the wife of celebrated merchant fleet captain John Gray. Gray commanded the ss Great Britain for 18 years before disappearing in mysterious circumstances on a voyage from Melbourne to Liverpool. Being on a ship, there was no way for the news to be communicated to shore, and the first Mrs Gray knew of her husband’s demise was when the ship docked. Clad in funereal black, our Mrs Gray (Stephanie Kempson) was doomed to spend eternity at the dockside, waiting for her husband to return.

Hal Kelly as The ButcherHal Kelly as The ButcherOn the dry dock we met nursery rhyme-singing Emily Lancaster (Dorothy Collins), one of the passengers to succumb to an outbreak of smallpox on a voyage from Melbourne to Liverpool. Her tale was a sad one, and told us a lot about the treatment of steerage class passengers, but was she really cast into the sea not yet dead, as her ghost suggested? And did her mother really not shed a tear?

In the ship’s galley we met The Butcher, played by Hal Kelly. His story was based on a diary entry from a passenger, which told how a drunk butcher had stuck a pig in the wrong place, and the bleeding beast had run around the ship for half an hour. But in our story, the butcher’s motives were reinterpreted as psychopathy, as the slaughterman revealed how he had learnt to prolong, and relish in, the death of an animal.

There was more psychopathy in the first class dining saloon, where bored passengers played by Julia Head and Matt Landau gorged themselves on a banquet while discussing killing animals to relieve the boredom of their voyage. But after a rat, a cat, and a fellow passenger’s Labrador, what could they torture next? Their eyes turned to the children on the tour – it was played for laughs but suffice to say the little 'uns were holding their parents’ hands a little tighter as the aristocratic apparitions pursued our tour group down the corridor with carving knives.

The Wealthy Dining Couple played by Julia Head and Matt LandauThe Wealthy Dining Couple played by Julia Head and Matt LandauWe also met brides (Jenny Davies and Faye Bishop) a traumatised Crimean soldier (Scott Bayliss) and Sister Benedict, played by Kirsty Asher, a nun struggling with the conflict between her wrath at the immoral women sharing her third class accommodation and succumbing to one of the seven deadly sins.

This event could have been reduced to a common jump-out-of-cupboards fright fest, and I was glad that it was not. Like the best horror stories, the grisly yarns woven by the passengers of the ss Great Britain stayed with me long after I had left the dock, and was tucked up safe in my own bed.

Photographs by John Rowley courtesy of the ss Great Britain Trust

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REVIEW: An-Ting Chang adds sparkle to her musical menagerie at St Peter's Church recital

An-Ting ChangAn-Ting ChangThe first of the fifth series of Brilliant Young Musicians in Saint Peter’s Church began in great style (Sunday, October 23) with a recital given by the young Taiwanese pianist An-Ting Chang.  

Chang graduated in 2007 from the National Taiwan University, majoring in chemistry. However she chose a career in music, studying in London at the Royal Academy of Music, where she is still a PhD student in performance practice. Not content with developing a career as a pianist, she has begun experimenting with music and multimedia, through the ‘Concert Theatre’ she has created.

With all the music in her programme relating to the natural world, Chang called her recital, ‘The Carnival of Animals’.  She began with Robert Schumann’s studies known as Papillons.  Written when Schumann was but twenty years old, this group of twelve delicate miniatures floats past us like butterflies on a hot summer day.

Some of the butterflies are brightly coloured, in major keys, while others are portrayed in more sombre minor keys. These were all played with the rich variety of mood which they deserve.

This was followed by the evening's first appearance of the cuckoo: Le Coucou written by the French baroque composer and harpsichordist, Louis-Claude Daquin. Originally a movement from a harpsichord suite, we heard the distinctive two-tone call of the cuckoo recur endlessly in a variety of keys. This was a very robust cuckoo, portrayed with real vigour and technical skill.

Chang followed the butterflies with a very different piece, The Maiden and the Nightingale, by the twentieth century Spanish composer, Enrique Granados. This describes a love-torn maiden singing mournfully to the sound of a nightingale.

Her plangent song, based on a folksong from Valencia, is replete with Spanish rhythms, and redolent of a sad event played out on a warm summer’s night in Granada, with the song of nightingales filling the air.

Played caressingly by Chang, it was a dramatic contrast to her next choice - the Flight of the Bumble Bee composed by Rimsky-Korsakov for orchestra.  This version for solo piano was transcribed by Sergei Rachmaninov.  It is a virtuoso display of semi-quavers played with huge enthusiasm and technical skill. This was an angry bumble bee, not to ignore!  

From an irritating and potentially malevolent insect Chang led us to the river bank with Liszt’s transcription of Schubert’s Die Forelle - The Trout - the introductory song in Schubert’s much loved song cycle. This version is surprisingly troubling.

Of course, there is the description of the trout lurking in a millstream on a summer’s evening, but Chang’s powerful playing made much of the blood-curdling battle between the fisherman and the trout, killed, inevitably in cold blood.  

What a contrast to Debussy’s Poisson d’Or, from his Images Book II.  This is a much more placid piece, perhaps inspired by the sight of a goldfish swimming monotonously in the security of its bowl - its gilded scales flashing in the light.

In reality it is claimed that the piece is inspired by two golden fish on a Japanese lacquer panel, which Debussy owned.  Even he was swept up in the huge interest in the Orient, which dominated early twentieth century taste. Two well-known Chopin waltzes followed.  

These may well have been familiar, and lacking a little in sensitivity.  However, I doubt whether anyone in the audience was aware that the first, the Minute Waltz, had been inspired George Sand’s dog, chasing its own tail, while the second was inspired by George Sand’s cat, Valdeck, the yearning long notes imitating the sound of cats.

The first half ended with Aaron Copland’s The Cat and Mouse, taking its cue from one of La Fontaine’s Fables.  There was much energetic playing as the turbulent relationship between the cat and mouse is played out. There were brilliant musical flourishes, and the final pleading chords of the mouse left much to the imagination.    May be the mouse did get away...

After the interval we were treated to the whole of Daquin’s Troisieme Suite, of which Le Coucou had been a taster.  This time though it was LA Coucou, the same music, but played with a gentle femininity - in contrast to the raucous mate heard in the first half. The suite ended with a lovely rondo, La Tendre Silvie, played with all the tenderness and love the work demanded.

The concert finished with Le Carnival des Animaux, undoubtedly Saint Saens’ most popular work. Originally written for a variety of instruments, this version was adapted for solo piano by Chang herself.  There was the familiar cast list including another cuckoo! This one, though, exhausted after performing so much this evening, is calling in a rather ‘tired’ minor mode. If only cuckoos were so commonly heard in rural Wiltshire!  

There was the heavy-footed elephant, the chattering hens and the ponderous tortoise, all vividly portrayed.  Perhaps The Swan, the best known of the movements, suffered from insufficient emphasis on the plangent lyrical line, lost as it was in the rippling waves.  

It was a lovely concert - one made all the more memorable by Chang’s introduction and explanation of the pieces. Not only did we learn so much about the pieces, but we were enveloped in her infectious enthusiasm. Perhaps it will not be so much the music, but An-Ting Chang’s infectious smile, humour and charm we shall remember from this evening.   Please come again!  

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