The 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
Marlborough 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.
The 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).
Dorothy 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 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 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