At St Mary in the Castle: Hastings Philharmonic – Mozart & O’Meara

The Hastings Philharmonic conducted by Marcio Silva

By the time you are any age in life you can go ‘And what had Mozart achieved by this time?’ and realise that you’re running second best. Until you hit 36 and then you can crow, League of Gentleman style, that at least you’ve won the living contest. Two of Mozart’s later works – meaning he wrote them when was about 32 – were paired with a new piece by Philip O’Meara by the Hastings Philharmonic for their latest concert at St Mary in the Castle. It made for an excellent evening.

Let’s get the negatives out of the way. There weren’t many people here. The weather definitely would have kept a proportion relying on their car away in fear that the forecast snow was right but even allowing for that the grand building was disappointingly showing a lot of empty seats. And those seats weren’t cheap, not for a regular classical concert. Once the booking fee was added mine, the cheapest in the room, was just shy of £20. I get that there are expenses to cover and life isn’t fair but that seems just a little too steep to tempt the casual punter. A tenner in the gods and fifteen for the stalls would seem a better fit.

But I’ll stop grumbling now.

After an introduction from Polly Gifford about the genuinely amazing array of music that can be experienced in Hastings we got on down to K.364, Sinfonia Concertante. Ayşen Ulucan and Cristian Ladislau-Andris handled the violin and voila (respectively) leads well and the moves between reflective intensity and sprightly jig were delivered with panache by the players. Following the interval we had Philip O’Meara’s latest premiere, Flacubal 95, which is a response to Mozart’s 40th Symphony. So the odd situation where the reaction was before the question but no matter. This was an enjoyable piece. The influences were there and were clear but it also felt fresh and contemporary. I’d like to hear it again. Finally, that 40th Symphony, which, to be honest, we’ve all heard a lot. It wasn’t exactly given fresh life here, I think that would basically be impossible, but it was certainly enjoyably delivered and given as thorough workout as possible.

Next up for the Hastings Philharmonic is Elgar’s Cello Concerto on April 14th. That should sound cause hearts to break with the acoustic and visuals of St Mary in the Castle to support it.


Film review: Annhilation

Annhilation arrives on Netflix apparently having been deemed too cerebral for a global cinema release following less than spectacular business in the US. Something’s gone wrong somewhere. A film so feminist it hardly feels the need to mention it has five tough, scientific women as lead characters, yet one that is also dramatic, intelligent, beautiful and affecting … and nobody can work out how to sell tickets for it. I guess we get the multiplexes we deserve.

Natalie Portman is Lena, now a biologist and once a soldier. Her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), returns from a year away with the military but something’s gone wrong somewhere. Following that trail puts Lena in a team heading inside ‘the shimmer’, a space in southern Florida that appears to harbour some malevolence as all who enter do not return (Kane, apparently, excepted). Dr Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) leads the party and three other women follow with varying degrees of trepidation.

Inside the shimmer the environment is both recognisable and otherworldly. Nothing has really changed at first glance, but on closer inspection …

Alex Garland follows up Ex Machina with a piece here that is spellbinding. Adapting Jeff VanderMeer’s novel (I haven’t read it but may now be tempted) the script, world creation and direction are nothing short of remarkable. In a good way. The almost wordless finale, more a piece of contemporary movement by this point, should be used as the dictionary definition of ‘show don’t tell’ from now on. The drip drip of revelation, combined with some genuinely shocking scenes, creates a tension and unease that the film never remotely feels like releasing.

I don’t see anything like as much cinema as I’d like to these days but have been lucky enough to catch Midnight SpecialArrival and now Annhilation. They’d make a good triptych. Science fiction that’s prepared to do everything that good sci-fi does but without any urge to labour the point or force answers on anyone.

Annhilation is unsettling in all the right ways. Hopefully, now on Netflix, and wherever else it ends up, it will find an audience.

At the De La Warr: Caroline Achaintre, “Fantômas”

Mixing ceramic sculpture and work described as ‘hand tufted wall hangings’, Caroline Achaintre’s work now occupies the space in the De La Warr just next to the coffee queue. I think they call it gallery two but I’m usually rushing by for a caffeine fix and in too much of a hurry to read the signs. I think it says how much I liked the display by Achaintre that I not only stopped but I paused, took in and inwardly digested too. I left having forgotten to get a coffee.

Taking its cue from modern art responses to non-Westerm cultures, Achaintre’s work unashamedly draws heavily from the well of what might be called primitivism. We’re conjuring emotional connections here, not attempting to represent the world as is. The entry notes talk of face masks and carnivale; I saw those but also monsters, fears and friends. I’d love to see what could be done by casting shadows with these pieces. Others may see nothing at all and want to storm by for their coffee and sea view. For those who stay, there’s also a nice audio featuring young people’s responses to the work.


Hastings International Piano Concerto Final 2018

The White Rock Theatre, host venue, during the interval. Copyright (C) Jon Smalldon 2018, All rights reserved.
“This isn’t a panto, you know.”
“Oh yes, it is …”
And with that interchange the third and final performance could begin following an interval that had gone on for slightly longer than planned, requiring host and Classic FM presenter Bill Turnbull to enquire if, by chance, everyone was finally ready. Nice for there to be an audience, nicer still that they were relaxed and passionate, nicest of all that their engagement and attendance were rewarded with some fine playing.
The snow and wind turned to dreary, persistent rain but the White Rock was *this close* to being full regardless. This was the second night of two for the 2018 Hasting International Piano Concerto Competition (HIPCC) final. 160 competitors were initially whittled down to 36 invited to Hastings to play,  none from the UK made the grade. The final six were two Koreans, two from China, one from Taiwan and one from Russia. They have passed their own tests in this most competitive of instruments and are now seemingly all at the stage, post graduate but pre career, where events such as this can make the difference between being merely a superb and unique player and being a recognised name.
Obviously, I couldn’t tell you who was ‘best’, I just came to enjoy the show. My nan used to teach ‘pianoforte’ via an upright in the front room of a terraced house in Newport, Gwent but her skill and discipline did not make it down the family line. All I can do is observe that Fanya Lin, Taiwanese born and now a doctoral gopher in Minnesota, played Prokofiev with fury, that Rixiang Huang, now at Juilliard, seemed swept up in his Liszt, and that Birmingham Conservatoire attendee Roman Kosyakov was thoroughly connected to the Tchaikovsky. They were aided and abetted by the Royal Philharmonic under Jac van Steen throughout. All were applauded joyously and deservedly.
In the end, the winner was Roman Kosyakov. The runners up were from the previous evening. A lesson there to maybe try and make both shows. He now gets £15,000 and several shows with the RPO and others in London and the USA. That’s not a bad return. There are prizes for the others as well although not as significant. Nobody actually loses.
The dates for next year’s event are already out. Competitive auditions will begin later. But, for now, there is an immense pleasure to be had in seeking out the names of this year’s finalists and those of previous years and seeking out their performances be that on YouTube or, if you’re lucky indeed, in the flesh.

An old photo: Parkour poseur, 2009

Southbank Centre, London, 2009 – Photo taken on a Canonet QL19 with TriX film. Copyright (C) Jon Smalldon 2009, All rights reserved.

According to my flickr stats, there are just shy of 4,500 photos I’ve taken that are waiting on that feed to be discovered. And odd feeling. By volume, most will be of sporting fixtures that are now barely remembered even by those who were playing. This morning, I decided to have a browse through and stop when one caught my I that was both interesting and that I couldn’t remember taking.

This athletic fellow was showing his moves off in front of my Canonet rangefinder – I love that camera but real life gets in the way of film photography at the minute – nearly a decade ago. His shape mirrors that of Zemran, the work by William Pye that you can see rising from the upper walkway. His attitude bursts from the graffiti’d skatepark in the background. The same skatepark that caused so much issue when Southbank Centre tried to shift its users away so that the space could turn commercial to part-finance the refurbishment of the Queen Elizabeth Hall.

The Queen Elizabeth Hall reopens following that refurbishment in a few weeks. The skate park is still there, now with added notoriety.  Zemran was made a work of national importance requiring proper protection in 2016. The kid in the photo held his pose for a few minutes and then moved on.


At Towner: Inhabit

Zoe Walker’s Somewhere Special in a previous life in Melbourne

A black and white world with no people to be seen is how we start, two rooms later and we’re staring at an artificial mountain, having taken a detour via hyper domestication. Inhabit, drawing only on works held in Towner’s collection, has been beautifully curated by Karen Taylor and, in neat partnership with Natural Selection upstairs, again showcases the best of what this gallery can do.

The first showing for newly donated works by Patrick Caulfield is the main draw. They feature in what might be called the blue room. A closed-in domestic setting, deliberately claustrophobic compared to the exterior worlds. The Caulfields are used as interior design along with complementary works such as Kertsin  Erici’s Still Life. It does genuinely remind you (me) of staring at art on the walls of homes you’ve visited, trying to see if whats on the walls is going to reveal anything about the people offering you a cup of tea and a polite chat.

The opening room is my favourite. A black and white world with the people removed . Natural, ancient and modern combine. Graham Gussin’s Future City is neatly unsettling when set alongside strong (albeit more straightforward) views of parkland and beaches. It’s all shadow cars and visions that look almost like they could be found on the cover of a lost 1950s sci fi novel.

After the domestic, we move on to the great outdoors. Dominating the room is Zoe Walker’s Somewhere Special. A portable, inflatable Scottish mountain that is out of place, and completely at home, anywhere. It is great fun.

Inhabit is a strong show that works well in tandem with Natural Selection upstairs but stands up strong in its own right. It was nice to see a good crowd taking it all in, and to enjoy a lovely latte in a ‘just busy enough’ cafe afterwards.


At Towner: Natural Selection

Natural Selection at Towner, Eastbourne

The outcome of five years of collaboration between artist Andy Holden and his ornithologist father, Peter, Natural Selection is an engaging, intriguing and, at times, unsettling exhibition. It’s another reason to visit Towner, especially as the Eastbourne gallery strikes out for survival in the face of further cuts mandated by austerity.

Natural Selection is a strong example of what Towner exhibits well: a small-ish show that has big ambitions and achieves them. On the face of it, a reasonably simple collection of artifacts and presentations related to birds, there is a lot here that sticks in your mind, culminating in the final room in which eggs from all manner of birds are laid out, collected in nests held in a cornucopia of Very British Boxes (King Edward cigars, novelty tins, that sort of thing). Not only is this about the beauty of the birds, it is also about obsession, about strangeness, about conflict between the most vulnerable in nature and the strong who observe them with curiosity.

The show has arrived in Eastbourne after positively received stays elsewhere. I can’t really add to that chorus of approval except to say that if you can go, you really should.

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