Category Archives: review

WIDDEN’S REVIEW – CAN MUSIC COMMENT ON A POLITICAL SITUATION?

Contributed by Martin Widden
Some music is composed to celebrate a person – probably the best known example is Beethoven’s Eroica symphony, composed in honour of Napoleon, although Beethoven later withdrew the dedication in disgust at Napoleon’s declaring himself emperor; some portray an actual event, such as Verdi’s opera The Masked Ball, about the very real assassination of King Gustav of Sweden in 1792. But music is usually a self-sufficient form of art, existing without needing to refer to any external person or event. Nonetheless, two recent recitals in the Great Hall have been programmed to respond to the present situation in the world.
The first of these was a performance on 7 November by English Touring Opera of The Silver Lake, by Kurt Weill. (Weill was the composer who collaborated with the playwright Bertolt Brecht on The Threepenny Opera, which includes the well-known song Mack the Knife.) The story of the opera centres on an impoverished youth, Severin, who steals a pineapple and is shot and wounded by a policeman, Olim. Conscience-stricken at what he has done, Olim visits Severin in hospital, and from this follows an increasingly fantastical story, leading the pair finally to a silver frozen lake, which they are able to cross and make their way to a new future. On the bare Great Hall stage without scenery, and to the accompaniment of a 30-strong orchestra, ETO gave a compelling performance of this story about poverty, hunger and deprivation. It is particularly encouraging that, as at all ETO’s performances, the chorus was recruited locally from choirs based in and around Lancaster.

On 5 December, the Great Hall hosted a recital entitled The Labyrinth by the Israeli-American pianist David Greilsammer. Based loosely on Janacek’s suite On an Overgrown Path, this was a series of short pieces, generally improvisatory in nature, by composers ranging from the 17th century German JJ Froberger, via CPE Bach and Mozart, to the contemporary American Philip Glass. The recital lasted only about 70 minutes, but afterwards Greilsammer returned to answer questions from the audience, and it was here that he remarked that he had put together the programme to reflect the chaotic times we are living in. It was a very interesting series of works which made sense in his hands, even though in the printed programme it looked like a random list. Greilsammer was able to master the varied styles of the pieces very convincingly.

REVIEW – THE LICA UNDERGRADUATE DEGREE SHOW

It’s not often you find hundreds of people wandering around on a summer’s evening, viewing art. And when this art includes a film which mashes up Fawlty Towers, nuclear war mockumentary The War Game, Sound of the Underground by Girls Aloud, and Theresa May’s resignation speech – what’s not to like?

So well done to this year’s graduating BA’s from LICA, whose degree show, ‘Coordinate’, was very much pulling in the punters at its opening night on Thursday 20 June.

Most exhibits are in Bowland Annexe, with larger pieces and design students’ displays in the LICA building. There’s a showcase – one piece from each artist – in the Peter Scott Gallery, making this a good place to start. The title is a bit of a pun – yes, it’s mainly a co-ordinated presentation by 69 different people, but there are geographical themes (co-ordinates, geddit?) in several of the exhibits, and the degree show poster has a map-like look.

You’ll find film-based installations, including Sian Howells covering herself in beans, Pablo Rubio’s already-mentioned Fawlty Towers epic, and Aiden Handley-Griggs smashing an old PC to pieces with hammers.

You’ll see strange sculptures, such as Lauren Silcock’s Lovecraftian legs-hatching-from-eggs and Georgina Raynor’s anti-slavery pieces in burnt sugar.

And you’ll come across technically impressive exhibits like Emily Stewart’s giant tissue paper sail, covered with tiny pinpricked pictures on the subject of grief, and Olivia Foskett’s blacked-out room, where you go in with a torch and shine this around to see strange things inside.

It’s great, basically. Just pop along and walk around. There are times, strolling through, where Lancaster’s comparable lack of exhibition space becomes clear – in particular, there are plenty of works which would benefit from being displayed in a large space with a high ceiling, but only one place, the LICA foyer, where this can happen. Well done to Daisy Williamson whose inflatable misogynist insults look amazing there.

For the subtext art appreciation drone, three exhibits were particularly dazzling:

– Leonie Robertshaw’s geometric rearrangements of Venus blend op art with iconography.

– Ashanti Garratt’s diptychs put Hopper-style portraits on the left next to monologues on the right. The monologues begin confidently, but the text fades away. Then you realise that they’re all about memory loss and dementia, and stay staring for 10 minutes.

– Alice Sherlock’s Strudwicks Field is… well, there’s a room with outlines on the floor, scale models of urban centres with things not quite in the right place, and paintings on the wall which look like close ups of maps. Then there’s the film loop where the artist is wandering around a Gothic, decayed landscape and… is that somewhere I know?… Your correspondent spent 15 minutes trying to make sense of it all, before realising that the whole point is that everything depicted is wrong.

The show stays open until the afternoon of Saturday 29 June.

AN EXCEPTIONAL PIANO RECITAL

Review by Martin Widden

Some years ago, with help from the Friends of the Lancaster Concerts, the University bought a new Steinway concert grand piano for the Great Hall. Our old Steinway had reached the stage where good pianists were complaining about the state of it, and seemed quite likely to start refusing to come to Lancaster. Having this new piano has enabled the University to bring excellent pianists to Lancaster to perform in the concert series. Last week’s concert was one such, with a recital by Eric Lu, winner of the first prize in the 2018 Leeds international piano competition.

His programme opened with the A minor Rondo by Mozart. This late piece by Mozart, dating from 1787, is full of emotion, and Lu captured this excellently in a sensitive performance. He followed this with the six Klavierstücke by Brahms. These are serious pieces, demanding the deepest insight from the performer, and again Eric Lu was able to tap into this very well despite his relatively tender years (he is 21).

After the interval, we had Handel’s Chaconne in G major, a series of variations on a theme. Handel’s skill in developing this short and simple theme into complex and mesmerising variations is remarkable.

The recital ended with the second sonata by Chopin – the one that includes as its third movement the well-known funeral march. This is a virtuoso piece, which was played with complete confidence by the pianist.

The performance of this varied and well-balanced programme by Eric Lu was highly satisfying. He evidently studies the music so that he becomes fully aware of the composer’s intentions, and his technique is so assured that he is able to communicate these to the listener very clearly.

This was an excellent recital in every way – possibly the best piano performance of recent years in the Lancaster series of concerts, and a fine end to the 2018-19 concert season.

WIDDEN’S WONDERFUL WORLD OF WOODWIND

Review: BBC Phil plays the Great Hall

The concert given in the Great Hall on 7 February was the first by the BBC Philharmonic since they were re-appointed as the University’s Orchestra in Residence in December. The large audience proved once again that concerts by a full symphony orchestra are a sure-fire hit: the concert was a sell-out. It featured two substantial works: a clarinet concerto by Edward Cowie entitled Ruskin’s Dreams, and the sixth symphony of Tchaikovsky.

A Lecturer in Music at Lancaster from 1973-1983, Cowie is not just a composer, but also a successful painter, particularly of birds. In his programme notes for the concert, Cowie suggests that his life has some parallels with Ruskin’s: both were painters, both were sufferers from some form of mental illness. These overlaps can surely be of very limited significance. Still, the clarinet concerto was, it seems, inspired by Ruskin’s life and works, and by Lake Coniston, which is where Ruskin spent his later life. Whilst he was at Lancaster in the 1970s, Cowie’s compositions were miniatures, so it came as a surprise to find him writing skilfully for a full symphony orchestra. It’s too soon to know whether Ruskin’s Dreams will enter the regular concert repertoire.

Tchaikovsky’s sixth symphony is nicknamed the Pathétique, a name suggested to him by his brother and accepted by the composer, and the music clearly suggests self-pity. There are several possible reasons for this. One is that Tchaikovsky suffered severe personal problems due to his homosexuality and the failure of his marriage. What is more, composing symphonies did not come naturally to Tchaikovsky. A symphony is an extended work for orchestra, usually in several separate and contrasted movements, with a formal structure, particularly for the first movement: this form was established in the days of Haydn and Mozart. Being essentially an emotional composer, Tchaikovsky could not flourish under the constraints imposed by this form. His sixth symphony is not only an expression of his personal misery, but it also seems to echo the spiritual hunger of our age. It is always a popular item on an orchestra’s programme, as it was in the Great Hall. The BBC Phil clearly know the symphony very well and they gave it full romantic value.

The composer conducted the first performance of the symphony in St Petersburg in early October 1893. He made some small revisions for the second performance, planned for later in the month, but before that could take place, Tchaikovsky had unfortunately died. This symphony uses the orchestra’s resources to the full, and the BBC Phil rose to the occasion very well.

Contributed by Martin Widden

NEW DELI

The Deli has had a refurb, and it’s very much a ‘take everything away and start again’ refurb.

The problem with The Deli’s predecessor, The Venue, was not really the food, but the way you felt a little bit like you were sat at the breakfast bar of a show-home kitchen. Old Deli had a similar (lack of) ambience. So, credit is definitely due to whoever designed New Deli, because they’ve finally created a space where someone might want to sit and spend time in. The lighting is lower and the tables seem slightly closer together. The serving area’s been moved to the far wall (the one closest to Alex Square) which does create a bit of a squash, to be honest, but at least you’re not queueing out of the door, as you used to.

The main hot product at lunch is the cryptically-named ‘stew’. Your subtext reviewer drone chose vegetable and took a seat. When it came it was very nice, with carrots, barley and onions. There’s also an accompanying jar, containing two blanched slices of carrot, some cauliflower and a pickled gherkin, in a bit of vinegar. Are you supposed to add it to the stew, or something? Lose the gherkin if you want this to happen.

For those just wanting something to take away, there are plenty of sandwiches and salads, including the Turkey Focaccia Club and a California Veggie Sandwich.

There’s a lot of space on the new menu devoted to coffee. Sadly, the ‘drip blends’ (filter coffee to you and me) from Atkinson’s hadn’t yet arrived in stock, so subtext lingered over a latte while admiring the coffee ‘tasting notes’ from the menu. Who’s going to be able to resist the Guatemala Pensativo, a ‘coffee from the immediate vicinity affected by the Fuego volcanic eruption’? As we enjoy the ‘custard cream biscuit mouthfeel’ we’re encouraged to ‘spare a moment to think of those stoic communities around Pensativo.’ What a world we live in today.

THE LOUNGE FLIES

One of the most agonising aspects of being at Lancaster used to be the dispiriting decision about which truly awful food outlet to take external visitors to, and how long exactly to spend apologising to said visitors for the lack of a suitable eating venue on campus. (Lancaster House Hotel was to a certain extent an the exception to this conundrum, but was a little far for lunch for those based in North Campus, and a little heavy on the old departmental budgets).

This all changed when The Lounge ‘came on stream’, as management types like to say these days. While connoisseurs of Lancaster’s night-time economy may have at first wondered whether the venerable but long-defunct nightclub of the same name in the city centre was opening a branch on campus, it turned to be something of a surprise: a halfway decent restaurant, with a menu that changed once in a while, table service, and above all, an ambience that did not involve dart-boards or formica tables.

After some initial wobbles around service from staff more used to doling out mashed potatoes in a cafeteria, The Lounge quickly came into its own, offering a choice of hot, substantial lunches alongside quicker options such as soup or sandwiches, and a variety of salads for the health-conscious. There was always at least one, and usually two or three vegetarian dishes for each course. More recently they have started offering vegan and gluten-free dishes as well. Despite occasional mislabellings on the menu (salmon is rarely considered vegetarian these days), the dishes generally not only sound good on the page but also look good on the plate, for example the rather seasonal ‘Parsnip gnocchi with roasted beetroot, sautéed winter greens, and sun-dried tomato sauce’ or a ‘Deli open sandwich with mushroom and stem broccoli and kale pesto’.

Food is only served 12-2, and this slot can get rather busy, particularly around Christmas and exam board time. Nevertheless, with a quick heads up to the staff, it is usually possible to get in and out within an hour, and to leave full and contented, and most importantly, not embarrassed in front of visitors.

MARTIN WIDDEN: ‘WIELDING HIS PEN LIKE A KNIFE TO THE HEART’

Review: Leeds Piano Competition Winner gives first-class recital

The Great Hall concert on Thursday 1 November was a solo piano recital by Anna Tsybuleva, winner of the 2015 Leeds Piano Competition. The Leeds competition has become, in its short life of just over 50 years, one of the world’s foremost piano competitions, so an excellent performance was expected – and so it proved.

Leeds is not especially renowned as a centre of classical music. OK, Opera North is based there, and their operatic performances are excellent; but opera is another country entirely from piano recitals. How has Leeds managed to develop its solo piano competition to the point where it is known throughout the musical world and beyond, and can attract the most talented young performers to compete?

The competition was the initiative in 1963 of Fanny Waterman, a well-known Leeds piano teacher. In developing the competition, she was helped by her husband and also by Marion Thorpe, then Countess of Harewood. The support of many other people was clearly valuable; but what is obvious is that Fanny Waterman had the vision, and also, crucially, the drive to realise it – as is attested by the fact that, fifty-five years on, she is still active, now as a Life President of the competition.

The competition has a number of partners: the University of Leeds is the Principal Partner, together with Leeds City Council, Steinway and Sons, the BBC, the Hallé, the Oslo Philharmonic….the fact that this list is long and includes many eminent names from the world of classical music is a clear indication of how much effort has gone into building the competition up from scratch.

Anna Tsybuleva’s programme for the first half of the concert concentrated on the piano writing of Beethoven, in which she demonstrated the originality, even eccentricity, of Beethoven’s composing. His Fantasy op 77 is a quite extraordinary piece. It was unfortunate that there were almost no notes on the music in the programme – as it was, the printed programme provided a short biography of the pianist and a very short history of the Leeds competition, but almost nothing on the music being played.

In the second half, Tsybuleva played some of the major piano works of Chopin, in which her playing combined superb lightness of touch and clarity of articulation with a wonderful musicality. This was a first-rate recital in every way.

A final point of interest: Fiona Sinclair, Associate Director of Lancaster Arts and organiser of the Great Hall concerts since 2010, has recently been appointed Chief Executive of the Leeds Piano Competition from 2018 – in fact, she has already taken up her new post. In the past eight years, Fiona has contrived on a limited budget to put together interesting programmes played in the University’s Great Hall by fine performers. She will be missed from Lancaster: it will be interesting to see what she can do with ‘the Leeds’.

Contributed by Martin Widden

REVIEW: ST MATTHEW PASSION IN THE PRIORY CHURCH

Contributed by Martin Widden

The composer J S Bach was very skilled at reusing pieces he had composed for other purposes, a practice he often adopted to enable him to meet the many tight deadlines he was set by his employers. But the St Matthew Passion is unusual among Bach’s major sacred works in having been composed as a whole, rather than being put together or adapted from music he had on the shelf. A devout Christian, Bach evidently regarded the composition of this work as a highly important matter in his life – it is tightly structured, and we are told that the manuscript is much more neatly finished than those for most of his works.

In these relatively faithless times, it fortunately isn’t necessary to be a Christian to appreciate the wonders of this work. The Passion is an account of the events leading up to the crucifixion of Christ, a tale that includes capture, denial, betrayal, and appeal to the instincts of the crowd (as we know, they preferred Barabbas, a known crook, to Jesus, and Pilate washed his hands of their decision). It is a dramatic story, and Bach’s treatment of it exploits the dramatic potential of the story to the full.

The University’s 2018-19 international concert season opened with a performance of the St Matthew Passion by English Touring Opera, presented in Lancaster Priory Church. The principal soloists sang their parts from memory, without books or copies. They were thus able to move around the church engaging the audience with eye contact. As a member of the audience, it was sometimes a little unnerving to be addressed from a distance of only a metre or two by a powerful singer, especially if you weren’t quite expecting it, but the dramatic effect was very strong, and to have the piece performed by an opera company seemed completely appropriate.

The story is told by the Evangelist. This is a big part – very reasonably, it was shared among several singers – and as they sang in German, it was useful to have surtitles on screens at the front of the church. The part of Christ is always accompanied by sustained strings, representing his halo remarkably effectively. The chorus was formed of local singers. Putting all this together is a considerable logistical triumph, since there is little time for rehearsal with everyone present, but no hitches were detectable on the night.

English Touring Opera are performing the St Matthew Passion at some eleven locations around the country. To witness and be part of one of these performances was a great experience: we were fortunate that one of them was given here in Lancaster.

REVIEW: GO BURRITO

As part of a possibly ongoing series of reviews of the places that matter on campus (i.e. food and drink venues) we have dispatched our gaggle of taster drones on a culinary fact finding mission. The first to report back was last seen in public staggering out of Go Burrito, clutching its stomach-parts and softly whimpering ‘can’t… eat… any… moar’.

The campus Go Burrito started as a rather ingenious attempt to keep a business afloat – or rather, not afloat, given the mothership premises are on Church Street in Lancaster, in one of the areas of the city centre worst affected by flooding following Storm Desmond in late 2015.

The formula is relatively simple, and superficially reminiscent of the Starbucks/Subway style choice system, where customers are given a series of increasingly complex options about what exactly they want in their food. At Go Burrito, fortunately, rather than over-sweetened and overpriced coffee drinks or limp-looking bread rolls topped with limp-looking other stuff, the choices are rather more appealing. Patrons are invited to choose their burrito size, type of beans, spicy or mild rice, main filling (a choice of around 5-6 meat or vegetarian options including beef/veggie chilli, pulled pork, stir fry veg, and sometimes specials), salsas of various spiciness, and a large selection of other fillings including jalapeños, guacamole and, for some bizarre reason, crushed tortilla chips.

There isn’t much in the way of sides: currently curly fries or nachos, and the hot cheese sauce is a bit too like what you might find in a cinema chain (our drone preferred sour cream as a topping). The drinks are also a little on the sugary side (who even knew that Lilt still existed?), but by and large Go Burrito offers a decent lunch of not too unhealthy fast-food at non-astronomical prices. And if you ramp up the spice levels enough, you might even be able to stay awake after lunch despite having consumed a large burrito oozing with cheesy chilli goodness.

TV REVIEW: JARGON

We think this is a first for subtext: a review of a television programme, namely Jonathan Meades on Jargon (BBC4, 10.30pm, 27 May), which readers can still catch via the BBC iplayer (https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09xzsbp – programme no longer available, link provided for reference). Only those with a certain kind of sensibility are likely to enjoy every last drop of what is, in effect, an illustrated lecture in which Meades praises slang, the language of the common person, and attacks jargon, used by idiots and charlatans. If you are the sort of person who giggles at the use of term ‘offal-rubbing’ for sexual intercourse or laughs out loud at the description of the jargoneer as someone who ‘gives great forelock’, then you will greatly enjoy this.

Meades begins with a splendid and heartening defence of slang. Slang gets to the core of what we actually think rather than what we are bullied into thinking. Slang is wildly creative; so much of the pleasure of it lies in its making. Meades own invented adjective badered means legless, derived from the flying ace Douglas Bader, who lost both his legs while doing aerobatics. Slang is the opposite of jargon, it has a directness which forms a vital antidote to obfuscation. Jargon, on the other hand, is the language of the trained liar, it is everything slang is not: ‘Centrifugal, evasive, drably euphemistic, unthreatening, conformist.’ While slang belongs to the gutter, ‘jargon belongs to the executive estate,’ he says. ‘It is the clumsy, graceless, inelegant, aesthetically bereft expression of houses with three garages … It is delusional, it inflates pomposity, officiousness and self-importance, rather than punctures them.’

His passionate rant demonstrates how jargon has infected everything – including universities of course. And because you cannot separate jargon from its users, there is plenty of scope for wicked personal attacks – the usual suspects come in for some savage onslaughts.

Clearly polemical rather than carefully argued, and a bit lax on terminology, but nevertheless the subtext reviewer drone felt he a good thesis in the first half hour of the programme. It was surprising that he only quoted George Orwell once, at the end of the first half, given that the 1946 essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ basically makes exactly the same point about jargon – and the book 1984 was a chilling illustration of what happens when you take jargon to its logical extreme. In the second half, regional varieties came in for a surprise attack. Meades clearly knows very little about how language works. The very points he was trying to make against regional dialects could equally have been made about what he called ‘slang’ at the beginning (where he was essentially talking about sociolects, i.e. class dialects, though there were some regional aspects to the examples he gave too). Received Pronunciation (RP) was never some golden age lingua franca, as Meades contends – it was an accent (note, not a dialect) spoken as a first-language variety by a small minority consisting of the wealthy elites, and acquired (to a greater or lesser extent) by a certain number of less affluent (but still privileged) who worked in the media and certain other professions. At least one of the examples he gave (the footballer, Denis Law) was very obviously *not* using RP! But his comments on Gaelic were absolutely unforgivable, and incredibly ignorant of the importance of language in the retention of identity and culture.

At this point, your hard-working reviewer drone began to overheat a little. Given the ‘meta’ nature of his arguments, using slang to praise slang, jargon to decry jargon, RP to praise RP, funny accents to make fun of funny accents… can anything he said be taken seriously? Is it all just a big joke at the BBC’s expense, allowing Meades to repeatedly use the tabooest of taboo language on national TV? Should any readers have views on this, slang-filled and jargon-free letters are welcome at the usual address.

MARTIN WIDDEN: ‘SNOWFLAKE MUSICIAN MELTER’

Review: Debussy 100

The present year, 2018, is being observed as the centenary of Debussy’s death right across the musical world. Why the fuss about Debussy?

Debussy’s music is unlike that of any previous composer. Indeed, the music critic Paul Griffiths has written that ‘if modern music may be said to have had a definite beginning, then it started with the flute melody, the opening of the Prélude à L’après-midi d’un faune by Claude Debussy.’ This opening phrase, whilst not atonal, is not in any key; furthermore, the rhythm is not in any obvious metre, and the whole feeling is of improvisation and of freedom from the constraints of key and rhythm.

In the Prélude, Debussy conjures up very effectively not just the sultry afternoon heat in a wood, but also the thoughts of the faun in Mallarmé’s poem on which the music is based. He went further than any composer before him, and probably more successfully than later composers, in revealing in music the workings of the subconscious mind.

In the concert in the Great Hall on 22 March, students from the Royal Northern College of Music celebrated the life of Debussy by performing a varied programme of some of his lesser-known works. The concert opened with Danse Sacrée et Danse Profane, written for harp and strings – which was excellently played, particularly by the solo harp. This was followed by the Rhapsodie for alto saxophone, arranged for saxophone and ensemble.

Between these works, a chamber ensemble performed Erik Satie’s Sports et Divertissements, arranged by the composer Dominic Muldowney. This is a set of pieces written to accompany an album of drawings by the illustrator Charles Martin; each of the pieces has a corresponding short poem. At the side of the stage sat a narrator, a Rees-Mogg lookalike in a Norfolk jacket and cap, smoking a pipe. The whole thing was very droll.

The concert closed with arrangements for orchestra of four of Debussy’s Préludes, originally written for solo piano. Some of this was serious stuff – but some was surprisingly funny.

Reverting to L’après-midi d’un faune: there was something of a scandal in 1914 when Nijinsky danced to this music, because his dancing exposed the erotic undercurrent in the piece. Since then, many dancers, most notably Rudolf Nureyev, have done the same. Both before and since, other composers, notably Richard Wagner in his opera Tristan and Isolde, have attempted to portray in music sexual desire and even orgasm, but none of these attempts reaches into the subconscious as Debussy did. His music is unique. If anyone reading this is around in 2062, perhaps they could promote a celebration of the bicentenary of Debussy’s birth.

Contributed by Martin Widden

REVIEW: COURTNEY PINE AND THE INNER CITY ENSEMBLE

Following Dave Spikey’s show at the Grand (subtext 174), your correspondent visited the same theatre to see quite a different artist a few days later, along with some familiar faces from Freehold and other Lancaster environs, plus some well-known faces from the University. They had come to see Courtney Pine. This world famous saxophonist is one of the most exciting and talented performers around. Fusing hip-hop, jazz, and groove, he is revered across the world for his innovative style and love of live performances. Last time he played Lancaster he was at the Dukes and brought the house down (well, the ceiling at least – the pitch and volume of his playing caused flecks of paint to drift down into the audience).

No such happenings at the Grand, a theatre Pine described as ‘old school’. He also expressed some apprehension to be playing at a venue that would be hosting Roy Chubby Brown in a couple of weeks time!

Courtney is credited with dramatically transforming the face of contemporary British Jazz over the last 30 years. This groundbreaking saxophonist and multi-instrumentalist has led a generation of players who have broadened their styles to take jazz out to a wider audience.

On this occasion, Courtney was joined by the Inner City Ensemble – a free-form improvisational musical collective featuring young, pioneering crossover musicians, combining different sonic backgrounds including jazz, post-industrial, noise-rock and electronic. Their music is full of discrete melodies and subtle rhythms – somewhere in between meditative ambience and percussive trance. The ensemble played drums, double bass, piano/keyboards, guitar, tuba, trombone and clarinet/baritone saxophone with warmth, imagination and a soulful intensity.

Each player was showcased during a variety of numbers, occasionally engaging in some playful end-of-the-pier call-and-response routines. Courtney got in on this act with a frantic ‘dueling banjos’ riff between his saxophone and the young drummer. Together, Courtney and this band of very talented musicians fused the central elements of jazz and soul with shades of drum and bass with energy, improvisation and huge smiles on their faces. This was all accomplished after just two days of rehearsal and four live shows. Amazing. Great night, although your cultural correspondent is still intrigued by the composition of the various audiences who chose to attend particular venues, people-watching being part of his day job.

REVIEW: MILTON JONES IS OUT THERE

Radio 4 listeners will be familiar with Milton Jones’ surrealist sense of humour and endless stream of one-liners. Your cultural correspondent was curious as to whether his particular style of comedy would work in an extended format – he need not have worried, as he could barely stop laughing for the whole show. Milton Jones edges sideways on the stage dressed as Great Britain, in order to give Brexit and Scottish Independence a wry sideways glance – geddit? Support act Chris Stokes offered up twenty minutes of amiable comedy to an already contented audience, with stories of everyday life – from his Black Country childhood, to the breakup of his marriage, from injured pigeons to dog walkers. Stokes is an ideal comedian to put in front of Jones’s audience – very different to Jones but likeable, inoffensive and funny.

The second half of the show is a well-crafted hour plus of comedy from Jones. Scattered props and some slides on a big screen create a space in which Jones can run around. A birdhouse houses an old dial phone. A wheelie bin filled with many large flags, which Jones uses for a bit of business about nations speaking to each other. Built entirely around one-liners, there is always a punchline but it is never going to be the one you expect, and that is why Jones excels. Behind his demeanour of a very silly man is a brain that can connect words and notions in a unique way. There were times in the act where Jones makes a point of pausing so that half the people in the room can catch up with his wit.

Jones breaks up the show with some improvisation, asking the audience to come up with subjects for him to deliver lines on. Coming up with a strong, hour long set and memorizing its material is very impressive. Being able to come up with clever one-lines on the spot is remarkable. Dealing with a persistent heckler was equally impressive. The random heckles, followed by a giggled ‘I’m sorry’ from one audience member, provided a good ten minutes more material. The persistence of these interruptions was beginning to grate but Jones handled this all with ease and grace.

On the way home after the show, your correspondent tried to remember any of the brilliant one-liners and could not – testimony to his ability to combine trickery with language with a weird juxtaposition of ideas that are unlikely to ever occur to anyone else.

MARTIN WIDDEN: ‘RED PILLING THE MUSIC INDUSTRY, ONE CONCERT AT A TIME’

Review: Kathryn Stott

It is often asserted that the sound of a violin improves in a period when it is being played quite intensively. And not only the violin – similar claims are made for other stringed instruments. Such claims are widely believed by musicians, but although careful scientific tests have been done to examine the truth of them, unfortunately no one has managed to prove that such improvements actually occur.

A piano is a very different case, because every piano is a complex mechanism, which could suffer if it is not given some exercise. The University’s Steinway concert grand, which sits silent in the corner of the Great Hall more than 99% of the time, could undoubtedly benefit from being played more.

The Steinway was given plenty of exercise at the recital given on 1 March by the pianist Kathryn Stott. The three Danzas Argentinas by Ginastera (1916-1983) are percussive and highly original compositions, written by Argentina’s foremost composer when he was aged only 20 – the pianist clearly enjoyed playing these exuberant pieces. Another test for both pianist and the Steinway was provided by Percy Grainger’s arrangement of the love-duet between Sophie and Octavian, from Der Rosenkavalier, by Richard Strauss. As the programme note said, Grainger particularly admired Strauss’s music for its ‘sumptuous vulgarity’: there is no way to perform this music without luxuriating in this, and Kathryn Stott did so.

To prepare the audience’s palate for these excesses, she opened each half of her concert with two arrangements of works by Bach, the Siciliano arranged by Wilhelm Kempff from the second lute sonata, and the cantata Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, arranged by Myra Hess. These pieces are very far from vulgar, and Kathryn Stott played them excellently, demonstrating both her own versatility and that of the piano.

The arrangement of Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring had been played by Hess herself in London’s National Gallery on 10 October 1939 in the first of the long series of lunchtime recitals she curated every weekday without fail throughout the Second World War, and beyond – a total of almost 2000 concerts spanning a period of more than six years. She was supported in this by Kenneth Clark, the then Director of the Gallery, and was created DBE by King George VI for her contribution to maintaining the morale of the people of London during the War. Incidentally, those concerts were very informal. There was no advance booking, and audience members were free to walk in and out as they pleased between movements, or indeed to stroll around, lean against the walls, or sit on the floor. And why not?

Contributed by Martin Widden.

UNIVERSITIES INC.

As part of the series of UCU Teachout sessions being run during the strike period, Distinguished Professor Bob Jessop delivered a talk, ‘Universities Inc’, to a packed out audience at the Gregson Centre. The talk explored what Prof Jessop termed ‘academic capitalism’ and its relationship to an increased financialisation of the UK Higher Education system, and situated the ongoing pensions dispute in a wider context of structural economic changes taking place within universities.

Prof Jessop considered the core historic functions of the university as an institution, namely the provision of higher education and the carrying out of scientific research, and HE’s shifting in line with the forces of marketisation. Whereas in the post-war era of welfare statism and mass production HE institutions such as Lancaster University were designed to create ‘mental labour’ for an increasingly post-industrial society, Prof Jessop explained how today’s universities are behaving more like financial institutions. Since the 1980s, democratic participation in university governance have been sidelined in favour of professionalised management, he argued, adding that since the early 1990s senior academics were asked to attend business management style sessions. Such professionalisation of university management has, he argued, only worsened over subsequent decades.

Jessop highlighted how the diminution of government grants has lead to an increasing reliance upon endowments, greater numbers of fee paying students, bonds, credit markets, and rents to fund themselves. Indeed, having issued first bond in British HE in 1995, Lancaster University can be seen as having been a pioneer in such financial marketisation.

Drawing attention to the expansion of campuses in recent decades, Jessop highlighted how it is real estate (rather than the intellectual labour of staff) that has proven to be the key asset of the contemporary university, recalling a former Lancaster Vice Chancellor telling him that when talking to other managers he would boast of being ‘a seven crane vice chancellor,’ clearly demonstrating how the building up of physical assets on campuses has become so central to UK HE as a source of economic value and revenue.

The talk showed how in such a marketised environment, one only worsened by the new Higher Education Act and the uncertainties of Brexit, British universities are now fearing credit rating downgrades, and are seeking to drastically reduce their labour costs as a result.

From the talk, a bleak picture of contemporary UK HE emerged. As institutions embrace the process of financialisation precarious staff face further immiseration, with students treated primarily as a revenue stream.

In the subsequent Q&A session, the pensions strike itself was viewed by several contributors as having opened up an opportunity for more critical engagements with the university and the ills it inflicts upon staff and students alike. The question of how to reach the wider public and inform them of the dire situation in HE was also raised, with a contributor criticising a recent Channel 4 Dispatches programme for narrowly focusing on the extravagance of individual Vice Chancellors as opposed to offering the public a more structural critique of the processes of marketisation.

I found Prof Jessop’s talk an illuminating one for highlighting the complex challenges facing those of us within the marketised university, and for all the bleakness of the situation, I found that the subsequent discussion of how to resist these processes filled me with hope that we can build a more democratic and just HE system.

Contributed by Toby Atkinson, PhD candidate (Sociology)

REVIEW: DAVE SPIKEY, A JUGGLER ON A MOTORBIKE

Dave Spikey played the Grand Theatre on the night of the first day of the industrial action. However, no mention of strikes, Brexit, Trump, or Boris in this act: the gathered throng was treated to two hours of beautifully crafted mini tales and sketches based around the story of his comedy career. Dave had been working in the NHS for 19 years as a Biomedical Scientist when in 1987 someone uttered the immortal words, ‘You’re really funny, you should be a comedian’. Only a few months later he won the national talent show ‘Stairway to the Stars’, clinching the award with a routine about a juggler on a motorbike. Thirteen years later on Friday 13th October 2000, he switched off his microscope for good and now in 2017/18 his tour celebrates the 30th anniversary of his comedy career. In the show, he looks back on his life and his journey from working class kid to Chief Biomedical Scientist to much-loved comedy performer and writer.

All of this was populated with various larger than life characters – lots of references to his work on ‘Phoenix Nights’, which produced giggles of recognition from the audience. Very little swearing and when he did it was for effect, although many stories were quite filthy in a very British innuendo fashion. For a lot of the audience the trip down his childhood memory lane evoked a degree of nostalgic pleasure. This was all delivered in a down-to-earth ‘Northern’ way, his interplay and analysis the basis for clever, laugh-after-every-line comedy. He is not only a very funny accomplished comedian, but also one of the finest raconteurs around – your cultural correspondent cried with laughter on more than one occasion.

The audience also gave your correspondent pause for thought. The packed theatre was full of white, predominantly older couples – leaving the Grand is always a slow affair but this evening seemed an even more laborious business. While not conducting a rigorous survey, your correspondent was also of the opinion that he was the only member of the audience employed by the University. Please write in to prove him wrong but this is not the first time that he has been struck by the different socio-demographic groups that attend the Dukes and the Grand, two theatres a hundred yards apart from each other.

MARTIN WIDDEN: ‘THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN EARS’

Review: Kabantu at the Nuffield

Five young musicians in line across the stage of the Nuffield, one of them squatting over a bongo drum. This was Kabantu, the Manchester-based band that played in the Lancaster Arts Concert Series on 17 February.

As well as the drum, the line-up consisted of violin, cello, bass and guitar, all of whom played standing up – which for a cellist is a highly unusual thing to do. It’s achievable if, as here, the instrument is fitted with a long enough spike to raise it to a playable height. So: no chairs.

No music stands, either. The group plays from memory and/or by improvising, so they don’t need any copies.

Very little electronics on show either.

All this fits with the influence of busking on the group. Four of the five musicians met at the Royal Northern College of Music, where they were classically trained, but in this group they have extended their range into a much broader spectrum of styles. Their repertoire spans from Scottish traditional tunes, Bulgarian folk music, Israel, South Africa and beyond, performed with remarkable skill on their instruments, or by whistling, or in some cases by all five musicians singing excellently in close harmony.

It is unusual for the International Concert Series to feature what was in effect a fusion performance, but it made for a very enjoyable evening.