Friday 4 January 2008

A Nutcracking New Year... any readers. It should have been a Christmas greeting, but the selection of images didn't reach me in time before we headed off to Mali. Anyway, here is Eric Richmond's production photograph of the three flavoursome Gobstoppers (aka the Trepak boys) from what is now a Matthew Bourne evergreen (I dug out my old Edinburgh Festival programme to remind myself that his Nutcracker! premiered with Opera North's Yolanta over a decade and a half ago). They provided the icing on the cake to the I-want-to-be-in-the-show euphoria of a New Adventures pre-Xmas Saturday matinee. I took young Evie Bell to see it, and though her reaction was one of extreme intoxication - we couldn't prise her out of her seat after Act One, so impatient was she for the show to go on - her father and I relished it almost as much. With the dancers appearing costumed in the Sadler's Wells foyer afterwards to collect money for AIDS charities, the trepak troika were a draw for an indulgent godfather, while Evie gravitated more towards the marshmallow girls and cossetted Sugar Plum. I don't know which of us felt more like a kid in a sweetshop.

The show - for show it certainly is - still brims with energy, perhaps because so many of the dancers (including those Gobstoppers) are fresh from ballet school. Bourne's gift for comic and occasionally scary storytelling goes way beyond the tame mimes of classical ballet, and the designs have lost nothing of their garish audacity. After three weeks of listening to 14 full-orchestral Nutcrackers for Radio Three's Building a Library - you may now have heard how pacy, brightly lit Gergiev took the biscuit - I found it surprisingly easy to adjust to the 20-piece band, mainly because Brett Morris allowed no inch of slack. We took Evie to meet the very friendly harpist in the pit afterwards, and she revealed a few secrets about synths stepping in for second harp, tambourine and cymbals when the players had their hands too full (and she was already playing as much of both harp parts as she could). It was an especially bright idea to have only one cello launch the Pas de deux - no point in trying to make a handful sound like a glossy full-orchestral section.

That Saturday was quite a day to bid farewell to glittering London before succumbing to travel fever. I had to leave Evie and Simon swanning with the dancers and rush down to the Barbican to give another pre-performance talk before more Tchaikovsky - the ideas-packed Third Orchestral Suite alongside Rachmaninov's Fourth Piano Concerto, made to sound like naturalness itself (which it isn't) by Nelson Freire, and the Divertimento from Stravinsky's Baiser de la fee. Reports from Moscow had been mixed about Bolshoy supremo Alexander Vedernikov, but he impressed with a clear textured Prokofiev Fiery Angel last year, and this concert with an evidently smitten BBC Symphony Orchestra set new standards in the high Tchaikovsky style. Much more detailed and supple than Jurowski's performance a few seasons back - which only went to show that you can't stint with rehearsal time on the exposed and selective instrumentation - Vedernikov's paired two sets of movements, showing the Valse melancolique as the dark flipside of the bittersweet opening Elegie and sweeping without a break from the scherzo through the earlier variations before rising to the challenge of the imperial polonaise. The audience was giddy with Tchaikovsky's profligacy of melodic invention, and Vedernikov will certainly be back, possibly for the complete Sleeping Beauty in concert with the BBCSO (though I did also mention to Paul Hughes that I hoped they'd run to the expense of four accordions for the delicious Second Suite, too).

I'll think of something later to say about those BBC Music Mag awards nominations, now public knowledge, and perhaps add a line or two about our extraordinary holiday, though I know this shouldn't be the forum for such things. In the meantime, I need to recover some photos as well as a certain amount of sleep lost in the overnight flight (not to mention throughout a bumpy night on the bottom of a coracle crossing a wind-tossed lake in the middle of the Niger delta). Mali tended to exaggerate the familiar traveller's mix of exhilaration and exasperation; now it feels right to be back. In the meantime, you can view an embarrassing photo of Brits out in the midday sun before the Djenne Mosque over on Sophie's blog.

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