Sunday, 18 February 2018

Black Panther leaps onto screens with style and depth

Marvel’s growth as a cinema brand was always set to continue this year, with Avengers Infinity War due out in the spring, Deadpool 2 shortly after that and Ant-Man and the Wasp in mid summer, but for a whole bag of reasons, Black Panther is arguably the biggest release of them all.

Sitting in a packed cinema on opening day, with one of the most mixed audiences imaginable, it was impossible to miss the expectation, just as it’s impossible not to be aware of the film’s cultural importance.

The eighteenth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s based on the superhero comics series that was created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1966.

The film gives us a basic backstory about the creation of a fictional east African nation made up of five tribes that are united as Wakanda under the first Black Panther. Once established, Wakanda develops extraordinarily advanced technology, that – among other things – enables it to hide itself from the rest of the world by appearing to be a poor Third World country.

Fast forward to Oakland, California, in 1992, where a Wakandan prince has become convinced that isolationism is wrong and that the country should share its technology with people of African descent around the world to help them defeat their oppressors.

Fast forward once more to the present, just after King T’Chaka’s death and the accession of his son, T’Challa, to the throne. But before hes got time to properly get his feet under the royal table, faces from the past reappear, determined to exploit the change of monarch for their own ends.

This is a cracking Marvel romp, but with enough of a philosophical edge around the issue of isolationism – and the legacies of colonialism that the film also makes clear, open references to – to illustrate (were it needed) that comics and the films based on them don’t have to be vapid.

Scripted by Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, and directed by the former, the film also benefits from excellent production design by Hannah Beachler, who creates a visually convincing Wakanda that melds the advanced technology with a vivid sense of actual African cultures.

The cast too is uniformally excellent – starting with Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa (channeling Mandela a tad, but why not?). This is a character who’s dignified, brave and morally intelligent – and fortunately Boseman ensures that hes sexy and complex too, avoiding that oh-so-serious quality some Marvel superheroes have.

Michael B Jordan as Erik ‘Killmonger’ Stevens is another who adds a pleasing level of complexity to his role, while Lupita Nyong’o as undercover Wakandan spy Nakia, Letitia Wright as Shuri, T’Challa’s teenage sister and the nation’s tech genius, Danai Gurira as Okoye, head of the country’s all-female special forces and royal bodyguard the Dora Milaje, Florence Kasumba as Dora Milaje member Ayo and Angela Bassett as Ramonda, T’Challa’s mother, give the audience more really strong impressive female characters in one film than anyone would usually expect.

And not to forget Forest Whitaker as Wakandan elder statesman Zuri, Andy Serkis – appearing almost without CGI! – as South African black-market arms dealer, smuggler and gangster Ulysses Klaus, Martin Freeman as CIA agent Everett K Ross and South African acting legend John Kani as T’Chaka and there’s not much chance things are going to slip in the acting department.

The action sequences are as good as you’d expect; the whole thing looks superb and some of the mythical/ancestral plane sequences are really beautiful. Indeed, the sense of the mythological in the film is part of why its so successful: it has a feeling of a story that really does go back into the mists of time.

Irrespective of the expectation, Black Panther is a top-notch entry into the Marvel film universe.

Of that expectation – no film is going to spark a revolution, but it has gone way beyond simply avoiding being ‘not disappointing’. It offers black audiences – actually, all audiences – a whole raft of positive black characters and a positive black/African world.

It’s going to be fascinating to see what might be inspired by that.

Monday, 12 February 2018

Cello joy as Soltani's debut hits the shelves


Kian Soltani and Aaron Pilsan

Deutsche Grammophon

You know what it’s like: you wait ages for a brilliant cello album to come your way and then suddenly there’s a queue.

The 2012 BBC Young Musician winner, Laura van der Heijden, released her first album in the last days of 2017 (I’ll be looking at this another time), while the recording debut of the 2016 champion, Sheku Kanneh-Mason, arrived at the start of this month.

And now we have Home, the debut of Kian Soltani, the winner of the 2013 International Paulo Cello Competition.

The idea behind Home is to weave together Kian’s roots. Born and brought up in Austria, of Iranian parents, the programme reflects this.

We open with Arpeggione, one of the most famous pieces by Schubert, a composer for whom the cellist has a particular fondness, and a work demanding virtuosity.

After the three movements of that, Schubert’s Nacht und Träume concludes the Classical section of this album, before we head into the Romantic era and Schumann – another Austrian composer with whom Soltani feels a particular affinity.

Schumman originally wrote Zart und mit Ausdruck, Lebhaft, leicht and Rasch und mit Feuer as a three-movement work, Fantasy Pieces for Clarinet and Piano – while also stipulating that cello or violin could replace the former.

More Schumann follows, before we move into a new work.

Seven Persian Folk Songs comprises seven pieces, ranging from the poetic to the ferocious. Written by Iranian composer Reza Vali for Soltani and dedicated it to him, it provides a fascinating contrast to the first parts of the album.

Some critics reject Persian symphonic music – also known as Persian polyphonic music and generally written by Persian/Iranian composers for Western ensembles and orchestras – because of the differences between Persian and Western scales.

However, composers have found ways to solve the questions these differences ask and Vali’s ability to do this is part of why the resulting work is so fascinating in its melding of different musical cultures, which leaves us with both familiarity and yet something different and challenging.

The album concludes with Iranian Fire Dance, a composition by the cellist himself.

In effect, the Persian/Iranian works add a philosophical complexity to the album as a whole, since in combining the traditional with the new, they add a wider sense of ‘home’ that’s more in keeping with the philosophical complexity of the German concept  of‘Heimat’ than any straightforward understanding of the word.

It adds a musical note too to current debates around migration, integration and cultural fusion.

Kian is a protegée of Anne-Sophie Mutter and Daniel Barenboim – he has been a member of the former’s Virtuosi as well as a member of the latter’s West-Eastern-Divan-Orchestra and is also a member of the newly-founded Boulez-Ensemble.

The Schubert here is exquisite, with a lightness that almost defies belief. The Schumann takes us into more melancholy, contemplative terrain, while the Vali ensures we don’t lapse into easy listening mode.

Throughout, Soltani’s playing is simply superb, with tremendous range of tone and emotion. And enjoying equal billing is pianist Aaron Pilsan, whose playing is every bit a match for his compatriot.

Quite simply, this is a wonderful release that reinforces the variety and beauty of the cello – and also  adds to a growing sense of how blessed we are in seeing such a number of superb young musicians rising up in front of us.

Saturday, 10 February 2018

Three Billboards: brutal and funny, with hope at its heart

It’s not difficult to see how Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, has gained seven Oscar nominations. It’s only difficult to see how it hasn’t gained more, because this is a simply superb film.

Frustrated by the lack of any police progress in finding out who raped and murdered her daughter,  Mildred Hayes rents three billboards on a backroad within sight of her home – and near where the crime happened – to ask: “RAPED WHILE DYING”, “AND STILL NO ARRESTS?” and “HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?”

TV takes note. The billboards upset some of the townspeople, including Sheriff Bill Willoughby and the racist, perpetually drunk officer Jason Dixon. Mildred and her son are harassed and threatened. A local priest tries to cow her.

Her ex-husband visits – his naive, 19-year-old girlfriend Penelope in tow – to blame her for their daughter’s death.

But Mildred won’t give in.

Willoughby is sympathetic and looks again at the case, but he’s dying of pancreatic cancer. After one last perfect day with his wife and two young daughters, he ends his own life.

Dixon, his anger bubbling over, hits out.

Written and directed by Martin McDonagh, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is an extraordinary film. Variously described as a ‘crime film’, a ‘tragicomedy’ and ‘darkly comic’, it is all those and far more.

There is a savage brutality about it – not just in some of the violence, which is never gratuitous – but also in the emotions of people struggling to deal with grief and loss and anger. That it never crosses into mawkishness or sentimentality is an incredible achievement.

The writing is superb. When Willoughby’s suicide letters to his wife, to Mildred and to Dixon are read by them (voiced by Woody Harrelson), they combine an earthiness with a poetic beauty that is searing.

Ben Davis’s cinematography is more than a match, giving us a sense of vast, natural beauty, yet with those three billboards as a constant jarring reminder that something far darker is at the root of all this.

The performances are exemplary.

In a strong supporting cast, Peter Dinklage as a friend of Mildred, Caleb Landry Jones as the ad agency rep and Samara Weaving as Penelope, are all excellent.

Harrelson and Sam Rockwell as Willoughby and Dixon respectively, are both up for supporting actor Oscars. It’s hard to know who you’d pick.

But Frances McDormand is simply outstanding as Mildred. The anger, the pain and the guilt are raw; constantly etched across her face, yet so subtly conveyed. It is a blistering turn and it’s almost impossible to imagine that she will not take home her second golden statue come March.

Three Billboards is about flawed human beings struggling with their demons. They don’t overcome all their flaws, but somewhere in the darkness, McDonagh’s magnificent work suggests that humans can grow; that redemption and release from the pain are possible.

And throughout, there are little notes to suggest that the cycle of life goes on: flowers and a young deer are just two.

If there’s a moral here, it’s in Penelope’s adage, memorised from a bookmark, that “anger only begets more anger”. It’s a line that’s played for laughs and then dropped, yet it’s the truth at the heart of the film.

‘Crime film’, ‘tragicomedy’ … whatever. In the end, this is a deeply humane work that transcends easy labels.

Go on, go on, go on ... Martin McDonaghThe Cripple of Inishmaan

Sunday, 4 February 2018

A shimmeringly good start to the Debussy centenary

A Christmas present to make you feel grown up
In this centenary of the death of the great French composer Debussy, one thing is assured: there will be no shortage of recordings of his works.

If Debussy has never quite been my favourite composer, he’s been hovering not far away from the top of my personal pantheon since around 1980. I had embarked on A level music studies at Lancaster Girls’ Grammar School and one of the first works that we were introduced to was Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune.

It was a Deutsche Grammophon recording, with Herbert von Karajan wielding the baton and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra providing the gorgeously lush sound that stunned this then teenage listener.

It was the start of love affairs with all four component parts of that musical equation.

My mother, whose own classical music appreciation largely went little further than Handel’s Messiah (played every year as we put the Christmas decorations up) and Gilbert and Sullivan, was delighted in my interest and happy to buy me albums at Christmas and birthday.

The mantra was established instantly: DG, Von K, the Berlin. Most arrived on cassette, since I had one of those handheld ones that I later took to college. Such tech has gone the way of all flesh, but my vinyl recordings still survive – including one of those joint Debussy-Ravel programmes that seem to have been the light-classical norm for years.

In a general sense, I always loved DG covers – and still do: so much cleaner and brighter and more modern than those that, for instance, had a reproduction of a painting of an eighteenth-century street because it was a recording of something or other by Mozart. And while of course I would not wish to suggest that I am swayed by covers alone, I do still think that DG produces the classiest covers around, even when they’re predominantly artist portraits. 

Before the centenary got underway, DG had released Seong-Jin Cho’s new collection of piano works, Debussy, comprising Images I and II, Children’s Corner and Suite bergamesque.

In January, this was followed by Daniel Barenboim’s heavily-touted Claude Debussy, with a programme of Estampes, Clair de lune (from Suite bergamesque), Le plus que lente, Elégie and Préludes, Book 1.

Since the composer is standardly described as an Impressionist, it’s easy to think of his work in terms of paintings rather than the literature that was his inspiration. It was a poem by Mallarmé that gave birth to Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, for instance.

But it can be difficult not to see pictures in the mind’s eye when listening to his work. To be honest, I dont think that counts very high on a list of problems.

On a different note, I have made the mistake, for some time, of treating music as background – something to play on headphones when working so as to aid concentration – and forgotten the value of setting aside time to really listen.

This weekend, I decided to actually sit down and pay attention to these two new discs.

Now Cho is new to me, whereas Barenboim is an established household god who I have had the very great joy and privilege of seeing play live.

The programmes are different – except for Clair de lune. Both are wonderfully meditative: a proper listen is seriously de-stressing stuff.

I have no preference over that one shared piece. But there is something in Cho’s playing that is so subtle, yet utterly devastating.

The thing I kept thinking of when listening was, ironically, not in his programme – Le Cathédrale engloutie (The Submerged Cathedral), which is is the tenth piece in Préludes, Book 1. Yet it is what I thought of, time and again, while listening to Cho.

Barenboim is wonderful, with the contrasts that you would expect, but there is an ethereal, shimmering quality to Cho’s interpretation that takes the breath away – thats if you’ve not already found tears streaming down your cheeks.

I was constantly half-thinking of light on rippling water – and yes, of submerged buildings.

In this year of Debussy, these two have already set the bar very high. Get/stream both, if you can. But if you have to choose, go for Cho and then invest the time away from anything else, simply letting yourself be drawn in to the utterly beautiful music and this quite extraordinary performance.

And one can only hope that this is indicative of the quality that we’ll be treated to over the coming months.

Thursday, 1 February 2018

Kanne-Mason's debut album is full of rich delights


Sheku Kanneh-Mason


It’s two years since cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason made history as the first black musician to win the BBC’s Young Musician of the Year and we now have the opportunity to listen to the first recording of his contract with Decca.

Still in his teens and, having completed his A levels, now a student at the Royal Academy of Music, he has been working with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and music director Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla for his debut album.

Recorded in Birmingham and Kanneh-Mason’s hometown of Nottingham during two concerts with the orchestra, both conducted by Gražinytė-Tyla, the album features Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No1 – the piece that propelled him to the Young Musician title.

It sits at the heart of the programme, immediately preceded by the Nocturne from the same composer’s Gadfly Suite.

If the Shostakovich is the meat in the sandwich – and its every bit as good as one would expect – there’s plenty more here to give listeners a sense of just what heights Kanneh-Mason is already hitting.

The most famous piece is The Swan from Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of Animals – simply beautiful playing of this lush, romantic icon; the phrasing is exquisite.

And then there is Song of the Birds. This traditional Catalan song was arranged for the instrument by the legendary Catalan cellist Pablo Casals and often played by him at the start of a concert to protest against the fascist regime of Franco in Spain.

There is an astonishing sense of emotion here; never heavy-handed – indeed, there is lightness to Kanneh-Mason’s playing that is breathtaking on occasion.

Then, on the other side of the Shostakovich, comes the beautifully lyrical Jacqueline’s Tears from Harmonies des bois by Offenbach, himself a cellist, and a reminder that the composer was not just capable of feather-light operetta. Then its back to Casals with his Sardana – a setting for the Catalonian national dance.

The album rounds off with arrangements for cello of Bob Marley’s No Woman, No Cry and Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah – the latter in particular works superbly.

If this sounds like a somewhat disjointed programme, it’s far from it. Underpinned by a poignant and reflective tone that helps span the musical eras and styles, it all comes together to provide the basis for an astonishingly fine debut from Kanne-Mason.

It really is not difficult to see why his name is being mentioned in the same breath as that of Jaqueline Du Pre.