I spend most of my time doing either maths- or music-related things. If this is your first time here, you’re probably looking for me in either one or the other context, as they rarely overlap.

For maths/SEN info, go to this page ► 

For music/flute info, go to this page ► 

I used to do a fair amount of opera and concert reviewing. For various reasons I’ve given this up (apart from occasional lapses), but have left the archive of around 10 years’ worth of reviews available as blogposts in case of interest to anyone out there.


Image © Richard Hubert Smith, borrowed from http://www.guardian.co.uk

I gave up opera and concert reviewing a couple of years ago, but then this came along. Having written on Einstein on the Beach and Satyagraha, it would be wrong not to complete Part 3…

The house was packed and excitement palpable on opening night of Phelim McDermott’s new production of Philip Glass’s iconic Akhnaten – the first fully-staged UK performance since the eighties, when the work was new. The two previous instalments of the Portrait Trilogy to be staged in London, Satyagraha in 2007 (then 2010) and Einstein on the Beach in 2012, opened to rave reviews (including mine) and wide artistic acclaim, not to mention record-breaking commercial success for modern opera. (I refuse to describe music composed over 30 years ago as ‘contemporary’!)

The Improbable theatre company are known for the wildly complex creativity of their visual presentation, and have set themselves high standards to live up to in previous productions; nevertheless, they continue to meet them. Akhnaten utilises a compartmentalised staging on three vertical tiers, with various movable subdivisions in the horizontal and foreground/background planes, giving a three-dimensional array of stage space in which to play. Frequently, several scenes occur concurrently, for example, in Act I, fast repetitive movement on the top layer (a troupe of jugglers styled on Ancient Egyptian deities), glacially slow movement in the lower foreground (the funeral rites of Pharaoh Amenhotep III), and the mid-speed shufflings and shuntings of the unquiet common people in between. This is, in fact, a perfect visual analogue for Glass’s classical minimalist compositional style, with its monolithic layered structure of fast repetition of arpeggios and scale patterns with glacially slow harmonic or timbral change beneath. It also made it impossible to keep track of everything that was going on: you focus on one interesting part for a while, then suddenly realise a whole new set of characters have entered, possibly clambering around on a large rolling wheel in marbled leotards. Somewhat overwhelming (in a good way) in Act I, the simple lines and colours of Act II (again, corresponding to changes in the musical structure) allowed a period of calm before the destabilisations of Act III.

14th century BCE Pharaoh Akhnaten (née Amenhotep IV) seems to have been an interesting character, considered strange in his own time, and the victim of both posthumous smear campaigns and attempts at expungement from history. While little hard evidence is available, he is thought by some Egyptologists to have been female and disguised as a male in order to take the throne (not unknown in that period), or possibly intersex, as well as probably bisexual, and reputedly engaged in an incestuous relationship with his mother. This telling of the story was not going for the actually-a-woman interpretation, as Anthony Roth Costanza (Akhnaten) emerged naked and clearly externally male, although later costumes were designed as deliberately gender-ambiguous. The coronation robe, for example, brought to mind Elizabeth I – if she had worn it open down the front and accessorised with a double crown topped with a giant jellybean, that is. (Aside: I would be considerably more positively-disposed toward contemporary royalty if they were all bald genderqueer alien-looking beauties with more than a little of the David Bowie about them, and all coronation ceremonies included appearing naked then being flipped upside down by a cadre of shiny ambulant mummies into a large pair of pants.) Less positively, Akhnaten was also a religious zealot who, on ascending the throne, demanded all his people immediately switch to his new religion. The story (and yes, this opera does actually have a linear narrative) centres on this religious reformation to monotheistic sun-god worship. I don’t think it counts as a spoiler to let on that the people of Egypt were not entirely impressed at the destruction of their temples and banning of their favoured polytheistic traditions, and it did not end well for Akhnaten.

It is apt that so far I have not mentioned the singing, as the title role neither sings nor speaks until some way into Act I, floating silently through his father’s funeral and his own coronation. When Costanzafinally opens his mouth, it is with a visceral, flexible countertenor that I initially thought too vibrato-laden and lacking the timbral stability I considered necessary for the music, but which subsequently settled (particularly in terms of blending with the always-accompanying trumpet) and grew on me swiftly to the point where I have difficulty imagining anyone better inhabiting the role. Two women form with him the central trio of characters. Mother Queen Tye was a soaring yet crisply-controlled Rebecca Bottone, while wife Nefertiti was sung with warm vibrancy by Emma Carrington, both of them with concentrated levels of intensity. The intermingling lines of Akhnaten and Nefertiti’s Act II love duet were a particular musical highlight, as was their final trio. The secondary trio of male voices were also highly effective, and their sections provided a welcome change of sound whenever the physical, political world (in the form of James Cleverton’s military Horemhab,Clive Bayley’s adviser Aye, and Colin Judson’s priest of the old religion) intrudes on Akhnaten and family’s increasingly-insular spirituality. With most of the libretto in Akkadian and Biblical Hebrew, it fell to the Scribe (Zachary James) to narrate the events, spoken over musical underlay (a similar effect to the texts in Einstein). He did this in a declamatory, actorly manner, at the end rather impressively while carrying the dead Akhnaten cradled in his arms. (I am imagining a casting call specifying “must be able to deadlift countertenor and sustain for duration of monologue”.)

For an orchestra playing this type of score, the technical demands are considerable, and musically somewhat contradictory. Navigated and driven flawlessly by Karen Kamensek (currently MD of Hannover Staatstheater, and in her ENO debut), the musicians managed laser-cut robotic precision, yet with the necessary human warmth injected via timbre and sensitivity of dynamic phrasing. I was thinking of picking out individual wind soloists for compliment, but in fact they were all deserving. The ENO chorus were also on excellent vocal form, whether delivering polyrhythmic choral chanting while ominously hand-jiving with juggling balls and glowering at the out-of-touch royal family, or ethereal offstage harmonies floating up from the orchestra pit. They received one of the loudest rounds of applause of the night.

Lastly, of course, I must mention the balls. Balls, balls, flying everywhere (and I’m not referring to the Pharaoh’s). Not only is the preponderance of round objects appropriate for a piece of theatre on the subject of all-consuming worship of a spherical sky-god, but the earliest known archaeological records of ball juggling are from an 11th Dynasty Egyptian tomb painting. Normal-sized juggling balls were flung in delightfully precisely-patterned choreography by Sean Gandini’s company of dancing jugglers, larger bubble-like balls bounced around as the Atenist religion develops, and a huge glowing globe swelled to take up most of the stage for the stunning Hymn to the Sun. This was all highly entertaining, and worked well as an alternative visual iconography for the construction and deconstruction of the City of the Horizon of Aten.

What would I like to see in the future from ENO? I’d like to see the Portrait Trilogy of Einstein, Satyagraha and Akhnaten presented in London as a cycle on three consecutive nights (as the State Opera of South Australia did in 2014). Improbable? Twenty years ago we would have said that about a staged performance of any of the three individually (and particularly Einstein), but have been proved wrong with aplomb. Please make it happen.

[Review written for and reproduced here with the kind permission of Opera Britannia]

Philharmonia Britannica Orchestral Workshop: Shostakovich 15

Grace Williams  Fantasia on Welsh Nursery Tunes
Shostakovich  Symphony No.15

Time  6.00pm Saturday 17 January

Place  London Welsh Centre, 157-163 Gray’s Inn Road, London WC1X 8UE

Tickets  Suggested donation £5 adults, £1 children

Philharmonia Britannica: Eroica

The power of Beethoven’s groundbreaking Eroica symphony, the delicacy of his F major Romance, and the premiere of David Bozzo’s lyrical violin concerto, preceded by a rousing overture by Arriaga, who was nicknamed ‘The Spanish Mozart’!

Arriaga  Overture ‘Los Esclavos Felices’ (1820)
David Bozzo  Violin Concerto (world premiere) – with Francisco Jimeno
Beethoven  Romance in F for violin and orchestra
Beethoven  Symphony No.3 in Eb (“Eroica”)

Time  7.30pm Saturday 14 March

Place  St James’s Church, Picadilly W1J 9LL

Tickets  £15, £12 (concs), £5 (U19s)

Fulham Opera: Il Tabarro / Gianni Schicchi double bill

Puccini  Il Tabarro & Gianni Schicchi (fully staged, reduced orchestration)

Time  7.30pm Fri 20 Mar, 7pm Sun 22 Mar, 7.30pm Fri 27 Mar, 5pm Sun 29 Mar

Place  St Johns Church, North End Rd, London SW6 1PB

Tickets  £25 (concessions £20) from fulhamopera.com

Whitehall Orchestra: Mahler 2

Mahler  Symphony No.2
with Rebecca Holden (Soprano), Anna Harvey (Mezzo-Soprano) and The Mahler Chorus

Time  7.30pm Saturday 25 April

Place  St Sepulchre-without-Newgate Church, Holborn Viaduct, EC1A 2DQ

Tickets  £12 (concessions £10)

Amici Orchestra: War and Remembrance

A concert to commemorate 70 years since VE Day. Music to include: Kamen- ‘Band of Brothers’, John Williams – ‘Schindlers List’, Carl Davis- ‘The World at War: France Falls Suite’, Walton – ‘Battle of Britain’, Glenn Miller – Medley, Coates – ‘The Dambusters March’ and more!

Time  7.30pm Saturday 2 May

Place  St Gabriel’s Church, Pimlico SW1V 2AD

Tickets  Free entry, retiring collection with proceeds to be split between The Royal British Legion and The Queen Alexandra Hospital Home

** Plus Fulham Opera Orchestral Workshop shortly to be announced **

I have regular lecture slot with groups of trainee maths teachers on addressing and supporting special educational needs in the classroom – particularly Specific Learning Difficulties (dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia), ADHD, autistic spectrum conditions and mental health issues.

I believe it’s beneficial and powerful for them to hear from the people who actually have these conditions. Do any readers have these diagnoses (or any other SEN and/or disability) yourself, and feel like sharing something of your experience and opinions? I have a small collection of comments, (varying in length from a couple of lines to a couple of pages) but would like to add more to the bank.

I would really like to know if, as an adult, you remember anything from *your own* experience of school maths that was particularly helpful OR unhelpful for your particular pattern of strengths/weaknesses. What did your teachers do right? And wrong? Do you remember finding anything on the maths curriculum particularly easy / difficult / interesting / distressing / etc?

This is your chance to influence the next generation of maths teachers. What would you like to say to them?

Message me privately, comment below, on facebook, twitter, or whatever medium you prefer.

All quotes used will be anonymous, unless you prefer to use your real name or web handle.

* Although parents, friends, etc. of kids with SEN often (rightly) have strong opinions, for this project I’m only collecting first-hand experiences.

2014 has been a bit quiet in terms of posts. By which I mean I’ve managed one review. In January. Since then, been to a couple of operas and a handful of Proms, but no time/energy to write about them while still even vaguely fresh in my memory. Also promised two book reviews, which have as yet failed to materialise (although these I can at least reread to refresh). In case one of my very many* readers was concerned, I haven’t been ill (well, no more than usual) or away, just final stages of doctoral thesis taking over my life, followed by job hunting, followed by new job. While playing more operas than I saw, including a Strauss hat trick (go decades having played zero Strauss operas, then three come along in the same year…)

* not very many

Also late posting this term’s concert diary, but hey.

Saffron Opera Group: Meistersinger

Wagner  Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (concert performance)

Time  2.00pm Sunday 14 September

Place  Saffron Hall, Saffron Walden, Essex

Edinburgh Players Opera Group: no longer just Wagnerians…

Richard Strauss  Der Rosenkavalier (concert performance)

Time  11.00am Sunday 28 September

Place  Portobello Town Hall, Edinburgh

Tickets  £15 requested donation

Philharmonia Britannica: Great Film Music

Klaus Badelt  Pirates of the Carribean
AJ Lerner & F Loewe  My Fair Lady
John Williams  Star Wars Suite
John Williams  Harry Potter Suite
John Williams  Schindler’s List
H Arlen & EY Harburg  Somewhere Over the Rainbow

Time  6.00pm Saturday 4 October

Place  St John’s Waterloo, SE1 8UD

Tickets  £5, £1 (U19s)

Fulham Opera Orchestral Workshop: Elektra

Two-day orchestral workshop on Richard Strauss’s Elektra, followed by evening play-through. Cast including Zoe South in title role – further info at fulhamopera.com

Time  Saturday 11 – Sunday 12 October

Place  All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak NW3 2JP

Tickets  £15/day (participation) or £10 (audience)

Amici Orchestra

Mendelssohn Hebrides Overture
Saint-Saens Symphony No.2
Beethoven Symphony No.4

Time  7.30pm Saturday 1 November

Place  St Gabriel’s Church, Pimlico, SW1V 2AD

No tickets – retiring collection in aid of Macmillan Cancer Support.

Fulham Opera: Falstaff

Verdi Falstaff (fully staged, reduced orchestration)

Time  7.30pm Friday 7 Nov, 5pm Sunday 9 Nov, 7.30pm Friday 14 Nov, 5pm Sunday 16 November

Place  St Johns Church, North End Rd, London SW6 1PB

Tickets  £25 (concessions £20) from fulhamopera.com

Whitehall Orchestra with Idil Biret

Rimsky-Korsakov  Scheherezade
Brahms Piano concerto No.1

Time  7.30pm Saturday 22 November

Place  St John’s Smith Square, SW1P 3HF

Tickets  £8/£10/£12/£15 – book online

Fulham Opera Orchestral Workshop: Siegfried Act 3

One-day orchestral workshop on Wagner’s Siegfried (Act 3), followed by evening play-through. Cast including Jonathan Finney in title role – further info at fulhamopera.com


Time  Sunday 7 December

Place  All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak NW3 2JP

Tickets  £15 (participation) or £10 (audience)

Philharmonia Britannica: Italian Arias

Rossini  Overture to Barber of Seville
Mozart  ‘Parto, parto’ from ‘La Clemenza di Tito’
Verdi  Violetta and Germont duet from ‘La Traviata’
Mozart  ‘Soave il vento’ from ‘Così fan tutte’
Beethoven  Symphony No.6 (“Pastoral”)

Time  7.30pm Friday 13 June

Place  St James’s Church, Picadilly W1J 9LL

Tickets  £15, £12 (concs), £5 (U19s)

Whitehall Orchestra

Suk  Scherzo Fantastique
Bruch Violin concerto No.1 in Gm (with Peter Fisher)
Stravinsky Petrushka

Time  7.30pm Thursday 3 July

Place  St Gabriel’s Church, Pimlico SW1V 2AD

Tickets  £10 (concessions £7) – Book online or contact us

Kensington Philharmonic Orchestra
with Janis Kelly, Catherine Wyn-Rogers, Sam Furness, Jonathan Best, and the St Albans Bach Choir

Verdi Requiem

7.30pm Saturday 12 July at Cadogan Hall
7.30pm Saturday 19 July at St Albans Abbey

ROH Don Giovanni image

Image borrowed from http://www.roh.org.uk

Oo, a new production of Don Giovanni at Covent Garden! And a kind friend acquired me a ticket to the dress rehearsal. Who wants to know what it looks like? (Plot and production *SPOILERS*, obviously, along with some armchair psychiatry.)

It looks like the design team have been watching Complicité productions, Sherlock, and pop music videos. Not that I disapprove – I like to watch these things myself.

I like things with interesting visual presentation, stylish imagery, maybe a bit deconstructed in their recurring themes, and yes, I’m a complete sucker for multimodal effects, so I was charmed by the overture, which opened on what appeared to be the outside of a building, on different sections of which lists of names (grouped by nationality) began to appear, first slowly, then faster, until it was covered in tiny scrawlings. This theme of obsessive listing appeared at intervals in the production, with the visualised notebook pages descending progressively into disarray, with scribbles, underlinings, angrily scratched-out names, and doodles of ladies’ eyes, bottoms, etc. This was good. Sometimes individual characters had their name projected onto one of the (bedroom?) doors of the building – and I kind of wanted there to be a few text observations floating in the air around freeze-framed characters (Elvira: romantic, delusional, stalks her exes, 3 pet cats? Ottavio: romantic, loyal, crippling anxiety attacks, smokes French tobacco? Etc.) I suppose that would have been too gimmicky…

In terms of physical set, the centre building rotated, and the four orientations provided various doors, windows, rooms and balconies with which to set the many scenes. And a set of stairs, the frequent running up and down of which will have kept the cast well-exercised. Variety was provided by projecting different video graphics onto the flat surfaces – as well as the writing, there were different colours and patterns, rain effects, and an eye-watering geometric vortex that should probably have carried a Health&SafetyWarning for migraine sufferers. The projections worked best when they highlighted different characters active in different areas (e.g. downstairs someone singing an aria, upstairs, the person they were singing about), and there were some very appealing chiaroscuro effects. However, the novelty wore off, or perhaps the effects in Act 2 just weren’t as appealing; I just wished the damn house would stop spinning and sit still, and wondered if there’d be some computer-generated hellfire effects at the end. (There weren’t.)

Director Kaspar Holten sees Don Giovanni as “an artist” whose “catalogue of sexual conquests is a vain attempt to escape his own mortality” , while Mariusz Kwiecien (title role) describes him as feeling his age, melancholy, and with ebbing energy. This didn’t really come across to me – perhaps because Kwiecien naturally has more physical energy on stage than, er, some opera singers – or perhaps because I came in, as most of us do, with a preconceived view: I think of him as a superficially charming psychopath*, sex addict, and compulsive collector (of certain experiences). On the subject of which, I was also interested to read that Kwiecien imagines Giovanni as (maybe) bisexual (“He’s tried all sorts of women, maybe men too” – Telegraph) – and to be honest, I’m surprised I’ve never seen that portrayed on stage. He (character, not singer) seems equal-opportunities enough with regard to age, size, and plenty of other personal attributes in his partners, so why not gender? I expect that the society of the time/place would have been even less approving of a little black book of Antonios and Elvises (or maybe not – historians, feel free to correct me), so Leporello might have to keep that one out of sight rather than showing it around.

* Casual armchair diagnosis of fictional characters’ psychological disorders doesn’t have to be DSM5-compliant.

One can’t help rating various DGs on how credible they are as master seducers (and unlike the route taken by some other productions, it was very clear that this one’s conquests were consensual). ‘Barihunk’ Kwiecien was stalking around the stage in his flapping designer coat, doing the posh moody arrogant thing (complete with put-upon sidekick) that ladies are supposed to go for, but the attraction wasn’t quite making it back as far as us in amphi row N. Until Deh vieni alla finestra, that is, which sounded so lovely that one member of the cast literally walked up to him and took all her clothes off. I don’t like to say too much about the singing at rehearsals, but while this aria was a highlight (as was my favourite bit, where the Commendatore returns), all the cast were solid, particularly Véronique Gens’s Elvira and Alexander Tsymbalyuk’s Commendatore). The orchestra were spot-on throughout, although some of Nicola Luisotti’s tempi were too slow for my taste. I’m not a connoisseur of continuo parts, but Luisotti (fortepiano), Paul Wingfield (harpsichord) and George Ives (cello) really breathed life and interest into their moments in the spotlight. Ottavio fans (are there any?) will be pleased that he got two arias; purists (of which there are many) will be annoyed by the chunk lopped out of the final scene (post-death, pre-chorus).

Those Covent Garden patrons familiar with the somewhat unsubtle but satisfying Zambello production might also be disappointed by the lack of Actual Stuff On Fire at the end. This version seemed to be placing the Descent to Hell, along with the ambulant Statue of Murder Victim, in the realm of Giovanni’s hallucinating imagination, and Leporello’s fear seemed to be not of the haunting, but of seeing his master lose his grip on sanity. At the end he is broken and isolated from other humans. Fair enough. Although I do slightly miss the adrenaline rush of wondering if I’d die fried by an out-of-control operatic flaming dinner sauna.

Stray observations:

Anna was definitely keen on Giovanni at the beginning, but confusingly, seemed to know perfectly well who he was, and appeared to go back for a second shag even after discussing him being her father’s murderer. Maybe she’s a psychopath too? She didn’t seem that upset by dad’s death, and manipulated and lied to Ottavio without batting an eyelid.

As an unexpected take on the problematic Batti, batti, Zerlina seemed to be proposing a BDSM session with her betrothed.