Category Archives: music

Films, Exhibitions and Music in 2018

2018 has been a challenging year, with the responsibilities of being Head of School for the first 3 months, and then various health/personal issues intervening (documented elsewhere). I nevertheless managed to see some films, to play in a few concerts, to hear some music, and go to some nice exhibitions.

  1. Films

Darkest Hour – 10/01

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri – 20/02

A Wrinkle in Time – 29/3

Peter Rabbit – 9/5

Mama Mia 2 – 30/7

Christopher Robin – 11/9

The House with a clock in its walls – 21/10

Cliff Richard 60th anniversary concert (recording) – 30/10


  1. Exhibitions

140 years of recorded sound (British Library) – 7/1

Cezanne Portraits and Taylor-Wessing Portraits (NPG) – 8/1

Picasso 1932 (Tate Modern) – 25/03

Football Museum and Manchester Art Gallery – 4/6

Monet & Architecture (National Gallery) – 21/7

Rodin and the Art of Ancient Greece (British Museum) – 22/7

Michael Jackson Exhibition and BP Portraits (NPG) – 6/8

History of Russian Football (Football Museum Manchester) – 8/9

Kelvingrove Museum and Pollock House (Glasgow) – 14-15/9


  1. Live Music

Eugene Onegin (Glasgow) – 29/4

Don McClean (Manchester) – 7/5

Chess (London Coliseum) – 19/5

Joan Baez (Manchester) – 24/5

Summer Holiday – 6/10

Focus (100 Club) – 10/11

Panto – Jack and the Beanstalk (22/12)

I also played in KPO concerts on 24/3 and 3/11, but didn’t play for the other orchestras due to timing/programme issues.

A few other events that qualify to be noted in this section were:

RSC Summer Party (Royal Academy) – 18/7

UCL 40th year reunion – 13/10

UCL Lab Dinner (with my after dinner speech) – 23/11

October 2017: a month of iconic bands

October 2017 was a challenge work-wise, being the first full month of our autumn semester, with lots of things going on, and many demands on my time, but I managed to see some iconic musicians and bands in between all the work.

The month started with seeing Neil Diamond doing his 50th anniversary tour in Manchester (at the Manchester Arena). He was in great voice, and he included plenty of his hits in the programme. Our seats were at the very top and back, and I felt very uncomfortable, so I stood at the back for most of the show. But it was an excellent show, and worth the price of the tickets.

About a week later I was lucky enough to see the Barron Knights playing at the Crewe Lyceum. This is a band who have been performing since 1959, so for almost all my life. They played a selection of their own material, some covers, and some of their ‘spoof’ songs (including the one featuring ‘There’s a Dentist in Birmingham’ to the tune of ‘By the Rivers of Babylon’.) I had an excellent seat, and really enjoyed the show.

However, the real ‘piece de resistance’ was managing to see Focus play at the 100 Club in London. It involved a bit of diary reorganisation so I could get there, but that is one benefit of my current status! I first heard Focus on Radio North Sea International in the 1970s, and have been listening to them ever since. The 100 Club is essentially a chasm, with a stage, and a few chairs, and because I was near the front of the queue I got a good seat on the left of the stage. They played most of the numbers I remember, starting with Focus No. 1, and later they played Hocus Pocus and Sylvia. They were simply amazing, and still have three of the original line-up, including Thijs van Leer on keyboard, flute and vocals. The icing on the cake was that I managed to get Angela a ticket to see a play that she was interested in, on the same night. So all in all it was a great evening, and totally unexpected given the logistical challenge of getting there.

The fourth and final band I saw in October was Dr Hook, featuring Dennis Locorriere (a founder member and the ‘voice’ that everyone remembers from their songs). They played in Hanley’s Victoria Hall, and included then songs I remember (Sylvia’s Mother, When You’re In Love With A Beautiful Woman, A Little Bit More, etc.) It was a great night, with an enthusiastic and knowledgeable audience, who happily sang along with all the hits.

So, October 2017 was an amazing month for bands, which had to be documented. I note in conclusion that Cliff Richard is touring next year, but the ticket price is such that we won’t be going. Considering that Focus charged £20, we are not paying 2 x£80 for indifferent seats to hear him!

Mame recollections: Jan-Feb 2016

Playing in Mame was such an extraordinary experience, for so many reasons, that I decided to write a blog post about it.

I hadn’t played for Stephen Hearson in one of his shows for many years. I thought it was 20 (maybe it was 15) but it was certainly a long time. He had asked me a few times in the intervening years, but I was never able to commit to the time required.

On 20th January in the morning I received a FB message from Stephen asking me if I could play in his forthcoming production of Mame at the Stoke Repertory Theatre. I was immediately tempted because my recent orchestral playing had been unfulfilling, and both my regular orchestras didn’t need me for their spring concerts. And, wonder of wonders, I was free for all the dates! So I agreed, and arranged to collect the music on 25 January.

I was seriously out of practice, so I immediately started a regime, with mouthpiece buzzing, long notes, scales and, eventually, looking at the music itself. I was able to practise using my Silent Brass system (which developed a fault towards the start of the shows, but that’s another story). By the time of the first band call, on the Thursday before the show started (18th February), I was in reasonable shape, playing wise. But the music was hard and the first trombone part very high! So at the band call I alternated between the first and third parts, and since there seemed to be a need for more bass, in the performances I mainly played the third part. The real challenge was playing loud enough for a section of 3. However even if other players had been available, they wouldn’t have fitted into the pit! I must also pay tribute to our conductor, Joe Hearson, who did a fantastic job, not helped by not having a full score to conduct from.

But how do you survive a normal week of work, with a show every evening? It was gruelling to say the least. Fortunately the weather held, so my drives to the theatre (a bit further than Stoke station/Staffordshire University, 6 miles or so each way) were relatively easy, although as the week went by I found myself getting there earlier each day! The show started at 7:15 pm and finished at 10:15 pm, and I was getting home at about 10:45 pm most days. I can’t eat much before playing, so I would typically have a protein bar before the show, a coke zero or diet coke in the interval, and a late dinner when I got home. This seemed to work well, and I’m very grateful to Angela for coping admirable with my strange eating schedule!

On the Saturday of the week the shows were running (23-27 February), we did a matinee as well as an evening show. For a physically demanding instrument like the trombone, that was quite an ordeal. But I got through it somehow.

Playing in Mame had the effect of getting me back into regular playing, and also thanks to someone who was at one of the performances, I was asked to join the North Staffs Symphony Orchestra, which I’ve been trying to join for nearly 30 years!

RIP David Bowie (1947-2016)

(This is a slightly longer version of the tribute I put on Facebook earlier this morning.)

Today is a sad day. I was 12 when David Bowie released the album containing my favourite Bowie track, Space Oddity, in 1969. I had a very conservative, classical musical upbringing (the Beatles were tolerated at home, but not much else!) Bowie’s music had an immediate impact, even on the mind of an immature pre-teen! Since then, his music has always been somewhere in my conscience, and although it is a cliche, I can truly say Bowie’s music has been part of the soundtrack of my life. RIP friend, and thanks for your amazing and innovative music.

I will also add that David (born David Robert Jones) was almost exactly 10 years older than me, being born on 8 January 1947. He died 2 days after his 69th birthday.  I have many favourite Bowie tracks, but the one I put on Facebook was Space Oddity, which I remember playing in a School Assembly, probably around 1974.

It is a sad day indeed.

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Films, plays, music and exhibitions in 2014

Compared with 2013, I saw fewer films this year. I started with Last Vegas (on my birthday), and also saw: Devils Due, The Book Thief, Muppets Most Wanted, Rio 2, Grace of Monaco, Earth to Echo, Mr Turner, Paddington and the last of the Hobbit films; a total of 10. Of these, I would mention three as particular favourites: The Book Thief (for its charm), Grace of Monaco (for historical interest), and the blast of the Hobbit films for shear excitement and special effects.

I saw 3 plays in 2014: Blithe Spirit, Black Coffee and Dangerous Corner. All were greatly enjoyed.

I attended 5 concerts (not counting the ones I was playing in, which are mentioned in my general review), and these included an excellent LPO concert at the Victoria Hall featuring the guitarist Milos. The highlight of the year was seeing the Seekers in their 50th anniversary tour in Manchester. Two excellent tribute bands, Abba Reunion and The ELO Experience (an annual event now), and a showing of the Snowman with a live orchestra and soloists made up the rest.

I saw three exhibitions in London during the year. At the British Museum I saw Gems of Chinese Painting and Japanese Netsuke; at the Royal Academy, Dennis Hopper photographs, and at Tate Modern an exhibition of the work of Malevich. Of these, the Dennis Hopper photos were truly memorable.

So, slightly less ‘culture’ in 2014 but not a bad year nonetheless!

Concerts in the next two weeks

I’m playing in two concerts, on the next two Saturdays. The programmes are challenging but wonderful, and because I’ve managed to prioritise studying the music, they should be more rewarding than some previous concerts where I didn’t manage to do this.

The first concert, next Saturday 22 March, is with the South Cheshire Orchestra. The programme is:

Humperdinck: Hansel and Gretel overture
Schubert: Symphony no. 8, ‘Unfinished’
Sibelius: Finlandia, Karelia Suite

For the Schubert and Sibelius I’m playing the first trombone part on a superb Vincent Bach tenor trombone, borrowed (with many thanks) from a fellow trombonist, Bob Crawshaw (I own a bass trombone and an alto trombone at present). For the Humperdinck the first part is sufficiently high to warrant playing on an alto trombone.

The second concert is on Saturday 29 March, with the Middlewich Concert Orchestra. The programme is:

Smetana: Ma Vlast (Moldau)
Dvorak: Cello concerto
Borodin: Symphony no. 2

The Smetana and Borodin first trombone parts are written for a tenor trombone, while the Dvorak is written for alto. So once again, two instruments will be used (with thanks again to Bob!)

Now I am generally playing first trombone parts, it has become clear that I need to buy a tenor trombone, as the alto tends to feature fairly infrequently. Some years ago I set aside a fund against this becoming necessary, so a purchase will be made! I will post about this exciting event, with photos, when the time comes. In the meantime I’m looking forward to the concerts!

Early February madness

I have commented in previous posts about everything that’s going on at the moment for me in terms of work, including preparation of new lecture material, revision of our final year courses, etc. But the last 3 days have been particularly busy, even hectic, and I thought I should describe them here.

On Thursday (6 February) I travelled to Hannover for a research meeting. This was a relatively simple trip, involving a bus to Crewe, a train to Manchester Airport, and a very convenient flight (with FlyBe) to Hannover. On arrival I was met by my host, who took me to my hotel, and later we had some preliminary discussions over a beer in a local bar.

On Friday I went to the Institute of Mineralogy at the University of Hannover, where I met in person the PhD student I’ve been helping via email for just over a year. She summarised what she had done recently, and we discussed possible future research directions for her. I was then scheduled to give a talk, which I did, and I’m pleased to say that it went well. This was followed by lunch, and in the afternoon I was involved in further research discussions with my host and some other researchers (from the University of Bonn). Hopefully this will lead to something fruitful in collaboration terms in the future! The meeting lasted until the late afternoon, when I returned to the airport, in time for my flight back to Manchester.

In planning this trip, I was happy to take the flights from Manchester; they were direct, and the airport is far more convenient than Heathrow or Gatwick! The only problem was that I would arrive back in Manchester too late to take a train home. So I booked a hotel, with a view to taking the first train home in the morning.

That takes me neatly to Saturday morning, 8th February. I got up at 5:00 am, and took the 6:05 train from Manchester Airport to Crewe as planned. On arrival I had a short wait for a bus to Keele, and I got home at just after 7:30 am. This gave me time for breakfast before setting out again, this time by car, to drive to Middlewich High School for a workshop on Borodin’s 2nd symphony, which one of my orchestras is performing at a concert in March. This lasted all day, and was hard work but good fun; I was wilting somewhat by the end through tiredness, but I’m glad I went.

So now, as I write this, I feel I haven’t stopped since Thursday, and that a good rest will be needed on Sunday. Next week sees my first lecture and problem class on X-ray diffraction, with a research funding trip in the middle of the week, so I had better be ready for these!

My Music in 2012

Having looked at my review of 2012, I’ve noticed the lack of musical mentions, apart from a rather negative comment about my orchestras’ repertoires. As a musician, music is incredibly important to me, but it is something I have to give my full attention to, and (perhaps sadly) when I’m stressed and busy, it simply doesn’t figure. But that doesn’t mean the year was music-free! Here are some of the pieces that earned a place in the soundtrack of my year.

The album that has totally bowled me over this year, and continues to work its magic, is Enya’s ‘A Memory of Trees’. Hardly a recent album, I first heard it in its entirety in the KPA (Keele’s postgraduate clubhouse) on 4th July 2012. The purity of the vocals, plus the creativity of the music, continues to entrance me, and I don’t think I will ever get tired of listening to it.

As I write this, we have just passed the anniversary of Whitney Houston’s untimely death, and I should mention my all-time Whitney favourite track, ‘One moment in time’. This first came out in 1988, when the Olympics were held in Seoul, and I started my first academic post. I realised that I don’t have this iconic track on my mp3 player, and will seek to remedy this as soon as possible! This segues nicely into the Olympics that were held in London in 2012, and the opening ceremony. In this, the piece that I particularly liked was ‘Caliban’s Dream’, by Underworld (featuring Dockhead Choir, Dame Evelyn Glennie, Only Men Aloud, Elizabeth Roberts, Esme Smith and Alex Trimble). ‘Caliban’s Dream’ has certainly earned its place in my 2012 soundtrack.

During the festive period of 2011, I watched an omnibus edition of the documentary series about the Military Wives Choir, who had sprung to prominence in 2011:with their hit song ‘Wherever You Are’, which was the Christmas No. 1 of 2011. In the autumn of 2012 it won the Classic Brit Award for Song of the Year, which was well-deserved. This song became one of my favourites of 2012. I first heard it when I downloaded it for Angela’s radio show, and was in floods of tears! It somehow struck a chord with me (no pun intended …).

Finally, my old favourites continue to sustain me, especially on my travels and when away from home. They include Supertramp’s ‘Famous Last Words’, and Renaissance’s ‘A Song for All Seasons’. I’ve been listening to these albums on and off for the last 30 years, so no doubt they will continue to be important!

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The Folly of Eurovision

I am writing this on the day after the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest, which was held in Baku, Azerbaijan. Sweden won it, and the UK entry, sung by Engelbert Humperdinck, came last but one (25th out of 26). Interestingly, Norway got the ultimate wooden spoon, and earlier on the same evening, England beat them 1-0 in a friendly football game, in what was Roy Hodgson’s first outing as manager. But I digress.

I used to enjoy Eurovision. Many of the songs left much to be desired musically, but it was always an enjoyable evening, and the voting was largely done on merit. All that changed a few years ago, which seemed to coincide with the introduction of the ‘new’ countries from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia to the contest. Voting by cartels became commonplace, with neighbours and political allies voting for each other. The contest started being hosted in such unlikely locations as Baku. And in so doing, the definition of Europe got stretched to include such obviously Asian countries as Azerbaijan.

You only have to look at the songs that have won the contest in the past to see that the criteria for success have changed. Would Abba win now with ‘Waterloo’, or even Katrina & The Waves (who won as recently as 1997) with ‘Love Shine a Light’? I think not. This year, the UK’s song, sung impressively by that accomplished veteran performer, Engelbert Humperdinck, ‘Love Will Set You Free’, failed dismally, getting only 12 points. So what do you need to stand a chance? According to one of my students (@tlittleford on Twitter), what you need is to have a ‘Europop track that can be played in clubs’. Well, I feel rather like a high court judge when I say ‘what’s a Europop track?’, but I get the general idea – something that would have been played in discos in my younger days, perhaps? So, if this is generally acknowledged now, why was our entry so obviously inappropriate? And why put Engelbert through such an embarrassing ordeal? It has also been pointed out to me that we have tried the quirky pop numbers before, and they have done badly too. So is it just that we can’t win (literally)?

The ultimate insult is the amount the BBC spends on the contest. In 2008 it was £173000, and is probably more now. I think that we have to seriously consider withdrawing this funding. If we really still want to take part, let’s go into the semi-finals. That will at least eliminate a really bad (or simply inappropriate) entry. And let’s use the money for something more worthwhile!

Musical activities

On Saturday I played in a concert with one of my current two orchestras, the South Cheshire Orchestra. It wasn’t the most exciting programme, but there were two pieces that I enjoyed playing, Rossini’s ‘Thieving Magpie’ overture and Borodin’s ‘Steps of Central Asia’. The first of these has some challenging (and very audible) scale passages for the trombone section, and the second, although not particularly challenging, gave me a chance to use my alto trombone for a change! The concert went well, although we had the usual rather small audience.

Next Saturday it’s the turn of the Middlewich Concert Orchestra, where I’m involved in 2 pieces. Mozart’s Magic Flute Overture is a real favourite. He uses the trombones to good effect, and it’s always good to play Mozart (given that he didn’t use trombones in his symphonies or in some of his other operas, e.g. the Marriage of Figaro). The other piece is Brahm’s 2nd symphony. I like all Brahm’s symphonies, and my only slight issue with the second is that we are underused! But when we do play it is interesting, and (hopefully) effective. I’ll be using the alto trombone for both of these, although I recently read a discussion of Brahms’ orchestration which suggested he intended the first part to be played on a tenor trombone. If that was the case, the players involved must have had very good high registers, since the first part is written in the alto clef for a reason. The other factor might have been that the trombones in use then had narrower bores, and therefore required less displacement of air. Anyway, we’ll see how it goes! I’ll no doubt report back on Facebook and Twitter after the concert.