Prodigy: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as a child. Picture: Rex features
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Extended play: the world's longest Mozart festival debuts at Wigmore Hall

On Mozart 250 and Sarah Connolly in America.

When the Mozart family arrived in London in April 1765, they had been on the road for a long time. Since leaving Salzburg two years earlier, the eight-year-old Wolfgang and his 12-year-old sister, Nannerl, had performed for rulers and courtiers all over the Holy Roman Empire, as well making visits to Paris and Versailles. Their father, Leopold, had embarked on this lengthy and risky journey as way of sharing his children’s exceptional musical abilities with the wider world, with the hope that it would make them influential connections to call upon in the future – in the 18th century, being a composer was a precarious existence.

The year that the young Wolfgang spent in London was a particularly formative musical period for him. As well as playing for George III, he was introduced to the musicians Carl Friedrich Abel and J C Bach (son of Johann Sebastian) and was exposed to the Anglo-German musical culture that had grown up in the city since the Hanoverian accession in 1714. He began to write his first symphonies, as well as vocal pieces such as the sacred motet “God is our Refuge”, which was dedicated to the newly established British Museum.

The debut concert of the Mozart 250 project (Wigmore Hall) sought to capture the musical flavour of this crucial year in the young composer’s life. Listening to Ian Page and his Classical Opera ensemble play Mozart’s Symphony No 1 in E flat major, it is difficult to comprehend that this confident and technically assured composition issued from the mind of an eight-year-old. It is perhaps possible to discern a certain childish flavour in the slow second movement – is that heavy, ascending figure in the bass inspired by Leopold’s tread on the stairs, as he comes to shoo his young son away from the keyboard and back to whatever he was supposed to be doing? The care and delicacy that Page’s players take with this early instrumental music makes it possible to hear new lines in even the most familiar pieces.

The programme featured works by Haydn, Gluck, Sacchini and other composers working in 1765, alongside Mozart’s own compositions from that time. Sarah Fox produced a warm, tender performance of an aria from J C Bach’s highly influential opera Adriano in Siria, but her fellow soprano Anna Devin was less successful with an intricate selection from Gluck’s Telemaco – her brittle tone and overactive vibrato struggled against the composer’s ever-more elaborate ornamentation in the vocal line. The early Mozart concert arias included in the programme provided tantalising glimpses of the potential that would flower years later in works such as The Magic Flute and Così fan tutte.

For Ian Page and Classical Opera, this concert is just the beginning. The Mozart 250 project will track his work and influences for the next 27 years, with the intention of bringing little-known contemporaneous pieces back to our attention in the versions Mozart would have heard. It is a monumental undertaking, and, if this first outing is anything to go by, one that will be well worth following.

Leap forward a couple of centuries or so and you arrive at the very different musical landscape explored by the mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly and the Britten Sinfonia. Their selection of 20th-century American compositions, including Aaron Copland’s settings of Emily Dickinson poems and music for the ballet Appalachian Spring, came together into an intriguing programme for the Barbican at the Guildhall School of Music (even if they were performed in rather a strange order).

The highlight was undoubtedly the rarely performed A History of the Thé Dansant by Richard Rodney Bennett (an adopted, if not native, American). The smooth, evocative songs suited the deep tones of Connolly’s voice perfectly, transporting us to a 1920s dance hall with a foxtrot in full swing. Ruth Crawford Seeger’s Andante for Strings provided a compelling counterpoint, the Britten Sinfonia expertly emphasising the dissonance and overlapping suspensions that mark it out as a modernist masterpiece.

The encore came as a bit of a surprise – two numbers from the American Songbook. Connolly’s usually astonishing voice sounded flat and restrained in these simple songs, and the Britten Sinfonia’s strings, so warm and rich when playing Copland, became blowsy and exaggerated to meet the demands of overwritten arrangements. It made for a striking and not altogether welcome contrast. 

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 06 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, An empire that speaks English

Marvel Studios
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In Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2, every other line reeks of a self-help manual

This lame sequel suggests the makers have largely forgotten why the original was so refreshing.

The 2014 romp Guardians of the Galaxy boasted the budget of a blockbuster and the soul of a B-movie. What that meant in practice was that audiences had to endure the same biff-pow battle scenes and retina-blistering effects as any space adventure, but they were rewarded with eccentric characters and tomfoolery for its own sake.

Despite the Marvel Studios imprimatur, the film showed the forces of intergalactic evil being fought not by superheroes, but by a ragtag band of bickering goofballs: Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), aka Star-Lord, a self-regarding rogue in the Han Solo mould; the green-faced alien Gamora (Zoe Saldana); Drax (Dave Bautista), a literal-minded hulk; Rocket, a racoon-like warrior (voiced by Bradley Cooper); and Groot, a piece of bark that says “I am Groot” over and over in the dulcet tones of Vin Diesel. Movies this odd don’t usually become $770m smash hits but this one did – deservedly.

Those characters return in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 (the “Vol 2” reflects Peter’s love of mix-tapes) but the new film suggests the makers have largely forgotten why the original was so refreshing. Gags are rehashed; several sequences (including an interminable slow-motion section involving a laser-powered arrow) are dragged way beyond their desirable lifespan. Late in the day, Rocket tells his shipmates that they have too many issues, which rather pinpoints the problem with the screenplay by the director, James Gunn. Gunn has saddled his characters with unreasonable baggage, all of it relating to family and belonging. No matter how far into space they travel, all roads lead back to the therapist’s couch.

Peter, raised by his late mother, is delighted when Ego (Kurt Russell) materialises claiming to be the father he never knew. The old man makes grand pronouncements, only to undercut them within seconds (“’Scuse me, gotta take a whizz”) but, on the plus side, he has his own planet and pulls the whole “One day, son, all this will be yours” shtick. Gamora also has family business to contend with. Her blue-skinned sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan), wants to kill her: Nebula has never quite got over Gamora being Daddy’s favourite. To be fair, though, he did force them to fight one another, replacing parts of Nebula’s body with metal whenever she lost, so it’s not like we’re talking about only one sister being allowed to watch Top of the Pops.

The more Peter gets to know Ego, the less admirable he seems as a father, and soon we are in the familiar territory of having parenting lessons administered by a Hollywood blockbuster. The reason for this became obvious decades ago: the film industry is populated by overworked executives who never get to see their children, or don’t want to, and so compensate by greenlighting movies about what it means to be a good parent. Every other line here reeks of the self-help manual. “Please give me the chance to be the father your mother wanted me to be,” Ego pleads. Even a minor character gets to pause the action to say: “I ain’t done nothing right my whole life.” It’s dispiriting to settle down for a Guardians of the Galaxy picture only to find you’re watching Field of Dreams with added asteroids.

Vol 2 gets by for an hour or so on some batty gags (Gamora misremembering the plot and star of Knight Rider is an especially juicy one) and on the energising power of Scott Chambliss’s glorious production design. The combination of the hi-tech and the trashy gives the film the appearance of a multimillion-dollar carnival taking place in a junkyard. Spectacular battles are shot through scuffed and scratched windscreens, and there are spacesuits cobbled together from tin pots and bubble-wrap. This is consistent with the kitschfests that inspired the Guardians aesthetic: 1980s science-fiction delights such as Flash Gordon, Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension.

If only Vol 2 had mimicked their levity and brevity. Gunn ends his overlong movie with a bomb being attached to a giant brain, but this is wishful thinking on his part. He hasn’t blown our minds at all. It’s just a mild case of concussion. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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