Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Opinion: Facebook Layout

My departure from Facebook is unfortunatly a sad illusion, as I feel forced to comment on the new layout. Now what really gets me annoyed is when, with good intentions, Facebook makes the layout slicker and more convienient, and the people automatically disregard it. The last time it changed, the same thing happened. People complained and complained. Then they settled down, and nobody was singing the praises of the old system.

Here we have another change - a new home page, which looks a lot slicker, and has more of the things you actually need. Yes, the bottom bar is gone, but that was causing problems with the loading of pages. The fundamental chat system is still there, and now you can see who's online as soon as you log on.

Most of the other complaints are regarding the basic manouvering of buttons and fields. This is basically based on one principle - repetition grows into habit. They're still reaching up to the right for the search engine, finding the Home button, while looking for home button and finding the search engine. It does make the system more noticable and aestetically pleasing in my opinion, and this problem can easily be overcome with time.

There is, of course, the issue of constant change. There never seems to be any meaningful settlement on one particular design. In my time on Facebook (about a year) there have been four design changes, and while I think good progress has been made it doesn't really seem acceptable. Anyway; Mark Zuckerburg is a busy man. And these are Americans after all; fast changing, always updating.


Friday, 5 February 2010

Goodbye Facebook!

As you've probably seen, the first four reviews were fist published onto Facebook to spread around my network. Since that seemed to cause some confusion, I will now use this blog to publish my reviews from now on.


Thursday, 4 February 2010

Review: Hallé for Youth Concert

Note: This review was written and published to Facebook on 4/2/10.

Hallé For Youth is an annual concert that is a thoroughly educational affair in order to immerse children (contracted from schools) in music and culture. This was my third year, and it showed, as on this occasion we looked to be the oldest school there.

The Bridgewater Hall is, I have to say, amazing. The lighting systems are smooth, the sonic insulation is genius and the camera system (borrowed from the University of Stockport) was an interesting twist. We got good seats this year; the central balcony put us in perfect view of the orchestra and the large screen which served as a backdrop.

For once, I noticed that the masses of screaming children during the pre-concert segment didn't spoil the atmosphere at all. There was a good community feel; the orchestra waved back to the small children as they walked on, performing a barely audible piece by Stravinsky. I liked the way that there wasn't a huge rush of the performers sitting down; they kept to a script and slowly built up the piece.

The compére (a horn player called Tom, with flowing blond hair and a garish Hawaiian shirt, who was quite patronising last year in his slow and steady descriptions of basic musical principles) did a lot more to improve the performance than last year. This year's feature was a regional themed "Dancing Round The World," taking regional dance tunes and putting them to orchestraic music. Most of them were also based on paintings, or anecdotes from history. Tom explained these with a sense of pride that didn't go overboard and overall he did a much better job. The pieces were inspired by places such as Rome, Devon, Egypt, Austria, India and Argentina.

Each concert also has several special features, including a Primary School tune (performed by several frightened-looking children and accompanied by a few from Hallé) which seemed a lot better this year, some Tango dancing for the Argentine segment, some costumes in past years, and what I call Mass Participation.

Readers of my past reviews will know that Mass Participation is to me a private Satan which I find childish and wrong. Luckily, the M.P. in this sequence was hardly a longlasting affair, in oppositon to the
mass rave that was the Royal Marine band. The first sequence was a song called "Refuge," a sneaky attempt to dispel racism to immigrants, in which one had to stand up and sing. Not wishing to relive my experiences at the RMB, I participated. Of course, once I realised the mundanity of the lyrics I stopped singing, watching the Mayor do a Pavarotti. The second one was the final song, something more to my expectations of the concert - Bosonova by Quincy Jones - but this time the participation consisted of copying Tom the Compére.

I should note that this concert's content and attitude seems to be highly dynamic. There were a lot more classical and exclusive pieces here than in the past few years, which contained some pop and neuvau songs. The compére changed in-between 2007-8 from a drum player to Tom the Compére, and the new camera system provided some unintentional hilarity.

Of course, I should highlight the aforementioned educational intention. The instrumental groups were colour coded to help identification, Tom the Compére used less stressful vocabulary and, of course, there was school participation. This was a marked improvement of last years effort, although, to tell the truth, the Hallé have always been good.


Review: Royal Marine Band

Note:This review was written and published to Facebook on 26/1/10.

What I'd first like to say is that this is a big, social event, contrary to my expectations of a quiet orchestral admiration. Therefore I remained seated for most of the event, my perceptions altered by the many people around me pestering me to somehow absorb their enjoyment.

Yet again, as in my review of Grease, I fell with the problem of sitting close to the amp system. But, I thought, the music emanating from those amps should be at least peaceful. So I sat down, got out my notebook, and discussed the events with the people around me. Then a rather poor leading fellow got onto the stage and started to mutter about how great the army band was and how he got 19k a year, just after he had described at least six years of overly intense training. Then, after a few technical problems, he put on what I like to call the standard "brainwash video."

While the concept was quite interesting, I was a little surprised to see that in addition to the intense, grade eight traing, there were also required gym routines, army practice, medic practice, swimming lessons and marching services. The original band practice idea seemed a mile away. What also struck me was the supposed amount of excellence, and then I thought about where they were getting their money from. So we haven't got enough helicopters in Afghanistan, and yet the governemnt fund a private band service? (Who play trash pop in schools.) And then, at the stroke of dawn (little dramatic effect there for you), the video ended, and what looked like a mafia boss and his cronies walked up onto stage and started to plug in/prepare their instruments.

There were three brass/woodwind intruments that I couldn't identify, a drum kit, a large keyboard and electric guitar and two vocalists, a blond woman and a bald bloke. The mafia boss was on some kind of tuba. My expectations fell the moment I identified the electric guitar. The bald bloke (hereby referred to as "bloke") wittered on about having visited West Hill (a story that one suspected was of dubious quality) and that the wanted us to sing, dance and jump. Of course, I was having none of it.

The first song was "Valerie" and after a few nerves everyone (except a few people, like adament me) started to stand up and clap. On the next one (Shine) they were now encouraging swaying, mexican waves and a metronomal beat. All this, and I can hear the music reverberating off the back wall, shaking the stage. And if there's one thing I can't stand, it's combining an annoying experience with bad music.

Anyway, the first two songs didn't really sing their praises. The instuments were top notch, but the vocalists were still getting warmed up and sounded slightly rusty. There again was the issue of volume. The vocalists sometimes couldn't be heard because of the nearby drums. The next two songs were something I couldn't recognise (probably Elvis) and then "I feel good". All the time the kids are getting more entheusiastic, although a few more had sat down. And inbetween each song the bloke would rattle on about West Hill and the neanderthals would cheer. I quote the person sitting next to me on this one, who kept trying to assert, "It's fun!" in his high pitched voice.

Well, if it's fun for you, I'm not stopping you. There weren't any reprecussions for sitting down, just the owerwhelming ideology which I could see had made some of the more insecure people stand up and look around solelmly. The whole atmosphere had been degraded, falling from the adult feeling of the video, which, while weak in places, at least conveyed a sense of importance in the music, of cermemony. this was trash pop.

The next few songs were "I will survive," "Burn, baby, Burn," (in which the bloke pointed at the audience at each titular moment) "Carwash" and "Fascination" (In which the blond ripped up the already trashy song, with her voice being so naturally out of sync with the background that it made the whole ordeal more irritating.)

Then came the two ABBA songs, "Dancing Queen" and "Waterloo," in which the blond fared slightly better and the songs suddenly seemed lengthened to adjust for time. More people had given up by now, although the ruling majority still waved up and down like puppets and murmered something vaguely resembling verse.

Then came the finalé, a trio of Micheal Jackson songs ("Thriller", "Billy Jean" and "Blame it on the Boogie.") Here's where the mass participation fully reared its ugly head and soon there were moonwalkers, general dancers, conga lines and acrobatics all around the hall. Everything soon condensed into one big mass of people at the front, who, with great reluctance returned to their chairs.

Things ended with the music teachers praising their concert and making sly references on how they don't like teaching any more. The techer in question also seemed to be weakly praising the 19kpy salary, while silently thinking about his own 34kpy salary...

So. That was it. What promised to be an orchestraic piece soon degenerated into an eternal entrapment in the worst parts of every wedding, pantomime and mob event. If you're into that sort of thing, you're fine; if you enjoy simpler comforts, I'd reccomend you give it a miss.


First Impressions: Grease, the School Musical Version

Note:This review was written and published to Facebook on 8/12/09.

Grease is a treasured staple of the musical genre, generally holding as one for anyone to watch. It started as a broadway production and then made it to the big screen in the hit film. Maybe it's its school image, with sections of guys and gals, or the identifiability of the situation. Because of it's success, it was natural that the story would skip from screen back to stage, with Grease - The Musical. And that, naturally again, became a school version.

Now I prescribe to the more conservative way of reviewing, in that if I haven't seen the whole thing I won't give a full review. That's why this is a "first impressions." The time constraints and the dress-rehearsal status allowed for some funny mistakes and I'll give them some leeway over lines, but here's what I thought.

Story wise, the effects brought on by our school age audience and the transition from big-budget blockbuster to small-stage meant that the story was considerably changed. Certain details were changed around and omitted, there were new subplots that I feel ruined the feel of the original that the play held for the first 10 minutes. That's why you see a school play, isn't it? The same story that you know, but with your boy up there? What I tended to notice was that the plot included by the writers of this new script was pale in comparison with the original, brilliant screenplay, and it felt a bit mix-and-match when a heartfelt "Summer Days" was followed by, "Freddie my Love," a dipsy number about a coat.

Nontheless, the actors gave it their all. I certainly admire the art department for the brilliant costumes and the backdrop which, while sometimes distracting, helped to keep the good feel of the film. The actors gave their lines and actions with vigour, some sounding just like the film, others giving their character an original twist. I particularly admire some of the more involved year 7s, one of which kept his cool perfectly as Frenchie's guardian angel while singing in a perfect tenor.

The actors should, however, remember that they have microphones attached to their faces. Granted it was a dress rehearsal, but the abstract curses and the little gossips came out clearly from the nearby amplifier, including when people reminded each other of lines and stage directions. They also needed to be consistant in their accents - I remember one actor (playing Kenicky) slid gracefully from a rough American accent to a smooth London. The younger actors should also remember to not add that distinctly Audenshaw edge to their voices - it ruined the immersion sometimes.

As for singing, I admire the aforementioned Year 7 Tenor, but there were also issues with the main singers. Firstly during the "Summer Days" song; the ending needs to have the effect where the two singers' voices harmonise. While Danny was stretching his voice into low Tenor, Sandy just didn't have the required vocal range. The same thing happened in her later signature song - I cringed as she missed all the correct notes, skirting around on one of the chords.

The ability of the older actors made it quite immersive, them matching the required accents and perfectly presenting the characters as you would expect, strangely so. I wouldn't be suprised to find a melted video of Grease in their dustbin, played so much that it had overloaded the machine.

EDIT - I didn't really comment on the choreography, so here we go. To tell the truth it felt a bit lax - sometime extras didn't feel involved, they were just swaying from side to side, and even when the main actors moved around the stage they did it slowly and when they did anything dynamic it was aplauded. Granted the story has a lot of sequences where the characters are lounging around but during the agonisingly long Dance sequence all they did was a slow waltz and then during Danny's more excitable moves it seemed heavily scripted and not at all fluent.

Don't get me wrong - I enjoyed the play. It was strong, immersive and the art department have done a superb job in getting the scene right. In some places it was funny, intentional or not, but the small issues that pricked their heads up now and then as well as the blatant mismatching of storylines may warp your view.

If you hear someone reccomend this play, or suggest it, I'd take up their offer. You won't regret it. Just remember - these are your kids. :)

Review: Gorton 100

Note: This review was written and posted to Facebook on 7/12/09

Ah, fireworks. Brilliant, aren't they? They make it worth your while to stand in the cold, watching the majesty of colours rise and fall in the sky with an appropriate pop. Everyone (except poor Rover in the back room) loves fireworks.

And that's probably the reason why the Gorton 100 Commitee decided to use fireworks in their main act of remembrance to the century anniversary of Gorton's inclusion into Manchester, along with some nifty fire dancers. And that's where it seemed to start as I went, reluctantly, to watch the fireworks at Gorton.

The first thing I noticed was the apparent lack of, well... relevance. The only thing that connected the event to the anniversary seemed to be the explosive laden sign holding the name of the event. Surrounding Gorton Park were a layer of burning fires and fire dancers, all moving with the wind. This may, to some, sound romantic and interesting, but the extensive parafin lanterns stained the air with a quesey haze that made you seriously wonder whether that was mud you were standing on.

One thing that i find ruins fireworks is music, and to tell the truth this was easily the best example. The music provided at the Lancaster Celebrations in November at least provided some interest in the tedium and despite the misjudged timing system it gave some theme to the endless procession of bangs and sparks. The music here was deafening - you felt for about an hour afterwards that everything seemed slightly quieter. You vibrated - you could see the visible effect it was having on the parafin burners.

Now, onto the actual pyrotechnics. The aforementioned dancers came to the centre did a few cliched tricks and then hurredly left as the music volume somehow increased and some sprinker began showering sparks and a tall fire burned in a cage. I was still waiting for something to happen.

Then there's some more big fire walls that make the air thicker than the atmosphere of the event, and then the explosives on the Gorton 100 sign started to disjointedly spark away. The music changes and somehow increase in volume again, and then the fireworks start. They're just a few rockets, varied in colour but I'm sure I could acheive the same in my garden. They didn't change in quality or type for about 15 minutes, by which time it was a relief to escape the thick and shaking air that permeated the scene.

Now I don't know about you, but isn't there something really wrong about a show that:
- Should commemorate an event, and doesn't.
- Leaves one enjoying the journey back more than the actual event. And,
- Manages to surpass a 2 hour wait in near-minus temperatures in lack of enjoyment.



This blog, set up on 4/2/10, is now a place for me to host my reviews on events, most of which involve schools. Before this they were put on Facebook as notes; now they get the formatting that they truly deserve and I don't have to use Facebook's primitive system.

So, thanks.