N&N Festival Diary: Thursday, May 15

Ian Collins A good festival is all about great performance across the gamut of styles and media, and a microcosm of what we're all about can be see and heard in St Peter Mancroft Church this evening.

Ian Collins

A good festival is all about great performance across the gamut of styles and media, and a microcosm of what we're all about can be see and heard in St Peter Mancroft Church this evening.

The finest of Norwich's fabulous array of medieval churches - admire the accoustics, ogle rare relics of medieval stained glass, savour the airy atmosphere - hosts an eclectic concert by two masterly musicians, each a bill-topper in his own right.

Classical guitarist, arranger and composer John Williams - not to be confused with his American namesake who composed the scores for Jaws, Star Wars and Schindler's List - is Melbourne's most famous cultural export (eclipsing Germaine Greer and Dame Edna Everage).

Having recorded his debut album 50 years ago, he now has more than 150 discs to his credit - some in collaboration, but most as a soloist.

He has fully justified the early conclusion of his teacher, Segovia, that “God had touched his brow”.

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Having formed professional partnerships with the likes of Julian Bream and The Who's Pete Townshend, for the last two years he has teamed up with veteran steel-string guitarist John Etheridge.

Their interpretation of African music on The Magic Box CD has been especially acclaimed.

John Etheridge has ranged way beyond his original roots in jazz - having famously toured and recorded concurrently with both Stephane Grappelli and jazz-fusion pioneers The Soft Machine, and also collaborated with the likes of Nigel Kennedy and Yehudi Menuhin.

Tonight - with some return tickets bound to be available on the door - the two Johns should pluck and strum a jazzy classic.

t Much as I hate nationalism I've been incredibly moved by reports that when Czechoslovakian Jews were locked into the gas chambers at Auschwitz they sang their national anthem.

And when that supremely cultured and civilised island of democracy in despotic central Europe mobilised its multi-ethnic population against an imminent Nazi invasion, Sudeten Germans heeded the call as much as everyone else.

So the split into Czech Republic and Slovakia was a sign to me that Europe, post Cold War, could also be chilly if not icy.

I think of the Czech(oslovak) composer Pavel Haas, who divorced his Christian wife in 1941 to save her and their son when he was about to be despatched to the concentration-camp town of Terezin.

There, over three years, he wrote for the orchestra which featured in that Nazi propaganda film of September 1944 for the Red Cross depicting a hell-hole as a Jewish haven. Days later musicians and composer were deported to Auschwitz.

So a big welcome to our festival tomorrow for the dynamic, young, prize-winning, Prague-based musicians who comprise the Pavel Haas Quartet.

Actually they will be offering us a programme of Janacek and Dvorak, but how wonderful that, wherever they go and whatever they play, they keep the name of a great European alive.

t This time next year, Norwich looks set to become the first municipality in the land with a Green-led council - and whichever party takes charge, the common aim will be to secure a finer, greener city. So today's Spatial Metro conference, in St Andrew's Hall, is highly timely. All manner of artists, plus motley experts, will look at our “walkable city”, both now and in two decades' time.

Using photography, video, other creative media and voices most of all - via the art of conversation - the summit will consider how we can make better use of our urban spaces and resources by 2028.So have your say in planning our future. The ticket price of £7.50 includes lunch.

t Festival director Jonathan Holloway tells me that his three favourite composers are Johann Sebastian Bach, Arvo Part and Astor Piazzolla - which, rather scarily, are also my own (and in that order too). Alas, he doesn't share my aversion - more like an acute allergy - to Mozart. That Mostly Mozart festival aired elsewhere is still my idea of total hell. Wolfgang Plinkplonk leaves me howling.

t Ace accordionist James Crabb gave us a fabulous finale of Piazzolla tango pieces, but left Norwich with a new obsession. Having been prevailed upon to tackle work by Leos Janacek, featured composer in this year's festival, he is now completely hooked and planning to record a celebratory CD. Celebration may not be the proper word, since Crabb's advance into the world of Janacek has been via a pincer movement (sorry, couldn't resist) into lively Moravian dances and the more sombre work On An Overgrown Path which the Czech composer penned after the death of his daughter. That the musician should have chosen to explore the tangled emotional depths of such a heart-rending work is all the more remarkable seeing that he is the father of a one-month-old child - the splendidly named Hamish Crabb.

t NoFit State Circus - whose spaceship has landed in Earlham Park for the duration of our festival - have won rave reviews for their explosive acrobatics, including a four-star rating in the Times. But although audience reaction seems universally ecstatic, a 16-show festive residency has been one very big space to fill. Since the company's pay is based on box office receipts, the average 250-strong audience leaves them bowing to an ovation but actually ending empty handed - in NoFit state, you might say. They need 300 spectators for even a slim profit. Saturday's two closing shows are sure to be complete sellouts. But tonight and tomorrow could determine whether this cracking company leave Norwich with anything more than happy memories.

t And now a word for our sponsors. You're backing a popular success, as the festival box office take has just passed a record £254,000 - having reached £165,000 at the end of last year's gala - itself a major milestone. Since many festive events are free, financial figures are only part of the story. But given a rise in £5 tickets for the under-26s, the average access cost has FALLEN since 2007. The average bill for joining in this jamboree is now around £12.50. The top price ticket is £40. For cultural elitism, or a commercial killing, you need to look closer at Carrow Road, where adults currently pay upwards of £25 to see 90 minutes of soccer.

WHAT'S ON TODAY

9.30am-5pm Spatial Metro conference, St Andrew's Hall

7.30pm John Williams and John Etheridge, John Innes Centre. SOLD OUT.

8pm NoFit State Circus, Earlham Parkt

8.30pm Teatro de los Sentidos, Indulge, (Queen Street). SOLD OUT.

For a brochure with full listings of all events this year, phone 01603 877750 (or visit www.nnfestival.org.uk). To book tickets call 01603 766400.