Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Archaeology’ Category

Contemporary Music

Eliza Carthy & Jim Moray’s double celebration at Union Chapel could have been so good. My favourite venue, a great 13-piece band & good song selection from Carthy. Sadly, when the whole band played, the sound just wasn’t up to it. Her voice and fiddle were often buried, I couldn’t make out most of the lyrics and it was hard to pick out individual instrumentation; in short, a shit mix. They seemed surprised and upset when they had to abandon two or three songs at the end because of the Union’s curfew; something that must have been known to the promoter (Barbican Centre) & could have been easily overcome by shortening the 30 min interval. A lost opportunity.

Classical Music

I’m not sure ‘staging’ Britten’s Canticles added that much, but it was very compelling and atmospheric. Two used dance, one acted out a scene, one had a giant film on the theatre’s brick back wall and one just used light. The music was however gorgeous, with Ian Bostridge singing all five, a stunning duet with Iestyn Davies in one and a trio, adding Benedict Nelson, in another.

Opera

Ballo, Opera Up Close’s latest offering, moves Verdi’s A Masked Ball from an 18th century Swedish court to a 21st century Swedish retail outlet on the North Circular. It’s heavily edited and the whole score is played on one piano, but most of the singing is good and it works, though it tries a bit too hard to be cheeky and irreverent and gets close to sending up the opera. Fun, though.

Dance

I much admired the Royal Ballet‘s Hansel & Gretel. Set in 50’s US – think Hitchcock’s Psycho – with a superb design by Jon Bausor, atmospheric music /soundscape by Dan Jones, original choreography by Liam Scarlett, great characterisations and excellent performances by all six dancers. You wouldn’t want to take a kid to this, though, as it’s as dark as they come with themes of abduction and hints at pedophilia. My one reservation was that there wasn’t a lot of story for 100 minutes of dance-drama.

I’m very fond of David Nixon’s unique dance dramas for Northern Ballet and The Great Gatsby is one of the best. There’s a lot of story to get over without words and the programme synopsis was essential. It looks gorgeous in Jerome Kaplan’s simple but elegant design. I loved the Richard Rodney Bennett compilation which included jazz, songs and period pieces like The Charleston. It was beautifully choreographed, including party dances, romantic moments, mysterious figures and fights. Great stuff.

Film

How disappointing Pedro Almodovar’s I’m So Excited is; such a slight piece. Carry on Flying in Spanish! It had some funny moments, enough for an episode of a Sit Com, but nowhere near enough to sustain a 90 minute feature. After The Skin I Live In, this is the second disappointment in a row from him.

In contrast, the new Star Trek film turns out to be the best yet. Benedict Cumberbatch is a great baddie, Simon Pegg an excellent comic Scottie, the 3D is exceptional and the addition of humorous touches works well. The best BIG action film I’ve seen in some time.

Exactly one week after being impressed by the ballet of The Great Gatsby, I was disappointed by the film. It should have been the perfect choice for not-very-prolific Baz Luhrmann (5 films in 21 years!), but apart from the performances it was a big let-down. Achingly slow, design that looked like CGI and dreadful 3D.

Art

Souzou: Outsider Art from Japan at the Wellcome Collection was a fascinating peep into the minds of those within social facilities in Japan; untrained artists using art as therapy. From paintings to drawings to sculpture to textile work, sometimes obsessive, often original and always skilled, it’s a rich collection that should be seen – and very different from a similar exhibition I saw in Milwaukee last year.

Another good and varied selection for this year’s Deutshe Borse Photography Prize on show at the Photographer’s Gallery – B&W pictures of deprivation, images of war set to Brecht’s words, voyeuristic views of prostitutes plying their trade on roadsides and a surreal review of the aborted Zambian space mission!

It’s always a good idea to add an hour to a Chichester theatre trip as it gives you the excuse to visit the Palant House Gallery which has a fine collection of 20th century British art. The bonus last time was Frida Kahlo & Diego Riviera; this time it was a comprehensive retrospective of Ralph Kitaj, the hospital drawings of Barbara Hepworth (which reminded me of Henry Moore’s war drawings) and a room of Paul Nash drawings & memorabilia. Lovely combination in a lovely space.

Treasures of the Royal Courts at the V&A was another of those manufactured-to-get-an-admission-fee shows museums have become fond of since they went free (by government endowment!). Much of it was from their own permanent collection, which you can see free at any time,  and the Russian connection was a weak one. Boo!

I’m very fond of the documentary B&W photos of Brazilian Sebastiao Salgado and his marathon tour of the remotest parts of the world to record nature is impressive. Genesis at the Natural History Museum though was one project where he really should have used colour, as it becomes monotonous and fails to record the magic of the places he visited. That said, I’m glad I went.

Killing time at the NT, I discovered a lovely exhibition of Norman Parkinson‘s iconic photographs of fashion and famous people. Highly posed and therefore unnatural, but somehow fresh and lovely. In the same building, there was another fascinating exhibition of textile artworks by Lalla Ward called Vanishing Act; in effect, animals and insects camouflaged and hiding in the artworks!

Brighton is a long way to go for a one-hour performance, so off I went in the afternoon before for a personally selected self-guided art tour of seven installations / exhibitions. The best was Finnish artist Kaarina Kaikkonen‘s clothing sculpture at Fabrica (c.400 shirts in a deconsecrated church!) and her ‘dressing’ of the clock tower. I also liked Emma Critchley‘s video of herself swimming, shown inside a container on the seafront!  Mariele Neudeker‘s work spanned three spaces, but only some impressed (an iceberg in a Regency house!), ten c.4 min video’s of men moving was too much to do anything other than ‘sample’ and the shadow of a drone painted on Madeira Drive was just making a point.

A double treat at the British Museum. The Pompeii & Herculaneum exhibition is stuffed full of wonderfully preserved, extraordinary things; more domestic than stately. It’s beautifully curated, laid out like the homes the items were found in. The events which led to their burial and preservation were well covered and the human stories moved you. You have to suffer lots of kids obsessed with finding anything erotic, but it’s worth it! It was pensioner-rage at Ice Age Art, fighting to get a glimpse at the tiny 20,000-40,000 year-old items. When you did, you were richly rewarded but this time the curation made it harder, not easier.

Read Full Post »

Contemporary Music

Joe Jackson is someone who is forever reinventing himself and his latest project is a tribute to Duke Ellington. Given he was with ‘the bigger band’, a six piece, I was expecting his Cadogan Hall concert to be the album plus some other jazz in the same vein, but he mixed in rearrangements of his back-catalogue and it was terrific. The Latin jazz material from Night & Day fared best and the final three songs – Is She Really Going Out With Him rearranged for accordion, tuba and banjo, the timeless Sunday Papers and A Slow Song (with added tears) provided a perfect ending. A treat.

I’m afraid Rufus Wainwright’s concert proved a bit of a disappointment, as was his latest album, and to some extent for the same reason. In seeking a more commercial sound, Mark Ronson’s CD production and the somewhat one-tone live sound design are both in danger of propelling him towards blandness. You can’t take anything away from the fact he writes great songs and has an extraordinary voice, but neither of these were shown off at their best here. The band, featuring solo favourites of mine Teddy Tompson and Krystle Warren, was excellent. Both Teddy (Richard & Linda’s son) and Leonard Cohen’s son Adam provided good opening sets, though the latter wasted 10 of his 35 minutes on anecdotes and arsing around. Talking of arsing around, I sighed as it became clear we were going to get another of Rufus’ pantos as an encore (we haven’t had one of those for some time) – and the most OTT one too, presided over by cupid in loincloth and wings. Rufus entered the auditorium dressed as Apollo, walked through the audience, took people on stage and massacred a couple of songs. Though I did go with the flow and laugh along eventually (when it became so surreal there was room for nothing else) I couldn’t help thinking we could have got 5 or 6 songs in the 20 minutes it took to do all this. Looking at Teddy Thompson and Krystle Warren’s expressions made me think I was not alone!

Opera

The Guildhall School of Music & Drama excelled itself again with a fascinating and hugely entertaining triple bill. La Navarraise is a tragedy by Massenet set in the Basque country, which lent itself perfectly to an updating. The singing from the second cast was superb, in particular Roisin Walsh as Anita, Adam Smith as Araquil, Ben McAteer as his dad and James Platt as Garrido, and the choruses were outstanding. Le Portrait de Manon by the same composer was a gentle romance where Des Grieux (from his opera Manon) has to tackle the young love of his ward; I saw Manon in April and there was something satisfying about seeing Des Grieux turn up in another opera! The final piece, Comedy on the Bridge by Martinu, was more challenging musically but very clever and very funny. The characters find themselves in a no-man’s-land on a bridge between borders, as they give up their passes to one border guard and have nothing to give the other. For opera, very original, and a delightful 40 minutes. 

Four years ago, commemorating 50 years since the death of Vaughan Williams, the late great Richard Hickox & The Philharmonia gave a stunning semi-staged performance of The Pilgrim’s Progress whilst Covent Garden ignored the anniversary and ENO’s contribution was a minor work. Well, ENO now give it it’s first full staging since the 1951 premiere and it proves to be something for which staging doesn’t really add much! It’s beautifully played by the ENO Orchestra under Martyn Brabbins and Roland Wood is an excellent Pilgrim / Bunyan, but the staging and design added little I’m afraid.

Art

I enjoyed the British Museum’s Shakespeare: Staging the World, though I did think the connection of some of the material and items was a bit nebulous. There was however much to fascinate and enjoy and it was an excellent choice of subject for the London 2012 Festival.

The Michael Werner Gallery is actually two rooms on the first floor of a posh building in Hedge Fund City (Mayfair) but it was the location for 10 new paintings by Peter Doig so a visit was mandatory. They are excellent works, but 10 paintings doesn’t really constitute an exhibition in my book!

I don’t really do queuing, but the 60 minutes wait for Random International’s Rain Room at the Barbican Centre was well worth it. You walk through a tropical downpour, but as you do the rain stops wherever you are. It’s brilliantly lit, so you get changing visual images and shadows as you move through the installation. Huge fun!

Art of Change at the Hayward Gallery showcased nine Chinese installation artists and contained some very original work. I was convinced one piece was a sculpture a la Ron Muek, then they closed the space to change performer and I was gob-smacked; how he maintained the position is beyond me.

I did a fascinating backstage tour of Shakespeare’s Globe – from heaven (the attic) to hell (understage) and followed it by viewing the photographic record of the Globe to Globe season at the entrance to its exhibition space. It brought back many fond memories of a unique experience and of course I had to buy the book!

At the Southbank Centre, the annual exhibition of art by offenders didn’t seem as good as last year, but they’ve extended the range of work on show and started selling some. It remains an annual must-see anyway.

The Photographers Gallery has a fascinating little exhibition called Shoot! Existential Photography which is about something I’d never heard of – shooting galleries where you aim for a target whilst a photo is taken of you. It’s extraordinary how similar people’s expressions and poses are and there’s one series of a Dutch woman who had one taken almost every year from 1936 to 2008, so you see her age in minutes.

The pairing of photographers William Klein & Daido Moriyama at Tate Modern is inspired. They’re very different photographers yet somehow the contrast adds value. Klein is in-your-face, dramatic and challenging while Moriyama is more subtle and mysterious. I loved them both, but Klein most of all. By contrast, A Bigger Splash at the same venue is for me a bigger disappointment. It seeks to explore the connection between painting and performance. The first half was mostly film and photos of people throwing paint over themselves and the second half a bunch one-room installations, most of which left me cold. Yawn.

The NPG is a lovely place to pop into when you have a spare few minutes and this time it was a lot of minutes, two exhibitions and a handful of displays. The Portrait Photo Award Exhibition is terrific this year and includes a handful of the known (unflattering Victoria Pendleton but flattering Mo Farrah) amongst the unknown. The Lost Prince commemorates the 400th anniversary of the death of the prince who would have been Henry IX had he lived (and given that Charles I got the job, may have changed British history). Though it was interesting, had I not been a member and paid the £13 admission, I’d have felt somewhat cheated – another one of those excuses for a paying exhibition?

Bronze is one of the best exhibitions the Royal Academy has ever mounted. With pieces spanning 3500 years and organised thematically rather than chronologically, it was simply captivating. Somewhat surprisingly, the oldest were north European finds and the greatest revelation was the wealth of extraordinary pieces from West Africa. Unmissable.

Film

Skyfall was the first film I’ve seen in the cinema for over six months so that could be part of the reason why I enjoyed it so much. There are fewer locations and maybe less action, but focusing on London and bringing the character of M to the fore was no bad thing. Ben Wishaw is a great new Q and there were some excellent cameos, notably from Albert Finney as an old Scottish retainer. I did think Javier Bardem’s baddie was a bit too much of a caricature though.

Read Full Post »

Contemporary Music

Todd Rundgren’s concert at the Jazz Café was a real treat. Small venue – ‘greatest hits’ set – terrific band; and Todd on fine and funny form prancing around like a man half his age. I’m not as familiar with this material as most in the audience, but loved it nonetheless.

Steve Earle couldn’t be accused of offering poor value for money. His sets at the Royal Festival Hall totalled 160 minutes. Sometimes, though, more is less and with poor sound contributing, I’m afraid that’s what it was here. The band was great, the set list eclectic and Earle on brittle and funny form with his chat, but it outstayed its welcome and became a bit of a rushed affair in the end.

Honest John’s Chop Up turned out to be an impulsive treat. Damon Albarn’s label showcased a Ghanaian rapper, Malian singer, US brass ensemble and three people from South Africa who defy description but were huge fun. It was like a party with turns, not all of which were good but some of which were great and I loved it.

Opera

Our autumn opera pairing at WNO, the UK’s most accessible opera company, was a brilliantly cast Don Giovanni and a musically thrilling Katya Kabanova, dedicated to Charles Mackerras (with his wife and daughter present). David Kempster isn’t the best DG I’ve ever heard but his acting was exceptional. There was superb support from a home-grown cast which made you wonder why people make such a fuss about casting international stars. David Soar was a terrific Leporello, Robin Tritshler and Camilla Roberts in fine voice as Don Ottavio and Donna Anna and Gary Griffiths an excellent Masetto. Music Director Lothar Koenigs brought out the best of the WNO Orchestra whose playing of the Katya score in particular was stunning. Amanda Roocroft was an outstanding Katya, with an excellent supporting cast including a fine Boris from Peter Wedd and a suitably malevolent Kabanicha from Leah-Marian Jones.

The Passenger at ENO was a somewhat harrowing experience, but an opera I’m very glad I did experience. It moves between an ocean liner in the 60’s, whose passengers include a former Auschwitz guard and one of her victims, and Auschwitz itself back in the 40’s. It’s a very dramatic but very accessible score and David Pountney’s production is masterly, partly thanks to Johan Engels extraordinary design, with the ship’s deck towering over the rail tracks and desolation of the concentration camp. Richard Armstrong’s conducting was also masterly and the orchestra sounded sensational. Amongst a fine ensemble, Giselle Allen as Marta and Michelle Breedt as Liese were wonderful.

Classical Music

The Cardinall’s Music under Andrew Cawood gave a brilliant recital of William Byrd’s unaccompanied church music at Wigmore Hall. They included selections from five of his contemporaries which by-and-large made Byrd shine (Tallis the exception) and I liked the fact that Cawood breaks with convention to introduce and explain his selections.

I’ve had a passing interest in the music of John Taverner but haven’t really heard that much, so a whole evening of small-scale works at Wigmore Hall seemed like a good place to start. Six choral pieces, three song cycles and solo pieces for cello and piano certainly made it a musical feast. The highlight for me was the choral work, sung with great beauty by a ‘scratch’ choir of young singers put together for the evening under the name Caeli Chorum. Patricia Rozario’s vocal fireworks were extraordinary but the works more challenging, as were the solo instrumental pieces, but it was a fascinating immersive experience nonetheless.

Dance

Clod Ensemble took over Sadler’s Wells but only sold 15% of the seats. Starting at the back of the upper circle, the show took us down each level for a new segment until we were at the back of the stage watching the curtain come down on them with the stalls as the backdrop. I can’t say I understood the concept, and it was more movement than dance, but it was a captivating experience.

Film

I liked The Debt, a film about the botched Mossad abduction of a Nazi war criminal It surprised me and gripped me, not least because of an excellent performance from Helen Mirren.

What I liked most about Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was the fact that it didn’t patronise you; you had to work to keep up with it! The other thing I liked about it was the collection of stunning performances, including Gary Oldman as Smiley, John Hurt, Kathy Burke, Toby Jones, Colin Frith, Cairan Hinds, Tom Hardy and Benedict Cumberbatch.

We Need to Talk About Kevin was a harrowing experience, but a brilliant piece of film-making. Tilda Swinton really is one of the very best actors working today and yet again she inhabits a role. Wonderful, but if I was a parent it would scare me senseless!

Unless I’ve been avoiding this type of film too long (quite possible!), with The Adventures of Tin Tin – The Secret of the Unicorn, Stephen Spielberg seems to has invented something that is neither animation nor live action but, for a story like this, is better than both. The almost-but-not-quite lifelike characters can look more realistic doing stuff actors or animation can’t. It’s also the best 3D I’ve ever seen. Great fun.

Art

I went to Treasures of Heaven at the British Museum fired up after my recent Caucasus trip. Interesting though it was, there’s a limit to how many religious relics an unbeliever can take – the least interesting of the BM’s big Reading Room shows.

Locked Room Scenario was another of Artangel’s extraordinary installations. When you enter the warehouse where it takes place and ask a girl which way to go, you get a surly response. You’re at an exhibition of the Blue Conceptual art movement, but the entrance to their exhibition is locked so you end up walking round, peeping in where you can, picking up leaflets and looking at the fictitious movement’s timeline. When I was walking away, a young man handed me a page from a book he said I’d dropped. I read it and became convinced this was all part of the experience; the rest of my walk was rather surreal and disorientating.

I’d never heard of Pipilotti Risi before I went to her show at the Hayward Gallery. I love the playfulness of her videos, on translucent screens or hidden in handbags, conch shells and all sorts of other objects. It was like revisiting psychedelia, but with technology which enables artists to do so much more. Huge fun.

The Barbican Gallery continues its unique position amongst London’s major spaces with an exhibition from / about architectural practice OMA (whoever they are!) curated by Rotor (whoever they are too!). It’s a very original presentation of drawings, models, materials etc. though I think you have to be an architect or designer to get the most out of it. An interesting and intriguing one hour wander nonetheless.

The second Koestler Trust Art For Offenders exhibition at the RFH was simply extraordinary. This year it included video, music and spoken word as well as paintings and sculpture. Many of these items would hold their own in any contemporary art selling exhibition. Though the art was uplifting and enthralling, one was left with the feeling of hopelessness that so much talent is locked up.

A visit with the V&A Friends to then newly refurbished Renaissance St. Pancras Hotel was terrific. The highlight is the 5-story stairwell with ceramic tiles on the ground floor, wrought iron and wood banisters, stencilled walls and an extraordinary painted ceiling. They’ve done a wonderful job of restoring all of this and it was a treat being able to see it without having to take out a mortgage to book a room!

In Oxford for lunch, I had enough time to pop into the lovely Ashmolean Museum again (now one of the UK’s very best museums) which included a small but fascinating display of iconic Chinese Cultural Revolution art that showed you how it is possible for paintings to influence people; you could see how they fell for Mao with all these idealised images.

Read Full Post »

Contemporary Music

Todd Rundgren’s concert at the Jazz Café was a real treat. Small venue – ‘greatest hits’ set – terrific band; and Todd on fine and funny form prancing around like a man half his age. I’m not as familiar with this material as most in the audience, but loved it nonetheless.

Steve Earle couldn’t be accused of offering poor value for money. His sets at the Royal Festival Hall totalled 160 minutes. Sometimes, though, more is less and with poor sound contributing, I’m afraid that’s what it was here. The band was great, the set list eclectic and Earle on brittle and funny form with his chat, but it outstayed its welcome and became a bit of a rushed affair in the end.

Honest John’s Chop Up turned out to be an impulsive treat. Damon Albarn’s label showcased a Ghanaian rapper, Malian singer, US brass ensemble and three people from South Africa who defy description but were huge fun. It was like a party with turns, not all of which were good but some of which were great and I loved it.

Opera

Our autumn opera pairing at WNO, the UK’s most accessible opera company, was a brilliantly cast Don Giovanni and a musically thrilling Katya Kabanova, dedicated to Charles Mackerras (with his wife and daughter present). David Kempster isn’t the best DG I’ve ever heard but his acting was exceptional. There was superb support from a home-grown cast which made you wonder why people make such a fuss about casting international stars. David Soar was a terrific Leporello, Robin Tritshler and Camilla Roberts in fine voice as Don Ottavio and Donna Anna and Gary Griffiths an excellent Masetto. Music Director Lothar Koenigs brought out the best of the WNO Orchestra whose playing of the Katya score in particular was stunning. Amanda Roocroft was an outstanding Katya, with an excellent supporting cast including a fine Boris from Peter Wedd and a suitably malevolent Kabanicha from Leah-Marian Jones.

The Passenger at ENO was a somewhat harrowing experience, but an opera I’m very glad I did experience. It moves between an ocean liner in the 60’s, whose passengers include a former Auschwitz guard and one of her victims, and Auschwitz itself back in the 40’s. It’s a very dramatic but very accessible score and David Pountney’s production is masterly, partly thanks to Johan Engels extraordinary design, with the ship’s deck towering over the rail tracks and desolation of the concentration camp. Richard Armstrong’s conducting was also masterly and the orchestra sounded sensational. Amongst a fine ensemble, Giselle Allen as Marta and Michelle Breedt as Liese were wonderful.

Classical Music

The Cardinall’s Music under Andrew Cawood gave a brilliant recital of William Byrd’s unaccompanied church music at Wigmore Hall. They included selections from five of his contemporaries which by-and-large made Byrd shine (Tallis the exception) and I liked the fact that Cawood breaks with convention to introduce and explain his selections.

I’ve had a passing interest in the music of John Taverner but haven’t really heard that much, so a whole evening of small-scale works at Wigmore Hall seemed like a good place to start. Six choral pieces, three song cycles and solo pieces for cello and piano certainly made it a musical feast. The highlight for me was the choral work, sung with great beauty by a ‘scratch’ choir of young singers put together for the evening under the name Caeli Chorum. Patricia Rozario’s vocal fireworks were extraordinary but the works more challenging, as were the solo instrumental pieces, but it was a fascinating immersive experience nonetheless.

Dance

Clod Ensemble took over Sadler’s Wells but only sold 15% of the seats. Starting at the back of the upper circle, the show took us down each level for a new segment until we were at the back of the stage watching the curtain come down on them with the stalls as the backdrop. I can’t say I understood the concept, and it was more movement than dance, but it was a captivating experience.

Film

I liked The Debt, a film about the botched Mossad abduction of a Nazi war criminal It surprised me and gripped me, not least because of an excellent performance from Helen Mirren.

What I liked most about Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was the fact that it didn’t patronise you; you had to work to keep up with it! The other thing I liked about it was the collection of stunning performances, including Gary Oldman as Smiley, John Hurt, Kathy Burke, Toby Jones, Colin Frith, Cairan Hinds, Tom Hardy and Benedict Cumberbatch.

We Need to Talk About Kevin was a harrowing experience, but a brilliant piece of film-making. Tilda Swinton really is one of the very best actors working today and yet again she inhabits a role. Wonderful, but if I was a parent it would scare me senseless!

Unless I’ve been avoiding this type of film too long (quite possible!), with The Adventures of Tin Tin – The Secret of the Unicorn, Stephen Spielberg seems to has invented something that is neither animation nor live action but, for a story like this, is better than both. The almost-but-not-quite lifelike characters can look more realistic doing stuff actors or animation can’t. It’s also the best 3D I’ve ever seen. Great fun.

Art

I went to Treasures of Heaven at the British Museum fired up after my recent Caucasus trip. Interesting though it was, there’s a limit to how many religious relics an unbeliever can take – the least interesting of the BM’s big Reading Room shows.

Locked Room Scenario was another of Artangel’s extraordinary installations. When you enter the warehouse where it takes place and ask a girl which way to go, you get a surly response. You’re at an exhibition of the Blue Conceptual art movement, but the entrance to their exhibition is locked so you end up walking round, peeping in where you can, picking up leaflets and looking at the fictitious movement’s timeline. When I was walking away, a young man handed me a page from a book he said I’d dropped. I read it and became convinced this was all part of the experience; the rest of my walk was rather surreal and disorientating.

I’d never heard of Pipilotti Risi before I went to her show at the Hayward Gallery. I love the playfulness of her videos, on translucent screens or hidden in handbags, conch shells and all sorts of other objects. It was like revisiting psychedelia, but with technology which enables artists to do so much more. Huge fun.

The Barbican Gallery continues its unique position amongst London’s major spaces with an exhibition from / about architectural practice OMA (whoever they are!) curated by Rotor (whoever they are too!). It’s a very original presentation of drawings, models, materials etc. though I think you have to be an architect or designer to get the most out of it. An interesting and intriguing one hour wander nonetheless.

The second Koestler Trust Art For Offenders exhibition at the RFH was simply extraordinary. This year it included video, music and spoken word as well as paintings and sculpture. Many of these items would hold their own in any contemporary art selling exhibition. Though the art was uplifting and enthralling, one was left with the feeling of hopelessness that so much talent is locked up.

A visit with the V&A Friends to then newly refurbished Renaissance St. Pancras Hotel was terrific. The highlight is the 5-story stairwell with ceramic tiles on the ground floor, wrought iron and wood banisters, stencilled walls and an extraordinary painted ceiling. They’ve done a wonderful job of restoring all of this and it was a treat being able to see it without having to take out a mortgage to book a room!

In Oxford for lunch, I had enough time to pop into the lovely Ashmolean Museum again (now one of the UK’s very best museums) which included a small but fascinating display of iconic Chinese Cultural Revolution art that showed you how it is possible for paintings to influence people; you could see how they fell for Mao with all these idealised images.

Read Full Post »

Photos first!

You are invited to view Gareth James’s photo album: Azerbaijan, Georgia & Armenia
Azerbaijan, Georgia & Armenia
Sep 29, 2011
by Gareth James
To share your photos or receive notification when your friends share photos, get your own free Picasa Web Albums account.

These three newly independent countries comprise the strategic Caucasus region that runs from the Caspian Sea in the east to the Black Sea in the west, bordering the Russian Federation in the north and Iran and Turkey in the south. At various times, it has been invaded / occupied by the Mongols, Persians, Ottomans and of course Russia, amongst others. Today, the big geopolitical issue is pipelines which take oil from the Caspian and beyond to ports in the Black Sea and hence by sea west, thus avoiding overland routes through Russia.

Azerbaijan has a long-time dispute with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh but gets on with everyone else. Georgia’s relations with Russia remain fraught but fine with the rest and it has had the roughest independence ride. Armenia has its dispute with Azerbaijan and ongoing tension with Turkey over the genocide of the late nineteenth / early twentieth century. You’ve got to watch what you say round here!

The three countries have a combined population of c.18m – Azerbaijan’s 9m are mostly Muslim, Georgia’s 5m are almost entirely Orthodox Christian and Armenia’s 4m belong to the independent Armenian Church. Georgia and Armenia were the first countries to adopt Christianity (and possibly the first to make wine). All three countries are littered with Soviet apartment blocks and much of the water and gas pies run over ground, bending and twisting over entrances and round corners.

We started in oil rich Azerbaijan, seriously excited about hosting Eurovision 2012 even though they haven’t quite laid the foundations of the venue on the waterfront. In many ways it retains a Soviet character – but with added bling courtesy of its oil revenues. Oil is nothing new here; they’ve been bringing it up for over 130 years and just over 100 years ago provided 50% of the world’s oil. There are very old and very small drills in the city, though much of it has now moved offshore into the Caspian Sea. Despite the fact it is overwhelmingly Muslim, there are few mosques and few obvious signs of Islam in appearance or behaviour. The food and wine was OK but a bit samey and not overly exciting, though they did make jam out of absolutely anything, including walnuts and roses, and eat it by the spoonful with their tea!

The capital Baku is one big building site with a particularly iconic building nearing completion – a hotel that comprises three giant glass ‘petals’ which you can see from absolutely everywhere. It’s a nice enough city, well at least at its centre, with a walled old town, art nouveau buildings from the early days of oil and a long prom with modern buildings vying for your attention whilst lovers stroll, holding hands. The highlights of our visit were the 15th century Palace of the Shirvanshahs in the old town, a Zoroastrian Fire Temple and the pre-historic petroglyphs at Qobestan along the busy oil coast. We won’t talk about my brush with the police for pointing the camera a little too close to the Presidential Administration Tower……

We travelled overland to Sheki in the mountainous north where the Christian heritage is evident through Albanian churches (no relation to the country). The journey took us through semi-desert, fertile valleys, wooded hills and pastures – a topographical tour in not much more than six hours. The highlight of Sheki was the 18th century Khan’s Palace, a riot of colour and glass inside and out, inside a walled compound on the mountainside. The following day we crossed into Georgia.

I fell in love with Georgia very quickly. This may have been because we started in wine country and within a couple of hours of arriving we were treated to a delicious feast with local wine at a home stay; I’m easily bought! The food in Georgia was in fact spectacularly good and the wine was excellent. We gorged on aubergines stuffed with walnuts, cheesy bread, stuffed vine leaves, dumplings filled with meat which you got to once you’d drained them of a consommé-like liquid and all manner of meats, cheeses and salads.

It was a long journey to Tbilisi, broken up my visits to a walled hilltop church, a fortified cathedral and a fortified convent. Tbilisi is buzzing with life; you’d never know the Russians invaded just three years ago. It has tremendous energy and a sense of renewal, and not just in new building like Azerbaijan. Though much of it is still very run down, it was fascinating to explore with a very moochable old town; though not a very pedestrian-friendly city elsewhere. It is dissected by the River Mikvari, with the old town rising and clinging to one side as far as a mountaintop fortress. Its iconic new building is a glass pedestrian bridge. At night, Tbilisi is beautifully illuminated.

The city contains two stunning collections of treasures – the gold of pre-Christian Georgia and more recent religious icons and jewellery. It’s only mosque is unique as Shiite pray on the left and Sunni on the right, both in the same building. Our visit to the new Holy Trinity Cathedral was timed to coincide with the Patriarch (head of orthodox church and state) formally welcoming the Archbishop of Cyprus (another head of church and state). With a convoy of black limousines and lots of men-in-black, it was all very exciting (though more in keeping with a US presidential visit than a pair of clerics!). The speeches were highly politicised.

Out of town, we headed north to Mtskheta for another fine hilltop church and another fortified cathedral and to Ananuri for a stunning walled compound of three churches sitting on a small hill at the side of a reservoir. Back in Tbiklisi, our visit to the lovely Open Air Museum had a bonus as the Georgian state dancers (on perpetual tour to make money) were making a rare visit to Tbiisi for filming, so we got to see them for free with the added fascination of watching the rehearsals and the process of filming. The love affair with Georgia lasted until our premature departure. Our guide Anna was exceptional and there was a great feel to the place. I suspect I shall be back.

Despite the fabulous mountain scenery, with autumn colours already in evidence, dark clouds, a relentless number of run-down Soviet apartment blocks and more austere dark stone churches and monasteries, (we visited 5 en route to Yerevan) the first couple of days in Armenia didn’t excite – not until our first dinner in Yerevan with lovely folk music followed by a visit to Republic Square and its nightly performance of dancing illuminated fountains with a Charles Aznavour soundtrack (an Armenian exile) lifted my spirits.

Armenia appears to be the most run down of the three, except in Yerevan, which is much brighter and airy with wide tree-lined streets and lots of open spaces and street cafes. The genocide of over 1m people hangs heavy over the country; there ate 2.5 times as many Armenians outside the country as inside it – one of the world’s largest diaspora.

Yerevan sits at the foot of Mt Ararat (made famous by Noah!) and when it isn’t cloudy it towers over the city. There are few great buildings, but within the city there is a superb archaeology collection and a spectacular selection of manuscripts. There’s a lot to be seen within an hour and most of our time was spent on trips to a Greco-Roman Temple, Cave Monastery / Churches, a mediaeval burial ground with 900 tombstones and the centre of the Armenian faith at Echmiadzin. Our tour leader is responsible for the relationships between the Anglican Church and the Eastern Orthodox churches, so here we were greeted by two bishops and given a private tour of the residence of the Catholicos (heads of church and state) as well as the cathedral and museum.

Armenia grew on me as the sun began to shine, Mt Ararat revealed itself and the food and wine got better! I admired the spirit of the people and their resilience during a mostly tortuous 20th century.

A trip of huge contrasts – landscapes, architecture, heritage & religion – which was always fascinating and often thrilling. Georgia is the jewel in the Caucasus crown and it won’t be long before they’re coming in droves for a long weekend; beat them to it!

Read Full Post »

This is a trip in two halves. I’d fixed a tour of the Spanish province (and former Kingdom) of Aragon that departed on the Tuesday after Easter so it seemed to make sense to tag on a weekend somewhere else in Spain. I’d only visited Toledo for an afternoon during a business trip and never felt I’d done it justice, so that’s where I went first. Little did I know that it would be 8 degrees cooler than London with a fair bit of cloud cover and a few showers! Who says there’s no climate change.

Toledo sits on a hill that is 270 degrees surrounded by the River Tagus in a deep ravine. It’s an odd shape and as you walk around it’s narrow streets and alleys you are forever surprised that it slopes down when you expect it to slope up and vice versa; you’re hardly ever walking on the flat. The Romans settled here and were followed by the Barbarians, Visigoths and Moors. It was for a royal capital from the 12th to 16th centuries and even when the royals went to Madrid, it remained the spiritual centre. In the middle ages, Moors, Jews and Christians co-existed happily, creating an east-meet-west atmosphere (those were the days…..). It oozes history from every stone and every doorway. It is renown for Toledo steel fashioned into fighting swords and hideous damascene ware (black steel inlaid with gold silver and copper thread). The cuisine is most famous for partridge and marzipan!

I should have done more research before I came (unlike me) as I missed the Semana Santa parades (though rumour has it some or all of the seven I could have caught on Good Friday may have been cancelled due to rain) & a passion play – and I should have paced myself better (very like me) as I packed too much into the first day. That said, there was a wonderful variety of sights including churches, palaces, monasteries, convents, synagogues, mosques, a couple of ancient bridges, an ancient hospital and a castle.

Amongst the highlights were two churches that were once synagogues restored to their original form; both architectural gems. I love the way the name of one of them says it all – Santa Maria la Blanca Synagogue! El Greco’s House and Museum is a lovely combination of period home and artist’s story – though now they’re not sure it was his home! San Juan de los Reyes Monastery had some wonderful plateresque work and atmospheric cloisters. The interior of San Roman is a riot of colourful frescos, including one where people are getting out of their coffins, and Santo Tome has El Greco’s masterpiece The Burial of the Count of Orgaz. I’ve never been a major El Greco fan, but here I began to appreciate his technical skill and originality if not beauty. Then there’s the Cathedral…….

…..it is enormous and contains some stunning, though often OTT and occasionally tasteless art. The choir stalls are beautifully carved, there is a dome behind the Alter from which people appear to be hanging with those on the alter climbing (the only baroque feature). The Chapter House walls are covered with frescos and paintings and the painted ceiling in the Sacristy is stunning; this room alone contains 20 El Greco’s plus works by Caravaggio, Rubens, Titian, Raphael, Van Dyck, Ribera, Velazquez, Goya and Zuberan. They are mostly badly hung and lit and in dubious condition; frankly they don’t deserve them. This is particularly galling as this house of god charges you to enter and bans photography so that they can sell you a set of books, one on each part of the building, that would require a bank loan for a mere mortal to purchase. This is the Catholic Church as business – what would god think?  Shameful. End of rant…..

With some really lovely food (and a little wine!) added it was a nice weekend, parades or no parades, and by Tuesday lunchtime it was time to meet the Aragaon group back at Madrid airport. To be continued…..

You are invited to view Gareth James’s photo album: Toledo at Easer
Toledo at Easer
Apr 25, 2011
by Gareth James
To share your photos or receive notification when your friends share photos, get your own free Picasa Web Albums account.

Read Full Post »

Visiting the country rather than eating the bird seemed like a good way of spending the festive season. It had been c.32 years since I was in Istanbul and about half that time since I was last in the country.

We were to follow the development of the Ottoman Empire, which ran for c.600 years until the beginning of the 20th century, reaching its peak with the 16th century reign of Suleiman the Magnificent. His architect Sinan, who lived for 98 years, built some 100 domed mosques, many on the scale of St Pauls in London and St Peters in Rome, but 100-150 years earlier. Istanbul was the third and final capital of the Ottomans, but we started here before moving on to the first and ending up in the second, with a Christmas Day side-trip back to ancient Troy and forward to the First World War!

Istanbul sits astride the Bosphorus, which links the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmaris which itself, through straights called the Dardanelles, links with the Aegean / Mediterranean. A more strategic spot you could not find.  A lot changes in 32 years – Istanbul now has 15 million people and sprawling high-rise suburbs surround the old city – but fortunately it has retained its charm. It did seem more exotic and eastern that long ago, but that may have more to do with how far I’ve been than how far it’s come.

In addition to re-visiting the well-worn tourist trail of the Sultanahmet (Blue) & Sulemaniye mosques, Topkapi Palace and Aya Sophia church–to-mosque-now-museum, there were some new experiences to delight. Somehow, I’d previously missed the extraordinary 6th century cistern which stored Constantinople’s water in a vast vaulted church like space held up by 300 columns and extensive 4th century City Walls. The remarkable 14th century mosaics and frescos of St Saviour at Chora and the Mosaic museum built on top of a palace paved with them had also passed me by. I’d missed the palaces that line the Bosphorus (we visited the Beylerbey Palace, a monument to 19th century excess and bad taste!) and many more mosques than the ‘big two’. The bazaar’s haven’t changed much, but on a nostalgic visit to the Pera Palace Hotel (faded grandeur in 1978) I found an over-restored, somewhat ersatz and exceedingly over-priced disappointment.

After a glorious four days, we headed south into Asia Minor crossing the sea of Marmaris, and alongside Isnik Golu Lake to the town of Isnik. This was ancient Nicaea, a key city in Christendom and its walls were virtually intact. It ‘s a very sleepy place today but with a strong sense of historical importance. The Empire’s first capital, Bursa, was our next stop.  Sitting on and at the foot of snow-capped mountains, its first impressions are depressing as you drive through an endless high-rise sprawl. Eventually, though, you do get to a charming old town of mosques, imperial tombs, Ottoman houses and Hans (500-year old shopping malls!) and your heart lifts.

Christmas itself was spent on the Dardanelles with the day split between the ruins of ancient Troy and the memorials and graves of 3000 year later First World War battlefields of Gallipoli. Troy was a complex site to interpret with upwards of nine cities superimposed one on another but it has real atmosphere and the stories of Priam, Paris, Hector and Helen (and the less believable Trojan horse) which I’ve seen in so many plays and operas, somehow came alive. The allies attempt to take the Gallipoli peninsular was futile to put it mildly and 130,000 people died in the attempt (two-thirds of them Turkish). The terrain brought home to you the hopelessness of it all and it was impossible not to shed a tear at the loss of so much life. A bittersweet Christmas day.

Our final stop was back in Europe in 2nd Ottoman capital Edirne where we stayed in a wonderful 500-year old caravanserai. A visit to a pioneering Ottoman medical school proved much more interesting than we had any right to expect and the final mosque – Sinan’s masterpiece  – didn’t disappoint.

Though seeped in Ottoman history and culture, we also experienced Turkey at a turning point. They seem to have woken up to the unlikelihood of EU membership, finally realising that whatever they say, France and Germany aren’t going to agree to admit 70 million Muslims (25% under 15), so they look east again and position themselves as an honest broker, hopefully keeping the fundamentalists at bay. Frankly, they are way ahead economically of new EU entrants like Bulgaria and Romania and with such critical mass and a moderate wind, will be a powerhouse on their own. Somehow, I think it might be the EU’s loss; I think I’d rather have Turkey in my gang than Greece or Ireland!

So that’s my tale of Turkey for Christmas and here are the photos to illustrate it…..

You are invited to view Gareth James’s photo album: Turkey for Christmas
Turkey for Christmas
Dec 26, 2010
by Gareth James
To share your photos or receive notification when your friends share photos, get your own free Picasa Web Albums account.

 

Read Full Post »

Contemporary Music

Another gem at the lovely Union Chapel – The Carolina Chocolate Drops – absolute joy! Since I first saw them at Bush Hall a couple of years ago they’ve grown – and so has their audience. They play an eclectic mix of bluegrass, country, blues and jazz on fiddle, banjo, kazoo and percussion (including bones and jugs!). The between song chat between and by Dom and Rhiannon is charming and you feel you’ve got to know them as well as their music. Thoroughly uplifting.

Gem followed gem with John Hiatt delivering a glorious set at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire one week later. The new band is great, though it did seem to limit his song choices meaning there was less light & shade than we’re used to from Hiatt. That said, it was a terrific 2-hour rock / blues set with the second encore – Riding with the King – a magical five minutes in a lifetime of concert going.

Opera

ENO’s Radamisto was a musical treat with six well-matched performances (though Ailish Tynan almost stole the show) and the orchestra sounding lovely. The production / design, however, was often baffling. The first half had giant walls covered in black and red flock wallpaper and Prince Tigrane was played for laughs by the aforementioned Ailish Tynan in padded suit, false moustache and fez. Why? A rare lapse in intelligence from director David Alden.

Another lapse at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, I’m afraid. Spinalba is a rarely performed early 18th century opera by an obscure Portuguese composer with Italian influences. Stephen Metcalf has set it in a contemporary old people’s home where the residents are rehearsing the opera. It’s a similar story to Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and this production idea makes it virtually impossible to follow. To be honest, most of the time I didn’t know who was who or what on earth was going on in the opera within the rehearsal – I accept its innovation and cleverness, but at the expense of a complete loss of a story and characters? The music was pleasant if undistinguished and there was some good singing and particularly good playing, but it was all lost in ‘the big idea’ and I’m afraid I couldn’t drag myself back after the first 100-minute half.

Film

I found Social Network a fascinating insight into the extraordinary story of Facebook. It unfolds like a thriller, draws you in and keeps hold of you for the duration. Free of gimmicks, it’s beautifully filmed and edited with great performances. It’s great to see a young British actor (the excellent Andrew Garfield) get a Hollywood lead (playing an American too!), no doubt thanks to executive producer & honorary Brit Kevin Spacey CBE

Mike Leigh’s Another Year is charming and poignant, and a lot better than his last film Happy Go Lucky, but I still think he does edgy better than wistful! A study of loss and loneliness, each character is well developed and each performance is beautifully judged; Lesley Manville is simply terrific.

Filming the last part of Harry Potter was always going to be difficult but I’m not sure splitting into two, with the first half merely a long set up for the conclusion, was wise. Much of it is desperately slow, there aren’t enough ‘wow’ moments and the absence of scenes in Hogwarts and other iconic locations leaves you feeling a bit cheated. Of course, I’ll have to see the final part – let’s hope it’s a hell of a lot better. 

Art

I adored the Glasgow Boys exhibition at the Royal Academy, Unknown to me (and I suspect many others) these late 19th century artists stand up well against their contemporaries, the impressionists and post-impressionists. Their style is sort of Pre-Raphaelites meets Arts & Crafts and I loved it.

I learnt more from the British Museum’s Egyptian Book of the Dead exhibition than I did in two weeks in Egypt! It’s brilliantly curated; looking at lovely objects and learning about the practices of a great civilisation are given equal prominence and are equally rewarding – possibly the best of their big Reading Room exhibitions. 

Those wonderful people at Artangel have done it again with Surround Me, a song cycle for the City of London by Susan Philipsz which consists of pieces of appropriate early music broadcast at six locations across the city. Walking between them when The City is empty on a Sunday added to the pleasure. I sincerely hope she wins the Turner Prize, because the other three at the Tate Britain exhibition are dire! 

I’m afraid Treasures from Budapest at the Royal Academy was too full of things I don’t like – Madonna’s, Christ’s, still life’s and dimly lit drawings – to be at all enjoyable. With hindsight, I should have raced to the last three rooms and given the rest a miss.

James Turrell’s exhibition at the Gagosian includes a light installation for one person at a time. You enter it laying down on a sliding ‘tray’ and stay in there for 15 minutes. I’m not sure if I could have coped with that, but all the ‘slots’ are booked anyway, so I didn’t have to decide! Fortunately, the other two pieces – particularly the elevated ‘room’ you walk into where colours change and your perceptions are manipulated – are well worth the visit without it.

Kings Place is becoming completely indispensible and when I went this month there were no less than four exhibitions, plus interesting sculpture all around the atrium and outside. Developments in Modern British Art was a small but fascinating selling exhibition which included Sickert, Hodgkin and Riley amongst others. Face to Face was a captivating selection of c.60 British self-portraits from Ruth Borchard’s extraordinary collection. Jazz Legends was a superb selection of Sefton Samuels B&W prints of musicians from the 50’s through the 90’s. Norman Adams paintings had been hidden away so you had to hunt for them, but when you found them they proved to be a pleasant surprise. Amongst the sculpture, there was a terrific revolving water screw feature on the canal side. I didn’t go to either of the two concert halls on this occasion, but all the exhibitions are free and we had a great lunch in their restaurant. As I said, indispensible.

Visits

A visit to Sands Film Studios in Rotherhithe with the V&A Friends proved to be absolutely fascinating. It is an extraordinary place (think Dennis Severs House) over three floors of a former warehouse housing film stages, scenery costume and prop stores & workshops, a unique screening room / cinema and a picture research library. It’s run by two characters – Christina & Olivier – whose respective families also live there. Their most famous production is probably the brilliant 2-part 6-hour Little Dorritt made in the mid-80’s; the entire film was shot in 9 months inside these studios (no external filming) with every set, prop and costume handmade here too. There can be nowhere else like it and I feel privileged to have visited it as I suspect it won’t be able to survive this modern world; today they spend most of their time and effort making and hiring out period costumes – if you catch the forthcoming Treasure Island on Sky (I won’t!), it will be their craftsmanship behind the costumes.

I visited the new Supreme Court, again with the V&A Friends, and as much as I loved the building and found briefly sitting in on proceedings interesting, I could have done it all a lot cheaper and at my own pace by just turning up and moving between the three public galleries and wandering around the building; the guide added little. It’s a lovely restoration of the Middlesex Guildhall with original ceramics and woodwork alongside Peter Blake carpets and modern drapes and glass. In Court Two there were 5 judges, 13 barristers, 2 solicitors and 5 clerks hearing a case about knitting factory noise in the 70’s and 80’s – all that expense from my taxes rather wound me up!

Read Full Post »

Monday started with England’s best baritone (and the world’s second best – guess who’s the best), Simon Keenlyside, in the lovely Queens Hall with a programme of Rorem (never heard of him until this year, now featured in two concerts in quick succession), Buttterworth and Schumann. The Butterworth songs were gorgeous and the Rorem intriguing, but I wasn’t expecting to enjoy the Schumann so much; I normally find German lieder a bit too strident, but this was beautiful – though we had some strident Shubert for the encores****

I’m off to the Outer Hebrides on Friday, staying in Stornaway on Lewis, so I was thrilled to find that the British Museum and the National Museum of Scotland had combined their collections of the Lewis Chessmen for a special exhibition here in Edinburgh. The story of the pieces (well, what’s known of them) was well told, but it was disappointing to find the pieces split up within the exhibition – I’d have liked to see a complete set at some point***

I lost a shit load of money investing in the West End production of the rock musical Spring Awakening – a critical success but a financial loss – but I have to say I’m proud to have been a small part of it as I consider it ground-breaking stuff and I’ve been thrilled to see the talented cast subsequently turn up all over the place; the last occasion only 6 days ago at the National. I couldn’t resist seeing the first amateur production by the Royal Scottish Academy of Music & Drama here at the fringe. The decision to cast the London production with raw talent was completely vindicated. In the hands of singers /actors in training at a premiere league conservatoire, it lost a lot of its edge. Though it was well sung (and particularly well played by the small band) there was a sort of ‘posh boys saying fuck to be cool’ about it – though I have to say the ending was somehow more moving***

Back at the main festival in Greyfriars Church we went to some Latin American Vespers that were both fascinating and beautiful. I’d had no idea how liturgical music was transported with Spanish colonisation (and apparently back again). There were fewer Latin American touches than I was expecting, so it did sound rather European, but a treat nonetheless****

Monday ended with our first stand-up (we missed Sarah Milican because I’d misread the 24-hour clock and double-booked us), Shappi Khorshandy. She’s gone through a divorce recently and she chose to make this a very personal show (therapy?) and I thought it was very funny; she has a genuine charm and appealing self-deprecating humour***.5

Back at the Traverse Tuesday morning for a play called Girl in the Yellow Dress about the relationship between an English teacher and her French (adult) pupil. It took an age to take off, but the second half – when the psychological games between them unravel – was excellent***

The rest deserted me at this point, but I stayed for a quirky show called The Not So Fatal Death of Grandpa Fredo. I’d seen a show before by the same company and I liked their cartoonesque style with ingenious sets and great use of music. This wasn’t as satisfying as the previous show, but it was even more inventive as a small hut became, amongst other things, a diner, a laboratory, and ultimately a boat on a lake in Norway!***.5

We had lunch 100ft above Edinburgh at a table raised by a crane – this is true!!! It was a great experience and the food was surprisingly good. I had to have a drink beforehand for Dutch courage, but it actually wasn’t scary at all and I even looked down and twirled my seat!****

I saw the original production of Five Guys Named Moe at its first outing at Stratford East (that night local boy Dudley Moore was in the audience and in the interval impresario Cameron Mackintosh allegedly made the Theatre Royal Stratford an extraordinarily generous offer for a speedy transfer) and subsequently in the West End and in Germany. It’s based on the terrific 30’s / 40’s jazz of Louis Jordan and Cab Calloway and this new production is at least as good as the original. Its toe tapping, funny, high energy stuff which they’ve updated cleverly without losing the essence.  All six performers were outstanding and the six-piece band was terrific. Catch it when it comes back to Stratford East, though I suspect its West End bound once more****

Tuesday ended at a Comedy Gala for AIDS charity Waverley Cares with 26 stand-ups over 3.5 hours. In truth it was exhausting and I suspect less would have been more, but there were excellent mini-sets from Welshman Mark Watson, Edinburgh’s Danny Bhoy, Aussie Adam Hills, Tooting’s Stephen K Amos, and archetypal Englishman Simon Evans. It’s a great way to ‘sample’ and decide who to see next time***.5

Two more days to go……..

Read Full Post »

DANCE

Well, you wouldn’t call The Merchants of Bollywood subtle! The story is rather banal and in some ways a bit pointless, because what the show really represents is energy, enthusiasm, colour, glitter and sequins; in short, a lot of fun! The sets and costumes are great though the music is relentlessly monotonous, but the show doesn’t take itself seriously and it’s quite refreshing to go to something that has no pretensions, just entertainment.

CLASSICAL MUSIC

Susan Bickley’s Sunday afternoon recital at the Wigmore Hall was an eclectic collection of 20th century English songs which included a lovely selection by Ivor Gurney, four gorgeous settings of Walter de la Mare by Richard Rodney Bennett and some funny cabaret songs by someone new to me, William Bolcom. There were also five from the NMC Songbook, which included one setting words from the National Trust Handbook and another listing the kings and queens of England! It was rather empty, which may be the reason why her voice sometimes sounded harsh in the resulting acoustic.

Rolando Villazon only managed a three-quarters full Festival Hall – take note, concert promoters, prices are deterring people (this one was £75 top price, though I didn’t pay that). I love his album of Handel arias, but I’m afraid the concert rarely took off for me. His enthusiasm is infectious and his empathy with the audience is terrific, but he insists on ‘acting’ the music, sometimes at the expense of the vocals. The decision to end with Bajazet’s death scene from Tamerlano was bizarre, though the two encores lifted the mood before we went home. Lucy Crowe got the biggest cheers for her two Cleopatra arias from Giulio Cesare and the Gabrieli Players (over 80% ladies!) under Paul McCreesh sounded lovely.

Handel’s La Resurrezione was only the third of his twenty-six oratorios. The Gabrieli Consort (again!) gave a lovely performance as part of the Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music in St John’s Smith Square. Somewhat ironically, the two substitute soloists – Gillian Webster and Jeremy Ovenden – were the stars.

Vivaldi isn’t known for his operas; Ottone in Villa was his first, and based on this excellent concert performance by Il Giardino Armonico, it seems to me they may well deserve the resurgence Handel operas have had in the last 20 years or so. There’s some gorgeous music here, with one Act II aria an absolute gem. I loved the visible enthusiasm of the players and singers and a young Russian soprano, Julia Lezhneva, made a most auspicious professional British debut – you’ll hear a lot lot more about her; remember you heard it here first!

CONTEMPORARY MUSIC

Cesaria Evora, the barefooted Cape Verde godmother of world music, and her terrific band gave a masterclass in their unique Latin blues at the Barbican. The 68-year old spoke just one word to the audience (obrigado!) and smiled only occasionally, but she was the centre of attention and the reason why a full house cheered and stood in appreciation. I could have done with a little more light and shade – those rhythms can be exhausting! – but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

I’m not a huge Randy Newman fan, but I admire his song-writing and couldn’t resist the rare opportunity to see him in concert. The RFH is a vast space for a man and a piano and I’m not sure he really filled it. The voice has weakened and the piano playing is far from perfect, but he’s an original and refreshingly cynical songwriter with a great sense of humour and his personality won the day.

This was the first time I’d seen the new line-up of what was once Rachel Unthank and the Winterset and is now The Unthanks. Not being able to make the London Union Chapel gig, I headed to St Georges Church Brighton (if anything an even better venue) and boy was I glad I did. The new ten-piece line-up, playing 16 instruments between them, really opens up the sound and both the new material written for it and the older stuff worked wonderfully. There was very good support from Hannah Peel, one of The Unthanks, who makes punchtape for her tiny music box and a quirky local duo called Rayon Breed – cello mostly played pizzicato and a range of percussion including stapler! Local promoters Melting Vinyl are to be congratulated for value for money, excellent organisation and a lovely venue.

FILM

Chris Morris’ Four Lions is brave, hilarious but ultimately chilling. The story of incompetent British jihadists at first just seems like farce – very very funny farce – but in the end it does make you think about the motivations of people like this. Brilliant!

ART

The Concise Dictionary of Dress is one of those unique experiences you’ll be talking about for a long time. Turning up at a pre-booked time at the huge Victorian building which houses the reserve collection store and archive of the V&A (the building shared with the British Museum and Science Museum), the three of us were taken on a walking tour to see eleven ‘installations’, each with a (somewhat obtuse) reference to something in the collection. I enjoyed the experience of seeing the building as much, if not more, that the art! From the roof to the coal bunkers via the vast textile room, a room of sliding archive shelving, the sword store and much more. Artangel does it again!

The British Museum has a brilliant pairing with Renaissance drawings and from the same period, West African sculpture from Ife. The former, the 5th (?) exhibition in the wonderful Reading Room, works on so many levels, covering the materials and craftsmanship as well as the art itself, taking in preparatory drawings and finished pieces. In one room, there are giant projections of the interior of Santa Maria Novella in Florence which zoom to reveal detail corresponding to drawings on the walls of the same room; this is terrific 21st century curating. I knew nothing about the kingdom of Ife, now in Nigeria, and was blown away by the beauty of the 600 year old bronze sculptures. The terra cottas were fascinating, if less aesthetically appealing, and the whole exhibition was again curated really well.

Smother is another, less successful, Artangel commission. This time you are taken in a small group to a tiny five-story house where the issues facing young single parents are presented through video, sound, installation and a few real people. There’s a fine line between overly staging and a failure to lead the audience and in this case the latter means you don’t get as much out of the experience as I suspect you could and should.

In the coal holes of Somerset House, Bill Fontana has created River Soundings – soundscapes recorded at various points along the Thames (which once flowed under this building) from Teddington Lock to the Thames Estuary, combined with video of locations such as Tower and Millennium Bridges. Hugely atmospheric and great fun

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »