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Archive for the ‘Art’ Category

Contemporary Music

It took a while for me to get into the cinema relay of the Les Miserables staged concert, largely because it doesn’t really come alive until the prologue of sung dialogue gives way to the first act, but when it got going it was superb. The encores of a handover to the next Javert and four Valejeans from the first to the next were inspired, and very moving.

Rufus & Martha Wainwright’s Not So Silent Night continued their family’s tradition of charity Christmas concerts with lots of guests. At the Royal Festival Hall they included Guy Garvey, Neil Tennent, Chrissie Hynde, Sophie Ellis-Bextor, opera singer Janis Kelly and American actress Martha Plimton, who it turns out is a rather good singer. It proved to be a lovely experience, albeit charmingly shambolic at times.

Opera

I think I’ve only seen Britten’s Death in Venice once before, but then again the night I went was only the 23rd performance at Covent Garden in the 46 years since its premiere, so the opportunity doesn’t come along that often. I’ve never considered it up there with masterpieces like Peter Grimes and Billy Budd, but this David McVicar production changed my mind. Mark Padmore was wonderful as Ashenbach, Gerald Finley terrific in no less than seven roles and Leo Dixin danced Tadzio beautifully. It was just about faultless in very way and the full house cheered wildly. Maybe that will encourage The Royal Opera to broaden its programming. We must have had 230 or even 2300 La Traviata’s in the same 46 years.

Classical Music

The LSO Chamber Orchestra Milton Court concert of early music was a freebie for subscribers but it proved much more than that. The orchestra played the Purcell, Handel & Rameau pieces beautifully under the highly enthusiastic Emmanuelle Haim and there were two great soloists too – Lucy Crowe and Reinoud Van Mechelen. Freebie maybe, but a treat nonetheless.

The Sixteen‘s Christmas concert at Cadogan Hall was a delight from start to finish. Normally unaccompanied, this time there was the occasional addition of percussion and harp, the latter absolutely gorgeous. The programme included lots of rare carols, some mediaeval, and ended with Britten’s lovely Ceremony of Carols.

Comedy

I don’t see much stand-up, other than at the Edinburgh Fringe, but made an exception for Jordan Brookes at Soho Theatre after last year’s Edinburgh buzz. I admired the originality and there were superbly funny moments, but it was perhaps too surreal and off-the-wall for me and didn’t really sustain its 70 minutes length.

Film

Knives Out is a whodunit, with its tongue firmly in its cheek, which keeps you guessing, and smiling, until the final scene. I really liked its old-fashioned style and it’s hugely convoluted plot.

Having not read the book, I struggled a bit with the hopping around in time of Little Women, but I eventually succumbed to the charm of a beautifully filmed story.

Art

I went to see Dulwich Picture Gallery’s Rembrandt’s Light exhibition on the morning after an attempted robbery when the gallery had closed, so I had to go back 10 days later to see it without the two paintings that almost got away but are now back with their owners in Paris and Washington. There were some nice pictures and it was well lit – by the man who did Star Wars! – but I have to confess to being a touch underwhelmed. Not a lot of pictures for a high profile exhibition and a lot with subject matter that doesn’t really appeal to me.

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The Rest of November

Contemporary Music

I saw her several times with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, but her concert at the Anvil Basingstoke was the first time I saw Rhiannon Giddens without them, but with Italian multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi. It was an eclectic selection, consummate musicianship and great sound / acoustics. She also engages with her audience, so it becomes an evening with her.

Opera

The rarely staged Haydn opera La Fedelta Premiata was given a brilliant production at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama. It was a touch long but it was an absolute hoot, and the standard of singing and playing, and the production values, were sky high. As good as anything I’ve seen in an opera house recently, and better than most.

Having fallen out of love with ENO I didn’t go to see Akhenaten, so I went to the Met Live relay of the same production, which was brilliant. I ‘got’ the music better than when I first saw it decades ago, when I didn’t even realise there were no violins in the orchestra! The juggling synchronised with the music was inspired and the costumes were extraordinary, though I did find two long intervals (with Joyce DiDonato’s overly sycophantic interviews) spoilt the dramatic flow, but producer Phelim McDermott is a magician nonetheless.

Like the proverbial bus, two Haydn operas came along this month at two different ‘conservatoires’, with the second one – Il Mondo Della Luna – at the Royal College of Music was another absolute hoot. Brilliantly designed and choreographed, they got every ounce of comedy out of it, and more, and both the singing and playing was glorious; perhaps the best I’ve heard from the RCM Orchestra

The best staged performance of Britten’s Peter Grimes I’ve seen was on the beach in Aldeburgh during his centenary year, but the best musically was the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra under Edward Gardner, with Stuart Skelton as  Grimes, at the Edinburgh Festival in 2017, so I pounced when I heard they were going to reprise it at the Royal Festival Hall and it was just as wonderful. The orchestra, four choruses and another eleven fine soloists delivered musical perfection and the RFH audience erupted as the Usher Hall one had.

Classical Music

Another fine lunchtime concert with the Royal Academy SO under Robert Trevino. I enjoyed Igor Stravinsky’s fascinating dance music Agon, which was new to me, but it was a stunning performance of the much heard Elgar’s Enigma Variations that blew me away. The talent is extraordinary and Trevino is clearly very nurturing.

The Philharmonia Orchestra played William Walton’s complete score for Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film of Henry V synchronised with a screening of a restored print at the Royal Festival Hall, helped by Crouch End Festival Chorus, and it was brilliant. Its ages since I saw a film with live music and I’d forgotten how good it can be.

Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas chose Berlioz monumental Romeo & Juliet choral symphony for the 50th anniversary of his first concert with them and the LSO and LSC rose to the occasion, filling the Barbican Hall with a glorious sound.

Tilson Thomas’ celebrations continued at the Barbican with one of the LSO’s ‘Half Six Fix’ series, one hour early evening concerts with digital programmes and illustrated introductions by the conductor. This was insightful, and Prokofiev’s 5th was thrillingly played.

A revisit to Beloved Clara, one of Lucy Parham’s ‘composer portraits’, at Milton Court proved very rewarding. The fifteen piano pieces are interspersed with readings from the letters of Robert & Clara Schumann and their friend Johannes Brahms, by Dame Harriet Walter and Simon Russell Beale no less. Civilised entertainment, and ultimately very moving.

I love single composer evenings and it was great to hear the very animated Doric String Quartet give all three of Britten’s quartets together. The third references his opera Death in Venice which I will be seeing next month (and visiting the city for Christmas and seeing the play in April!). These are challenging works, but their musicianship was extraordinary and the usually reserved Wigmore Hall audience cheered. One of the best chamber recitals I’ve ever been to.

Back at the Royal Academy of Music, where my classical month stared, Mark Elder conducted their Symphony Orchestra in a Berlioz programme which included two rarities. They sounded great, as ever, and it was good to see personal favourite Elder again after two concerts he was too unwell to conduct.

Film

Ken Loach brought shame on our benefits system so effectively in I, Daniel Blake, and now he does the same to the gig economy in Sorry We Missed You, more specifically parcel delivery and care in the home. These are hard films to watch, but they have to be seen. Campaigning film-making at its best.

I enjoyed The Good Liar, though with all its twists and turns it oddly left me wishing I’d read the book. In many ways it’s an old-fashioned film, but there’s nothing wrong with that and it does have two national treasures, though Ian McKellen playing a man pretending to be someone else resulted in something a bit odd.

Art

I became an instant fan of Lisa Brice when I saw her small exhibition at Tate Britain last year, and this was confirmed by her selling exhibition at Stephen Friedman Gallery. Again, it’s mostly semi-clad women smoking (!) but the work is extraordinarily original and mesmerising. Up the road at Sadie Coles HQ, I was less enamoured with Dutch artist Co Westerik’s body and landscape. It was clearly technically accomplished, but I found a lot of it a bit disturbing.

Though there were some lovely pictures and objects, the British Museum’s Inspired by the east: how the Islamic world influenced western art was one of those exhibitions where they took a chunk of their collection, added a few loan items, and made it into something you pay to see. In the print gallery upstairs there was a better (free) show of drawings by 20th century German artist Kathe Kollwitz, who I’d never heard of but whose work in Portrait of the artist bowled me over.

I was a bit surprised that The House of Illustration was five years old as I’d never heard of it, but Made in Cuba: Cold War Graphic Art is an excellent exhibition that puts it on the map for me. They also had a lovely small display of Quentin Blake work-in-progress to add a lighter touch.

One of my gallery wanders brought rich rewards, starting with Peter Doig, back on form at Michael Werner after a disappointing selection at the same gallery a while back, continuing with Grayson Perry’s brilliant new work on a theme of inequality at Victoria Miro, on to the Photographer’s Gallery for the excellent Shot in Soho and the quirky Feast for the Eyes – The Story of Food in Photography and ending with three stunning light, video and sound installations Other Places at 180 The Strand. I am so lucky to live in this city. All of this cost £2.50!

At the Guildhall Art Gallery, they’d assembled an eclectic selection of paintings of London spanning 500 or more years for Architecture of London. From Canaletto to contemporary works, from cityscapes to back gardens, I loved it.

I didn’t think the Taylor Wessing Photographic Prize exhibition at the NPG was as good this year, the selection seeming more pointed and quirky. While I was there, though, I caught the rest of Elizabeth Peyton’s portraits that they’d hung with the Tudors, Stuarts, Elizabethans and Victorians, which was a brilliant idea, and another twenty excellent works to see by this great new find (for me).

The Barbican Art Gallery’s exhibitions are not always as good as Into the Night: Cabarets & Clubs in Modern Art. It featured cabarets & clubs spanning eighty years in twelve cities in Europe, Latin America, Africa, USA and the Middle East and included four recreations as well as pictures, photographs and objects. I thought it was absolutely fascinating. In the Curve Gallery downstairs, Trevor Paglen has covered the walls with 30,000 photographs drawn from the ImageNet database of many millions by word searching, often resulting in surprising images. It’s called From ‘Apple’ to ‘Anomaly’ and I thought it was also fascinating.

The National Gallery was also at its best with the Gaugin Portraits exhibition, really well curated and lit with an excellent accompanying film. The interpretation of ‘Portraits’ was sometimes a bit loose, but justified. A real one-off.

Revisiting the Sir John Soane Museum reminded me how wonderous it is, though I was there specifically to see Hogarth: Place & Progress which brings all of his series paintings and engravings together for the first time. I loved it, though after I’d left I realised that, in the maze that the building is, I missed two rooms, so I’ll have to go back!

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Contemporary Music

Quercus is an occasional folk-jazz fusion project by singer June Tabor, pianist Huw Warren and saxophonist Ian Bellamy and their concert at King’s Place was an eclectic if melancholic treat. We even had a beautiful rendition of George Butterworth’s setting of one of E. A .Houseman’s A Shropshire Lad poems, which I’ve only ever heard in a classical song setting.

Opera

I have a higher tolerance of modern opera than anyone I know and I’ve seen a Gerald Barry opera before (which I admired rather than loved) but I’m afraid the revival of his 30-year-old debut The Intelligence Park at Covent Gardens’s Linbury Studio bored the pants off me and you’d have had to pay me a lot to return after the interval. The convoluted story was deeply uninteresting and the music relentlessly tuneless. Modern operas rarely get a second outing; I’m puzzled as to why this one did.

The October pairing by WNO at the WMC in Cardiff was terrific – a revival of outgoing AD David Poutney’s 40-year-old production of the now 100-year-old The Cunning Little Vixen, as fresh as its first outing with the late Maria Bjornson’s designs proving timeless, and a brand new beautifully sung and played production of Carmen with a very edgy contemporary aesthetic which may well last as long. Another weekend treat in Cardiff.

A freebie at ENO took me to Emma Rice’s Orpheus in the Underworld. In truth, I’m not a fan of Offenbach’s operetta, or operetta in general come to that, but it was fresh and funny and featured a cast of old timers including Willard White, Anne-Marie Owens, Judith Howarth and Alan Oke, all of whom it was good to see again. There were lots of youngsters in the audience who seemed to find it fun, so maybe a good introduction for them. Glad I saw it, but also glad I didn’t pay £125 for my stalls seat!

I was at first in two minds about Glyndebourne Touring Opera’s production of Handel’s Rinaldo, a very radical staging where the crusades it depicts become a schoolboy dream, but it proved to be great fun and the singing and playing were beautiful, so I succumbed.

Classical Music

I enjoyed Elgar’s oratorio The Kingdom in Edinburgh a couple of months ago, but I enjoyed its companion piece The Apostles even more at the RFH. I think it’s a better work, but the combination of the London Philharmonic Orchestra & Chorus with the BBC Symphony Chorus, nine students from the RCM and six brilliant British soloists produced something extraordinarily beautiful, with moments of sheer elation.

Dance

I struggled with the first part of South African choreographer Dada Masilo’s Giselle at Sadler’s Wells, but found the second half mesmerising. Sadly, the former was twice as long as the latter, so the evening wasn’t really satisfying enough.

Film

I very much liked Judy, partly because it was almost entirely about her time in London at the end of her career. Renee Zellweger was superb.

There’s a really meaty satire to be made about hapless terrorists and incompetent security agencies but The Day Will Come was too weak and thin to be it. Has Chris Morris gone off the boil?

Official Secrets is a superb investigative film in the mould of All the Presidents Men and Spotlight and the cast is a Who’s Who of the finest British actors. I loved it.

I also loved the latest Shaun the Sheep film Farmageddon. I have more fun at these, and the Paddington films, than any film for grown-ups!

Art

I was surprised at how much I liked Lucien Freud’s Self-portraits at the Royal Academy. I think it was the diversity of styles over more than sixty years as much as the technical quality and aesthetic appeal.

Two treats at the NPG, the biggest of which was Pre-Raphaelite Sisters, an exhibition featuring a dozen female artists, models, relatives and muses who worked with the likes of Millais, Rosetti, Burne-Jones et al. A great idea very well executed. In the galleries next door I was introduced to Elizabeth Peyton and her lovely, original contemporary portraits. A real find.

The annual Koestler Arts exhibition of art by those in the criminal justice system at the Southbank Centre showcased some extraordinarily talented artists this year. I was tempted by quite a few pictures, but I remembered my lack of wall space in time!

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Contemporary Music

There was always a risk that Richard Thompson’s 70th birthday concert at the Royal Albert Hall was going to have so many guests that the birthday boy became an extra at his own celebration, but as it turned out he was on stage virtually throughout, whether singing his own songs or duetting with or backing his guests, and an impressive lot they were too. From The Stranglers Hugh Cornwall who was, somewhat surprisingly to most present, in a school band with him aged 14, through Fairport colleagues Dave Mattacks, Dave Pegg, Ashley Hutchings and Simon Nicol, the omnipresent Danny Thompson, Loudon Wainwright III, Martin & Eliza Carthy, Maddy Prior, Kate Rusby, Olivia Cheney, the whole Thompson clan and Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour! I could have done without one of the two Stranglers tracks and the Spinal Tap joke fell a bit flat, but there were way more highs than lows in tribute to a genuine legend who has entertained me for fifty of his seventy years.

Opera

Grimeborn continued its hugely successful roll into September with a superb and rare revival of Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Monteccchi. The singing was of an extraordinarily high standard and, at close quarters in in Studio Two, very loud! Later that week, Don Jo was a spin on Mozart’s Don Giovani which was loud in another sense altogether. I’m all up for modern take’s and I was expecting some gender changes, but I wasn’t expecting the recorded music (not much of it Mozart), the fact only two of them could really sing, the long scene breaks and the tackiness of it all. It was such a contrast to the three Grimeborn high’s which had preceded it.

Classical Music

My third and final Prom, another Sunday morning one, was short in time but huge in numbers, with eight choirs totalling 600-700 singers placed in four sections of the auditorium for John Luther Adams’ In the Name of the Earth, a choral homage to the planet with percussion effects and movement from the choirs. It was hugely atmospheric and the sound just wrapped around you and filled the Royal Albert Hall. A big bold experimental success.

The opening concert of the Wigmore Hall season was a Britten feast, with four of his song cycles sung by four young British soloists – one soprano, one mezzo, a tenor and a baritone – and all of them sang beautifully. A real treat for a Britten fan.

The LSO season opening weekend at the Barbican included a rare outing (sighting!) of Messiaen’s final work Eclairs sur l’Au-dela. Famous for orchestrating birdsong and hearing colours, Messiaen’s final 70 minute work peeps into the afterlife and requires 126 players. It showed off the virtuosity of the LSO individually and collectively and Simon Rattle’s love of the work was infectious.

I don’t think I’ve ever known the sedate Wigmore Hall erupt like it did after laBarocca’s concert of the first (Italian) version of Handel’s Aci, Galatea e Polierno. I don’t think I’ve seen so many, twenty, on that tiny stage either. The soprano, Roberta Mameli, blew me away and the bass sang lower than I’ve ever heard before, but I wasn’t keen on the tone of the contralto’s very deep voice. A treat nonetheless.

Film
Despite two lovely performances, I found Mrs. Lowry & Son a bit dull. It’s more BBC4 bio drama than cinema release.

More lovely performances and beautiful filming, but The Sacrifice was too art house for me, slow and ponderous.

I know it’s just posh soap opera, but I did love Downton Abbey. The strands of the story came together expertly, it’s a who’s who of fine British acting (with Imelda Staunton joining the regulars from the TV series) and it looks gorgeous.

The Last Tree was a beautifully made film which could so easily have been judgemental but was in fact hopeful. Superb performances too.

I wasn’t expecting a film about Chinese Americans returning to their homeland to say goodbye to their dying mother / grandmother to be funny, but The Farewell was, and the real life revelation at the end a delightful surprise. Charming film.

Art

Urban Impulses 1959-2016 at the Photographer’s Gallery is almost 50 years of Latin American photography, mostly in black & white and it contained some terrific images. One of the best exhibitions at this venue in a long time. Upstairs was the inaugural New Talent exhibition which contained some impressive work but was a bit skewed to the taste of its single selector / curator. I think they need a panel to ensure a diversity of work.

The William Blake exhibition at Tate Britain was very big, with the amount of detail sometimes overwhelming, and too much religious imagery for my taste, but it was a very comprehensive review of his work and life, particularly good at the biographical aspects.

I was beginning to wonder if Anthony Gormley was a one-trick pony, as all we seem to see are his cast iron men. Well, they make a spectacular appearance in one room of his Royal Academy show, but there’s so much more in the other twelve, half of it new, including two whole room works which you walk through – though he did pinch the idea of his reflective room from Richard Wilson’s 20/50!

I wasn’t sure what to expect at Tim Walker’s Wonderful Things at the V&A. I didn’t know much about the work of this photographer, probably because it’s mostly fashion, but the first room familiarises you with his posed, highly stylised, stage-manged work. From there, ten spaces each record, on ‘stage sets’ a photoshoot inspired by something in the V&A, which accompanies them – snuff boxes, Aubrey Beardsley prints, stained glass and so on. It was unique, surreal and rather extraordinary.

For Mark Leckey’s O’ Magic Power of Bleakness, Tate Britain have built a replica of the space under a motorway where he played as a child. Inside the space, there are three video works, but as we were given a leaflet just before we entered the darkness, we didn’t really understand them until we left! That said, it was strangely hypnotic, though whether it was worth all that effort and a £15 entrance fee is another matter.

Drawing Attention, an exhibition of digital architectural drawings at the Roca Gallery, was a bit specialist for me, though there were some nice images, but I was there to see Zaha Hadid’s extraordinary building anyway; a beautiful space to display up-market bathroom fittings!

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Another visit to Masterpiece London, an extraordinary art and antique fair with museum quality exhibits in a stunning temporary structure in Chelsea. This year’s art crop included Canaletto, Picasso, Chagall, Warhol and Banksy, all for sale. It’s hard to believe people come to a marquee, albeit a luxury one, to buy things like this, but they do.

I didn’t think the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition lived up to recent years, but the bonus was seeing an excellent painting of a friend, and it’s always worth a punt. Upstairs, Painter of Disquiet, an exhibition by relatively unknown late 19th century Swiss-French painter Felix Vallotton, proved a treat. An extraordinarily diverse range of subjects and styles, but all rather lovely.

I love seeing the work of artists I’ve never heard of, and after my second time at Van Gogh & Britain at Tate Britain, I took in the Frank Bowling retrospective. Not all of his experiments with paint caught my imagination, but much did, so he was a welcome find.

The Michael Rakowitz exhibition at Whitechapel Gallery was more interesting than aesthetically pleasing. The best installation linked the break-up of The Beatles with events in the Middle East at that time and included footage of them discussing playing live again, possibly in North African amphitheatres. They ended up playing on the Apple building roof, of course, and the installation included film of a recreation of that on a Jerusalem rooftop!

Two treats at the NPG starting with the queen of the selfie, Cindy Sherman, who only photographs herself, but in all sorts of guises, mostly satirising society and fashion. Sometimes spooky, but strangely compelling. I followed this with the BP Portrait Award exhibition, which is of an astonishingly high standard this year.

Lee Krasner at the Barbican Art Gallery proves she was much more than Jackson Pollock’s wife, having lived her life in his shadow. The abstracts weren’t all to my taste, but it was a comprehensive and worthwhile retrospective.

The AI: more than human exhibition at the Barbican was a bit hit-and-miss. In the first part, the background, in The Curve Gallery, there was too much in a small space with too many people, but some of the interactive stuff, like the all-around projections in The Pit, were great – and the cocktail making robots were huge fun.

Beyond the Road at the Saatchi was a very creative immersive exhibition which combined art, film, sound, light and original music to create a hugely atmospheric space to explore. Two of the Punchdrunk boys and musician James Lavelle were behind it. Whilst there I took in two small exhibitions by Chinese artist Mao Jianhua and Sudanese artist Ibrahim El-Salahi, both interesting, but neither particularly striking.

Initially I thought my first visit to the Zabludowicz Collection for Rachel Rossin’s video & VR work Stalking the Trace was going to be another of Time Out’s wild goose chases, but there was also a quirky mixed show and an artist showcase and the converted chapel proved to be an interesting space for art.

Cutting Edge: Modernist British Printmaking at Dulwich Picture Gallery was simply stunning. The work of people from the Grosvenor School of Art in the 1920s-40s, there wasn’t one item that didn’t please in some way. One of the best exhibitions of the year in what is fast becoming one of my favourite galleries.

Manga at the British Museum surprised me. Its traditions go back to the 19th century, and influences beyond that, and the BM has been collecting it for 10 years. It’s a very broad review, very informative, a real showcase for the skills of its proponents.

Kiss My Genders at the Hayward Gallery sets out to explore gender fluidity but goes off-piste quite a bit. It’s way off-the-wall and only occasionally engaging. In the Project Space at the same venue, Hicham Berrada’s Dreamscapes were rather fascinating, using scientific processes like chemical reactions to create art.

A visit to the newly, beautifully restored Pitzhanger Manor in Ealing was a double treat because of the Anish Kapoor exhibition, 10 new ‘mirror’ works, in their gallery next door to the house, which itself is a peach of classical architecture and design. To justify the long schlep West, I also visited the Heath Robinson Museum in Pinner, also a double treat with a small exhibition of Tim Lewis’ automata, Post Nature, alongside the small permanent exhibition of Heath Robinson’s work and displays about him and his family.

My companion described the V&A’s Food: Bigger than the Plate exhibition as a bit like a school project. It certainly started out like that, but there were interesting sections on recycling and sustainability, a terrific silent movie showing mass food production and a tasting bar where they made you something on the basis of the three words you chose from the fifteen available, so worth a visit, if not wholly successful.

A fascinating triple bill at Tate Modern, starting with the playful Olafur Eliasson retrospective In Real Life. Coloured shadows, a 13 metre tunnel of haze and colour, a wall of lichen and all sorts of reflective stuff. Great fun. Natalia Goncharova’s retrospective proved how diverse her paintings are, both in terms of style and subject, and how beautiful her use of colour. The ballet sets and costumes were a bonus. Takis: Sculptor of Magnetism, Light & Sound was just that, mostly metal pieces that moved or made sounds which I liked more than I thought I was going to. All three added up to a bit of a quirky art fest.

I went into town to take in two exhibitions, but as is often the case walking between galleries in Mayfair leads you into others – sometimes successfully, sometimes not. My first planned destination was Gagosian for Francis Bacon: Couplings, fourteen double-figure paintings. I felt it was just more Bacon, with the curatorial coupling idea adding nothing. The first distraction, at Halcyon, was Bob Dylan’s surprisingly good paintings of American life, painted whilst on tour. I’m sure they wouldn’t get such a showcase if he wasn’t Bob Dylan, but he is a talented painter. The less said about his gates made of recycled iron items the better, though. At Camden Arts Centre’s pop-up in Cork Street, I wandered into Time Out recommended Wong Ping: Heart Digger, which is a combination of subtitled Chinese animations and inflatables; I yawned a lot, but the youngsters seemed to enjoy bouncing on the inflatables. Art. My second planned destination was the treat of the day. Finnish artist Helene Schjerfbeck (1862-1946) is virtually unknown here, but when you see her sixty-five pictures at the Royal Academy you can’t help wondering why. Perhaps the fact her work changed and evolved meant she didn’t have one style, at a time when artists were known for and by their style. Mostly portraits, including a whole room of seventeen self-portraits spanning sixty years of both her ageing and her art, I found it captivating. Popping into Pace, a commercial gallery in the RA building, passed five minutes just by the walk through, as there was little need to stop and look at the mainly white ‘abstractions’ of At the Edge of Things: Baer, Corse, Martin, three artists I don’t think I’ve seen before and have little desire to see again.

I’d never heard of the BJP (British Journal of Photography) Award, or been to the T J Boulting Gallery in Fitzrovia, and it was Time Out again that sent me to see this year’s winning project, Jack Latham’s Parliament of Owls. It tells the story of the highly secretive Bohemian Club’s summer camp in Northern California, through photos from the outside. Its members have included nine presidents – five republican ones from the last fifty years! – and it’s a magnet for conspiracy theorists. The photos are well taken ones of dull places and subjects, but I did get caught up in the story.

At the Serpentine Galleries, the Faith Ringgold retrospective was a brilliantly uncompromising selection of paintings, quilts and embroideries which seemed to shout ‘black lives matter’, even though most were made well before that phrase came into general use. Luchita Hurtado: I Live I Die I Will Be Reborn was less fascinating, but with enough interesting pictures to make the short detour worthwhile

The annual Freize open air sculpture show in Regent’s Park was way better than last year, with quite a lot of treats amongst its 20 or so sculptures. Particularly enjoyable on a sunny afternoon in the park.

I’ve seen a lot of Dale Chihuly‘s glass works in the US (Denver, Tacoma & Seattle), at a selling exhibition in London, and once before at Kew Gardens. This time, though, it was at night walking through the gardens and in one of the greenhouses, where live music accompanied them. A lovely experience, though now I need to see them in daylight to appreciate the difference. A great way to end my summer of art in London.

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Crocodile Fever*** at the Traverse was an extraordinary cocktail of black comedy, horror & fantasy with an added dose of the surreal! Set in South Armagh during ‘the troubles’, two sisters who haven’t seen each other for eleven years unleash horror on their bullying dad, with a lot of twists, turns and revelations along the way. It was too Tarantinoesque for my taste, a bit heavy handed and OTT, but you had to admire it’s chutzpah, and gold stars to the production staff who have to erect and dismantle an elaborate set worthy of the West End daily, the latter after it’s been roughed up rather a lot.

One of political comedian Matt Forde‘s daily shows**** is each week turned into a live, lighthearted political podcast with a guest and when we went he’d pulled off the coup of getting Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. It was a good blend of serious and irreverent and Sturgeon was game; I rather warmed to her.

Manual Cinema’s Frankenstein**** is the creation of a silent movie before your very eyes using three overhead projectors, actors, puppets, live music and sound effects. You can watch the creation or the end result or both, as I did. This American group is like our own Paper Cinema, but bigger and more complex, with ‘live’ action. I found myself more engaged with the creation than the story, but it was captivating nonetheless.

In a joint venture with the Television Festival, we got to see TV writer Russell T Davies****, most famous for resurrecting Dr Who, in conversation, illustrated by film clips. His body of work is extraordinary and his enthusiasm and boyish nerdiness was infectious. Illuminating and entertaining.

I only know American folk musician Anais Mitchell**** from her recent NT & Broadway hit musical Hadestown, but I loved her concert at Queens Hall. She writes great songs, and with the help of another guitarist, plays and sings them beautifully. Carsie Blanton provided outstanding support with a more varied, lighter set that was just as enthralling.

Buzz*** at Summerhall was storytelling illustrated by film, music and a soundscape. It was often gripping, but when the actor used a microphone she became inaudible behind the music / sound and when she changed character you sometimes got lost; well, I did anyway. I had to ask my companions too many questions afterwards!

No such problems with Fishbowl**** at the vast Pleasance Grand as there was next to no dialogue! This French company presented an ingenious and hysterical show about three very different inhabitants of adjoining attic apartments and their connections with one another. Brilliant physical comedy and a real comic treat.

Had I fully realised what Julius ‘Call Me Caesar’ Caesar*** was I probably wouldn’t have gone. It was a frenetic one-man-telling of Shakespeare’s story which even at only an hour seemed too long, but you had to admire comedian Andrew Maxwell’s hard work and audience engagement.

Modern opera’s are a risky affair but Breaking the Waves****, based on the Lars von Trier film of the same name, was one of the best I’ve ever seen. The challenging story of what one troubled woman believes she has to do for god and the love of her injured man was hugely dramatic and the music just as dramatic but also accessible. American soprano Sydney Mancasola was stunning in the lead role.

Back at the Traverse to begin the final day with How Not to Drown*****, the story of a Kosovan refugee who from aged 11 to 16 travelled to and lived in England, returning briefly to reunite with his parents in Tirana. It was deeply moving, with the refugee himself (now late twenties) narrating / performing, and brilliantly staged and performed. An absolute highlight.

Sometimes the juxtaposition of shows impacts enjoyment, and so it was with Austentatious*** which seemed too light and frivolous after How Not to Drown. Still the improvised ‘Pride & Prejudice on the Titanic’ was fun, but it would probably have been more fun at another time.

1927’s Roots**** at Church Hill Theatre didn’t live up their earlier work, largely because it was a loose collection of unconnected tales rather than a cohesive story, but their unique brand of live action and music synchronised with animation worth seeing nonetheless.

The final show, at the Traverse again, was Enough***, about two air stewardesses having a mid-life crisis. I liked the poetic writing, but the attempts at bringing in bigger issues were a bit obtuse and half-baked.

Little time to take in much art, but retrospectives of Bridget Riley and recent discovery (for me) Victoria Crowe and some Grayson Perry tapestries telling the life story of fictional Julie, the inspiration for his House for Essex, were all very good, and of course some fine dining, notably at newbie Grazing by Mark Greenaway, last year’s discovery The White Horse seafood restaurant and Martin Wishart’s The Honours.

A year without bummers, and with more than 60% of shows shining. Until next year?…..

Time for a rest; four days in Northumberland…..

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Contemporary Music

It was a breath of fresh air to see The Unthanks (well, three of them) stripped back to unaccompanied vocals. The purity of their singing in the gorgeous acoustic of Union Chapel made for a surprisingly varied and joyful evening. There was good support from Lau’s Aiden O’Rourke & Kit Downes with their fiddle & harmonium instrumentals inspired by a book of short stories.

Classical Music

It takes a big imagination to see a 425-year-old accapella vocal cycle as suitable for staging, but Peter Sellers has one, and I have to say it worked. Los Angeles Master Chorale, dressed in shades of grey, moving around the stage as they sang, made Lasso’s Lagrime di San Pietro at Barbican Hall so much more emotional and captivating, even for a non-believer!

The month ended on a real high with Il Pomo d’Oro‘s concert performance of Handel’s Agrippina at the Barbican with a cast to die for led by Joyce DiDonato. They brought out all the humour and Joyce in the titular role was every inch the manipulative Empress. For once the attempts at characterisation worked brilliantly. In a lifetime of Handel opera-going, this was a highlight.

Dance

There was some stunning visual imagery in Yang Liping – Rite of Spring at Sadler’s Wells, but it was more posing than dancing, very episodic and difficult if not impossible to follow the narrative. The best of Stravinsky’s suite was left out (the last movement) and the false endings became tiresome, as did the milking of bows!

Film

I was worried the combination of biography and fantasy wouldn’t work, but Rocketman proved me wrong. Seven or eight years ago I was impressed by Taron Egerton in the Stephen Sondheim Student Performer of the Year competition. He didn’t win, but he got my vote, and here he is as Elton John. Definitely a film I’d recommend.

Art

The Stanley Kubrick exhibition at the Design Museum is a fascinating collection of scripts, props, costumes, storyboards, cameras, posters and film clips covering his long but not particularly prolific career. Attention to detail and quality were clearly more important than quantity of output. A genius who made just ten major films but left an enduring legacy.

London is full of blockbusters at the moment and this month, as well as Kubrick, it was Leonardo da Vinci: A life in Drawings at the Queen’s Gallery. There were a lot of them – portraits, anatomical subjects, buildings, plants, some sketches and some maps; little fully finished, but they added up to paint a picture of an extraordinarily talented man.

Swinging London: A Style Revolution at the Fashion Museum trod similar ground to Mary Quant at the V&A but a bit broader, and if anything I preferred it. The Chelsea Set, let by Terence Conran and Mary Quant, certainly had an impact, but I was surprised to see painter John Minton, sculptor Edward Paolozzi and Bernard & Laura Ashley amongst them. All very nostalgic.

Two small exhibitions of modern abstract art at White Cube Bermondsey proved colourful and rather cheery, though you wouldn’t say they were that original. Sarah Morris: Machines do not make us into Machines was very geometric and loud whilst Zhou Li’s Original State of Mind was softer, more organic and impressionistic. I found them both uplifting, though.

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