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Archive for the ‘Classical Music’ Category

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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Opera

The Royal College of Music put on a cracking opera double-bill of Berkeley’s A Dinner Engagement and Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti. The stories of British toffs’ post-war ‘poverty’ and unhappy 50’s American suburbia somehow worked well together and they were both staged and performed brilliantly.

It was good to catch Britten’s rarely produced children’s opera, Noye’s Fludde, in a co-production between ENO and Stratford East, involving two schools, young musicians from two local boroughs, a community choir and students of the Royal College of Music. It was a very charming and heart-warming experience.

Cilea’s L’arlesiana is one of Opera Holland Park’s best rediscoveries. It’s a ‘small’ opera for such a big space, but the surprisingly lush and romantic score was beautifully sung and played. Lovely.

My first opera in the Arcola Theatre’s Grimeborn season was one I’m not really keen on – Die Fledermaus – but a friend wanted to go and it turned out to be a hoot. It was shortened to 50 minutes, updated to the present day and played and sung brilliantly by Baseless Fabric Theatre.

I could hardly believe my ears at our second visit to Grimeborn for Wagner’s Das Rheingold; the 100 minute adaptation by Graham Vick & John Dove, The singing was astonishingly good, the orchestra brilliant and the simple staging highly effective. I never thought you could pull off Wagner with these resources in a small space, but it was more thrilling than any production I’ve seen in an opera house.

Classical Music

The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s The Planets at the Royal Albert Hall was an afterthought brought on by some friends coming to London to see it. It was accompanied by extraordinary NASA footage on a big screen. It peaked in the first movement when the power of Mars was accompanied by NASA‘s best images. As we went into less well known movements and more distant planets, it was less thrilling, but still worth a visit. The first half included superb renditions of Also Sprach Zarathustra and John Williams’ Star Wars suite. Populist stuff, but high quality populist stuff.

I’ve seen the London Welsh Chorale a few times, but their concert of rarely performed and new pieces by Welsh composers was on another level altogether, both in scale – orchestra, children’s choir, three soloists, organ and narrator – and quality. They sounded gorgeous in St. Giles Cripplegate.

My first Prom this year was a Sunday morning one with the National Youth Orchestra of the USA under Antonio Pappano and the incomparable mezzo Joyce DiDonato in a programme that included Berlioz’ Les nuits d’ete song cycle, which sounded heavenly, and Strauss’ Alpine Symphony, which was thrilling. It opened with the European premiere of an excellent short work by a 19-year-old orchestra member! Joyce, of course, forever stylish, colour-coded her frock with the orchestra’s bold red and black outfits. When they encored with Elgar I felt I was in an internationalist haven far away from the nationalism of everyday life these days. These young people were clearly from a diverse range of backgrounds playing music by French, German, British and American composers. A wave of emotion overcame me as the music was saying more about a special relationship than any politician ever could, and the warmth of their reception at the Royal Albert Hall was uplifting.

Back at the Royal Albert Hall for my one and only evening Prom this year, for Handel’s oratorio Jephtha, which was very well played and sung by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra & Chorus under Richard Egarr, with a fine set of soloists. The cuts were a bit controversial, but they didn’t bother me and it was a bit of a novelty to be at a concert which came in at 30 minutes less than the published time.

Dance

At Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, contemporary dance piece 10,000 Gestures delivered what it said, not that I was counting, as the dancers were, out loud, some of the time. The pace was mostly frenetic, Mozart’s Requiem was background rather than choreographed and it got a bit edgy when the 21 dancers moved into the audience, some members of which moved onto the playing area. Boris Charmatz’ work was strangely compelling and somewhat exhausting.

Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Hobson’s Choice may be thirty years old, but it’s as fresh as they come, and a comic delight. Ballet can often be very earnest, and this is the antidote. An excellent score, period set & costumes and sprightly choreography with terrific characterisations come together to make a lovely full evening show at Sadler’s Wells.

I’ve seen and enjoyed everything Matthew Bourne has done, but what was special about Romeo & Juliet at Sadler’s Wells was his use of young dancers and artistic associates. It was inspired, mesmerising, exhilarating, thrilling……and exhausting! The musical adaptation, the design and the choreography all combined to produce something so fresh and exciting, but also very moving, and the performances were uniformly stunning. I can’t wait to see it again.

Film

I liked Late Night, a film with more depth than it seemed at first, and I was hugely impressed by Emma Thomson, an actress I don’t always take to, for the second time in less than twelve months.

I like Danny Boyle and Richard Curtis films, Rom Coms and British feel-good movies. Add the soundtrack of my teens and I was in heaven seeing Yesterday.

Blinded by the Light is Gurinder Chadha’s best film since Bend It Like Beckham 17 years ago, another heart-warming and hopeful British Asian story, this time based on a real one.

I’m not a Quentin Tarantino fan because of his glorification of violence but I was led to believe Once Upon A Time in Hollywood was different. Well, it was for the first 2h20m and I loved the late 60s retro aesthetic and accompanying soundtrack, though it was a bit slow, sometimes dull and overlong, but then he grossed out for the last 20m and I had to look away.

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Well, here we are back at the world’s biggest arts festival, with more than 2000 shows to navigate. In a one week visit, we’ll manage around 20 to 25, a mere 0.01%, but at 3 to 4 a day, a still impressive attempt I’d say.

We started with main festival opera at the Komisher Opera Berlin’s production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin**** at the Festival Theatre, sometimes called the opera where nothing happens! What does happen is gorgeous music, played and sung here as well as I’ve ever heard it, in an unusual outdoor staging in gardens and woods which looked as gorgeous as it sounded.

The fringe started at 10am the following morning at my second home, the Traverse Theatre, with the highly original and very thought-provoking Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Iran****. Opening with the alternatively revolutionary instagram feeds of the privileged sons and daughters of Iran’s revolutionary guard, it bounced around as a modern day illustrated lecture covering all sorts of current issues and prophesies, with the audience joining in on instagram. It divided the group, but I really liked it.

Back at the main festival, Robert Icke’s modern take on Sophocles’ Oedipus*** for Internationaal Theater Amsterdam (formerly Toneelgroep) at the Kings Theatre was a bit of a mixed bag, largely because of the pacing, at times very slow. I’ve seen this group many times, but what struck me on this occasion was the quality of the acting and the chemistry between the performers, which I suspect is the result of regularly working together over long periods.

It would be impossible to kick-start a Sunday more thrillingly than with The Patient Gloria****, the retelling of the true story of a woman exploited by psychotherapists as a third wave feminist tale, back at the Traverse. Brilliantly staged, defiant, ballsy (!) and very very funny, with Gina Moxley superb as both writer and co-lead. Perfect festival fare.

It was good to catch Eugene O’Neill’s short play Hughie*** and add it to my ‘collection’ of this favourite 20th Century American playwright. It got it’s stage premiere in Stockholm in 1958, 16 years after it was written, but has since attracted stars like Burgess Meredith, Jason Robards, Ben Gazarra, Al Pacino, Brian Dennehy & Forest Whittaker. Here comedian-turned-actor Phil Nicol was outstanding as the gambler who never stops talking, with Mike McShane superb as his ‘straight man’.

Back at the main festival, in the Usher Hall, Elgar’s underrated oratorio The Kingdom**** sounded superb, even with a stand-in conductor and two stand-in soloists. Whatever you think of this somewhat incomprehensible work the music is lush and it’s hard to imagine it better played than here by the Halle, or sung better than by the Edinburgh Festival Chorus and four fine British soloists.

Amy Booth-Steele is a musical theatre actress I’ve often admired, and I loved her one-woman musical #HonestAmy***** at Pleasance Dome, a 50-minute heart-warming and, well, honest gem, with the songs played by her on ukulele. She was so engaging performing this autobiographical material.

Daughterhood*** at Summerhall, in Paines Plough’s Roundabout Theatre, is a play about two sisters born nine years apart whose mother left home and whose father is terminally ill, but its really about their relationship. With actors playing multiple roles and scenes moving forward and back in time, it took a while to get into the rhythm of the piece, but it packed a lot of story into 80 minutes and the performances were excellent.

West End Producer*** is a bit of a Twitter phenomenon, the Banksy of theatre, permanently masked, and Free Willy, the casting of his new musical, was his first Edinburgh outing. Despite a small audience, he managed to engage us and take us with him, with participation key to the show’s success. I will be in the chorus of the show. Apparently.

Simon Evans**** wove a very personal story into his politically incorrect stand-up routine, a bit like Mark Steele’s search for his parents a few years back, and it was all the better for it, becoming very moving at the end. Surprising and rewarding.

So far good. Back at the Traverse with a 10am start again……

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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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Classical Music

It’s baffling that Hubert Parry’s oratorio Judith hasn’t been performed in London for 130 years. How many Messiah’s and Passion’s Mark and John have we had since then? The London English Song Festival made a fine job of a demanding work to a sadly sparse Royal Festival Hall audience. It really ought to be at The Proms!

Handel’s Semele at the Barbican was a truly transatlantic affair, with British period chamber orchestra The English Concert, New York’s Clarion Choir and three soloists from each side of the pond, and it was terrific, a truly uplifting evening.

I’m a lover of Handel, but I didn’t even know there was such a thing as Handel’s Brockes-Passion. It’s so rarely performed, and it’s taken the Academy of Ancient Music over a year to produce a performing edition, so there was much anticipation in the audience of Handelians at the Barbican on Good Friday 300 years after it was first performed. They lived up to it, delivering a finely played and sung performance of this underrated work. Soprano Elizabeth Watts was particularly wonderful.

Contemporary Music

I was taken to see The Upbeat Beatles tribute band at Melton Theatre as a surprise. Though the production values (costumes and video projections) were a bit amateur, the musicianship was excellent and you couldn’t help being swept away by the nostalgia of listening to the best back catalogue of any band ever.

Joe Jackson’s London Palladium concert celebrated his four decades in music by focusing on five albums – one from each decade, including his first and his new one. It was good to hear hits alongside some neglected pieces and some new ones. His band still includes brilliant bassist Graham Maby – they’ve worked together for 46 years, in what must be one of the longest lasting musical partnerships ever – with a terrific new guitarist and drummer making it one of the tightest bands I’ve ever heard; positively thrilling.

I think I’m going to have to abandon my search for a thoroughly satisfying Rufus Wainwright concert. I’ve only regretted one of the last seven, but there’s always something marring them, often too much messing around. This time it was song choice. He hasn’t released a new album for seven years, so he decided the tour, visiting the Royal Albert Hall, would celebrate his 20-year career by playing his 2nd album in full. That wasn’t a bad idea, but culling most of the rest from his first album was. The last two encores made you realise how much of the rest of his back catalogue you missed. No one album is without fault and the best songs are spread over all of them, so selecting two from seven is a flawed strategy, and an unnecessary interval a mistake!

Maria Friedman’s new cabaret show From the Heart at Brasserie Zedel showcased a very unpredictable and very personal selection of songs, benefiting from the intimacy of the Crazy Coqs room. Pianist Theo Jamieson is more than a match for her regular Jason Carr and she delivered what she promised – ‘From the Heart’ – ninety minutes with friends in her front room. Lovely.

Dance

I had to be talked into English National Ballet’s She Persisted at Sadler’s Wells, a triple-bill of ballets by and about women. They were brilliant – an exciting, original one about Frida Kahlo, a short very dramatic one about Nora from Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House (with Philip Glass the perfect accompaniment), and Pina Bausch’s thrilling 1975 version of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. After so many dance evenings of little over an hour, this was a real feast.

Comedy

I couldn’t resist the prospect of Rob Brydon in conversation with (or ‘probes’, as it was billed) Barry Humphries at the London Palladium. He’s 85 years old now and his anecdotes and stories take time, but he was outrageously and refreshingly politically incorrect it had me in floods of tears on a number of occasions. Two very funny people and two of my favourites.

Film

White Crow, about Rudolph Nureyev’s defection, was a good if not great film. I particularly enjoyed the cold war setting and style.

I’ve much admired how Jessie Buckley, runner-up in the TV casting of Nancy, has managed her career, putting it on hold to go to RADA, then working on stage and in both TV and films. She’s excellent in Wild Rose, a superb film about a wannabe Glaswegian country star, which uses both her acting and singing talents fully.

Art

A mammoth catch-up month!

Van Goch in Britain at Tate Britain is a brilliant exhibition, though the curatorial conceit is a bit dubious. I was very glad we entered as it opened and left the first room for last as we avoided the crowds, the biggest I’ve ever seen at an exhibition. Mike Nelson’s installation The Asset Strippers in the vast Duveen Gallery upstairs makes you think about the demise of our manufacturing base by filling the gallery with industrial items, but it isn’t particularly aesthetically appealing!

The Renaissance Nude at The Royal Academy exceeded my expectations, including a surprising number of works by real masters, though again too much religious subject matter for my liking. Philida Barlow’s three room exhibition of new work, Cul-de-sac, also at the RA, was hardly worth visiting for free, so I pity the non-members who had to fork out £12 for tosh, albeit monumentally large tosh.

The exhibition of Edward Munch drawings Love and Angst at the British Museum was way better than I was expecting and so much more than The Scream, though mostly just as dark! It effectively forms a frieze of his life of anxiety.

Two Temple Place is one of London’s most beautiful buildings, but it isn’t a great exhibition space, and John Ruskin: The Power of Seeing suffered from this in an exhibition that wasn’t particularly well curated either. I learnt a lot about him, though (included how opinionated he was), which made the trip worthwhile.

The Hayward Gallery had two very interesting but completely different exhibitions. Diane Arbus: In the Beginning featured a stunning selection of late 50’s / early 60’s B&W photos of New York life, with brilliant titles for the works. French-Algerian Kader Attia’s somewhat angry multi-media installations The Museum of Emotions were more challenging, and I felt I was being fed anti-colonialist propaganda. Still, a fascinating pairing and worth a visit.

At Tate Modern, another artist I’d never heard of, surrealist Dorothea Tanning. It turns out she was married to Max Ernst. Though many of the early works are somewhat derivative of more famous surrealists, they are great pictures. She moved on to a more impressionistic style and eventually soft sculpture, which is where she lost me. The less said about Franz West’s work, in the same gallery, the better, so I’ll just say ‘tosh’ again.

I’m not really one for fashion, but a visit to the V&A’s very theatrical Galliano exhibition a while back wowed me, so I decided to give Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams a go as its free for members. Whether you’re interested in frocks or not, the design and display of this show is spectacular. Being the first in at 10am helped, as my iPhone & I had every room to ourselves. It was probably a mistake going to Mary Quant straight after. Even though she did more than anyone to make fashion accessible, and her story is well told in the exhibition, it’s not in the same league in terms of elegance, beauty and craftsmanship.

At the Serpentine Galleries another double-bill, beginning with Emma Kunz – Visionary Drawings, or as I’d rather call them Obsessive Pendulum-Assisted Pictures, a bit like ones made with those geometric drawing kits you used to get as a kid. Hito Steyerl: Power Plants was more interesting, video’s created by some sort of artificial intelligence. The explanation hurt my brain, but they looked pretty. There were all sorts of other things associated with the work, including walks and an app, but I focused on what was on view in the gallery.

Late 19th / early 20th century Spanish artist Sorolla is another one new to me and for once the National Gallery exhibition lived up to its title Master of Light. I was blown away by the beauty of the pictures, 55 of them, mostly from fairly obscure galleries or private collections, which made it a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Gorgeous.

At the NPG, Martin Parr’s quirky, colourful, brash documentary photos made me smile. He’s good at capturing the British at the seaside in particular, though part of me feels Only Human is a bit patronising, even unfair on his subjects, as if they were in a freak show, but most of the time I just smile! By complete contrast Elizabethan Treasures: Miniatures by Hilliard & Oliver is a collection of finely crafted Elizabethan and Jacobean portraits, though it did strain your eyes, and having to wait for a magnifying glass (there weren’t enough) then space to see them, all became too tiresome for me.

The surprising thing about the Sony World Photography Prize exhibition at Somerset House is that the amateurs outshine the professionals, who seem to be following a path of contrived, staged photos that owe more to post-photography manipulation than the creative eye of the photographer. Still it’s good to see amateur, student and young photographer works shining.

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I don’t know how to categorise Otis & Eunice at the Royal College of Music. It’s a story with music and dance told in two venues in two cities with a video link enabling it to move from one to the other or both simultaneously. A collaboration between six institutions – RCM, RAM, LAMDA, RADA, BOV Theatre School and Central School of Ballet – it proved to be a very welcome innovation indeed.

Classical Music

Where has Puccini’s Messa di Gloria been all my life? Written as a graduation piece, it’s a very original setting of the mass and the LSO & LSC under Antonio Pappano at the Barbican gave it their all. A piece by his teacher Ponchielli and a rarely heard Verdi string quartet expanded for orchestra (which he knocked up while waiting for his Aida sopranos to get better!) completed a thoroughly satisfying concert.

Contemporary Music

On an impulse, at two hours’ notice, I dumped a theatre ticket to go and see Roy Harper at the London Palladium in what will probably prove to be one of his final shows. It was at times rambling and ragged, and he now struggles with his trademark high notes, but it was littered with gems which more than made up for it, three new songs that proved he hasn’t lost his song writing ability and waves of warmth and love from an audience for whom, like me, he is clearly part of the soundtrack of their lives.

Dance

The six BalletBoyz dancers were mesmerising in their double-bill Them/Us at Sadler’s Wells and I loved the music from both Keaton Henson for Us and Charlotte Harding for Them. It was particularly good to see that they choreographed Them themselves. Every BalletBoyz show brings something new and inventive and this was no exception.

For his latest work at Sadler’s Wells, the ever so eclectic Russell Maliphant takes his inspiration for The Thread from traditional Greek dance, with a score by Vangelis no less. Some have called it Greek Riverdance and though there is a grain of truth in that, it was at times thrilling and at other times beautiful, though perhaps not sustaining its 80 minute length; perhaps a shorter version paired with a contrasting work might have been more satisfying. Michael Hulls’ lighting was as gorgeous as ever, though so dark it brought its challenges! Mary Katrantzou’s costumes were lovely.

Sometimes the most anticipated shows disappoint, and so it was with Pepperland at Sadler’s Wells. Only five songs from the album it purports to celebrate (+ Penny Lane) in poor arrangements, plus uninspired choreography. It was far from the 50th anniversary celebration I’d expected and fell flat on its face. I’m a big fan, but after two duds in a row, even I’m beginning to wonder if Mark Morris has gone off the boil.

At Sadler’s Wells again, Northern Ballet Theatre’s Victoria maintains their outstanding reputation for dance drama in a great piece of storytelling, with inventive chorography, beautiful design and a glorious score played live by their orchestra. The biggest treat of the four evenings there this month.

Film

The Basis of Sex was a lot better than the reviews suggested, but then I’m a sucker for sentimental underdog stories, though this one was about someone who did more for equal opportunity than probably anyone else, in the US at lease.

Almost every film I’ve seen this year has been based on a true story, but Fighting With My Family, about a Norwich wrestling family, is probably the most unlikely. It’s also very funny and heart-warming. A proper British feel-good film.

The Kid Who Would Be King may be a kids film, but I thought it was engaging, charming and an antidote to the seemingly endless march of Marvel tosh, and the special effects were brilliant!

Art

A lean month indeed! Just the annual Wildlife Photography Award Exhibition at the Natural History Museum, its usual feast of brilliant photography, with some new and different themes to keep it fresh.

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Opera

Scottish Opera visited Hackney Empire with new operatic thriller Anthropocene, which was multi-layered, brilliantly dramatic and superbly sung and played. It’s the first of the four Stuart MacRae / Louise Welsh operas I’ve seen and has whetted my appetite for more. Exciting stuff.

The Monstrous Child at Covent Garden’s Linbury Studio was terrific. The story of Norse Goddess Hel was brilliantly staged with gothic punk sensibilities and the music was strikingly original. They called it their first opera ‘for teenage audiences’ but there didn’t appear to be any in the lovely recently renovated space!

My winter opera visit to WNO at the WMC in Cardiff paired a new production of Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera with another look at their fourteen-year-old Magic Flute. The musical standards were as high as ever, with Ballo a thrilling gothic creation, taking its inspiration from the love of theatre of the real life king upon whose life / death the opera was originally based, and Zauberflöte a revival of the Magritte inspired Dominic Cook staging, with terrific designs from Julian Crouch. Loved them both.

Classical Music

The Royal Academy SO was on blistering form again under Sir Mark Elder with a thrilling if melancholic lunchtime programme of Britten, Bax & Sibelius. Magic.

I’m very fond of baritone Roderick Williams, whom I’ve seen as an oratorio soloist and in opera, but never in recital. In Milton Court he sang beautifully, but the largely 18th Century German programme (Brahms and Schuman) isn’t really to my taste and the three British song groupings were lovely but not enough for a satisfying evening, for me anyway.

Film

Another great month leading up to and during the awards season, beginning with If Beale Street Could Talk, a superbly filmed and beautifully performed adaptation of a James Baldwin novel; the first, I think.

Boy Erased was a chilling true story of amateur gay aversion therapy in the name of god, which fortunately ended with the reconciliation of parents and son. Young actor Lucas Hedges impresses for the third time in recent years.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is another true story, beautifully told, with delightful performances from Melisa McCarthy and Richard E Grant. A bit of a slow burn, but ultimately satisfying.

I loved Green Book, a great comedy with heart, beautifully performed, anchored in a shameful period of American history, just 60 years ago.

All Is True looked gorgeous, but seemed slight and somewhat melancholic. Judi Dench was of course incandescent, Kenneth Branagh virtually unrecognisable and if you blinked you might miss Ian McKellen, the third person on the poster, suggesting a leading role.

Art

Dulwich Picture Gallery have discovered another Scandinavian artist, Harald Sohlberg, whose gorgeous landscapes I found enthralling. I was completely captivated by the colourful beauty of Painting Norway.

Don McCullin is a hugely important photographer who’s documented conflicts and their consequences worldwide for many years. His B&W pictures are stunning, but twelve rooms of Tate Britain is a lot to take in and it becomes relentlessly depressing, I’m afraid.

I like Bill Viola’s video works, which for some reason almost always feature people under water, but I’m not sure their juxtaposition with works by Michelangelo in Life Death Rebirth at the Royal Academy made much sense to me. It seemed like a curatorial conceit to elevate the dominant modern component and / or sell tickets.

Pierre Bonnard: The Colour of Memory at Tate Modern was beautiful. This underrated contemporary of Monet, Matisse et al filled all thirteen rooms with a riot of colour; his landscapes in particular, many taken through windows, doors and from balconies, were stunning.

At White Cube Bermondsey, Tracey Emin’s A Fortnight of Tears consisted of three giant crude bronze sculptures, a room full of big photos of her in bed and a whole load of childish paintings which wouldn’t be selected for a primary school exhibition. As you can see, I loved it. Not.

The problem with Black Mirror: Art as Social Satire at the Saatchi Gallery is that it’s often not at all clear what its satirising! Better than some exhibitions there, though. The little Georgll Uvs exhibition of ultraviolet paintings Full Circle: The Beauty of Inevitability was lovely though.

Daria Martin’s installation Tonight the World in the Barbican Curve Gallery was based on her Jewish grandmother’s dream diary and featured the apartment where she lived before she left Brno to avoid the Nazis. In the first part, the apartment is the centre of a video game she has created and in the final part, film recreates some of the dreams there. In between we see pages of the dream book, too far away to read. Interesting enough to see in passing, but maybe not the Time Out 4* experience!

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