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Archive for the ‘Contemporary Music’ Category

The weather hasn’t been kind to us this year at the Open Air Theatre. We managed to get through On the Town with delays and shivers, and this one with a thirty minutes unscheduled break in the first half. Though I’m a regular at OAT musicals, I didn’t book for this last year as I’m not that keen on Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s music (except Evita and his collaboration with Puccini, Phantom of the Opera!) and I’m an unbeliever (though if I was, I might take offence at some scenes). The reviews, awards and friends suggested I’d made a mistake, so we booked for this second run. Though there were things I admired, I think I was right first time.

It tells the story of the last year of Jesus’ life, sung through, more rock opera than musical, a year after The Who started the genre with Tommy. The music seems dated, much more so than other music of the period. The seriousness of the story doesn’t really allow Tim Rice to shine lyrically, with his trademark sharp wit. Timothy Sheader’s production seems more rock concert than musical theatre, returning the show to its first flash Broadway outing rather than following the more restrained London production.

Here we have Tom Scutt’s giant two-story metal structure with a huge fallen cross, something like 300 spotlights and smoke, flares and fire. I found myself admiring the spectacle, but not at all engaged with the story. The singing honours belong to Tyrone Huntly as Judas, who is as sensational, as had been suggested, and as he was in Dreamgirls, and there’s a terrific band under Tom Deering. Drew McConie’s choreography is bold and is the freshest aspect of the show.

Great spectacle, but I went to a musical not a rock concert, so not enough for me I’m afraid.

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Picking up steam now; my first four-show day, though it started with a couple of small exhibitions. At the National Library of Scotland, Enduring Eye featured new prints from the original negatives of the photographer in Shackleton’s 1914 Antarctica expedition, and they are extraordinary. They bring to life this amazing adventure on the other end of the Earth whilst World War One is taking place. At the University of Edinburgh Library, Highlands to Hindustan brings together items from their collection given by people returning from India; a small but fascinating collection of pictures, sculptures, books and even some video and sound footage.

Enterprise was a show I added when it got a Fringe First Award and I’m glad I did. At Assembly Studio Two, it’s a satire on corporate behaviour, featuring four men in suits in various permutations in a series of short scenes which added up to a rather accurate and very funny expose of corporate greed and ruthlessness. Back at the Traverse One, the National Theatre of Scotland’s Adam was the fascinating true story of an Egyptian refugee girl’s journey to Glasgow and to manhood, with Adam telling the story himself, with the help of another actor. The closing scene, where video clips of hundreds of people with similar stories from around the world singing ‘I am Adam’ was deeply moving. The Last Queen of Scotland overcame the handicap of being in one of the fringe’s worst venues – Underbelly, a damp, caverness, airless space without natural light – and proved to be a very original story of a Ugandan Asian woman’s childhood flight from Kampala to Dundee in 1972 when Idi Amin, himself bizarrely obsessed with Scotland, expelled them. The Dundee accent was sometimes impenetrable and the superb actor playing her was young and white, but the true story of her return to her home country and the Kent refugee camp shone through. Only time for a solo pasta today as we were all in different places with busy days, before ending with comedy – Mark Steel at Assembly Hall. Steel’s recent divorce loomed large and my companions thought him bitter, which he was, but I thought he was also bloody funny, with insightful views of what’s happening in our society to go with the personal story. One of my favourite comedians with an excellent, very personal show.

Wednesday started well back at Traverse One with a proper play called The Whip Hand – living room set, five characters, dense plotting, multi-layered – which was a touch melodramatic, but unpredictable, pleasingly inconclusive, covering a lot of personal and geo-political ground. Very satisfying. An unscheduled interlude at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery enabled me to revel in the beauty of the recently renovated main hall once more, to see their latest hanging of an extraordinary collection of contemporary portraits, to catch an interesting exhibition called Looking Good / The Male Gaze, spanning five centuries, and a more depressing one of Graham MacIndoe’s photos of his own addiction in Coming Clean. Across the road at Stand One Mark Watson gave us some work in progress, partly created from audience pre-show input. A touch lazy, a bit rambling, but it’s hard not to like his anarchic charm, an antidote to the slicker comedians. A lazy afternoon with a light lunch, a glass of wine or two and a view of the castle in the fourth floor restaurant at Harvey Nick’s was followed by more comedy, favourite Mark Thomas with his new show at Summerhall. It re-cycles two ideas, with a new spin on Manifesto (more audience pre-show input) and the biographical Bravo Figaro, but his passion and audience engagement is unrivalled, so you do leave thinking you’ve spent 70 mins with an old mate having a bit of a rant. Dinner at http://www.fieldrestaurant.co.uk was a welcome return to their simple seasonal and local food; but I struggle to understand how they survive with twenty-six covers, of which we comprised a fifth! At the international festival’s The Hub, a late night ‘cabaret’ proved a disappointment, though views amongst the group differed, with me the most negative. Meow Meow’s would have been better if she’d dropped the Little Mermaid concept / ‘show’ and delivered her normal edgy burlesque cabaret, rather than a contrived piece which was good when she sang but fell flat on it’s flipper with the embarrassing sequences in-between. It was intensely uncomfortable, physically and intellectually, and I would have walked if you could have done so quietly. The main festival trying to be as cool as the fringe and failing.

The final day was the sort of eclectic one you can probably only get in Edinburgh. It started with my 10th production of an old favourite, Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods, staged and performed in the Assembly Hall by the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. I very much enjoy my outings to London’s conservatoires and I enjoyed watching future talent here just as much, in an excellent production. Odd to be at a full length fringe show after a week of pieces under 90 minutes, though. At the Fruitmarket Gallery, I rather took to Brazilian Jac Leirner‘s obsessive collection and presentation of all sorts of items – wire, rulers, spirit levels, cigarette papers – part of a very limited presentation of contemporary art this year. Cathy at Pleasance Dome was campaigning theatre, urgent and important as well as being good theatre itself. It was a new play effectively updating Ken Loach’s iconic TV play on it’s 50th anniversary, staged by Cardboard Citizens on their 25th. Like Loach’s recent film I, Daniel Blake, it puts up a mirror to modern society and in particular our approach to housing and benefits and shames us. Down in Leith, Volcano presented a riff on / deconstruction of Chekhov’s The Seagull called Seagulls in an extraordinarily atmospheric disused church. Full of surprises and, surprisingly, laughs, it was captivating if sometimes puzzling, but after processing it I realised it was quite faithful to the original, albeit with only five of the ten main characters – and a lot more entertaining! After a shaky start, seeming under rehearsed with poor sound, The Music of the Incredible String Band at the Playhouse Theatre, weaved it’s magic, bringing waves of nostalgia for 50-year-old music that is a key part of the soundtrack of my life. Eight soloists, including Mike Heron himself,  beaming in wonder, and a surprising but delightful triumvirate of ladies, opera singer Janis Kelly, folkie Karine Polwart and Barbara Dickson(!), were accompanied by seven musicians, including Heron’s daughter, a member of the McColl folk dynasty and Danny Thompson, who played on many of the original recordings. A lovely conclusion to the week.

Perhaps not up to 2015’s vintage year, but a particularly diverse one. Disappointing for art, but great for music, the Traverse on fine form and excellent food. Until 2018………

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It’s good to welcome the First Lady of Broadway to these shores, in a proper show too, albeit a one-woman one. We’ve only seen her before in concert, and only once in recent years. This show seeks to recreate a Billy Holiday concert before a tiny audience in a Philadelphia nightclub shortly before her death and its a virtuoso performance by Audra McDonald. 

Wyndham’s Theatre has had a makeover, with cabaret seating onstage and in the front stalls. Interspersed with the fifteen songs, accompanied by an onstage piano bass & drums jazz trio, an intoxicated Billy tells us things about her life, including her mother’s dalliance with the oldest profession, her dad’s desertion, sexual abuse, the men in her life, prison and her Carnegie Hall triumph. It becomes increasingly uncomfortable as you watch her breaking down before your very eyes, though when she sings it’s heavenly.

Even though its only 100 unbroken minutes, I felt it outstayed its welcome a bit and left me feeling somewhat depressed at the tragic life, but that takes nothing away from an extraordinary performance which had you on the edge of her seat willing Billy, forgetting you were watching a characterisation rather than a real person.

It has to be seen, but I’d like to welcome her back again with something more uplifting.

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Opera

La Voix Humaine is a rarely staged 50-minute one-woman opera by Poulenc, one of only three he wrote, and Opera Up Close are to be congratulated on an accessible, high quality production at Kings Place starring Sarah Minns with the score played on piano by Richard Black. Captivating.

A French double-bill at the Royal College of Music proved to be a delight. Chabrier’s Une Education Manquee, about a couple who didn’t know what to do on their wedding night, and Poulenc’s rather surreal cross-dressing boob-expanding Les Mamelles de Tiresias worked brilliantly together and the singing and playing was divine.

I saw the rarely performed Leoncavallo opera Zaza in concert a couple of years ago, so I was looking forward to seeing it staged. Sadly, the staging and design were so incompetent and inconsiderate (sightlines and audibility) that I wished I was hearing it in concert again! The final straw was a downpour soon after the second half started, where the noise of the rain on the canvas roof virtually drowned out the singers – but that wasn’t Opera Holland Park’s fault.

The Arcola‘s enterprising Grimeborn (geddit?) opera festival staged a musical-opera hybrid called The Marriage of Kim K which was a great idea, very ambitious and had its moments, but didn’t entirely work. It alternated between the story of Kim Kardashian’s short marriage to Kris Humphries, Mozart’s opera The Marriage of Figaro and a British couple (him composer, her lawyer) on a couch fighting over the remote and switching between the two. It was this middle section which let it down by being rather dull and underperformed (and often out of tune). Gold star for trying, though, and hopefully we’ll see it again re-worked and improved.

Classical Music

I don’t think I’ve ever reacted so differently to two halves of the same concert as I did at Simon Keenlyside’s recital at Wigmore Hall. I adored the first half of Vaughn Williams, Finzi and Sibelius, but didn’t care for the more frivolous selections of Poulenc and Mahler in the second half, despite the obvious skills of the performers. A matter of taste, I guess.

The BBC Singers / Eric Whitacre concert at GSMD’s Milton Court was an absolute gem. An eclectic programme of ten pieces by living composers from five countries, including four world premieres and one UK premiere, with all composers present, with Whitacre’s first and latest compositions included. To cap it all, an encore of favourite Laura Mvula’s own arrangement of her song Sing to the Moon. Wonderful stuff.

Andrew Norman’s children’s opera A Trip to the Moon, based on the 1902 French silent movie of the same title, was paired with Sibelius 2nd Symphony in a terrific LSO Discovery concert in the Barbican Hall that saw the former involve local communities and both involve GSMD students, under Simon Rattle. Watching the white-shirted post-grad students sitting alongside the black-shirted LSO players provided a great sense of current musicians nurturing the next generation, which really moved me – and they sounded bloody great together too.

Soprano Sophie Bevan & tenor Allan Clayton gave a lovely recital of 28 Shakespeare songs by 20 different composers at Wigmore Hall, a very diverse and sometimes unpredictable selection. The acoustic was unkind to the soprano as it was to Simon Keenlyside’s baritone last week, which is a bit odd.

Contemporary Music

My first Prom this year was a late night celebration of Scott Walker‘s late 60’s solo albums, songs that have never been played live by anyone let alone Jarvis Cocker, John Grant, Suzanne Sundfor & Richard Hawley, with small choir and big orchestra! I didn’t think Cocker’s voice suited Walker’s songs, but the other three were terrific. I’m not a huge fan, but it was well worth the punt.

Film

Seeing Baby Driver broke a two-month film famine. It wasn’t the sort of film I usually go to – glorifying violence in a Tarantinoesque way – but it was exciting and brilliantly made, though let down by the implausibility of the ending.

Dunkirk is an extraordinary film about an extraordinary event. It was tense for the whole 100 minutes, but deeply moving too. Unmissable.

Dance

The Barbican gave over their Art Gallery for four weeks of performance art, well dance really, created by Trajal Harrall. There were lots of short works in different places, so I planned my visit to see as many as possible. Sadly, they weren’t as organised as me so I ended up having to go with the flow a bit, but that proved to be fun. I managed to sample about twelve pieces over a couple of hours and left feeling rather pleased with myself.

Art

A lot to catch up on…..

The Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition was great this year, though I missed all those architectural models I’m so fond of. Still, the biggest selling exhibition of them all had a lot I would have bought if I bought art!

If I wasn’t a Friend, I probably wouldn’t have gone to the Sargent watercolours exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery, which would have left a gaping hole in my life because I loved it! Portraits, city scenes and landscapes, they were all wonderful.

A visit to Whitechapel Gallery en route to a concert proved disappointing as Benedict Drew’s The Trickle-Down Syndrome was slight, A Handful of Dust was a bit pointless and the ISelf Collection underwhelming!

White Cube Bermondsey is such a big gallery that trying to fill it with women surrealists was bound to lead to variable quality, but fortunately there was enough good stuff to make Dreamers Awake worthwhile.

You don’t expect to see Picasso in a private gallery, let alone 111 paintings, drawings, sculptures, tapestries & ceramics of Minotaurs and Matadors, all bar one from private collections! It wasn’t a selling exhibition and entrance was free, so I’m not sure how the Gagosian funds it, but I’m glad they do.

Gregory Crewdson‘s heavily staged and artificially lit photos are like stills from an indie movie or paintings by Edward Hopper, which appear to tell a story but tantalisingly don’t, quite. His Cathedral of the Pines exhibition at the Photographers Gallery puts nudes in white clapperboard houses in snowy landscapes. Weird but a little bit wonderful.

A lovely double-dip at the NPG en route to the theatre, starting with the excellent class of 2017 at the BP Portrait Award, followed by The Encounter, featuring drawings from the 15th to 17th centuries, mostly culled from private collections including fifteen, a third of them, from the Queen! Another treat.

Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power at Tate Modern took me by surprise. Covering just 20 years of Black American art from the outset of the 1960’s civil rights movement, it contained some powerful, bold political statements alongside some terrific abstract pictures.

Though low lighting and overcrowding made Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave at the British Museum a bit of a challenge, it was great to see his complete range of gorgeous, finely detailed work. I shall now pour through the catalogue to see them properly!

The month ended on a real art high with Alma-Tadema at Leighton House, an artist I’d never heard of whose very comprehensive retrospective was absolutely fabulous.

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This play with music places songs by Bob Dylan into a story set in his home town in 1934, seven years before he was born. The title comes from Dylan’s version of Scarborough Fair, but here the north country is Duluth, Minnesota and 1934 was in the middle of the Great Depression. It’s bleak and beautiful.

Nick runs a boarding house, up to his eyeballs in debt. His wife Elizabeth has dementia, his son Gene is an unemployed wannabe writer with a drink problem and his adopted daughter Marianne (a black baby abandoned at the boarding house) is pregnant. All of his guests are down on their luck. Widow Mrs Neilson is waiting for her inheritance, having an affair with Nick while she waits. Mr & Mrs Burke are waiting for money they’re owed; they have an adult son Elias with severe learning difficulties. Bible seller Rev Marlowe and boxer Joe Scott turn up late one night. They might not be who they say they are. Joe takes a shine to Marianne, though Nick has other plans for her. Then there’s the doctor, who acts as our narrator.

It’s great storytelling, as we’ve come to expect from Conor McPherson, and somehow the songs, written 30 to 60 years later, fit the time, place and characters like a glove, though they aren’t sung in character or even by one character; they’re not there to propel the narrative, more for atmosphere. McPherson directs too, and for a playwright he makes a mighty fine director, unusual in my experience! The arrangements and orchestrations by Simon Hale have a period feel and they are are beautiful, breathing new life into the songs. The band wrap around the outstanding vocals, always accompanying, never drowning. The staging, and Rae Smith’s design, reminded me of the musical Once – simple but atmospheric, particularly the photographic panels that come and go.

I’m not sure where to start with the performances; it is such a superb ensemble, benefiting I think for limited musical theatre experience and bad habits! Perhaps I should start with Karl Queensborough, an understudy playing Joe, who really was excellent. Ciaran Hinds has great presence as Nick and towers over diminutive Shirley Henderson as his wife, who is unpredictable and edgy and has the most sensational voice which I’m not sure has ever been heard on stage before. Sam Reid is great too as Gene, delivering I Want You so well a woman in the front stalls said out loud a perhaps unintended ‘wonderful’. Sheila Atim, also in fine voice, is ever so good as Marianne and Stanley Townsend, Bronagh Gallagher and Jack Shalloo give a fine trio of performances as the Burkes. Probably the most experienced musical theatre performer, the great Debbie Kurup, delivers Dylan’s songs beautifully.

Some may call it a musical, some the now derogatory term juke-box musical, for me its a play with music and its it’s own thing, something unique, and I loved it.

 

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Opera

Handel’s Radamisto at GSMD had some lovely singing and playing, I liked the design and also the idea of framing it with an audience of leaders in conflict as a nod to its premiere before a royal squabble, but it was played too much for laughs, particularly the comic book King.

A summer visit to WNO at the WMC in Cardiff for Strauss R’s Der Rosenkavalier and Strauss J’s Die Fledermaus proved a treat. I love the former and it was the best production of it I’ve seen, with the orchestra under its new MD sounding great and a full house of terrific performances. I’m not really an operetta man, but it was hard to resist the fun of the latter, again well played and sung, with the cameo non-singing role of the gaoler brilliantly played by Welsh actor, Stella’s Steve Spiers.

There was some lovely singing in Charlie Parker’s Yardbird at Hackney Empire, but the subject didn’t really suit the opera form. Though it’s a story full of tragedy and emotion, the opera had none; I think a jazz musical would have served it better. Good to see work like this, a visit by Philadelphia Opera, on at Hackney though.

Contemporary Music

Smiles of a Summer Night was an evening of Sondheim songs from eight soloists, a twelve strong chorus and full orchestra at Cadogan Hall and the musical standards were sky high. It wouldn’t have been my selection of songs, but that might be a good thing as there are rarely heard items as well as well worn ones. Alex Parker, the musical director, has given us a superb concert version of A Little Night Music and a terrific production of compilation show Putting it Together, and this is yet another fine achievement.

Art

Into the Unknown: A Journey Through Science Fiction at the Barbican Centre is a very broad selection of paintings & drawings, story-boards, props & models, games, films, books, comics & magazines in three locations and the foyers. It has even taken over the Pit Theatre for three months with a giant installation. Fascinating, but too dense for just one visit.

I loved Chris Ofili’s new tapestry at the National Gallery, placed onto B&W walls decorated by him, in an exhibition called Weaving Magic that included preparatory sketches and drawings. Lovely.

I’m used to bright, colourful, uplifting paintings from Per Kirkby, so the exhibition of older 80’s dull and dark work at the Michael Werner Gallery was a big disappointment, I’m afraid. Shame.

Fahrelnissa Zeid was another artist unknown to me, and her retrospective at Tate Modern showed both her art and her life were fascinating, going from portraits to two different forms of abstraction and back to portraits, with a side-trip to sculpture along the way, and from Turkey & Iraq to Germany, France & Britain and finally Jordan. Intriguing.

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Contemporary Music

Maria Friedman’s Bernstein / Sondheim cabaret at Brasserie Zedel, with her terrific pianist Jason Carr, was lovely. In addition to a great selection of songs, there were some great anecdotes. It was a new venue for me, which might well become a regular one.

The collaboration of favourite Malian Kora player Toumani Diabate and some Flamenco group I’ve never heard of was another of those punts at the Barbican Hall that paid back in abundance. They had no way of communicating with each other, no common language, but the skill was extraordinary and the sound uplifting and joyful.

Opera

Thomas Ades’ new opera Exterminating Angel at Covent Garden was musically challenging (as most modern operas are) but I got into it after a while. The orchestration was extraordinary and the ensemble of singers absolutely premier league. It’s based on a surrealist film by Louis Bunuel and it was, well, surreal, including live sheep on stage, who had done their business before it even started!

Ravi Shankar’s unfinished opera Sukanya, based on a section of the epic tale Mahabharata, got its world premiere on a short UK tour which I caught at the Royal Festival Hall. A real east meets west affair with the London Philharmonic & opera singers and Indian musicians & dancers, I rather liked it. It was the second of three occasions in six days that I saw the projection work of 59 Productions. It was lovely to be in a minority, with a largely Asian audience you never see at opera, though some of their behaviour was challenging!

Classical Music

The English Concert’s Ariodante at the Barbican Hall had lost two of its singers before the event, including personal favourite and star turn Joyce DiDonato. Despite this, it was a treat and Alice Coote rose to the challenge of replacing DiDonato in the title role.

On a visit to Iceland, I had the opportunity to attend a concert at their spectacular new(ish) Reykjavik concert hall Harpa, in which the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra played Brahms Violin Concerto, with Alina Ibragimova, and Shostakovich 5th Symphony, and jolly good it was too. The BA fiasco at Terminal 5, however, meant I returned too late for the LSO / Haitink concert of Bruckner’s Te Deum & 9th Symphony.

I like the originality, populism, informality and showmanship of Eric Whiteacre and his concert with the RPO was another good example of this. Mostly choral, with the terrific City of London Choir, they filled the RAH with sound (though sadly not the seats).

Dance

Northern Ballet‘s Casanova packed in a bit too much story for a dance piece to handle, but it looked gorgeous and I warmed to the film-style score. You could tell it was the choreographer’s first full length ballet, and the composer’s, and the scenario writer’s…..but an original dance theatre piece nonetheless, and another enjoyable visit to Sadler’s Wells Theatre.

Film

I was in the mood for escapist fun, and I thought Mindhorn was a hoot, with a fine British cast, an original story and some great views of the Isle of Man!

Woody Harrelson’s Lost in London is the first ever ‘live’ film and it’s a rather impressive achievement, though I didn’t see it live. It’s also impressive that he was prepared to tell a 15-year-old true story that doesn’t exactly make him look good!

Art

The annual Deutshe Borse Photography Prize at the Photographers Gallery breaks new ground again with brilliant B&W portraits, a story of death in photographs and items, stunning silver gelatine B&W landscapes and a room of both film and slide shows. Downstairs, there are fantastic 50’s / 60’s street life B&W photos by Roger Mayne and a five-screen slideshow of the British at play. What a treat!

A wonderful, contrasting pair of exhibitions at the NPG. Howard Hodgkin Absent Friends was great once you stopped thinking of it as a portrait exhibition. They are abstractions based on his own feelings and memories of the subjects so they mean nothing to anyone else, but they are colourful and often beautiful. The pairing of photographs, mostly self-portraits, by contemporary artist Gillian Wearing and early 20th century French artist Claude Cahun was inspired. Though the latter’s B&W pictures were small and a strain on the eyes, the former’s were big and often spooky. Wearing’s family album and future portrait speculations were stunning.

I visited and much admired the controversial Eric Gill The Body exhibition at Ditchling Museum of Art & Craft. I’m not sure allegations of paedophilia since his death should mean we avoid the art he made in life, however distasteful his actions might have been. It was my first visit to this lovely little museum and the lovely Sussex Downs village in which it sits.

After abandoning one visit because of the weather, I eventually made it to For the Birds as part of Brighton Festival. It’s a highly original night-time walk through sound and light installations in the woods on Sussex Downs, all of which are about birds. A bit exhausting at the end of a long day, but worth the effort.

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