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Archive for the ‘Contemporary Music’ Category

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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I was as attracted to the venue, which I’ve visited twice on ‘tours’, as much as the show. As it turned out, it was a match made in heaven – a lovely folk ballad opera in the delightful sound stage theatre they built many moons ago for the filming of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

It’s the true story of the Black Country chain-makers, most in Cradley Heath, most home workers, at the beginning of the 20th century. They worked through intermediaries called foggers, who exploited them like pimps. Without them, they had no materials and no access to the manufacturers they supplied. George Cadbury’s newspaper The Daily News campaigned against such ‘sweated labour’, bringing it to public knowledge and spurring the formation of a pressure group which included campaigner Mary Macarthur. Her work resulted in a minimum hourly rate, which was eventually implemented, though somewhat reluctantly, particularly by the foggers who did much to get round it and undermine it.

The story is told by chain-maker Bird, flogger Albert and Mary Macarthur, played respectively by Rowan Godel, Neil Gore (also the writer) and Bryony Purdue, who sing and play lovely songs composed by folk royalty John Kirkpatrick, supplemented by a handful of traditional tunes. The chain-maker’s house is the centre of a simple but evocative design by Elizabeth Wright, which is supplemented by projections. There are even opportunities to sing along and wave red flags! It’s excellent storytelling, charmingly performed. I loved it.

This is the first time I’ve seen the work of Townsend Theatre Productions, who specialise in touring works of social history, but it hopefully won’t be the last. Sands Films Studios (www.sandsfilms.co.uk) is a unique, very welcoming venue and it was a joy to visit again. The run there has now ended but it’s still on tour (www.townsendproductions.org.uk) and it’s definitely worth catching if it comes your way.

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Classical Music

Another lunchtime gem at the Royal Academy of Music with their 100-strong Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop. I’d never heard Hindemith’s Mathis der Mahler Symphony and liked it very much. It was followed by Richard Strauss’ Suite from Der Rosenkavalier which, despite the waltzes I’m not keen on, sounded gorgeous.

Contemporary Music

I wasn’t expecting musical theatre’s Cassidy Janson to do a concert without any musical theatre numbers, but her Crazy Coqs show was a combination of Carole King and her own songs from her forthcoming pop-rock album. More than a year in Beautiful has improved her voice and makes her interpretation of King songs simply superb. Her own songs are impressive too, so my reservations about the content were eventually dispelled.

Dance

It was thrilling to see Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake again, matured over the years into a sparkling diamond of a show. It’s the most glorious combination of music, design and dance you could wish for and at the performance we attended at Sadler’s Wells was danced impeccably.

Film

A month of films based on a very diverse range of real people, with varying degrees of truth, I suspect.

The Favourite is a highly original and racy royal romp about Queen Anne, which I loved. Hatfield House looked terrific and the three leading actresses were wonderful.

Stan & Oli, about the comedy duo of course, exceeded my expectations and caught me by surprise at how much it moved me. Again, two well matched leads giving star turns and a great 50’s Britain look.

Mary Queen of Scots, was another film about British royalty, less of a romp, but still racy. Fantastic story-telling and an auspicious film debut for theatre director Josie Rourke.

Colette is another racy true story set in late 19th century France, featuring a wonderful British cast and filmed beautifully. Puzzling that it’s a British film.

Beautiful Boy was a rather harrowing story of addiction, but superbly filmed and performed. It’s rated 15 – I think it should be compulsory viewing for all teenagers above 15 in case they’re tempted to experiment with hard drugs.

Vice, about Dick Cheney, the power behind Bush Jnr’s throne it seems, doesn’t even try to be objective; it’s a partisan hatchet job, and given the lack of law suits probably mostly true. An excellent film, and Christian Bale is sensational.

Art

Night & Day was my first visit to the Fashion & Textile Museum in its new location. An exploration of the 1930’s through fashion and photographs, with a soundtrack of the likes of Cole Porter, it captured the essence of this beautiful decade, though I could have done with more photographs to go with the comprehensive display of fashion.

The Enchanted Garden at the William Morris Gallery was a one-room wonder, virtually every picture a gem. Monet, Pissarro, Burne-Jones, Stanley Spencer, Bell-Grant-Fry and of course William & May Morris. Gorgeous.

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A lean month as I spent three weeks of it out of the country…..

Contemporary Music

Musical theatre performers and audiences seem to love Scott Alan’s songs (though he’s never written a musical, yet), so I thought I’d give his song cycle The Distance You Have Come at the Cockpit Theatre a go. It was well sung and played but it was too generic for me, lacking variety, light, shade and colour. Preforming it in the round also affected audience engagement as a lot of the time performers were singing to others rather than you.

David Byrne’s O2 Arena concert exceeded my expectations. With a bare grey stage surrounded on three sides by a giant grey bead curtain, through which musicians entered and left, twelve people dressed in matching grey suits ‘wearing’ their instruments around their necks, no amps mics or leads in sight and just lights to add colour and shadows, it was visually stunning. The fast paced combination of old material with Utopia tracks was brilliant. A treat.

Opera

I first saw suffragette Ethyl Smyth’s opera The Wreckers in concert at the Proms 24 years ago, so it was thrilling to finally see it staged by Arcadian Opera in the Roxburgh Theatre in Stowe School. Even though the chorus were local amateurs and it was a scratch orchestra, the musical standards under retired opera singer Justin Lavender, who sang the leading role of Mark at that Proms concert, were very high.

Classical Music

The Nash Ensemble’s lunchtime recital at LSO St Luke’s featured British chamber music and song written immediately after WWI, five pieces by five composers I like, none of which I’d heard before. It was the first of three called War Embers.

Dance

Birmingham Royal Ballet’s double-bill Fire & Fury at Sadler’s Wells featured two contrasting works, one a reimagining of 14-year-old Louis XIV mid-seventeenth century dances and the other inspired by a Turner painting. Gorgeous designs, live music and fresh choreography all contributed to making it a treat.

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This wasn’t at all what I was expecting. Even though it features Take That songs sung by a TV cast band, the focus of Tim Frith’s story is the fans – aged 16 in 1993 and now. It took a while before I engaged with it, it was a bit too sentimental, but overall I was glad I caught it at my local theatre (before West End prices!).

We start with five sixteen-year old girls, obsessed with The Band, doing what sixteen-year-old fans do, before we leap forward to the present day, when one of them wins four tickets to see their idols’ reunion tour in Prague and gets in touch with the three remaining friends to join her. When we meet them she, and we, catch up with what they’ve been doing in the last 25 years. That’s about it, really.

Throughout the telling of the story, the five boys of The Band, pop up all over the place, sometimes as characters like airline attendants and cleaners, to sing the hits of Take That. I wasn’t a fan (I was never a sixteen year old girl and when I was sixteen the members of Take That weren’t even born!) but you’d have to have been in hibernation not to have heard their songs, which aren’t bad as pop songs go. Most of the audience clearly identified with the four female leads, so they had a fine time.

The songs were sung well, though the band was a bit rough at the edges and the sound not good enough. Jon Bausor’s designs did the job, given the number and variety of locations, but didn’t take your breath away like they usually do. Kim Gavin’s choreography was a bit stale and unimaginative, but it may have been recreating the original for all I know. His staging, with co-director Jack Ryder, was slick and well paced.

I’m clearly not the target audience, but its a decent touring show. How it will fare in the West End I’m not so sure.

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