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Archive for the ‘Contemporary Music’ Category

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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This was one of those punts where I didn’t really know what I was in for but had a suspicion it might not be for me, but hey I like a bit of theatrical adventure. Good to report it paid back.

You wouldn’t need a whole postage stamp to write down what I know about grime, but I took a twenty-something, so I had a short course before and after (there are so many musical genres and sub-genres these days, its very complicated). Debris Stevenson starts by telling us she studied classical poets but learnt more from grime artist Dizzee Rascal’s 2003 debut album Boy in da Corner and she was going to give us her take on it.

Once you work out it’s the true story of her early life, you settle into a fascinating tale told in rap, dance, dialogue and music with three others – Kirubel Belay, Cassie Clare & Jammz – playing people in her life like her mum, brother and school friends. It’s a clever and audacious combination of ingredients that come together to create something rather fresh and original, though some of the rap was so fast, with lots of impenetrable slang, and it did feel like Part One, ending as it does before she even goes to University. I very much liked Jacob Hughes’ black, yellow and white design.

When we were asked to get to our feet, I looked around to see an extraordinary combination of reactions from Court regulars and newbies and it all seemed rather surreal. Great to see something genuinely original and very different on this stage though and me, an unlikely recruit. I think my grime name is gonna be Gazza.

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Contemporary Music

In recent years, the Proms have been embracing non-classical musical genres, and this year it was the turn of folk music, with five folk acts joining the BBC Concert Orchestra in what was a largely successful crossover. The highlights were favourites The Unthanks and Julie Fowlis, but it was good to be introduced to Welsh group ALAW and to sample the music of Jarlath Henderson and Sam Lee.

You rarely hear a musical score played as well as the John Wilson Orchestra played West Side Story at the Proms; you could hear every nuance, every note, every instrument. It moved you and thrilled you in equal measure. Add to that a fine set of young soloists, a chorus drawn from two drama schools specialising in musical theatre and a rapt full house and you have a very special evening indeed. So good, I even forgave them the ticket & programme price hikes, the unnecessary interval and the failure to televise it!

My second and last Cadogan Hall Chamber Prom combined some rare Bernstein works with pieces by his friends and contemporaries, plus a new commission, and it was a funny, quirky delight with a fine performances by American mezzo Wallis Giunta. It included songs set to recipes, one a world premiere, a UK premiere of an early ballet which contained the seeds of West Side Story and six pieces new to the Proms.

Opera

Grimeborn gave us more treats with an inventive adaptation of Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffman – A Fantastic Bohemian – which moved between three locations in the building. The quality of singing and playing was stunning, and at such close quarters there’s no hiding place. It was hard to follow, particularly on the same day, and as much I enjoyed my first outing of Donizetti’s Rita and renewing my acquaintance with Ravel’s L’Heure Espagnole, they struggled to live up to the afternoon. Same day double-dips do have their downside, as we found with this and in Chichester two days before, on both occasions the highlight coming first. Six days later it ended (for me) with a revival of Mark Anthony Turnage’s Greek. It’s hard to believe it was premiered thirty years ago; it’s still original, visceral and edgy and in this production was very well sung, with the Kantanti Ensemble on fire. This has been a great Grimeborn, now fully established as an annual event in my diary.

The live cinema relay of Glyndebourne’s production of Vanessa, Samuel Barber’s 60-year-old opera getting its fully-staged UK premiere, was simply extraordinary. The design was superb, the singing stunning and the London Phil sounded sensational. It has the feel of a Hitchcock film, very mysterious and suspenseful. Wonderful stuff, probably better than being there with non-opera lovers and a 90-min interval to destroy the dramatic flow!

Classical Music

My first Cadogan Hall Chamber Prom saw Dame Sarah Connolly give a recital of English song which included four world premieres, including two by Benjamin Britten written 70 years ago! It was lovely, though somewhat melancholic, which made me feel it might be more of an evening programme.

I appear to be picking well this year, as my next Prom was a sometimes challenging, but fascinating and rewarding 20th century Anglo-American programme with the BBC Philharmonic playing Barber, Britten, Copeland and Walton. Two of the five pieces were new to me, and indeed to the Proms, including two arias from Barber’s opera of Anthony & Cleopatra which made me want to see a production.

Film

Apostasy is a quiet but defiant rage against fundamentalism in all its guises, in this case Jehovah’s Witnesses. Siobahn Finneran is stunning, but above all it’s a hugely impressive debut from writer / director Dan Kokotajlo, an ex-witness himself. Harrowing but brilliant.

Art

James Cook; The Voyages at the British Library was one of the best exhibitions of its type I’ve ever visited. Superbly curated and thoroughly objective, it contained journals, specimens, paintings & drawings and testimonials from experts and indigenous peoples. Illuminating.

London 1938: Defending ‘Degenerate’ German Art at the Weiner Gallery was a huge disappointment, consisting as it does of glass cases showing letters, flyers, catalogues and photos, plus copies of pictures. Only one actual painting and a couple of drawings!

Collier Schorr is a new photographer to me, but her exhibition at Modern Art did nothing for me, I’m afraid. All a bit too pretentious in my book.

A theatrical visit to Chichester was extended to visit the lovely Palant House Gallery which had three exhibitions. Virginia Woolf: an exhibition inspired by her writings had some great 20th century works, particularly those by Vanessa Bell and Laura Knight, but though I liked the idea of including contemporary works, there were too many, and the quality was very variable. It was another of those exhibition whose raison d’etre was a bit dubious. Dance: Movement & Modernism was a one room curate’s egg, but again it had some nice works. However, I loved Sussex Days: Photographs by Dorothy Bohm, a little known Lithuanian British photographer who captured people in the county in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s brilliantly.

It was worth the detour to Tate Britain for Lisa Brice’s one-room exhibition of mostly blue paintings of women. Very striking and very original.

At Proud Central, the photos of the Observer’s late photographer Jane Bown were like a review of people in my lifetime; stunning B&W pictures, some now iconic. Downstairs a multi-photographer selection focused on pop and rock stars; this too was outstanding.

The Frieze Art Fair consisted of thirty or so sculptures placed in a corner of Regent’s Park. It was more miss than hit, but made for a pleasant wander en route to the Open Air Theatre in the same park.

Great British Seaside at the National Maritime Museum brought together the work of four photographers using the seaside as their subject over the last fifty years. I identify the seaside with my youth, so there was something very nostalgic about it, and some terrific pictures too!

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