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Archive for the ‘Design’ Category

Music

I’m not sure how to categorise Just Call Me God at Union Chapel. It categorised itself as ‘Music Theatre’, but I think I’d prefer Play with Music. John Malkovich played a generic dictator at the end of his reign when troops with an embedded journalist arrive at his underground concert hall. There is music throughout, most played on the chapel’s organ (hidden, so I never knew it existed) but some electronica. It was a bit of a one-off which I rather liked.

Art

At the Royal Academy of Art, America After the Fall: Painting in the 1930s and Revolution: Russian Art 1917-32 proved to be a contrasting but brilliant pairing, being so close in time but worlds apart in other respects. I loved them both.

The Syngenta Photography Award Exhibition, Grow / Conserve, at Somerset House featured many diverse pictures on various environmental themes. It was really well curated and mostly fascinating. It’s a pity it’s had little publicity.

Lockwood Kipling: Arts & Crafts in the Punjab and London at the V&A was a fascinating insight into the life of Rudyard’s dad who taught and curated arts and crafts at a time when the A&C movement was at its height. Fascinating.

I managed to see the painting Flaming June at Leighton House Museum, where it was brought together with four other late Leighton paintings, before it returned to Puerto Rico. It was also a treat to be in the Arab Hall again, one of my favourite rooms in one of my favourite London houses.

Hopping across town to another favourite London building, Two Temple Place, for Sussex Modernism: Retreat & Rebellion, a fascinating collection of art by people who had made homes, friends and connections in the county, like a Who’s Who of early 20th century British art and design. Great to see the carvings and stained glass again too.

Film

Viceroy’s House seemed the perfect choice for the day before I departed for India and I did enjoy it, though maybe not as much as I was expecting to. I loved the fact that it was made by the British Indian granddaughter of someone displaced by the partition.

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The Rest of 2016

I spent a third of the last third of the year out of the country, so my monthly round-up’s for this period have merged into one mega-round-up of the two-thirds of the four months I was here!

Opera

Opera Rara’s concert performance of Rossini’s rare Semiramide, the last Bel Canto opera, at the Proms was a real highlight. It’s a long work, four hours with interval, in truth too long, but it contains some of Rossini’s best music (and I’m not even a fan!). The OAE, Opera Rara Chorus and a world class set of soloists under Sir Mark Elder gave it their all, with ovations during let alone at the end. Brilliant.

I was out of the country when I would have made my usual trip to Cardiff for WNO’s autumn season, so I went to Southampton to catch their UK premiere of Andre Tchaikowsky’s The Merchant of Venice when I got home and I was very glad I did. It’s a fine adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, with a particularly dramatic court scene, and it was beautifully sung and played, with a terrific performance by American Lester Lynch as Shylock.

I’m not sure I’ve ever been to something that sounded so beautiful but looked so ugly. Handel’s Oreste, a pasticcio opera (a compilation of tunes from elsewhere, in Handel’s case his own works) which the Royal Opera staged at Wilton’s Music Hall. The singing and playing of the Jette Parker Young Artists and Southbank Sinfonia were stunning, but the production was awful. One of those occasions when it’s best to shut your eyes.

Classical Music

Another delightful lunchtime Prom at Cadogan Hall, this time counter-tenor Iestyn Davies and soprano Carolyn Sampson, both of whom are terrific soloists, but together make a heavenly sound. I was less keen on the six Mendelssohn songs than the six Quilter’s and even more so the glorious six Purcell pieces. It was a joyful, uplifting hour.

Juditha triumphans is a rare opera / oratorio by Vivaldi that was brilliantly performed at the Barbican by the Venice Baroque Orchestra and a superb quintet of female singers including Magdalena Kozena as Juditha. It took a while to take off, but it then soared, and the second half was simply stunning.

Visiting the LSO Steve Reich at 80 concert at the Barbican was a bit of a punt which really paid off. The three pieces added up to a feast of modernist choral / orchestral fusions. The composer was present and received an extraordinary ovation from a surprisingly full house.

Berlioz Requiem is on a huge scale, so the Royal Albert Hall was the perfect venue, and it was Remembrance Sunday, so the perfect day too. The BBC Symphony Orchestra, with ten timpanists and an enormous brass section of 50 or 60, occasionally drowned out all three choirs (!) but it was otherwise a thrilling ride.

Joyce DiDonato‘s latest recital with the wonderful baroque ensemble Il Pomo d’Oro was a bit if a disappointment. It had some extraordinary musical high spots, but the selection could have been better and she didn’t really need the production (lights, projections, haze, costumes, face painting and a dancer!). It didn’t help that the stage lights sometimes shone into the eyes of large chunks of the audience, including me, blinding them and sending me home with a headache.

At the Royal Academy of Music their Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Sir Mark Elder in a lunchtime concert of Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony and it was thrilling. Sir Mark did another of his fascinating introductory talks, this time illustrated with musical extracts.

The BBC Singers gave a lovely curtain-raising concert of unaccompanied seasonal music by British composers at St Giles Cripplegate, half from the 20th century and half from the 21st, before the BBC SO‘s equally seasonal pairing of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Christmas Eve Suite and Neil Brand’s A Christmas Carol for orchestra, choir and actors in the Barbican Hall. This was a big populist treat.

I’ve heard a lot of new classical music since I last heard John Adams‘ epic oratorio El Nino, so it was good to renew my acquaintance and discover how much I still admire it. 270 performers on the Barbican stage provide a very powerful experience – the LSO, LSC, a youth choir and six excellent American soloists who all know the work. Thrilling.

Canadian bass-baritone Gerald Finley, accompanied by Sir Antonio Pappano on piano no less, gave a superb but sparsely attended recital at the Barbican Hall. It was an eclectic, multi-lingual and highly original selection, beautifully sung. More fool those who stayed away from this absolute treat.

The standards of amateur choirs in the UK are extraordinary, and the London Welsh Chorale are no exception. Their lovely Christmas concert at St. Sepulchre-without-Newgate included extracts from Handel’s Messiah, Vivaldi’s Gloria plus songs and carols. The soprano and mezzo soloists were superb too.

Dance

Rambert’s ballet set to Haydn’s oratorio The Creation at Sadler’s Wells was one of the best dance evenings of recent years. If you shut your eyes, this would be a world class concert with three fine soloists, the BBC Singers and the Rambert Orchestra. With a gothic cathedral backdrop, the dance added a visual dimension which wasn’t literal but was beautifully impressionistic and complimentary.

English National Ballet had the inspired idea to ask Akram Khan to breathe new life into Giselle and at Sadler’s Wells boy did he do that. It’s an extraordinarily powerful, mesmerising and thrilling combination of music, design and movement. From set, costumes and lighting to an exciting adapted score and the most stunning choreography, this is one of the best dance shows I’ve ever seen.

Michael Keegan-Dolan’s Swan Lake the following week, also at Sadler’s Wells, wasn’t such a success, and steered even further away from its inspiration. It revolved around a 36-year old single man whose mother was desperate to marry off, but there were lots of references to depression and madness. I’m afraid I didn’t find the narrative very clear, its relationship to the ballet is a mystery to me and it’s more physical theatre than dance. It had its moments, but it was not for me I’m afraid.

Back at Sadler’s Wells again for The National Ballet of China‘s Peony Pavilion, a real east-meets-west affair. Ancient Chinese tale, classical ballet with elements of Chinese dance, classical music with added Chinese opera. Lovely imagery and movement. I loved it.

New Adventures’ Red Shoes at Sadler’s Wells might be the best thing they’ve done since the male Swan Lake. With a lush Bernard Herman mash-up score, great production values and Matthew Bourne’s superb choreography, it’s a great big populist treat.

Contemporary Music

Camille O’Sullivan brought an edginess to the songs of Jacques Brel which I wasn’t comfortable with at first but then she alternated them with beautifully sung ballads and I became captivated. She inhabited the songs, creating characters for each one. Her encore tributes to Bowie & Cohen were inspired.

There were a few niggles with Nick Lowe‘s Christmas concert at the Adelphi Theatre – it started early (!), the sound mix wasn’t great and he gave over 30 minutes of his set to his backing band Los Straightjackets (who perform in suits, ties & Mexican wrestler masks!) but (What’s so funny ’bout) Peace Love & Understanding has never sounded more timely and the closing acoustic Alison was simply beautiful. He’s still growing old gracefully.

Film

I loved Ron Howard’s recreation of the Beatles touring years in Eight Days a Week, plus the remastered Shea Stadium concert which followed. What was astonishing about this was that they were completely in tune with all that crowd noise and no monitors or earphones!

Bridget Jones Baby was my sort of escapist film – warm, fluffy and funny – and it was good to see Rene Zellweger and Colin Frith on fine form as the now much older characters.

I, Daniel Blake made me angry and made me cry. Thank goodness we’ve got Ken Loach to show up our shameful treatment of the disabled. Fine campaigning cinema.

I loved Nocturnal Beasts, a thriller that’s as close to the master, Hitchcock, as I’ve ever seen. I was gripped for the whole two hours.

Fantastic Beasts lived up to its hype. Though it is obviously related to Harry Potter, it’s its own thing which I suspect will have quite a series of its own. Starting in NYC, I reckon it will be a world tour of locations for future productions.

Kiwi film The Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a very funny, heart-warming affair with a stunning performance by a young teenager, Julian Dennison, matched by a fine one from Sam Neill.

I loved A United Kingdom, based on the true story of Botswana’s Seretse Khama, leader from mid-60s independence to 1980. It’s the true story of a country that has been a beacon of democracy in a continent of corruption.

The Pass must be one of the most successful stage-to-screen transfers ever. I was in the front row at the Royal Court upstairs, but it seemed even tenser on screen. Good that three of the four actors made the transfer too.

One of my occasional Sunday afternoon double-bills saw Arrival back-to-back with Sully. The former was my sort of SciFi, with the emphasis on the Sci, and it gripped me throughout. I’m also fond of true stories & the latter delivered that very well.

I liked (Star Wars) Rogue One, but it was a bit slow and dark (light-wise) to start with, then maybe too action-packed from then. I’m not sure I will do 3D again too; it’s beginning to feel too low definition and overly blurry for a man who wears glasses.

Art

Sally Troughton‘s installations in the Pump House Gallery at Battersea Park didn’t really do much for me, but Samara Scott‘s installations in the Mirror Pools of its Pleasure Garden Fountains certainly did. A combination of dyed water and submerged fabrics created lovely reflective effects.

There was so much to see in the V&A’s You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970. It was an astonishing five years and the exhibition covers music, art, design, fashion, politics, literature…..you name it. I shall have to go again to take it all in.

Wifredo Lam is a Cuban artist I’ve never heard of, getting a full-blown retrospective at Tate Modern. There was too much of his late, very derivative abstract paintings, but it was still overall a surprising and worthwhile show.

South Africa: the art of a nation was a small but excellent exhibition covering thousands of years from early rock art to contemporary paintings and other works. Most of the old stuff was from the British Museum’s own collection, so in that sense it was one of those ‘excuses for a paying exhibition’ but the way they were put together and curated and the addition of modern art made it worthwhile.

The Picasso Portraits exhibition at the NPG was a lot better than I was expecting, largely because of the number of early works, which I prefer to the more abstract late Picasso. Seeing these does make you wonder why he departed from realism, for which he had so much talent.

Abstract Expressionism at the Royal Academy was also better than expected, largely because of the range of work and the inclusion of artists I didn’t really know. I do struggle with people like Pollock and Rothko though, and can’t help thinking they may be taking the piss!

The Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize exhibition, back at the NPG, seemed smaller than usual, but just as high quality. I do love these collections of diverse subjects and styles.

Back at the Royal Academy, Intrigue: James Ensor by Luc Tuymans was a very interesting exhibition of the work of an underrated Belgian master (with an obsession with masks and skeletons!) curated by a contemporary Belgian artist. I’ve seen samples of his work in my travels, but it was good to see it all together, and I liked the curatorial idea too.

At Tate Modern, a double-bill starting with a Rauschenberg retrospective. I’ve been underwhelmed by bits of his work I’ve come across in my travels, but this comprehensive and eclectic show was fascinating (though I’m still not entirely sold on his work!). The second part was Radical Eye, a selection from Elton John’s collection of modernist photography (with more Man Ray’s that have probably ever been shown together). It’s an extraordinary collection and it was a privilege to see it.

Star Wars Identities at the O2 exceeded my expectations, largely because of the idea of discovering your own Star Wars identity by choosing a character and mentor and answering questions on behaviour and values and making choices at eight ‘stations’ en route which were recorded on your wristband, in addition to film clips, models, costumes etc. The behavioural, career and values stuff was well researched and the whole experience oozed quality.

I didn’t think many of the exhibits in Vulgar: Fashion Redefined at the Barbican were vulgar at all! It was an exhibition made up entirely of costumes, so it was never going to be my thing, but it passed a pre-concert hour interestingly enough.

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Opera

I liked the music of The Firework-Makers Daughter at Covent Garden’s Linbury Studio but I wasn’t that keen on the production. I usually like this lo-tech style but there was too much I shouldn’t see and too much I couldn’t see in this production. The narrative isn’t the clearest, so I was surprised it was billed as suitable for over-6’s.

Art

The World of Charles & Ray Eames at the Barbican Art Gallery was much broader and deeper than I was expecting. The American design couple are best known for their iconic furniture, but they designed so much more. Like Mackintosh, Lloyd Wright and Gaudi, they covered almost every aspect of design including architecture, exhibition spaces, film and printed matter. Fascinating – and way ahead of their time.

Even though eighteenth century portraits aren’t my oeuvre, I admired the skill of the work of Jean-Etienne Liotard at the Royal Academy, even though he was better at fabrics than faces and some of his men were feminine and his women masculine!

There were some beautiful and stunning items in the British Museum‘s Celts exhibition, but by challenging and questioning modern thinking, it rather muddied the waters and became more of a review of North European history of 1500-3500 years ago.

Film

I rather liked Star War: The Force Awakens; it was well paced, didn’t lag and sustained its 2h15m running time. The 3D was above-average and the story seemed to flow and follow logically from the third film (the 4th to 6th being prequels). I’m now looking forward to the next two!

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The journey from Helena to Glacier National Park was shorter than I thought (I miscalculated the mileage) but it still managed to transform from mountains to fertile farming valleys to the shores of Flathead Lake just outside the park. Again, I was staying outside as it was fully booked within, in a lovely B&B called Bad Rock (which most importantly, by now, had laundry facilities!). My first day in Glacier was spectacular, driving the 50-mile  ‘Going to the Sun’ road from one end to the other, starting and ending at the lakeside (different lakes!) and rising and winding to over 6600 feet between, with spectacular views up to the glaciers and down to the valleys. Every time you turned a corner you encountered a different vista and had to stop continually to take it all in and to photograph it. One of my B&B companions mentioned a helicopter over breakfast and before you could blink, there I was linked up with four Belgians, up in the air seeing it all from a completely different and spectacular new perspective. By contrast, I followed this with a cruise on Lake McDonald where the small boat broke the perfect reflections and created extraordinarily beautiful effects.

The next journey was too long for a day, so I broke it in the university town of Moscow, Idaho, but before I got there I took an impulsive detour to Wallace in the Silver Valley, so called because it once contained hundreds of mines (and Wallace hundreds of millionaires as a result).  They’ve successfully reinvented themselves as a heritage site and I thoroughly enjoyed my visit down the mine, led by a retired miner (like Big Pit in Wales) who demonstrated equipment and techniques as well as showed them. A wander through the town was richly rewarding, with period architecture, a ‘bordello museum’ as an example of the miners leisure activities (I didn’t go in!) and an excellent lunch at the Fainting Goat, where the new managers were a couple passing through between Puerto Rica and the West and decided to stay!

From Moscow (nothing to say about it really, except that there are 17 Moscow’s in the US!) the journey continued through the rolling hills of Idaho, hay newly cut or still being cut, idyllic farms littering the landscape, until all of a sudden you’re confronted with a view down a big drop to the confluence of the Snake & Clearwater rivers with Lewiston, Idaho facing Clarkston, Washington, both named in honour of Lewis & Clark, Jefferson’s post-Louisiana Purchase explorers. From here, the journey to Joseph through an awful lot of gorges was slow and winding but really beautiful. The valley in which Joseph and Enterprise sit has Hells Canyon on one side, the Wallowa mountains on two others, and the gorges through which I travelled there on the fourth. If I’d known how inaccessible Hells Canyon was I might not have gone there, which would have been a shame as it was a lovely visit. My B&B was at the homestay end of the spectrum, but comfortable and welcoming. The drive to the canyon was through dense forest and the only part you could reach was the flooded and dammed part – the rest required serious hiking or even more serious upstream boat trips; but it was worth it and the stop made even better by a trip by cable car up Mount Howard for wonderful views and 2.5 miles of trails at 8000 feet!

The first part of the journey to Portland was pretty, but it got dull on the highway (despite a stop in Pendleton, an important stop on the Oregon trail, but closed as it was Sunday!) until we got to the Columbia River Gorge, at first a series of dams but later more rugged with waterfalls-a-go-go and lovely views. My B&B in Portland was a Victorian gem and my room had a sitting area in the turret! The neighbourhood of Irvington was both historic and cool with great restaurants but less than 30 mins by bus or tram to downtown. After three glorious weeks, the weather turned cloudy with showers but I was now in the first of two cities so there were indoor distractions, but before those there were the gardens – Chinese, Japanese & Roses! The Art Museum (like all others, so called because they combine art with historical and archaeological objects from around the world – I like this) was first class and there was a fascinating mansion that told the story of the Pittock’s, immigrants from Britain and self-made multi-millionaires. Portland’s downtown was very walkable with a blend of new and old architecture and also provided me with my one-and-only theatre trip, to see the musical Dreamgirls, based on the story of the Supremes. I’d seen the film but the show never made it to London. It didn’t really add anything to the film (well, it came first) but despite it being only the second preview, it was in good shape and the performances were outstanding.

I tried to get a tour to Oregon wine country but none were available (a bit late in the season) so I took an impulsive side-trip to Salem, Oregon’s capital, for a terrific visit to their art deco Capitol and a wander around the historic town. Another impulse took me into the Wild Pear Restaurant for lunch (at the counter) and when the owner clocked the accent the now customary ‘well, where are you from?’ solicited the equally customary ‘Wales, but I now live in London’. She said her husband’s family were from South Wales, so I asked the name, which was James – Geoff & Cecelia James. She treated me to a delightful lunch and planned my return through wine country with a winery and olive press to visit. Impulse wins again.

The shortish trip to my last base, Seattle, allowed me the luxury of two stops – the first in Olympia for yet another Capitol, the biggest and grandest if not the most tasteful! and the second in Tacoma to continue the Chihuly pilgrimage (a recommendation by a fellow Chihuly fan from Denver I met at the Bad Rock B&B – thank you!). The Art Museum had more of his work than the Glass Museum, though this did have live glassblowing demonstrations and a Chihuly Bridge to link it to the main street! The curator at the Art Museum was very welcoming to a British Chihuly fan (there weren’t many punters!) with discounted admission and a free gift. There were also works in the Courthouse (former Union Station), the University library and the Swiss pub (where he gifted them a handful of works in thanks for their hospitality!). Tacoma was a great example of a town re-inventing itself in style and I loved it.

Seattle is my only re-visit of the trip; I came here 14 years ago (whilst working on an e-commerce project code-named Seattle!). I stayed in the same B&B on Capitol Hill, the Gaslight Inn, in the same room (don’t fix it if it ain’t broke). In truth, the city isn’t as great as my memories, but there’s a new Chihuly ‘museum’, glasshouse and garden and having the car enabled me to cross over by car ferry to the Olympic peninsular for a final wonderful drive, a visit to the Olympic National Park, where the views of the mountain range of the same name from Hurricane Ridge were sensational, and the lovely old town of Port Townsend. The other newie was a bit of a disappointment. One of the founders of  Microsoft got architect Frank Gehry to build a perfect home for a rock ‘experience’, a crazy colourful affair, but sadly it’s a lost opportunity inside (unless you want to use the studios or you’re a Nirvana fan). The exhibition of Hendrix in London was nostalgic but the bolted-on SciFi & Horror presentations made Cardiff’s Dr Who experience (pre-facelift) look cutting edge!

The trip ended with a fascinating visit to the Boeing factory to see 747’s, 777’s and 787 Dreamliner’s being assembled, including watching the inaugural flight of a new 777 for American Airlines, followed six hours later my own flight on a BA Boeing 777! A suitably epic trip to celebrate 40 years of travel (Corfu September 1974 with Barbara & Mary!). 4750 miles driven (my normal annual mileage!) through 7 states, 9 national parks, 4 cities and 13 towns plus journeys by bus, tram, trolly, train, boat, car ferry, cable car & helicopter making it top the 5000 mile mark. When I’ve sorted the 2500 photos, there will be web albums!

In six months time, an even longer one to Australia – you have been warned!

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Classical Music

Sir Colin Davies had pulled out of the LSO‘s concert performances of Turn of the Screw due to his deteriorating health, but in the end it turned out to be their first concert after his death. The orchestra’s Chairman & MD made lovely pre-concert tributes, but the greatest tribute of all was that they performed his choice for the Britten Centenary to perfection. Six superb well-matched soloists – Catherine Wyn-Rogers as the housekeeper, Sally Matthews as the governess, Katherine Broderick as Miss Jessel,  Andrew Kennedy as Quint,  Lucy Hall as Flora and an extraordinary performance from 11-year old Michael Clayton-Jolly – were complemented by beautiful playing from the small chamber orchestra under Richard Farnes. I’ve never heard it played & sung so well.

Opera

The Firework-Maker’s Daughter was a charming opera for young people staged in a very lo-tech minimalist style which suited the story-telling of Philip Pullman’s tale. David Bruce’s music, full of appropriately Eastern influences, was tuneful and, unusually for modern opera, accessible on first hearing. There wasn’t a fault in the casting and the small orchestra played beautifully. It was great to see so many (quiet!) kids as it’s a rare evening that is likely to turn them on rather than off opera!

I admired the originality of ENO’s ‘3D’ opera Sunken Garden at the Barbican Theatre and I liked Michel van der Aa’s music, but I didn’t engage with David (Cloud Atlas) Mitchell’s story at all. It didn’t sustain its length (2 hours without a break) and seemed achingly slow. Another one of those situations where the composer shouldn’t have directed? A worthy failure, I think

My third and last (this season) Met Live proved to be the best. David McVicar’s Glyndebourne production of Handel’s Giulio Cesare is one of the best productions of a Handel opera I’ve ever seen and this is one of Handel’s best operas. In truth, Natalie Dessay didn’t hit her stride as Cleopatra until the second act (and even then made a few nervous mistakes) and David Daniels didn’t really show us his best as Cesare, but they both had enough moments of greatness and the supporting cast was faultless. Patricia Bardon and Alice Coote stole the first act, there was a great Ptolemy from Christophe Dumaux and a delightful Nirenus from Rachid Ben Abdeslam. Robert Jones’ design and Brigitte Reiffenstuel ‘s costumes were a real treat.

Dance

I saw the first outing of Fabulous Beast’s The Rite of Spring at ENO paired with an opera. Now at Sadler’s Wells paired with Petrushka it seemed to make so much more sense. This time the Stravinsky scores were played in their four-handed piano versions and were simply brilliant. The ballets become dances, performed by people of all shapes sizes and colours, with none of the fusty ballet business. Rite is better than Petrushka, but I enjoyed the contrast most of all.

The first time I saw Prokofiev’s ballet of Romeo & Juliet, I was astonished that it could tell the story as dramatically as either the play or the two operas made from it. I haven’t seen it for a while, and that Kenneth McMillan production is the only one I have seen, albeit a few times, so it was good to see a different production (and at half the Covent Garden price) by the National Ballet of Canada at Sadler’s Wells. It’s quirkier and brasher, but I liked it. The corps de ballet pieces are bright, with fights handled well and humour unearthed, yet the tragedy is still tragic. It isn’t a match for the McMillan because  it doesn’t move you in the same way, but it’s fresh and less conservative – and the score , the greatest of all ballet scores, was played beautifully.

Contemporary Music

Counting Crows’ concert at Hammersmith Apollo was a huge disappointment; largely because of the sound, which was simply appalling. It turned everything into bland mush with few audible words. Support Lucy Rose (who I’d seen solo with John Cale as a result of which I bought her album) was a whole lot better. Nothing more to say really.

Art

It’s a lot easier to get into the Barbican’s Curve Gallery than it was for Rain Room and it’s well worth doing so. Geoffrey Farmer’s installation fills the space with hundreds of puppets made from paper cut-outs and fabric and places them on tables and podia with a soundtrack throughout and a slideshow at the end. A silent, still, spooky army.

The Designs of the Year exhibition at the Design Museum is extraordinarily eclectic, covering architecture, ‘products’, graphics etc., and a fascinating look at design’s ongoing impact on our lives. Visiting it was also an opportunity to see the newly changed permanent exhibition, which added some retro charm and nostalgia to the visit.

I wasn’t expecting David Bowie is at the V&A to be so big, so comprehensive and so captivating. The automated audio tour didn’t always work (very sensitive to your position and movement) but the combination of costumes, hand-written lyrics, stage sets, video and movie clips were enthralling, though almost impossible to take in on one visit. Beautifully curated, it’s provides conclusive proof of his genius.

A visit to RIBA was somewhat less satisfying as the exhibitions were clearly intended for professionals rather than laymen. Still, it was good to take a look at Dutch floating housing and different approaches to new towns over time and geography.

Film

I rather enjoyed Danny Boyle’s Trance, even though it’s hard to keep up with a real mindfuck of a plot. It twists and turns and keeps you guessing right until the end – well, assuming I got it right!

I enjoyed the Paul Raymond biopic The Look of Love too, though it’s a bit of a soulless piece. His was an interesting life and period Soho looks great, but there was something missing.

If I’d known it was about dysfunctional families, I probably wouldn’t have gone to see Love Is All You Need – I’ve got one of my own! It is a rather lovely and original film though, touching but not sentimental, occasionally funny and sometimes surprising. The mix of Danish and English dialogue worked really well, and brought additional authenticity.

Comedy

Attending a recording of Mark Thomas’ Radio 4 show Manifesto at the BBC Radio Theatre is great value as it’s the full monty (2.5 hours) for free and the drink’s are cheap! The ideas put forward were largely funny, the discussion entertaining and Mark’s added stories a hoot. This will all be distilled down to 28 minutes of course and, like my visit to the News Quiz, you can tell what will be on the cutting room floor. This one took place on the evening of Thatcher’s funeral, so maybe more editing than usual!

I haven’t been to the Comedy Store for ages and I thoroughly enjoyed my latest visit to their improv. night. Perhaps we were lucky to have the combined experience of Paul Merton, Josie Lawrence, Lee Simpson, Neil Mullarkey, Andy Smart and Richard Vranch (no longer confined to the piano). The format doesn’t change much, but the inventiveness is what matters and it seemed as fresh as the first time.

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You are invited to view Gareth James’s photo album: Budapest at Easter
Budapest at Easter
Mar 27, 2013
by Gareth James
 
 

The latest in my re-visits to European capitals finds me back in Budapest after exactly 25 years. Last time I also visited Vienna, arriving from there by bus. I had been taken to the bus station in Vienna in a smart car with an uniformed driver. I was met at Budapest bus station by the hotel bell-boy with a blackboard on which he’d chalked ‘Mr James’. That completely summed the contrast between Vienna and communist Budapest back in 1988.

Well, the communists have gone but the current President is showing dangerous signs of autocracy, not that you’d know it ‘on the streets’. Like all other East European cities, business is the new politics and everywhere you go they’re after your Euro with tours, restaurants and the usual tourist tat. I didn’t feel it had developed as much as other cities in the region – Prague & Dresden my most recent examples – but it sure is a different place from Easter 1988.

It’s an attractive city straddling the Danube, with low-lying Pest on one bank and higher-level Buda on the other, the more compact & historical of the two, and some iconic bridges linking them. Most places can be seen on foot, though there’s a good metro, tram & bus network if you’re lazy or if its cold / wet (all of these applied to me at some point!), which enables you to look up and appreciate the vast amount of gorgeous secessionist (art nouveau to you) architecture, much of which is still awaiting restoration.

The parliament building is extraordinary, sitting on the river much like ours, and this time I got inside where there’s more gold leaf than you see in most lifetimes. The two main churches – Matyas in Buda and St. Stephen’s in Pest – are completely different but equally gorgeous, and the four main museums and galleries between them cover Hungarian history, Hungarian art (more lovely secessionist stuff), international painting & sculpture and applied art & design.

I made two visits to the stunning State Opera House, but neither for opera – a ballet of Onegin and a concert of Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion (somewhat appropriately, on Easter Saturday), both excellent, with tickets a fraction of London prices. Bar one disappointing meal, I ate well – though the goose liver and goose liver mousse were probably a bit risky for a man who’s had gout twice! Being a wine-producing country, you get some great red and white stuff to wash it all down with too.

Covered in snow when I arrived, it started cold but pretty before we got a big, quick melt which turned the city into a giant puddle as your feet became soggy and you dodged mini-avalanches from building roofs as you walked. One more day and it was all gone – snow and water.

A welcome re-visit to one of Europe’s finest cities; if you haven’t, you should.

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A lean month once you take out 10 days in Scotland and 6 days at the Olympics or Paralympics as either volunteer or spectator!

There was a pair of Proms – Bernstien’s Mass and Elgar’s The Apostles. The former is a favourite rarely performed so much-anticipated (particularly as almost all of the vocal and orchestral inputs were Welsh!), but I’m afraid it didn’t quite live up to the anticipation. The weak link for me was Morten Frank Larsen in the key role of ‘The Celebrant’ . There were no weak links in The Apostles where Mark Elder, The Halle and all six soloists shone in this underrated oratorio.

At Sadler’s Wells Theatre, I caught the last performance of the revival of Matthew Bourne’s 9-year-old Play Without Words, a dance piece based on the film The Servant, with a terrific jazz score. It was as good as I remembered, sexy slick and truly unique.

British Design 1948-2012 (so good, I wanted to steal a lot of the 50’s-70’s stuff!) and Heatherwick Studio (which by the time I got there included the prototype for his extraordinary Olympic cauldron). The post-war years really did produce iconic designs and the exhibition captured the best of it in almost every form. Thomas Heatherwick works across a lot of forms and his exhibition was simply enthralling. Has there ever been a more inventive designer?

Portrait of London at the Wandsworth Museum showcased photos of London in general and the borough of Wandsworth in particular and it was fascinating. I took in their permanent collection for the first time and was particularly delighted to see them covering the late 19th century tradition in Earlsfield of electing a ‘fool’s mayor’; somehow that feels so up-to-date!

A trip to a multi-story car park in Shoreditch was an unusual experience, specifically to see the 16 BMW Art Cars over six floors, painted by the likes of Andy Warhol, David Hockney, Roy Liechtenstein et al. A quirky, interesting diversion rather than spectacular art, unlike the Bauhaus – Art as Life show at the Barbican Art Gallery which was an extraordinary review of the impact of this short-lived design ‘movement’. Covering everything from architecture, fashion, painting, sculpture, graphics, toys, furniture and performance, their influence was so much more than you’d ever imagine could be achieved in just 14 years.

RGS Travel Photography Exhibition looks like becoming as much of a tradition as the International Photography Exhibition in Edinburgh – and has exactly the same impact of making me feel inadequate as a photographer. I love the way that here they exhibit many of them in the open air and the fact it specialises on travel makes it even more up my street.

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Well, the highlight of the month was undoubtedly my trip to the rehearsal of the Olympic Games Opening Ceremony. We didn’t get the whole lot (sadly not the winged bicyclists, but thankfully not the never-ending entrance of the teams!) but we got most of it and it was truly spectacular. My front row seat may not have been the best, but I was privileged to be there and it was an experience I will never forget. You know the rest, but here are some photos!

Another unexpected treat was getting tickets to one of Eddie Izzard‘s work-in-progess shows in the cabaret space at Soho Theatre. A late Monday night (after dinner and drinks) was a challenge, but it was fun. He really is a one-off.

Opera-wise, it was Cape Town Opera‘s visit with Porgy & Bess, which proved itself to be more of an opera than a musical in this excellent production. Moving it to a South African township worked, though the highlights were all vocal – the soloists and chorus were thrilling.

I’m not sure I know how to categorise Desdemona, a collaboration between poet Toni Morrison, director Peter Sellers and favourite Malian singer Rokia Traore, but given it was Rokia that largely drew me to it and was the best thing about it, I’ve decided it’s music. Her songs were lovely, but the narrative that accompanied it was never-ending and somewhat pretentious. It would have made a great concert!

I never made it to Bryn Terfel’s festival in his back yard in North Wales (though we had tickets for the last one, which was cancelled!) so well done Southbank Centre for bringing Bryn Fest to me! The evening of songs from the Golden Age of Broadway featured a quartet of favourites – Julian Ovenden, Clive Rowe, Hannah Waddingham and Emma Williams – as well as the man himself, and it was full of highlights. You rarely hear these songs with a full orchestra and that was a huge bonus. It was lovely to see Bryn & Clive’s take on Brush Up Your Shakespeare. I expected Clive to be word-perfect given he’s currently playing it in Chichester, but Bryn was too – no mean feat with all those Shakespeare references.

Though I had a ticket, I missed the opera evening because I had a better offer (a freebie return to the wonderful Sweeney Todd!) and I caught only half of pianist Huw Warren‘s free foyer concert, which featured a trumpeter and a jazz version of a Welsh hymn, but was glad I caught what I caught. The Wales Choir of the World event was another treat, featuring choirs from 11 countries on 5 continents. The highlights were the South African choir, the Cory Band and the massed choir & brass band rendition of the world premiere of a Karl Jenkins The Hero’s Journey. As I left the RFH, a large audience on the riverside were being taught to sing in Welsh for Bryn’s Big Sing which was a fitting end to this mini-festival.

Four Proms this month, starting with the much criticised populist opening night. Well, I enjoyed it; what’s wrong with a bit of populist patriotism?! More Bryn (the 5th time in 17 days!) in Delius’ lovely Sea Drift, a quartet of premiere league soloists for Elgar’s full Coronation Ode and orchestral pieces from Tippett and Elgar again – oh and a Mark Anthony Turnage world premiere, just in case you were feeling a bit too nostalgic! Six days later, Handel’s oratorio Judas Maccabaeus was given a rare but enjoyable outing by the Orchestra and Chorus of the Age of Enlightenment with another quartet of fine soloists. This was followed three days later by a concert version of Berlioz The Trojans – long but lovely! Again, some great solo turns from Bryan Hymel, Eva-Maria Westbroek and Anna Caterina Antonacci, this time with the superb orchestra and chorus of the ROH under Antonio Pappano. So to the night of the opening of the Olympics where an early start for Beethoven’s 9th meant we (and conductor Daniel Barenboim, who later carried in the Olympic flag!) wouldn’t miss Danny Boyle’s spectacular on TV. Barenboim’s West-East Divan Orchestra, made up of young Palestinian and Israeli musicians, was right for the occasion but also played brilliantly and the National Youth Choir of Great Britain, also right for the occasion, were stunning. What a prologue for the evening that followed!

It was time to catch up with some art this month and I started at the De Morgan Centre where the work of ceramicist William and his painter wife Evelyn is showcased in a small but superb collection; eye-poppingly beautiful (if you’re into Arts & Crafts and / or the pre-Raphaelites) .  Picasso & Modern British Art at Tate Britain was a brilliantly curated show putting Picasso alongside those he influenced, including Wyndham Lewis, Ben Nicholson, Henry Moore, Francis Bacon, Graham Sutherland & David Hockney. I was less enamoured by Migrations – Journeys into British Art at the same place, more because of the quality of the work than the idea of the exhibition, which was a good one.

My annual trip to the Serpentine Gallery to see their Pavilion (an excellent, largely below ground, collaboration between Ai Wei Wei and Herzog & De Meuron, the team that did the Beijing birds nest Olympic stadium) was extended to see Yoko Ono‘s show which was more interesting, and a lot less pretentiously avant-garde, than I was expecting.

Finally, during a weekend in Bath, I popped into their newly renovated Holburne Art Museum for a lovely small portrait sculpture exhibition and stayed for What Are You Like (based on the Victorian parlour game, where people draw their favourite things) and their permanent collection. This is now one of the best regional art galleries; well worth a visit.

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Well, I thought I’d sign off before I leave NYC today after what as been an epic trip. Here’s a resume of the last leg…..

Two consecutive nights on a train (one with sleeper) so that I could ‘pop into’ the Rock & Roll Museum and Hall of Fame in Cleveland en route from Chicago to Pittsburgh proved somewhat tiring (even with the late addition of a day hotel room in Cleveland) so by the time I got to Pittsburgh (not Phoenix, as the song goes), I was exhausted. Still, I enjoyed the 5 hours I spent in the R&R Museum (R&R in the broadest sense), a combination of memorabilia, video & audio laid out by origin, stye and performer. For a music lover, it was all a bit of a toyshop.

Despite my grouchy start, the Pittsburgh leg proved great. The real reason for stopping here was to take a 150-mile side trip to FLW’s masterpiece Falling Water, an extraordinary home built on a waterfall in the woods in Laurel Heights, a lovely part of Pennsylvania. It was simply breathtaking , way beyond expectations, and might well be the most beautiful home ever built anywhere. Another FLW property nearby, with the unfortunate name Kentuck Knob, was less spectacular but interesting nonetheless. It’s a lot smaller and 20 years later (he designed it, but never saw it) but it was full of owner Lord Palumbo’s photos and nic-nacs, so it had a very lived in feel.

Back in Pittsburgh, the university provided another first – 26 classrooms on the bottom two floors of a tall cathedral-like building (actually called The Cathedral of Learning) each done out in the style of a country (including Wales!); they kindly let you pop into any that weren’t in use. The campus also had a multi-faith chapel with huge blue stained glass windows built by the Heinz family and Carnegie (once the richest man in the world) provided the art at the museum! Andy Warhol came from Pittsburgh and there’s a surprisingly interesting 7-floor museum to prove it. Pittsburgh is transforming itself from its once mighty industrial past and is lucky enough to have a terrific location where the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers meet to form the Ohio river, with a triangular promontory formed by the former two creating a small compact downtown. From a viewpoint looking down on the city I counted 17 bridges!

Next stop New Jersey to visit Steve & Maria. The story of this leg is mostly about food and drink; I was badly led astray. We did go to a quirky sculpture park in Hamilton (where we also had lunch!), where the grounds were beautiful in the spring sunshine and a lot of the sculpture made me smile, and stopped off en route to NYC in Hoboken, with stunning views of NYC across the Hudson and an insight into campus life with Maria’s daughter Briony. Steve & Maria joined me for my first night in NYC, which included the treat of the chef’s table at seafood restaurant Oceana (with food and wine, obviously).

I first came to NYC 31 years ago. It was a 3-day stopover en route to South America which became three weeks! I saw Evita (the only revival of which has just opened on Broadway). I saw a preview of Arthur Miler’s The American Clock (which I see for just the second time back home this Saturday). I saw the frst of many West Side Story’s and, somewhat more of a one-off, David Bowie as The Elephant Man (he had no prosthetics and was brilliant). I hired two helicopters to fly my generous Bolivian hosts over Manhattan and took them to the top of the World Trade Centre where a photo of me was made into a Christmas card and mailed back home from Peru.

I’ve been back 4 times before now, two since 9/11, but only this time did I decide to head south, now that the memorial is open. The two pools, each an exact footprint of a former tower, have water flowing into them from all sides into a seemingly bottomless hole, whist new skyscrapers rise all around. I found it very moving and dignified and couldn’t help reflecting on my good luck, with all that has happened to me in the 31 years since I’d stood atop one of those towers.

However many times you visit NYC, you never tire of it. It has a unique buzz. You’re always looking up, and at night the lights of Broadway are like nowhere else. I was determined to take in some new things and started with the High Line, an 18-block elevated walkway which re-uses a disused freight line; it’s a terrific regeneration project. My other new experience was to have been a food themed Harlem walking tour, but it was cancelled due to lack of (others) interest – but not until I’d got there!

Returns to MoMA and the Met museum proved rewarding, though the current exhibitions at the Guggenheim (another FLW building) were dreadful. On Broadway, I caught the current big hit musical, The Book of Mormon, an irreverent (viscous) satire along the lines of Jerry Springer – The Opera (but without the opera) which was great fun, but maybe a bit over-hyped, plus a preview of a new musical with a Gershwin score (like Crazy for You) called Nice Work If You Can Get It, with an excellent Matthew Broderick, which is going to be a huge hit. My first visit to an opera at The Met on my last evening had a real sense of occasion and the singing of Anna Netrebko & Piotr Beczala in Manon was wonderful, though I was less enamoured with the production, the orchestra acoustics and the audience!

So there you have it. 26 days / 15 stops. Planes, trains, cars, buses, trams, trolleys, cable cars, subways and on foot! A play, 2 musicals, an opera, a movie and three music clubs. NASA, Chess studios and the R&R Museum. 4 FLW buildings, 3 State Capitols, 6 other historic buildings and more museums and galleries than I can count. An epic trip. When I’ve selected from the 2500 photos, there will be links to web albums!……but now I have 8 more hours in NYC…….

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Contemporary Music

I’m not sure how to categorise the Hofesh Shechter / Anthony Gormley collaboration Survivor at the Barbican but it felt more like a staged concert than anything else, so here it is! The 30-piece string / percussion band are on three platforms high above the stage. At one stage they come down onto the stage and are supplemented by a vast ‘community’ percussion band. Six performers use the space below (and at one point the auditorium) though occasionally a screen is lowered for projections, as is the metal safety curtain which is part of the performance, as is the whole stage really. The music is largely rhythmic and there doesn’t appear to be a story. It’s all very clever and diverting but felt like they were just throwing in every idea they could think of, including a bath instead of a kitchen sink. The rest of the audience appeared to love it. I was a bit indifferent.

I’ve been following the career of Clive Rowe since I saw him in Lady Be Good at the Guildhall school many years ago. He’s one of our best musical performers and for his ‘cabaret’ at the Landor he selected an unpredictable, idiosyncratic and very personal group of songs which I really enjoyed. He gave us a potted biography between songs and a Q&A in the second half and it was like being entertained by a friend in your front room. The highlights included Putting on the Ritz and an interpretation of Sondheim’s Being Alive which brought a tear to my eye (again!).

I’m new to Laura Veirs and attending her QEH concert was a bit of an afterthought. Apart from a couple of new songs and a pair from her recent children’s album, most of the set was from her impressive back catalogue. The combination of acoustic and electric guitar with viola makes for a very pleasing sound and her lovely songs sounded even better live than they do on record. She engaged enough with the audience to convey her upbeat personality but not too much that it got in the way. A short but perfectly formed set.

Classical Music

I love choral oratorios, but as they are mostly on religious themes (and often settings of the requiem mass) they become a bit samey and one yearns for something more secular. Haydn’s The Seasons is therefore a breath of fresh air and performed by The Gabrieli Consort & Players under Paul McCreesh (who provided a new English translation) at the Barbican, it was lovely, particularly jolly old Autumn which moves from love duet to hunting songs to drinking songs. The three soloists – Christiane Karg, Allan Clayton and Christopher Purves – were all exceptional. A treat!

Art

Postmodernism: Style & Subversion is another of the V&A’s reviews of a design movement. Though not as good as some of the others, it’s still indispensable if, like me, you want to understand and absorb the history of design. It’s an eclectic collection of architecture, furniture, fashion, graphics etc and a lot to take in during one visit. Also at the V&A (if you can find it!) is a two room review of Private Eye’s first 50 years which made me smile and laugh. Made up of cartoons, comic strips and memorabilia, it brings home to you the indispensability of a satirical institution in any civilised society.

When 10 photos constitute an exhibition, you would be justified in feeling cheated – if you’d paid! This two-floor show of Jeff Wall’s work at White Cube Mason’s Yard was a big non-event for me, I’m afraid. I was just as disappointed by Annie Leibovitz ‘Pilgrimage’ at Hamiltons. Known for her extraordinary portraits, these 26 digital pigment prints of places and objects associated with famous people (like Lincoln’s hat and gloves) seemed completely pointless.

American installation artist Paul McCarthy is never dull but often hit-and-miss. This exhibition takes over two galleries and part of St James’ Square gardens. The installation that takes up the whole of Hauser & Wirth Saville Row did nothing for me – a pile of stuff that was interesting to look at, but meant nothing (to me, anyway). It was better at the Piccadilly ‘branch’ where two of the three works (there was one on each floor!) were good, particularly a revolving hydraulic cube. I never made the gardens as it was dark and they were closed.

American photographer Catherine Opie is new to me and her exhibition at the Stephen Friedman Gallery contained two very different collections. I wasn’t particularly impressed by the early B&W portraits of a punkish sub-culture but I was impressed by the seven pairs of sunset / sunrise photos taken on a container ship voyage across the Pacific Ocean; each had a different atmosphere created by the climatic conditions when they were taken.

Bloomberg New Contemporaries isn’t a regular affair for me, but this year at the ICA it was quite impressive. These students and recent graduates seem to be returning to more traditional art forms – paintings, photos and sculpture – which makes a refreshing change from endless films and installations!

I was expecting to like David Hockney at  the Royal Academy as I had enjoyed my first view of the first of his Yorkshire landscapes in a small gallery a few years back, but nothing prepared me for the overwhelming beauty of this exhibition. It’s a riot of colour and an homage to nature and one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen in my entire life. Room 9 in particular was stunning – three walls of paintings showing the transition of winter to spring in the same place and a giant canvas on the fourth wall. Gorgeous.

Film

When I see a film based on a book I’ve read, I’m often disappointed when it isn’t faithful to the book and / or doesn’t match what’s in my head.  That was absolutely not the case with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo which was true to the story and just like my mind pictures. It has great pace, as it should, but doesn’t seem rushed.

The Artist isn’t the sort of film I would usually go to, but yet again the reviews and recommendations meant I succumbed. I wish I trusted my instinct more. I didn’t dislike it, but wasn’t really satisfied by it – a 30 minute TV show spun into an overlong 100 minute feature film. There was a lot to like, buy in my book it’s over-hyped.

I much admired The Iron Lady but wished they hadn’t told the story in flashback from her current dementia. I’m no Thatcherite, but it seemed somewhat disrespectful and unnecessary. Meryl Streep was simply extraordinary, but so were the actors playing her male colleagues, a veritable who’s who of British male actors of a certain age. When you see recent history recreated, you realise how much you’ve forgotten – as it was here!

The film of War Horse was a lot more sentimental than the stage show (well, it’s Spielberg after all) but I still enjoyed it very much. The story translates to the screen well and again there are a whole host of excellent performances. I was shocked at the number of under 12’s in the audience; it’s a 12A and having seen it I think that’s right. I would never allow a youngster of mine to go and see the maiming of animals and the slaughter of men – it almost traumatized me!

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