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Photos first!

You are invited to view Gareth James’s photo album: Azerbaijan, Georgia & Armenia
Azerbaijan, Georgia & Armenia
Sep 29, 2011
by Gareth James
To share your photos or receive notification when your friends share photos, get your own free Picasa Web Albums account.

These three newly independent countries comprise the strategic Caucasus region that runs from the Caspian Sea in the east to the Black Sea in the west, bordering the Russian Federation in the north and Iran and Turkey in the south. At various times, it has been invaded / occupied by the Mongols, Persians, Ottomans and of course Russia, amongst others. Today, the big geopolitical issue is pipelines which take oil from the Caspian and beyond to ports in the Black Sea and hence by sea west, thus avoiding overland routes through Russia.

Azerbaijan has a long-time dispute with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh but gets on with everyone else. Georgia’s relations with Russia remain fraught but fine with the rest and it has had the roughest independence ride. Armenia has its dispute with Azerbaijan and ongoing tension with Turkey over the genocide of the late nineteenth / early twentieth century. You’ve got to watch what you say round here!

The three countries have a combined population of c.18m – Azerbaijan’s 9m are mostly Muslim, Georgia’s 5m are almost entirely Orthodox Christian and Armenia’s 4m belong to the independent Armenian Church. Georgia and Armenia were the first countries to adopt Christianity (and possibly the first to make wine). All three countries are littered with Soviet apartment blocks and much of the water and gas pies run over ground, bending and twisting over entrances and round corners.

We started in oil rich Azerbaijan, seriously excited about hosting Eurovision 2012 even though they haven’t quite laid the foundations of the venue on the waterfront. In many ways it retains a Soviet character – but with added bling courtesy of its oil revenues. Oil is nothing new here; they’ve been bringing it up for over 130 years and just over 100 years ago provided 50% of the world’s oil. There are very old and very small drills in the city, though much of it has now moved offshore into the Caspian Sea. Despite the fact it is overwhelmingly Muslim, there are few mosques and few obvious signs of Islam in appearance or behaviour. The food and wine was OK but a bit samey and not overly exciting, though they did make jam out of absolutely anything, including walnuts and roses, and eat it by the spoonful with their tea!

The capital Baku is one big building site with a particularly iconic building nearing completion – a hotel that comprises three giant glass ‘petals’ which you can see from absolutely everywhere. It’s a nice enough city, well at least at its centre, with a walled old town, art nouveau buildings from the early days of oil and a long prom with modern buildings vying for your attention whilst lovers stroll, holding hands. The highlights of our visit were the 15th century Palace of the Shirvanshahs in the old town, a Zoroastrian Fire Temple and the pre-historic petroglyphs at Qobestan along the busy oil coast. We won’t talk about my brush with the police for pointing the camera a little too close to the Presidential Administration Tower……

We travelled overland to Sheki in the mountainous north where the Christian heritage is evident through Albanian churches (no relation to the country). The journey took us through semi-desert, fertile valleys, wooded hills and pastures – a topographical tour in not much more than six hours. The highlight of Sheki was the 18th century Khan’s Palace, a riot of colour and glass inside and out, inside a walled compound on the mountainside. The following day we crossed into Georgia.

I fell in love with Georgia very quickly. This may have been because we started in wine country and within a couple of hours of arriving we were treated to a delicious feast with local wine at a home stay; I’m easily bought! The food in Georgia was in fact spectacularly good and the wine was excellent. We gorged on aubergines stuffed with walnuts, cheesy bread, stuffed vine leaves, dumplings filled with meat which you got to once you’d drained them of a consommé-like liquid and all manner of meats, cheeses and salads.

It was a long journey to Tbilisi, broken up my visits to a walled hilltop church, a fortified cathedral and a fortified convent. Tbilisi is buzzing with life; you’d never know the Russians invaded just three years ago. It has tremendous energy and a sense of renewal, and not just in new building like Azerbaijan. Though much of it is still very run down, it was fascinating to explore with a very moochable old town; though not a very pedestrian-friendly city elsewhere. It is dissected by the River Mikvari, with the old town rising and clinging to one side as far as a mountaintop fortress. Its iconic new building is a glass pedestrian bridge. At night, Tbilisi is beautifully illuminated.

The city contains two stunning collections of treasures – the gold of pre-Christian Georgia and more recent religious icons and jewellery. It’s only mosque is unique as Shiite pray on the left and Sunni on the right, both in the same building. Our visit to the new Holy Trinity Cathedral was timed to coincide with the Patriarch (head of orthodox church and state) formally welcoming the Archbishop of Cyprus (another head of church and state). With a convoy of black limousines and lots of men-in-black, it was all very exciting (though more in keeping with a US presidential visit than a pair of clerics!). The speeches were highly politicised.

Out of town, we headed north to Mtskheta for another fine hilltop church and another fortified cathedral and to Ananuri for a stunning walled compound of three churches sitting on a small hill at the side of a reservoir. Back in Tbiklisi, our visit to the lovely Open Air Museum had a bonus as the Georgian state dancers (on perpetual tour to make money) were making a rare visit to Tbiisi for filming, so we got to see them for free with the added fascination of watching the rehearsals and the process of filming. The love affair with Georgia lasted until our premature departure. Our guide Anna was exceptional and there was a great feel to the place. I suspect I shall be back.

Despite the fabulous mountain scenery, with autumn colours already in evidence, dark clouds, a relentless number of run-down Soviet apartment blocks and more austere dark stone churches and monasteries, (we visited 5 en route to Yerevan) the first couple of days in Armenia didn’t excite – not until our first dinner in Yerevan with lovely folk music followed by a visit to Republic Square and its nightly performance of dancing illuminated fountains with a Charles Aznavour soundtrack (an Armenian exile) lifted my spirits.

Armenia appears to be the most run down of the three, except in Yerevan, which is much brighter and airy with wide tree-lined streets and lots of open spaces and street cafes. The genocide of over 1m people hangs heavy over the country; there ate 2.5 times as many Armenians outside the country as inside it – one of the world’s largest diaspora.

Yerevan sits at the foot of Mt Ararat (made famous by Noah!) and when it isn’t cloudy it towers over the city. There are few great buildings, but within the city there is a superb archaeology collection and a spectacular selection of manuscripts. There’s a lot to be seen within an hour and most of our time was spent on trips to a Greco-Roman Temple, Cave Monastery / Churches, a mediaeval burial ground with 900 tombstones and the centre of the Armenian faith at Echmiadzin. Our tour leader is responsible for the relationships between the Anglican Church and the Eastern Orthodox churches, so here we were greeted by two bishops and given a private tour of the residence of the Catholicos (heads of church and state) as well as the cathedral and museum.

Armenia grew on me as the sun began to shine, Mt Ararat revealed itself and the food and wine got better! I admired the spirit of the people and their resilience during a mostly tortuous 20th century.

A trip of huge contrasts – landscapes, architecture, heritage & religion – which was always fascinating and often thrilling. Georgia is the jewel in the Caucasus crown and it won’t be long before they’re coming in droves for a long weekend; beat them to it!

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Opera / Dance

The summer pairing at WNO was amongst the best since they moved to the WMC. Christopher Alden’s production of Turandot is 17 years old, but you’d never know it. It was inventive and fresh with three excellent leads in Gwyn Hughes Jones, Rebecca Evans and Anna Shafajinskaia. Musical Director Luther Koenigs had apparently never conducted it before, but the sound he got from the orchestra and chorus was rich, lush and positively gorgeous – a shivers-up-your-spine job. Cosi Fan Tutte isn’t my favourite Mozart – overlong for the silly story  – but this new British seaside staging complete with prom, mini fairground, Punch & Judy show and Café was delightful and the singing of all six leads – Neal Davies, Robin Tritschler, Gary Griffiths, Camilla Roberts, Helen Lepalaan & Claire Ormshaw – was excellent. Yet again, Britain’s most accessible opera company provided quality and value.

The ENO’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is musically beautiful, but the production is so contemptuous and disrespectful of its dead composer, Benjamin Britten, who can’t answer back. This isn’t Britten’s opera, its director Christopher Alden’s.  If he wanted to steer so far from the composer’s intentions, he should have written his own opera. This is the worst example of director arrogance I have ever seen – and from someone whose work I have so far admired (including the revival of his WNO Turandot above). This is the second occasion this year where the ENO have allowed a director’s vision to overwhelm and overpower a composer’s work. If they were alive they couldn’t / wouldn’t do it, which makes it completely unacceptable. It’s particularly galling that they’ve ditched a lovely production for this travesty. Oh, I wish I’d kept my eyes closed.

Cocteau Voices is an inspired double-bill at the ROH’s Linbury Studio. It pairs Poulenc’s one woman opera based on a Cocteau playlet with another two-character Cocteau playlet, written for Edith Piaf and her lover, adapted as a wordless dance drama with an electronic score from Scott Walker. In the latter, three dancers play each character and it was a mesmerizing athletic visual feast. Italian singer Nuccia Focile isn’t as good an actress as Joan Rogers in the only other production of this piece I have seen (by Opera North) and I found it difficult to believe in her as a dumped lover. After a while, I tuned out the libretto (in English) and just allowed the music to wash over me. One of the better ROH2 experiments.

L’amico Fritz is a rare opera from the man who provided half of Cav & Pag (if he knew, I wonder what Mascagni would think of the fact only one of his 15 operas is now regularly performed – and that as part of a double-bill; I’d certainly be interested in hearing some of the others). Young soprano Anna Leese is the reason for seeing this; she is simply delightful. David Stephenson is also good as, well, David, but I’m afraid Eric Margiore was no match for either of them – and he completely fell apart on the third act. I thought the modern-ish settings took away the opera’s charm, clever though they were, but the orchestra sounded particularly lush. It’s a minor opera, but one I’m glad I caught up with. As much as I have loved OHP over the years, I’m afraid it’s starting to become country house opera in the city, with the associated prices, dress and non opera-loving audience; I fear the worst…..

Contemporary Music

I’ve never been that keen on Ron Sexsmith, who I’ve always found depressing, but my nephew gave me his new album and a compilation to convert me and it worked. It’s the production of the new stuff that lifts it for me, though I have to say the older material worked well in concert. He was supported by Anna Calvi, who was original but a bit intense for me. As it was part of Ray Davies’ Meltdown, he both introduced her and sang a song with Sexsmith. A nice evening.

I wasn’t as enthused by the programming of Ray Davies’ Meltdown as I was Richard Thompson’s last year, even though he is as much of a hero. However, his final concert with his band, the LPO and the Crouch End Festival Chorus was another highlight in a lifetime of concert going. The first half saw the whole of the highly under-rated 1968 album Village Green Preservation Society (it was released on the same day as The Beatles white album!) played for the first time and the second half a set of 13 Kinks & solo classics, the pinnacle of which was Days, with the addition of two thousand audience members singing too. When the orchestra and chorus left the stage, he came back saying ‘we can’t finish yet, it’s not even 10 o’clock’ and the band delivered a three song mini-set which had us all dancing. Terrific!

I couldn’t resist going to Glee Live as the TV show has become such a guilty pleasure. There was much to enjoy, and it was extremely well staged at the O2, but the fan worship and tendency to both over-sing and over-amplify marred what could have been a real fun evening – albeit a short and expensive 80 minute one that came in at over £1 a minute!

Art

I was hugely disappointed by the Joan Miro retrospective at Tate Modern, particularly as the first room was stunning. After these gorgeous early paintings, he moved to Paris and got in with bad company (Picasso and Masson) and it’s poor surrealism, abstraction and downhill from there! I actually preferred Taryn Simon’s exhibition, showing her somewhat obsessive and indescribable collection of genealogical photographic groups. Each group represents people associated with an event or location and there are (explained) gaps where the sets are incomplete. As I said, indescribable!

Chris Beetles indispensable gallery / shop had probably the most comprehensive exhibition of Heath Robinson ever mounted. It was stunning, though it was closely packed and too much to take in. In addition to his quirky stuff, there were less well-known fairy tales and cricket drawings, amongst others. Against this, the fascinating Hoffnung exhibition also there couldn’t compare.

The weather marred our annual visit to the Taste of London restaurant showcase in Regent’s Park, though there also appeared to be a lot less restaurants, less interesting food and a broader less foodie remit. I think it may be time to drop this particular modern tradition.

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This is a trip in two halves. I’d fixed a tour of the Spanish province (and former Kingdom) of Aragon that departed on the Tuesday after Easter so it seemed to make sense to tag on a weekend somewhere else in Spain. I’d only visited Toledo for an afternoon during a business trip and never felt I’d done it justice, so that’s where I went first. Little did I know that it would be 8 degrees cooler than London with a fair bit of cloud cover and a few showers! Who says there’s no climate change.

Toledo sits on a hill that is 270 degrees surrounded by the River Tagus in a deep ravine. It’s an odd shape and as you walk around it’s narrow streets and alleys you are forever surprised that it slopes down when you expect it to slope up and vice versa; you’re hardly ever walking on the flat. The Romans settled here and were followed by the Barbarians, Visigoths and Moors. It was for a royal capital from the 12th to 16th centuries and even when the royals went to Madrid, it remained the spiritual centre. In the middle ages, Moors, Jews and Christians co-existed happily, creating an east-meet-west atmosphere (those were the days…..). It oozes history from every stone and every doorway. It is renown for Toledo steel fashioned into fighting swords and hideous damascene ware (black steel inlaid with gold silver and copper thread). The cuisine is most famous for partridge and marzipan!

I should have done more research before I came (unlike me) as I missed the Semana Santa parades (though rumour has it some or all of the seven I could have caught on Good Friday may have been cancelled due to rain) & a passion play – and I should have paced myself better (very like me) as I packed too much into the first day. That said, there was a wonderful variety of sights including churches, palaces, monasteries, convents, synagogues, mosques, a couple of ancient bridges, an ancient hospital and a castle.

Amongst the highlights were two churches that were once synagogues restored to their original form; both architectural gems. I love the way the name of one of them says it all – Santa Maria la Blanca Synagogue! El Greco’s House and Museum is a lovely combination of period home and artist’s story – though now they’re not sure it was his home! San Juan de los Reyes Monastery had some wonderful plateresque work and atmospheric cloisters. The interior of San Roman is a riot of colourful frescos, including one where people are getting out of their coffins, and Santo Tome has El Greco’s masterpiece The Burial of the Count of Orgaz. I’ve never been a major El Greco fan, but here I began to appreciate his technical skill and originality if not beauty. Then there’s the Cathedral…….

…..it is enormous and contains some stunning, though often OTT and occasionally tasteless art. The choir stalls are beautifully carved, there is a dome behind the Alter from which people appear to be hanging with those on the alter climbing (the only baroque feature). The Chapter House walls are covered with frescos and paintings and the painted ceiling in the Sacristy is stunning; this room alone contains 20 El Greco’s plus works by Caravaggio, Rubens, Titian, Raphael, Van Dyck, Ribera, Velazquez, Goya and Zuberan. They are mostly badly hung and lit and in dubious condition; frankly they don’t deserve them. This is particularly galling as this house of god charges you to enter and bans photography so that they can sell you a set of books, one on each part of the building, that would require a bank loan for a mere mortal to purchase. This is the Catholic Church as business – what would god think?  Shameful. End of rant…..

With some really lovely food (and a little wine!) added it was a nice weekend, parades or no parades, and by Tuesday lunchtime it was time to meet the Aragaon group back at Madrid airport. To be continued…..

You are invited to view Gareth James’s photo album: Toledo at Easer
Toledo at Easer
Apr 25, 2011
by Gareth James
To share your photos or receive notification when your friends share photos, get your own free Picasa Web Albums account.

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CONTEMPORARY MUSIC

Using the label ‘Folk’ for Seth Lakeman stretches it somewhat. I can live with folk-rock, but the driving rhythm of his sound stretches even that. It works so much better live than on record, though he’s wise to keep his set short and snappy to prevent it becoming relentless; the bass is pushed too high and it’s close to hurting (one of my companions had to move back after the first number). The Open Air Theatre was a terrific venue and it was the most exciting folk-rock set I’ve heard for more than 25 years (it reminded me of Fairport Convention and Alan Stivell when they rocked). There was a sex imbalance in the audience the opposite of what’s usual at ‘folk’ concerts – he’s a good looking guy who has quite a following with the girls! The unannounced support of A John Smith, who’s CD I like a lot, was a bonus – his melancholy on record was lightened live, helped by a charming self-deprecation in between songs.

The Kings Place Festival is an eclectic selection of 100 concerts over 4 days, each costing no more than £4.50. We took in three 45-minute folk concerts in one evening and a contrasting collection they turned out to be. Eliza Carthy showed off her technical expertise at both fiddle playing and acapella singing; her dad Martin Carthy’s set with Dave Swarbrick was more about nostalgia, such is the decline of skill and passion with age; and the best was left to last, with a set of great warmth and charm from Chris Wood. This is turning out to be a great venue.

I have a memory of seeing Tom Jones & The Squires at Penyrheol Community Centre (one mile from my home and three from his) before he had his first hit. When you look at his chronology and mine, this seems a bit implausible but my recollection is vivid! So this is (possibly) my second Tom Jones concert – 150 miles away and 45 years later – in Islington’s Union Chapel in Sept 2010. It was a small-scale showcase for the new gospel blues album Praise & Blame (which I love) and was announced by a ticket agency on Twitter. I thought it might be fun, but wasn’t expecting something so musically perfect; the songs sounded even better live, the band was terrific and his voice simply extraordinary. The venue was so perfect – Jones in front of the pulpit beneath the backlit stained glass rose window singing gospel! A real treat.

OPERA & MUSIC THEATRE

Peri’s opera Euridice, written in 1600, may be the first ever opera. 380 years later prolific composer Stephen Oliver produced a new version with the songs and choruses intact, an English translation and new ‘accompaniment’ and this is what British Youth Opera showcased this month. It’s the classical myth of Orpheus & Eurydice – with a happy ending! – and it was simply staged with costumes but no set. Somehow the lovely early music songs & choruses and modern accompaniment work well together and both the singing and playing from the cast of 18 and tiny 8-piece ensemble (intriguing instrumentation including cowbells, handbells, banjo and tabor!) were excellent. BYO’s name conjures up images of pimply teenagers but these are the next generation of opera singers currently studying at our best music colleges so, like the GSMD operas, the standards are really high.

ENO’s Faust is a lot better than the reviews lead you to believe. It seems to me perfectly legitimate to make Faust an atomic scientist at the time of Horoshima and the production worked for me. Some of Gounod’s music really is lovely and it is particularly well sung by Toby Spence as Faust, Iain Paterson as Mephistopheles and Melody Moore as Marguerite, with excellent support from Benedict Nelson, Anna Grevelius and Pamela Helen Stephens. ENO’s MD Edward Gardner yet again gets the best out of his band, and the chorus are on fine form. Director Des McAnuff is better known for theatre (notably the excellent Tommy and Jersey Boys) but I think his second outing in an opera house tells us he may well produce even better work in this form.

I much admired Pleasures Progress, Will Tuckett’s music theatre staging of William Hogarth sketches at the ROH’s Linbury Studio, though I was exhausted and fed up, so I didn’t get as much out of the evening as I should have. Very bawdy and often gross, it was a clever cocktail of music, dance and theatre which was superbly staged, designed, performed and played.

OTHER

I was hugely impressed by my visit to Denbies Winery in Dorking. I remember buying a bottle of their wine many years ago and thinking it was ghastly! Well, now it’s the largest winery in the UK producing over 250,000 bottles (80% sold from the cellar door) and the whites and rose were very nice indeed. They’ve cleverly expanded the business to include a winery tour (by people mover!) with an excellent 360 degree film & tasting and a tour of the vineyards by ‘train’.

I had 30 minutes to kill between afternoon tea with an Icelandic friend passing through and pre-theatre drinks with visitors from Somerset (as one does!), so I popped into White Cube at Mason’s Yard. Having returned from the Faroe Islands just a month ago, imagine my surprise to fine 10,080 photos – one taken each minute for a week – from that very place. Darren Almond’s exhibition also had some terrific film footage from Siberia with a hugely atmospheric soundtrack. Such is life lived on impulse…..

I thought Open House was going to be a damp squib this year as I’d only booked for one building (the brochure arrived AFTER booking opened – so much for advance ordering! – by which time everywhere I wanted to visit that had to be booked was fully booked). So I took pot luck with non-bookable buildings expecting to find queues, give up and get fed up. Well, it actually turned out to be one of the best ever with 12 visits. I only gave up on one (the BBC’s Bush House) and only really queued once, though I was seated watching videos so it was hardly a chore at all. Saturday started with Carpenter’s Hall, which added to my ‘collection’ of livery companies. The Arts Council (the one I booked) was a clever refurbishment which produced a funky and comfortable work space with great contemporary art in an old terraced building with stunning views of Westminster Abbey, Parliament and the London Eye from the terrace. Channel 4 was a riot of glass and steel, typical Rogers, and I couldn’t understand how I hadn’t walked past it in 15 years. The Ruebens ceiling at the Banqueting Hall was terrific and the place oozed history (I can’t understand why I’ve never been there before). The Foreign Office self-guided tour was really well organised and I loved the state rooms like the Locarno Suite and the Durbar Court. They were unloading Popemobiles outside. I then had to cross the anti-Pope demo in Piccadilly to get to The Royal Society of Chemistry and The Geological Society, neighbours in Burlington House, which had both benefitted from tasteful refurbishment.

On Sunday, the visit to The Royal Ballet Upper School was much more than a walk along the extraordinary ‘Bridge of Aspiration’ (which was terrific) with performance videos while you waited and dancers rehearsing on your tour route. Parliament’s Portcullis House is hideous on the outside but a lot better on the inside, with excellent contemporary art and an exhibition of photos taken during the last election. I loved the simple elegance of the Ismaili Centre; the towers and turrets of the neighbouring South Kensington museums peeping over the walls of the gorgeous roof garden. It was rather surreal walking through Brompton Cemetery while Chelsea fans were using it as a short-cut to the game and druggies were hanging out around the graves. Finally, I visited the art nouveau / art deco former Finsbury Town Hall with wrought iron entrance canopy and stunning Great Hall. This is a once-a-year opportunity which I can safely say I exploited fully this year!

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Monday started with England’s best baritone (and the world’s second best – guess who’s the best), Simon Keenlyside, in the lovely Queens Hall with a programme of Rorem (never heard of him until this year, now featured in two concerts in quick succession), Buttterworth and Schumann. The Butterworth songs were gorgeous and the Rorem intriguing, but I wasn’t expecting to enjoy the Schumann so much; I normally find German lieder a bit too strident, but this was beautiful – though we had some strident Shubert for the encores****

I’m off to the Outer Hebrides on Friday, staying in Stornaway on Lewis, so I was thrilled to find that the British Museum and the National Museum of Scotland had combined their collections of the Lewis Chessmen for a special exhibition here in Edinburgh. The story of the pieces (well, what’s known of them) was well told, but it was disappointing to find the pieces split up within the exhibition – I’d have liked to see a complete set at some point***

I lost a shit load of money investing in the West End production of the rock musical Spring Awakening – a critical success but a financial loss – but I have to say I’m proud to have been a small part of it as I consider it ground-breaking stuff and I’ve been thrilled to see the talented cast subsequently turn up all over the place; the last occasion only 6 days ago at the National. I couldn’t resist seeing the first amateur production by the Royal Scottish Academy of Music & Drama here at the fringe. The decision to cast the London production with raw talent was completely vindicated. In the hands of singers /actors in training at a premiere league conservatoire, it lost a lot of its edge. Though it was well sung (and particularly well played by the small band) there was a sort of ‘posh boys saying fuck to be cool’ about it – though I have to say the ending was somehow more moving***

Back at the main festival in Greyfriars Church we went to some Latin American Vespers that were both fascinating and beautiful. I’d had no idea how liturgical music was transported with Spanish colonisation (and apparently back again). There were fewer Latin American touches than I was expecting, so it did sound rather European, but a treat nonetheless****

Monday ended with our first stand-up (we missed Sarah Milican because I’d misread the 24-hour clock and double-booked us), Shappi Khorshandy. She’s gone through a divorce recently and she chose to make this a very personal show (therapy?) and I thought it was very funny; she has a genuine charm and appealing self-deprecating humour***.5

Back at the Traverse Tuesday morning for a play called Girl in the Yellow Dress about the relationship between an English teacher and her French (adult) pupil. It took an age to take off, but the second half – when the psychological games between them unravel – was excellent***

The rest deserted me at this point, but I stayed for a quirky show called The Not So Fatal Death of Grandpa Fredo. I’d seen a show before by the same company and I liked their cartoonesque style with ingenious sets and great use of music. This wasn’t as satisfying as the previous show, but it was even more inventive as a small hut became, amongst other things, a diner, a laboratory, and ultimately a boat on a lake in Norway!***.5

We had lunch 100ft above Edinburgh at a table raised by a crane – this is true!!! It was a great experience and the food was surprisingly good. I had to have a drink beforehand for Dutch courage, but it actually wasn’t scary at all and I even looked down and twirled my seat!****

I saw the original production of Five Guys Named Moe at its first outing at Stratford East (that night local boy Dudley Moore was in the audience and in the interval impresario Cameron Mackintosh allegedly made the Theatre Royal Stratford an extraordinarily generous offer for a speedy transfer) and subsequently in the West End and in Germany. It’s based on the terrific 30’s / 40’s jazz of Louis Jordan and Cab Calloway and this new production is at least as good as the original. Its toe tapping, funny, high energy stuff which they’ve updated cleverly without losing the essence.  All six performers were outstanding and the six-piece band was terrific. Catch it when it comes back to Stratford East, though I suspect its West End bound once more****

Tuesday ended at a Comedy Gala for AIDS charity Waverley Cares with 26 stand-ups over 3.5 hours. In truth it was exhausting and I suspect less would have been more, but there were excellent mini-sets from Welshman Mark Watson, Edinburgh’s Danny Bhoy, Aussie Adam Hills, Tooting’s Stephen K Amos, and archetypal Englishman Simon Evans. It’s a great way to ‘sample’ and decide who to see next time***.5

Two more days to go……..

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CONTEMPORARY MUSIC

I booked to see Elvis Costello in Oxford before his London Meltdown date was announced, so off to Oxford I went 3 days after his appearance here. His choices for this solo show were unpredictable and refreshing and he seemed very relaxed and confident. There was something that prevented it being a classic, but I can’t put my finger on what (though it might have been the man sitting next to me who sang along – albeit quietly – for most of the show!). Still, it was great to see him again, great to see him solo again and just great really!

CLASSICAL MUSIC

The Spitalfields Festival’s concert of Handel’s beautiful oratorio Saul in Christ Church was glorious. You will find more experienced, and no doubt better, singers and players than those of the Royal Academy of Music, but I doubt you’d get a more spirited and thrilling performance. Laurence Cummings conducted with brio and the soloists – Laurence Meikle, Clare Lloyd, Aoife Miskelly, Stuart Jackson and Roderick Morris – all sang with passion. The orchestra & chorus were so uplifting in the lovely Church acoustic.

OPERA

Albert Herring was Britten’s’ only comic opera and, as far as I know, the only British comic opera to enter the international repertoire. I’ve seen it before and liked it but it took the Guildhall School of Music & Drama’s production for me to realise how much of a masterpiece it really is. It’s a simple story of village life, where a May king is crowned as there aren’t any worthy queens, but he too ultimately upsets the moralistic conservative village elders. It’s the way the music (orchestral playing as well as singing) conveys the humour that is so clever. The musical standards were as good as always at GSMD and the production values better than ever. Lucina-Mirikata Deacon turned Lady Billows into a brilliant (and appropriate) Mary Whitehouse clone and her busy bee housekeeper was excellently played and sung by Amy J Payne. The quartet of local worthies – Leonel Pinheiro’s mayor, Matthew Stiff’s policeman, Eva Ganizate’s teacher and Gary Griffiths’ vicar – was all superb. It was a great idea for butcher’s apprentice Sid (a terrific Matthew Sprange) and baker’s assistant Nancy (equally terrific Maire Flavin) to be played as punks! It was hard to believe Sylvie Bedouelle was a student, so believable was she as Albert’s mum. The children were played with gusto by Sophie Junker, Lucy Hall and Ciara O’Connor and Thomas Herford was a perfectly naïve Albert. My only negative would be that a dialect coach should have been employed to help the non-native English speakers – well, if you do it with Italian and German, you should do it with English! Another wonderful night at the Guildhall.

Mozart never finished his early opera Zaide (why?) so Ian Page decided to do so 230 years later (why?)! Instead of writing new music, he requisitioned other Mozart pieces, but with new English sung text from poet Michael Symmons Roberts and spoken text (of which there is too much) from dramaturge Ben Power and director Melly Still. What results in a cohesive finished product which somehow doesn’t come alive. The singing and playing is good rather than great, the acting is significantly better than opera’s norm and the staging is exceptional. A worthy effort, but one has to question whether it was worth all the trouble.

ART

Another catch-up month and a veritable art fe(a)st!

Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto has taken over the upper galleries and all three outdoor rooftop sculpture courts of the Hayward Gallery for a playful installation which includes a ‘nylon’ labyrinth (which you can walk in and behind and view from above) and an outdoor swimming pool you can take a dip in. It was fun (and would be particularly good for kids) but as it’s made of thin fabric and plywood, I’m glad I was there on the first day as I’m not convinced it will survive 11 weeks! On the ground floor, The New Décor is a bizarre interior design exhibition where everyday items are subverted in terms of both appearance and display. I can’t really describe it, can’t say it caught my imagination but wouldn’t say ‘don’t go’. I think that might mean indifference.

The Saatchi Gallery’s new exhibition of contemporary British art isn’t going to make the impact previous ones like Sensation have – I’m not sure there are any Damien Hirst’s or Tracy Emin’s here (that could be interpreted as a relief!). Somehow it all seems a bit tame and derivative.

My friend Amanda’s twin brother Paul Rennie has an exhibition of 20th century posters at Black Dog Gallery to coincide with the publication of his new book. I’ve seen so many 20th century posters (Shell, London Transport, British Rail….) that I was pleasantly surprised to find much that was new to me. Small – just 60 or so prints – but perfectly formed.

The Beauty of Maps exhibition at the British Library is terrific. I loved the way it was curated, grouping by the locations they would have been first seen in – audience rooms, galleries, bedrooms etc. – and there are some wonderful items on view. I am going to have to go back as there’s just so much to see.

A day trip to Oxford provided an unexpected bonus as Modern Art Oxford had a Howard Hodgkin exhibition; he’s one of my favourites, but most of his work is in private collections. It’s a great space that the 25 pictures didn’t really fill, but there were a handful of gorgeous ones I’d never seem before.

Tate Modern has been a bit hit-and-miss of late, but their current pairing provides for an intriguing visit. I’d only seen one work by Belgian artist Francis Alys before (a room full of paintings of the same subject, St. Fabiola, which he picked up in flea markets and junk shops!). This comprehensive retrospective, A Story of Deception,  includes a lot more work, including footage of his walk through Jerusalem with a dripping can of green paint to recreate the 1948 Green Line (through checkpoints without being stopped!) and the re-creation of a gunman walking through Mexico City (until the police arrested him, but after an unnervingly long time!). The other exhibition, Exposed, links photographs from more than 100 years which are voyeuristic, clandestine or surveillance. It sounds tacky, but it wasn’t really (well, most of it!) and the older photos were fascinating – photos of people are much more interesting when they don’t know they’re being taken.

For a lover of the surreal, I was rather underwhelmed by The Surreal House at the Barbican. They’ve gone to a lot of trouble (and expense) to find connections and links to make it hang together as an exhibition that they rather bury some terrific pictures from Dali, Magritte et al…..but I loved the grand piano hanging upside down from the roof which explodes every two minutes and then implodes two minutes later!

I remember coming to London 30 years ago and going to see an exhibition of American artist Andrew Wyeth’s paintings at the Royal Academy. I was compelled to visit it after seeing a couple of images in a newspaper or magazine. It was sensational. I’ve been hunting Wyeth’s ever since, but most are in private collections. I was amazed to find none in public collections in New York, then thrilled when I discovered a gallery devoted to him in Pennsylvania where I also visited his studio and was introduced to the work of his father NC and son Jamie. So, imagine how excited I was when a Wyeth Family exhibition turned up on my doorstep at Dulwich Picture Gallery! Only 10 of the 55 completed pictures are Andrew’s but they are lovely and include a handful from his 80’s, the last decade of his life. There are some terrific pictures by dad NC who illustrated many iconic books including Treasure Island and Rip van Winkle but Jamie’s are not as good as the ones I saw in Brandywine. We’re also introduced to Andrew’s sister Henriette with four nice pictures. I’d have loved more of Andrew’s but there’s more in Dulwich than New York, so it’s hard to complain!

FOOD & WINE

When we arrived at Taste London this year it was obvious that the numbers had gone up and the show had gone down market. There seemed to be fewer Restaurants (which is the point of the show) and more bars and exhibitors. In the end, I did enjoy it but I suspect it’s another of those things you go to regularly and enjoy – until the world finds out, when you leave them to it.

OTHER

Only Connect is a theatre group who work with prisoners, ex-offenders and those at risk of offending and I’ve admired and supported their work for a couple of years, as a result of which I was invited to a workshop of scenes from the first act of a new musical called The Realness at their atmospheric Kings Cross base, a former chapel. The performances were astonishingly good, including a terrific one by male lead Mensah Bedlako, who took over at just 5 days notice! The show itself is very promising and I can’t wait to see the finished work. Support them on www.oclondon.org

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This was the second Sideways wine weekend of 2009; this time to Piedmont, Italy – home of Barolo and Barbaresco – and I used the opportunity to tag on a couple of days in Turin, a new city for me.

It’s proximity to France, but perhaps more importantly it’s history as the home of the Dukes of  Savoy, gives TURIN a hybrid Italian-French look and feel – colonnaded boulevards and huge piazzas with a combination of Romanesque, medieval and classical architecture. It’s a lovely city to explore on foot and the autumn weather was perfect for this.

The Palazzo Real is a grand affair, befitting a capital city, with a maze of opulent rooms and extensive grounds. It sits on one edge of Piazza Reale which adjoins Piazza Castello; this really is the heart of monumental Turin. The state apartments are a mixed bag with some badly in need of restoration. The armoury is a spectacular space, though it’s difficult to get excited about its content unless you’re turned on by a lot of swords! The high spot though is its long narrow Library, still in use as an archive.

The heart of working Turin is Piazza San Carlo, a vast rectangular colonnaded space with two churches at one end. The cafes around the collonade bring it to life and it’s en route to lots of places so it’s forever populated by people on the move or stopping to rest. The streets which lead to the square are populated by Turin’s finest shops; being born without the shopping gene, I gave those a miss.

Turin contains the finest collection of Egyptian antiquities outside Egypt (more impressive than Berlin or London) and they are housed in their own museum. It really is a stunning collection, particularly the statuary – two big rooms of them – but there’s also the complete contents of several tombs, lots of mummies and a spectacular Book of the Dead.

Most cities have a curiosity and here it’s a 19th century brick tower called the Mole Antonelliana (the tallest in its day) originally built as a synagogue and now housing a 21st century cinema museum. A free-standing glass elevator rises to a roof terrace from which the 360 degree view is spectacular (though on the day I went, the haze rather limited it). The museum is badly signed and curated so it’s hard to get the most out of it, but the building and the view (and a rather good antipasti buffet in the cafe!) make it a must.

Parco del Valentino, along the River Po, looked gorgeous in the autumn colours. It houses a medieval village and castle built for an 1884 exhibition; it’s a folly, but the craftsmanship of the day means it’s now a beautifully imagined antique theme park!

Add a few churches – particularly the riots of baroquery at Santuario della Consolata in Romanesque Turin and San Lorenzo in Piazza Reale – and GAM, a disappointing modern & contemporary art gallery, and you have a very enjoyable couple of days exploration.

Our PIEDMONT WINE WEEKEND started with a truffle hunt! The ease with which the dog found the truffles made us a bit suspicious, but if they were planted they were certainly well covered up! The manic way the dog behaves suggested to me she must be addicted to truffles (and she gets to eat the small ones) so I wasn’t sure what I thought about it all. It was white truffle season (the more expensive ones) and they were retailing at £5000 per kilo (ten times black truffles at a mere £500) so there’s clearly a rather good living to be made here. When we entered the shop, the smell was intense and overpowering. We tasted more than 10 truffle products – its fascinating how many uses they have – but I can’t say I entirely appreciated the taste or understood the value placed on it.

Piedmont is primarily known for three grape varieties – Dolcetto, Barbera and Nebbiolo – which make the renowned wines of Barolo and Barbaresco. Our first wine tasting was at the wonderfully named Conterno Fantino (www.conternofantino.it), a family winery on a hilltop overlooking Monforte, one of the 11 villages that comprise the Barolo DOC. The son showed us around the winery and mother led the tasting – until Dad turned up looking like he’d had a rather good and rather long lunch and proceeded to add a few more wines including a 99 Barolo Sori Ginestra and a preview of the 06 vintage! I love these family run businesses – they aren’t the most slick and you may find better wines elsewhere, but there’s a real sense of individuality, preserving tradition, innovation and living their passion.

Our hotel for two nights was Albergo Cantine Ascheri in Bra (www.ascherihotel.it), a modern 28-room 3-story hotel with en suite winery hidden in a courtyard on the outskirts of Bra. Winery owner Matteo Ascheri showed us around his sparkling modern facilities with a very compelling and lucid account of the history, tradition and modernisation of the Barolo region. After a ten wine tasting earlier at Conterno Fantino, this was a more modest four wine tasting in a lovely purpose-built tasting room in the cellars of the winery / hotel which was followed by dinner in their restaurant; this is a new breed of winemaker who sees the added value of providing dining and accommodation.

Our visit to the lovely hilltop village of Barberesco was a pilgrimage to meet the godfather of Italian wine, Angleo Gaja (www.gajawines.com). A larger-than-life character, he showed us around his impressive cellars and renovated castle and talked almost non-stop for 90 minutes. Though it was clearly an honour, he did bang on a lot in a rather pompous fashion! He left the tasting to his daughter and the five wines we tasted were spectacular, but I soon realised that they were so expensive I may never taste them again!

After a simple but delicious lunch in the village, we headed to the vineyards of Bruno Giacosa (www.brunogiacosa.it) on the hills overlooking Serralunga where the autumn colours took your breath away; a riot of reds, yellows, browns and greens. The tasting of six wines back at their premises included a sparkling white and our first white made with the local Arneis grape. It was another good selection which proved Piedmont holds its own as a region of fantastic reds; I think I’m about to enter my Barolo period…..

Here are some photos….. 

 
You are invited to view Gareth’s photo album: Turin & Piedmont Wine Weekend
Turin & Piedmont Wine Weekend
Nov 1, 2009
by Gareth
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