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Archive for the ‘Opera’ Category

Opera

Porgy & Bess was probably my best Met Live experience. It was the same production as that at ENO last year, but with a largely black American cast telling a quintessentially American story, it seemed to be where it should be. The orchestra and chorus were stunning and every soloist shone.

My visit to WNO at WMC in Cardiff was for only one opera this time, but it was a rare outing for Verdi’s underrated Les vepres siciliennes where the orchestra and chorus were brilliant yet again, a handful of international soloists from Korea, Armenia, Italy and Poland were introduced to us and David Pountney’s production fused period costumes with timeless settings. Well worth the trip.

Little did I know that Met Live was about to reach another level with a simply stunning production of Handel’s Agrippina. The acting of Joyce DiDonato, Iestyn Davies, Kate Lindsey, Brenda Rae and Matthew Rose matched their superb singing, rare in opera in my experience. David McVicar’s staging and John Macfarlane’s design were brilliant. This was a highlight in a lifetime of opera-going, which a third of a million people could see at a reasonable price, unlike the few thousand who paid ten times the price to see it in Covent Garden last year.

Classical Music

Crouch End Festival Chorus was hugely ambitious and very enterprising with their concert of Glass, Stravinsky and Ives at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. These were difficult works and you could see the concentration on their faces, and those in the London Orchestra da Camera, but they pulled it off with aplomb. A fascinating afternoon.

The LSO’s pairing of Prokofiev & Shostakovich works at the Barbican proved to be fascinating, with the orchestra’s leader given a moment to shine as a soloist in the former’s Violin Concerto No. 1 and the whole orchestra played superbly under Gianandrea Noseda in symphonies from both composers and a prelude from that other Russian, Mussorgsky.

The LSO’s Half Six Fix series at the Barbican reached its pinnacle with a thrilling Beethoven’s 9th conducted by Simon Rattle. The second movement never sounded better, the LSC were on fine form and there were four well matched soloists, but above all it was the orchestra who rose to the occasion, as they always seem to do under Rattle.

Contemporary music

The Musical Box are a Quebecois Genesis tribute band who have gone global, to the point where they get to perform at the London Palladium. I’m not really a tribute band man, but there was a buzz about this lot which I couldn’t resist, though by the interval I was wishing I had. It was post-Gabriel Genesis, instrumentally strong but vocally relatively weak and the visuals were patchy. About fifteen minutes into the second half though it took off on a wave of nostalgia. Now we were in MY Genesis period. It culminated with a spectacular encore of Supper’s Ready from Foxtrot. All 25 minutes of it. I went home happy.

Film

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood is a quirky film but I rather enjoyed its other-worldliness and its message. Why Tom Hanks performance is ‘supporting’ is beyond me; the film revolves around his character.

The Gentlemen was another film I put off until the last minute unconvinced it was for me, but I thoroughly enjoyed it, despite the sort of violence I keep saying I don’t like. It’s very cleverly plotted and benefits from great performances against type by both Hugh Grant and Michelle Dockery.

I’m also one who avoids foreign language films because, as a slow reader who absorbs every word, I find that by reading subtitles I’m missing the visual, but I made an exception for Korean film Parasite after all the awards buzz and again I was right to do so. Highly original and completely enthralling.

Greed is a coruscating, thinly veiled, well deserved satirical swipe at the odious Philip Green, linking the exploitation of workers in the developing world with the fashion industry. It’s a bit heavy-handed, but I enjoyed it nonetheless, and it has an extraordinary cast of talented British actors.

Art

Picasso and Paper at the Royal Academy is a huge and astonishing exhibition. He is so prolific and, though I’d don’t like everything (cubism in particular), it’s littered with gems. I was overwhelmed by it all.

British Baroque: Power & Illusion, late Stuart paintings from 1660-1714, at Tate Britain wasn’t really my thing, more of academic than aesthetic interest. Also there, I caught Steve McQueen’s Year 3: a Portrait of London which was not really about looking at the 3128 classic pose class photos of 76,000 7-8-year-olds in 1504 schools, it was about engagement and citizenship and I admired it for that. The latest Spotlight one-artist room was devoted to British Zanzibar artist Lubaina Himid whose work of women with women was very striking.

Whilst in Cardiff, I visited the National Museum of Wales where there were three photographic exhibitions, the highlight of which was Martin Marr in Wales – loud, brash and colourful documentary photos. I’d seen and admired a small selection of August Sander’s portraits of 20th century Germans in a private gallery in London, but the bigger selection here didn’t really add much; it became a bit monotonous. Bernd & Hilla Becher’s Industrial Visions was what it said on the can – lots of photos of mines, water towers, factories etc. but it did contain one of the mine where my father worked all of his life, and others in South Wales, contrasting with ones in Germany and the US.

The combined running time of all the films and videos in the Steve McQueen retrospective at Tate Modern is an hour more than their opening time. Add in waiting and queuing time and you need to allow at least 1.5 days! I ‘sampled’ it, which was enough for me I’m afraid.

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Opera

Though I find the music to Wozzeck somewhat inaccessible, I was drawn to the Met Live relay by the fact it was being staged by William Kentridge. It was an extraordinary production, and I even found the music more accessible this time around.

Classical Music

The LSO gave us Beethoven’s oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olives at the Barbican, which is hardly ever performed, as a result of which I was baffled as to why. It was glorious, with the LS Chorus on particularly fine form.

Comedy

Radio 4’s 40-year-old I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue is a wireless cult favourite, and even more fun on stage at the New Wimbledon Theatre with a full house, a real comic treat chaired by Jack Dee with Tim Brooke-Taylor (who has been on it since the pilot), Tony Hawkes, Miles Jupp and Richard Osman, with Colin Sell at the piano. Sadly Samantha was otherwise engaged!

Film

I wasn’t sure about Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker at first – I hadn’t really been keen on the last two – but I did like the way it concluded the series, going full circle to where it started.

I was sold JoJo Rabbit by the trailer, but on reflection I think it was somewhat mis-sold. Despite some stunning performances by the kids and some genuinely funny moments, I found some of it rather uncomfortable.

Cats wasn’t as bad as the reviews, but it was still a bit weird and surreal. I think it proves that live theatre can do things film just can’t.

1917 isn’t an easy ride, but it’s an extraordinary piece of film-making by Sam Mendes, with stunning cinematography by the great Roger Deakins, and a performance by George MacKay which is going to propel him to stardom.

I put off seeing Joker until its last week, when the awards buzz finally made me give in. I’m not keen on glorified, stylised violence, but I found this psychological thriller clever, with a surprising amount of depth, and Joachim Phoenix was simply superb.

I thought Bombshell was a very good expose of the Fox News sexual harassment scandal, presumably true as no-one has sued! Charlize Theron is superb.

Purists probably won’t like The Personal History of David Copperfield, but I thought it was original and clever, often very funny, sometimes moving, with a British cast to die for.

Art

Two Last Nights: Show Business in Georgian Britain at The Foundling Museum was a great show for a theatre buff like me. A detailed examination of theatre practices and theatre-going in the 1700’s and early 1800’s including images, objects, posters and tickets. It was good to renew my acquaintance with this lovely museum too.

I’ve always been fascinated by Anselm Kiefer’s work, though it’s usually bleak and somewhat depressing, as is his Superstrings, Runes, The Norns, Gordian Knot exhibition at White Cube Bermondsey, but these seventeen monumental textured and three-dimensional pieces were astonishing and I was so glad I saw them.

I made another visit to Pitzhanger Manor, this time to see Es Devlin’s Memory Palace, a topography, 360°because of mirrors, of places associated with her 74 most significant moments in world history, from cave paintings through the pyramids, Indian temples and Machu Picchu to the internet. Fascinating.

Troy; Myth & Reality was an excellent exhibition at the British Museum which told the story of Troy in paintings, statuary, archaeology and other objects. Very comprehensive and beautifully curated.

I’ve lived in London for 38 years but have never been to the Wallace Collection. What attracted me after all this time was a special exhibition, Forgotten Masters: Indian paining for the East India Company, an exquisite collection of paintings of people, buildings, flora & fauna and animals. I took a quick look at the permanent collection while I was there, but it’s enormous, very dense, too ornate, mostly sixteenth and seventeenth century with lots of armour, so not really to my taste.

Three treats at Tate Modern starting with the latest Turbine Hall installation, Fons Americanus by Kara Walker, an enormous sculpture modelled on the one of Victoria outside Buckingham Palace, but as a comment on colonialism. One of the best of these Turbine Hall commissions. I wasn’t convinced I was going to like Korean video artist Nam June Paik‘s retrospective, but I found it playful and fun, though a lot to take in. The highlight though was Dora Maar – photos and paintings by her and of her, most of the latter by Picasso. Her photography, the biggest part of the show, ranged from fashion through documentary to portraits and abstracts. A very rewarding showcase of a fascinating and talented woman.

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Contemporary Music

It took a while for me to get into the cinema relay of the Les Miserables staged concert, largely because it doesn’t really come alive until the prologue of sung dialogue gives way to the first act, but when it got going it was superb. The encores of a handover to the next Javert and four Valejeans from the first to the next were inspired, and very moving.

Rufus & Martha Wainwright’s Not So Silent Night continued their family’s tradition of charity Christmas concerts with lots of guests. At the Royal Festival Hall they included Guy Garvey, Neil Tennent, Chrissie Hynde, Sophie Ellis-Bextor, opera singer Janis Kelly and American actress Martha Plimton, who it turns out is a rather good singer. It proved to be a lovely experience, albeit charmingly shambolic at times.

Opera

I think I’ve only seen Britten’s Death in Venice once before, but then again the night I went was only the 23rd performance at Covent Garden in the 46 years since its premiere, so the opportunity doesn’t come along that often. I’ve never considered it up there with masterpieces like Peter Grimes and Billy Budd, but this David McVicar production changed my mind. Mark Padmore was wonderful as Ashenbach, Gerald Finley terrific in no less than seven roles and Leo Dixin danced Tadzio beautifully. It was just about faultless in very way and the full house cheered wildly. Maybe that will encourage The Royal Opera to broaden its programming. We must have had 230 or even 2300 La Traviata’s in the same 46 years.

Classical Music

The LSO Chamber Orchestra Milton Court concert of early music was a freebie for subscribers but it proved much more than that. The orchestra played the Purcell, Handel & Rameau pieces beautifully under the highly enthusiastic Emmanuelle Haim and there were two great soloists too – Lucy Crowe and Reinoud Van Mechelen. Freebie maybe, but a treat nonetheless.

The Sixteen‘s Christmas concert at Cadogan Hall was a delight from start to finish. Normally unaccompanied, this time there was the occasional addition of percussion and harp, the latter absolutely gorgeous. The programme included lots of rare carols, some mediaeval, and ended with Britten’s lovely Ceremony of Carols.

Comedy

I don’t see much stand-up, other than at the Edinburgh Fringe, but made an exception for Jordan Brookes at Soho Theatre after last year’s Edinburgh buzz. I admired the originality and there were superbly funny moments, but it was perhaps too surreal and off-the-wall for me and didn’t really sustain its 70 minutes length.

Film

Knives Out is a whodunit, with its tongue firmly in its cheek, which keeps you guessing, and smiling, until the final scene. I really liked its old-fashioned style and it’s hugely convoluted plot.

Having not read the book, I struggled a bit with the hopping around in time of Little Women, but I eventually succumbed to the charm of a beautifully filmed story.

Art

I went to see Dulwich Picture Gallery’s Rembrandt’s Light exhibition on the morning after an attempted robbery when the gallery had closed, so I had to go back 10 days later to see it without the two paintings that almost got away but are now back with their owners in Paris and Washington. There were some nice pictures and it was well lit – by the man who did Star Wars! – but I have to confess to being a touch underwhelmed. Not a lot of pictures for a high profile exhibition and a lot with subject matter that doesn’t really appeal to me.

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The Rest of November

Contemporary Music

I saw her several times with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, but her concert at the Anvil Basingstoke was the first time I saw Rhiannon Giddens without them, but with Italian multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi. It was an eclectic selection, consummate musicianship and great sound / acoustics. She also engages with her audience, so it becomes an evening with her.

Opera

The rarely staged Haydn opera La Fedelta Premiata was given a brilliant production at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama. It was a touch long but it was an absolute hoot, and the standard of singing and playing, and the production values, were sky high. As good as anything I’ve seen in an opera house recently, and better than most.

Having fallen out of love with ENO I didn’t go to see Akhenaten, so I went to the Met Live relay of the same production, which was brilliant. I ‘got’ the music better than when I first saw it decades ago, when I didn’t even realise there were no violins in the orchestra! The juggling synchronised with the music was inspired and the costumes were extraordinary, though I did find two long intervals (with Joyce DiDonato’s overly sycophantic interviews) spoilt the dramatic flow, but producer Phelim McDermott is a magician nonetheless.

Like the proverbial bus, two Haydn operas came along this month at two different ‘conservatoires’, with the second one – Il Mondo Della Luna – at the Royal College of Music was another absolute hoot. Brilliantly designed and choreographed, they got every ounce of comedy out of it, and more, and both the singing and playing was glorious; perhaps the best I’ve heard from the RCM Orchestra

The best staged performance of Britten’s Peter Grimes I’ve seen was on the beach in Aldeburgh during his centenary year, but the best musically was the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra under Edward Gardner, with Stuart Skelton as  Grimes, at the Edinburgh Festival in 2017, so I pounced when I heard they were going to reprise it at the Royal Festival Hall and it was just as wonderful. The orchestra, four choruses and another eleven fine soloists delivered musical perfection and the RFH audience erupted as the Usher Hall one had.

Classical Music

Another fine lunchtime concert with the Royal Academy SO under Robert Trevino. I enjoyed Igor Stravinsky’s fascinating dance music Agon, which was new to me, but it was a stunning performance of the much heard Elgar’s Enigma Variations that blew me away. The talent is extraordinary and Trevino is clearly very nurturing.

The Philharmonia Orchestra played William Walton’s complete score for Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film of Henry V synchronised with a screening of a restored print at the Royal Festival Hall, helped by Crouch End Festival Chorus, and it was brilliant. Its ages since I saw a film with live music and I’d forgotten how good it can be.

Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas chose Berlioz monumental Romeo & Juliet choral symphony for the 50th anniversary of his first concert with them and the LSO and LSC rose to the occasion, filling the Barbican Hall with a glorious sound.

Tilson Thomas’ celebrations continued at the Barbican with one of the LSO’s ‘Half Six Fix’ series, one hour early evening concerts with digital programmes and illustrated introductions by the conductor. This was insightful, and Prokofiev’s 5th was thrillingly played.

A revisit to Beloved Clara, one of Lucy Parham’s ‘composer portraits’, at Milton Court proved very rewarding. The fifteen piano pieces are interspersed with readings from the letters of Robert & Clara Schumann and their friend Johannes Brahms, by Dame Harriet Walter and Simon Russell Beale no less. Civilised entertainment, and ultimately very moving.

I love single composer evenings and it was great to hear the very animated Doric String Quartet give all three of Britten’s quartets together. The third references his opera Death in Venice which I will be seeing next month (and visiting the city for Christmas and seeing the play in April!). These are challenging works, but their musicianship was extraordinary and the usually reserved Wigmore Hall audience cheered. One of the best chamber recitals I’ve ever been to.

Back at the Royal Academy of Music, where my classical month stared, Mark Elder conducted their Symphony Orchestra in a Berlioz programme which included two rarities. They sounded great, as ever, and it was good to see personal favourite Elder again after two concerts he was too unwell to conduct.

Film

Ken Loach brought shame on our benefits system so effectively in I, Daniel Blake, and now he does the same to the gig economy in Sorry We Missed You, more specifically parcel delivery and care in the home. These are hard films to watch, but they have to be seen. Campaigning film-making at its best.

I enjoyed The Good Liar, though with all its twists and turns it oddly left me wishing I’d read the book. In many ways it’s an old-fashioned film, but there’s nothing wrong with that and it does have two national treasures, though Ian McKellen playing a man pretending to be someone else resulted in something a bit odd.

Art

I became an instant fan of Lisa Brice when I saw her small exhibition at Tate Britain last year, and this was confirmed by her selling exhibition at Stephen Friedman Gallery. Again, it’s mostly semi-clad women smoking (!) but the work is extraordinarily original and mesmerising. Up the road at Sadie Coles HQ, I was less enamoured with Dutch artist Co Westerik’s body and landscape. It was clearly technically accomplished, but I found a lot of it a bit disturbing.

Though there were some lovely pictures and objects, the British Museum’s Inspired by the east: how the Islamic world influenced western art was one of those exhibitions where they took a chunk of their collection, added a few loan items, and made it into something you pay to see. In the print gallery upstairs there was a better (free) show of drawings by 20th century German artist Kathe Kollwitz, who I’d never heard of but whose work in Portrait of the artist bowled me over.

I was a bit surprised that The House of Illustration was five years old as I’d never heard of it, but Made in Cuba: Cold War Graphic Art is an excellent exhibition that puts it on the map for me. They also had a lovely small display of Quentin Blake work-in-progress to add a lighter touch.

One of my gallery wanders brought rich rewards, starting with Peter Doig, back on form at Michael Werner after a disappointing selection at the same gallery a while back, continuing with Grayson Perry’s brilliant new work on a theme of inequality at Victoria Miro, on to the Photographer’s Gallery for the excellent Shot in Soho and the quirky Feast for the Eyes – The Story of Food in Photography and ending with three stunning light, video and sound installations Other Places at 180 The Strand. I am so lucky to live in this city. All of this cost £2.50!

At the Guildhall Art Gallery, they’d assembled an eclectic selection of paintings of London spanning 500 or more years for Architecture of London. From Canaletto to contemporary works, from cityscapes to back gardens, I loved it.

I didn’t think the Taylor Wessing Photographic Prize exhibition at the NPG was as good this year, the selection seeming more pointed and quirky. While I was there, though, I caught the rest of Elizabeth Peyton’s portraits that they’d hung with the Tudors, Stuarts, Elizabethans and Victorians, which was a brilliant idea, and another twenty excellent works to see by this great new find (for me).

The Barbican Art Gallery’s exhibitions are not always as good as Into the Night: Cabarets & Clubs in Modern Art. It featured cabarets & clubs spanning eighty years in twelve cities in Europe, Latin America, Africa, USA and the Middle East and included four recreations as well as pictures, photographs and objects. I thought it was absolutely fascinating. In the Curve Gallery downstairs, Trevor Paglen has covered the walls with 30,000 photographs drawn from the ImageNet database of many millions by word searching, often resulting in surprising images. It’s called From ‘Apple’ to ‘Anomaly’ and I thought it was also fascinating.

The National Gallery was also at its best with the Gaugin Portraits exhibition, really well curated and lit with an excellent accompanying film. The interpretation of ‘Portraits’ was sometimes a bit loose, but justified. A real one-off.

Revisiting the Sir John Soane Museum reminded me how wonderous it is, though I was there specifically to see Hogarth: Place & Progress which brings all of his series paintings and engravings together for the first time. I loved it, though after I’d left I realised that, in the maze that the building is, I missed two rooms, so I’ll have to go back!

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Contemporary Music

Quercus is an occasional folk-jazz fusion project by singer June Tabor, pianist Huw Warren and saxophonist Ian Bellamy and their concert at King’s Place was an eclectic if melancholic treat. We even had a beautiful rendition of George Butterworth’s setting of one of E. A .Houseman’s A Shropshire Lad poems, which I’ve only ever heard in a classical song setting.

Opera

I have a higher tolerance of modern opera than anyone I know and I’ve seen a Gerald Barry opera before (which I admired rather than loved) but I’m afraid the revival of his 30-year-old debut The Intelligence Park at Covent Gardens’s Linbury Studio bored the pants off me and you’d have had to pay me a lot to return after the interval. The convoluted story was deeply uninteresting and the music relentlessly tuneless. Modern operas rarely get a second outing; I’m puzzled as to why this one did.

The October pairing by WNO at the WMC in Cardiff was terrific – a revival of outgoing AD David Poutney’s 40-year-old production of the now 100-year-old The Cunning Little Vixen, as fresh as its first outing with the late Maria Bjornson’s designs proving timeless, and a brand new beautifully sung and played production of Carmen with a very edgy contemporary aesthetic which may well last as long. Another weekend treat in Cardiff.

A freebie at ENO took me to Emma Rice’s Orpheus in the Underworld. In truth, I’m not a fan of Offenbach’s operetta, or operetta in general come to that, but it was fresh and funny and featured a cast of old timers including Willard White, Anne-Marie Owens, Judith Howarth and Alan Oke, all of whom it was good to see again. There were lots of youngsters in the audience who seemed to find it fun, so maybe a good introduction for them. Glad I saw it, but also glad I didn’t pay £125 for my stalls seat!

I was at first in two minds about Glyndebourne Touring Opera’s production of Handel’s Rinaldo, a very radical staging where the crusades it depicts become a schoolboy dream, but it proved to be great fun and the singing and playing were beautiful, so I succumbed.

Classical Music

I enjoyed Elgar’s oratorio The Kingdom in Edinburgh a couple of months ago, but I enjoyed its companion piece The Apostles even more at the RFH. I think it’s a better work, but the combination of the London Philharmonic Orchestra & Chorus with the BBC Symphony Chorus, nine students from the RCM and six brilliant British soloists produced something extraordinarily beautiful, with moments of sheer elation.

Dance

I struggled with the first part of South African choreographer Dada Masilo’s Giselle at Sadler’s Wells, but found the second half mesmerising. Sadly, the former was twice as long as the latter, so the evening wasn’t really satisfying enough.

Film

I very much liked Judy, partly because it was almost entirely about her time in London at the end of her career. Renee Zellweger was superb.

There’s a really meaty satire to be made about hapless terrorists and incompetent security agencies but The Day Will Come was too weak and thin to be it. Has Chris Morris gone off the boil?

Official Secrets is a superb investigative film in the mould of All the Presidents Men and Spotlight and the cast is a Who’s Who of the finest British actors. I loved it.

I also loved the latest Shaun the Sheep film Farmageddon. I have more fun at these, and the Paddington films, than any film for grown-ups!

Art

I was surprised at how much I liked Lucien Freud’s Self-portraits at the Royal Academy. I think it was the diversity of styles over more than sixty years as much as the technical quality and aesthetic appeal.

Two treats at the NPG, the biggest of which was Pre-Raphaelite Sisters, an exhibition featuring a dozen female artists, models, relatives and muses who worked with the likes of Millais, Rosetti, Burne-Jones et al. A great idea very well executed. In the galleries next door I was introduced to Elizabeth Peyton and her lovely, original contemporary portraits. A real find.

The annual Koestler Arts exhibition of art by those in the criminal justice system at the Southbank Centre showcased some extraordinarily talented artists this year. I was tempted by quite a few pictures, but I remembered my lack of wall space in time!

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Contemporary Music

There was always a risk that Richard Thompson’s 70th birthday concert at the Royal Albert Hall was going to have so many guests that the birthday boy became an extra at his own celebration, but as it turned out he was on stage virtually throughout, whether singing his own songs or duetting with or backing his guests, and an impressive lot they were too. From The Stranglers Hugh Cornwall who was, somewhat surprisingly to most present, in a school band with him aged 14, through Fairport colleagues Dave Mattacks, Dave Pegg, Ashley Hutchings and Simon Nicol, the omnipresent Danny Thompson, Loudon Wainwright III, Martin & Eliza Carthy, Maddy Prior, Kate Rusby, Olivia Cheney, the whole Thompson clan and Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour! I could have done without one of the two Stranglers tracks and the Spinal Tap joke fell a bit flat, but there were way more highs than lows in tribute to a genuine legend who has entertained me for fifty of his seventy years.

Opera

Grimeborn continued its hugely successful roll into September with a superb and rare revival of Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Monteccchi. The singing was of an extraordinarily high standard and, at close quarters in in Studio Two, very loud! Later that week, Don Jo was a spin on Mozart’s Don Giovani which was loud in another sense altogether. I’m all up for modern take’s and I was expecting some gender changes, but I wasn’t expecting the recorded music (not much of it Mozart), the fact only two of them could really sing, the long scene breaks and the tackiness of it all. It was such a contrast to the three Grimeborn high’s which had preceded it.

Classical Music

My third and final Prom, another Sunday morning one, was short in time but huge in numbers, with eight choirs totalling 600-700 singers placed in four sections of the auditorium for John Luther Adams’ In the Name of the Earth, a choral homage to the planet with percussion effects and movement from the choirs. It was hugely atmospheric and the sound just wrapped around you and filled the Royal Albert Hall. A big bold experimental success.

The opening concert of the Wigmore Hall season was a Britten feast, with four of his song cycles sung by four young British soloists – one soprano, one mezzo, a tenor and a baritone – and all of them sang beautifully. A real treat for a Britten fan.

The LSO season opening weekend at the Barbican included a rare outing (sighting!) of Messiaen’s final work Eclairs sur l’Au-dela. Famous for orchestrating birdsong and hearing colours, Messiaen’s final 70 minute work peeps into the afterlife and requires 126 players. It showed off the virtuosity of the LSO individually and collectively and Simon Rattle’s love of the work was infectious.

I don’t think I’ve ever known the sedate Wigmore Hall erupt like it did after laBarocca’s concert of the first (Italian) version of Handel’s Aci, Galatea e Polierno. I don’t think I’ve seen so many, twenty, on that tiny stage either. The soprano, Roberta Mameli, blew me away and the bass sang lower than I’ve ever heard before, but I wasn’t keen on the tone of the contralto’s very deep voice. A treat nonetheless.

Film
Despite two lovely performances, I found Mrs. Lowry & Son a bit dull. It’s more BBC4 bio drama than cinema release.

More lovely performances and beautiful filming, but The Sacrifice was too art house for me, slow and ponderous.

I know it’s just posh soap opera, but I did love Downton Abbey. The strands of the story came together expertly, it’s a who’s who of fine British acting (with Imelda Staunton joining the regulars from the TV series) and it looks gorgeous.

The Last Tree was a beautifully made film which could so easily have been judgemental but was in fact hopeful. Superb performances too.

I wasn’t expecting a film about Chinese Americans returning to their homeland to say goodbye to their dying mother / grandmother to be funny, but The Farewell was, and the real life revelation at the end a delightful surprise. Charming film.

Art

Urban Impulses 1959-2016 at the Photographer’s Gallery is almost 50 years of Latin American photography, mostly in black & white and it contained some terrific images. One of the best exhibitions at this venue in a long time. Upstairs was the inaugural New Talent exhibition which contained some impressive work but was a bit skewed to the taste of its single selector / curator. I think they need a panel to ensure a diversity of work.

The William Blake exhibition at Tate Britain was very big, with the amount of detail sometimes overwhelming, and too much religious imagery for my taste, but it was a very comprehensive review of his work and life, particularly good at the biographical aspects.

I was beginning to wonder if Anthony Gormley was a one-trick pony, as all we seem to see are his cast iron men. Well, they make a spectacular appearance in one room of his Royal Academy show, but there’s so much more in the other twelve, half of it new, including two whole room works which you walk through – though he did pinch the idea of his reflective room from Richard Wilson’s 20/50!

I wasn’t sure what to expect at Tim Walker’s Wonderful Things at the V&A. I didn’t know much about the work of this photographer, probably because it’s mostly fashion, but the first room familiarises you with his posed, highly stylised, stage-manged work. From there, ten spaces each record, on ‘stage sets’ a photoshoot inspired by something in the V&A, which accompanies them – snuff boxes, Aubrey Beardsley prints, stained glass and so on. It was unique, surreal and rather extraordinary.

For Mark Leckey’s O’ Magic Power of Bleakness, Tate Britain have built a replica of the space under a motorway where he played as a child. Inside the space, there are three video works, but as we were given a leaflet just before we entered the darkness, we didn’t really understand them until we left! That said, it was strangely hypnotic, though whether it was worth all that effort and a £15 entrance fee is another matter.

Drawing Attention, an exhibition of digital architectural drawings at the Roca Gallery, was a bit specialist for me, though there were some nice images, but I was there to see Zaha Hadid’s extraordinary building anyway; a beautiful space to display up-market bathroom fittings!

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Opera

The Royal College of Music put on a cracking opera double-bill of Berkeley’s A Dinner Engagement and Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti. The stories of British toffs’ post-war ‘poverty’ and unhappy 50’s American suburbia somehow worked well together and they were both staged and performed brilliantly.

It was good to catch Britten’s rarely produced children’s opera, Noye’s Fludde, in a co-production between ENO and Stratford East, involving two schools, young musicians from two local boroughs, a community choir and students of the Royal College of Music. It was a very charming and heart-warming experience.

Cilea’s L’arlesiana is one of Opera Holland Park’s best rediscoveries. It’s a ‘small’ opera for such a big space, but the surprisingly lush and romantic score was beautifully sung and played. Lovely.

My first opera in the Arcola Theatre’s Grimeborn season was one I’m not really keen on – Die Fledermaus – but a friend wanted to go and it turned out to be a hoot. It was shortened to 50 minutes, updated to the present day and played and sung brilliantly by Baseless Fabric Theatre.

I could hardly believe my ears at our second visit to Grimeborn for Wagner’s Das Rheingold; the 100 minute adaptation by Graham Vick & John Dove, The singing was astonishingly good, the orchestra brilliant and the simple staging highly effective. I never thought you could pull off Wagner with these resources in a small space, but it was more thrilling than any production I’ve seen in an opera house.

Classical Music

The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s The Planets at the Royal Albert Hall was an afterthought brought on by some friends coming to London to see it. It was accompanied by extraordinary NASA footage on a big screen. It peaked in the first movement when the power of Mars was accompanied by NASA‘s best images. As we went into less well known movements and more distant planets, it was less thrilling, but still worth a visit. The first half included superb renditions of Also Sprach Zarathustra and John Williams’ Star Wars suite. Populist stuff, but high quality populist stuff.

I’ve seen the London Welsh Chorale a few times, but their concert of rarely performed and new pieces by Welsh composers was on another level altogether, both in scale – orchestra, children’s choir, three soloists, organ and narrator – and quality. They sounded gorgeous in St. Giles Cripplegate.

My first Prom this year was a Sunday morning one with the National Youth Orchestra of the USA under Antonio Pappano and the incomparable mezzo Joyce DiDonato in a programme that included Berlioz’ Les nuits d’ete song cycle, which sounded heavenly, and Strauss’ Alpine Symphony, which was thrilling. It opened with the European premiere of an excellent short work by a 19-year-old orchestra member! Joyce, of course, forever stylish, colour-coded her frock with the orchestra’s bold red and black outfits. When they encored with Elgar I felt I was in an internationalist haven far away from the nationalism of everyday life these days. These young people were clearly from a diverse range of backgrounds playing music by French, German, British and American composers. A wave of emotion overcame me as the music was saying more about a special relationship than any politician ever could, and the warmth of their reception at the Royal Albert Hall was uplifting.

Back at the Royal Albert Hall for my one and only evening Prom this year, for Handel’s oratorio Jephtha, which was very well played and sung by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra & Chorus under Richard Egarr, with a fine set of soloists. The cuts were a bit controversial, but they didn’t bother me and it was a bit of a novelty to be at a concert which came in at 30 minutes less than the published time.

Dance

At Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, contemporary dance piece 10,000 Gestures delivered what it said, not that I was counting, as the dancers were, out loud, some of the time. The pace was mostly frenetic, Mozart’s Requiem was background rather than choreographed and it got a bit edgy when the 21 dancers moved into the audience, some members of which moved onto the playing area. Boris Charmatz’ work was strangely compelling and somewhat exhausting.

Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Hobson’s Choice may be thirty years old, but it’s as fresh as they come, and a comic delight. Ballet can often be very earnest, and this is the antidote. An excellent score, period set & costumes and sprightly choreography with terrific characterisations come together to make a lovely full evening show at Sadler’s Wells.

I’ve seen and enjoyed everything Matthew Bourne has done, but what was special about Romeo & Juliet at Sadler’s Wells was his use of young dancers and artistic associates. It was inspired, mesmerising, exhilarating, thrilling……and exhausting! The musical adaptation, the design and the choreography all combined to produce something so fresh and exciting, but also very moving, and the performances were uniformly stunning. I can’t wait to see it again.

Film

I liked Late Night, a film with more depth than it seemed at first, and I was hugely impressed by Emma Thomson, an actress I don’t always take to, for the second time in less than twelve months.

I like Danny Boyle and Richard Curtis films, Rom Coms and British feel-good movies. Add the soundtrack of my teens and I was in heaven seeing Yesterday.

Blinded by the Light is Gurinder Chadha’s best film since Bend It Like Beckham 17 years ago, another heart-warming and hopeful British Asian story, this time based on a real one.

I’m not a Quentin Tarantino fan because of his glorification of violence but I was led to believe Once Upon A Time in Hollywood was different. Well, it was for the first 2h20m and I loved the late 60s retro aesthetic and accompanying soundtrack, though it was a bit slow, sometimes dull and overlong, but then he grossed out for the last 20m and I had to look away.

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