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Archive for the ‘World Music’ Category

Contemporary Music

Camille O’Sullivan really is a one-off. I adore the edginess, anarchy, unpredictability and eccentricity, but above all her unique interpretation of songs; she inhabits them. The Union Chapel was the perfect venue for her and I was captivated.

I was a bit nervous that Show of Hands’ could pull off the challenge of having their 25th Anniversary concert in the vast Royal Albert Hall given that the only other time I’ve seen them was at the tiny candlelit Sam Wannamaker Playhouse, but somehow they turned it into an intimate folk club (with raffle and birthday announcements!). The duo expanded to a trio and then an ensemble of up to eleven with a 26-piece choir, but it all worked brilliantly.

The Unthanks latest ‘Diversions’ project involves the songs and poems of Molly Drake, mother of singer-songwriter Nick Drake and actress Gabrielle Drake, whose recorded voice reads the poems. They are nice songs but 90 minutes of them was maybe a bit too much, though there was enough to enjoy to make the evening at Cambridge Corn Exchange worthwhile, with a Nick Drake song as an encore a terrific bonus.

Classical Music

I’m not familiar with Dvorak’s Requiem so it was good to hear it in the Barbican Hall, and the BBC SO & SC made a great job of it, with three excellent well-matched soloists. I’m a bit puzzled why it isn’t done more often as it’s as good as many others that are.

Global Voices at the Royal Festival Hall was a bit of a punt that turned into a major treat. In the first half, the National Youth Choir of Great Britain did a musical world tour with innovative pieces from or influenced by Italian, Indian, Latvian, Chinese, Swedish, Aboriginal and British music. In the second they were joined by seven other guest youth choirs from the US, Hong Kong, Indonesia, South Africa, Latvia and Israel to form a 350-piece choir accompanied by the Southbank Sinfonia and two excellent young British soloists for Jonathan Dove’s superb oratorio There Was a Child, written to celebrate the life of the son of two musicians who died aged 19. I can’t begin to describe how inspirational, captivating and uplifting it all was.

The big classical event of the month was Sounds Unbound 2017 : Barbican Classical Weekender which was so good, it got its own blog https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2017/05/01/sound-unbound-2017-barbican-clasical-weekender

Dance

I enjoyed the New Adventures 30th anniversary mixed bill at Sadler’s Wells, but it came as a bit of a shock after all those large-scale shows. It was a good reminder of where it all started though, and a charming and funny show.

Film

It’s been a lean period, but I did catch Their Finest which I loved. A fascinating true story with a cast of British actors that reads like a Who’s-Who. Gemma Arterton continues to impress on screen as well as stage – even playing Welsh!

Art

I really enjoyed the Vanessa Bell exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery. I didn’t really know a lot about her, hadn’t seen much of her work before and I was very impressed. I do love going to Dulwich, where the exhibitions are always the right size, with brunch in the café to follow!

The David Hockney exhibition at Tate Britain blew me away. Spanning sixty years, with everything from paintings to photo collages to iPad drawings, it was a huge exhibition and a huge treat. From there, via the brilliant new Cerith Wyn Evans light installation in the Duveen Gallery, downstairs to Queer British Art, an odd exhibition in that not everything seemed connected to its theme, but there were some great individual works, including more of the Sussex Modernists I’d seen three and five days before in Dulwich and at Two Temple Place.

The American Dream, the British Museum’s review of Pop Art through prints, was very comprehensive and fascinating. It included the usual suspects like Andy Warhol but had a lot more I’d never heard of. The puzzle was, though, what is it doing in the British Museum?

The Eduardo Paolozzi retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery was just as comprehensive, and much more diverse than I was expecting. I wouldn’t call myself a fan, but it was good to see the entire career of an important British artist like this.

The Barbican Art Gallery’s exhibitions are often surprising and fascinating and The Japanese House was one of those. It examines domestic architecture in Japan since the Second World War and they’ve recreated ten units of an actual house on the ground floor! Downstairs in the Curve Gallery, Richard MossIncoming projects giant images of refugees and their camps taken with long-distance thermographic cameras normally used in warfare to create something oddly voyeuristic but deeply moving.

Tate Modern has a giant Wolfgang Tillmans photography exhibition. As usual, Tillmans mounts his photographs, sometimes with narrative, to create room installations. It’s a bit hit-and-miss in my view, but worth a mooch.

The annual Wildlife Photography Exhibition at the Natural History Museum now seems to start as soon as the last one finishes; we were even wondering if we were going to one we’d already seen! There’s something new each year – a category or theme perhaps – and it’s always hugely impressive.

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Well it wasn’t a vintage year, but there was enough to make the trip worthwhile.

The highlight of the Fringe was Mark Thomas’ solo show (and a departure in form) Bravo Figaro at the Traverse Theatre. He’s one of my favourite comedians and completely unique, but this is no stand-up show. He tells the story of his relationship with his dad and his dad’s love of opera. It is often very funny, with his trademark swipes at all things unfair and unjust, but on this occasion the tears of laughter were accompanied by the other sort of tears at the end of what was a deeply moving and satisfying hour. The second highlight was also a solo show (well, apart from the pianist) and also autobiographical, but very different indeed. I’m not a real Madness fan, though I do quite like their music. I’m not sure how Suggs got to be a national treasure, but he is and on this form you can see why. It was an illuminating and funny whizz through an interesting life. He’s a sort of everyman / normal bloke and I think that’s where his charm lies; you’d just love to meet him in a pub for a few beers and a good old chinwag! 

I saw four other shows at my favourite venue the Traverse Theatre, but none came near to Bravo Figaro. And No More Shall We Part, a play about assisted suicide, was well staged and beautifully acted, but with a clumsy structure and an unsatisfying ambiguity – and it was deeply depressing! The hugely prolific Simon Stephens play Morning was an hour of teenage angst that made me want to shout ‘grow up’ at the stage. Again well acted, but not enough to banish my regret of booking for it. Others enjoyed Monkey Bars more than I did. It’s one of those verbatim pieces – this time with the words of children spoken by adult actors. I didn’t dislike it, but found it a bit slight. I’m beginning to wonder if we’ve overdone verbatim…..The final Traverse offering coupled The Letter of Last Resort, a play about the letter a prime minister has to write on their first day in office giving instructions to the commanders of our nuclear submarines, with another play called Good With People set where they are based. The link between them was nebulous. I enjoyed the former less out of the context of the ten-play cycle The Bomb at the Tricycle Theatre back in March and found the latter a bit dull and pointless. Is the Traverse going off the boil or is it just a fluke year?

You couldn’t find two comics further apart than Stewart Lee and Tim Vine, but I have to say I enjoyed both. The normally edgy Lee has a more subtle edge this time around with a show based on the premise that now he’s a hands-on dad he doesn’t have any material for a show, and continually referencing the reasons for its structure and our reactions. Clever stuff, but not everyone in a Saturday evening big venue audience agreed. Tim Vine is an old-fashioned charming corny gag merchant, but you can’t help loving him. It’s refreshing to see someone whose humour is clean and who has absolutely no edge and no agenda other than to make you laugh; someone you can take the kids or grannie to – the audience contained some of both. I’m not sure using members of the audience as chat show guests really worked, but it was a fun hour nonetheless. I’m not sure how to categorise Sandi Toksvig‘s show – part stand-up, part autobiography, part anecdotes, part book plugging! She does have a natural engaging charm and it was an enjoyable hour in her company. Mark Watson’s Eurolympics was a bonkers late night slot where three guest comedians compete in events including wearing as many of the audience’s clothes as you can, balancing books on your head, writing a limerick etc. Silly but fun.

Elsewhere in fringe theatre, Allotment wasn’t just a quirky site specific show (actually sitting on stools surrounding an allotment!) but a funny and moving story of the lives of two sisters for whom the allotment is their escape from the real world. Starting with tea and scones was an inspired bonus! Communicado‘s staging of Rabbie Burns’ poem Tam O’Shanter was very good, with excellent music, but the dialect was often impenetrable for non Scots like me which marred an otherwise enjoyable affair. Planet Lem, an open air Sci Fi show in the University courtyard by the Polish company that brought us Carmen Funebre on stilts in a school playground and Macbeth also here in the courtyard, was a bit flat. The small amount of dialogue it contained was recorded and in English, yet it was still hard to comprehend. Technically well executed in b-movie fashion, it didn’t live up to their previous offerings. The other theatrical highlight was The Two Most Perfect Things, a biographical review of the lives of Noel Coward and Ivor Novello. After five minutes, I was wondering why I’d added this just that morning as it seemed a bit like being in a moving talking singing museum. It soon won me over though, with the stories of these fascinating theatrical icons interspersed with their songs beautifully sung. Lovely.

For an unusual diversion, I went to see Scotland’s national poet Liz Lockhead read some of her lovely poems. It wasn’t as good without Michael Marra’s songs in between as on a previous occasion, but something to further the eclecticism of this year’s selection. More poetry from Phil Jupitus on the free fringe, recreating his first incarnation as Porky the Poet, with a guest appearance from another comedian-turned-poet-turned-comedian Owen O’Neil (with a book to plug!). A nice hour and the closest to the spirit of the fringe I came this year.

The fringe musical highlight was The Francis Bacon Opera, based on his interview with Melvyn Bragg where they both got famously drunk on camera and ended up dancing. A hugely original piece with superbly funny characterisations and clever musical touches including the musical representation of painters – Jackson Pollock was a hoot! Scotland in Song was an impulsive thoroughly enjoyable hour of traditional song interspersed with a bit of history; I particularly liked its objectivity and balance. Our final show, as guest of the BBC, was a live broadcast of Radio 3’s Late Junction with an eclectic mix of Scottish folkie Dick Gaughan, Irish chanteuse Camille O’Sullivan, modern classical specialists The Hebrides Ensemble and an extraordinary group of singers and musicians from Azerbaijan. I do love it when you put together something as diverse as this and create a delicious cocktail.

After no main festival shows last year, we had five this year, starting with a Polish Macbeth (my 4th!) in a giant hanger like space where they had created a two-story house in a middle eastern war zone. The relocation worked well and the play got to the heart of the Macbeth’s madness. The staging was spectacular, with fighting, absailing and gruesome murders; the creation of the ‘other’ ghostly world was particularly effective. What is it with the Poles and Macbeth?! French company Theatre du Soleil haven’t been here since they did four Greek tragedies over a weekend in a carpet factory in Bradford some 20 years ago (I was there!). This time they have created Les Nufrages du Fol Espoir, a show which takes place in the giant attic of a restaurant just as World War I is about to start. A bunch of left-wing idealists are making a silent movie that travels from Sarajevo to Patagonia via Cardiff and Windsor! The stagecraft is extraordinarily inventive (in a low tech sense) and the music was brilliant. It was overlong at 4 hours, but I will forgive them for the stage images that will remain for a long long time. This outstanding company and their director Ariane Mnouchkine are up there with Robert Lepage as creators of theatrical magic. The third theatrical offering was more disappointing – Gulliver’s Travels from Roumania. Again, the staging was low tech inventive, but this time the structure and narrative made for a bit of a confusing muddle and it didn’t really hang together, despite some stunning scenes.

I’m not sure Charpentier ever meant David et Jonathas to be staged as an opera and I do wish it had been a concert. Musically beautiful, the staging was simply distracting, with endless short scenes played out in a wooden box which got bigger and smaller depending on the scene. Better with eyes close, I suspect. My heart sank when I discovered favourite soprano Rebecca Evans had been replaced by unknown Christiane Karg for her Queens Hall recital, but it was one of those occasions when you see an emerging star and forget completely that she’s standing in. A very diverse programme showed off both her versatility and her vocal talent to great effect and the smile on accompanist Martin Martineau‘s face told you he too though she was something special. 

Not a lot of art this year, but what there was was special. Van Gogh to Kandinsky has only a pair from each, but fortunately a lot more wonderful work from many other artists (most of whom I’d never heard of!) under its subtitle Symbolist Landscape in Europe 1880-1910 which made for a very beautiful collection; very cohesive and satisfying. Downstairs at the National Gallery, they featured an unknown Italian called Giovanni Battista Lusardi whose Italian landscapes and cityscapes rival Canaletto in their detail and technical mastery; a real find. Celebrity art was represented by Harry Hill whose pictures probably wouldn’t be seen if he wasnt Harry Hill, but they were funny and provided a diverting 20 minutes (once you’ve got your breath back from the climb to the top floor of the store where they were shown!). The annual International Photography exhibition was its usual stunning self which brought on the now equally usual feeling of total photographic inadequacy!

Now I’ve written this, it seems a lot more action packed and a lot better than it seemed at the time;  Mmmm……

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The Rest of November

Contemporary Music

Blind Malian’s Amadou & Mariam staged their concert in complete darkness. The effect was to heighten the listening experience of their uplifting music. I could have done without the life story narrative, which was a bit naff, but otherwise it was an extraordinary experience.

Roy Harper is another of those artists who are part of the soundtrack of my life and Stormcock one of my very favourite albums. I haven’t kept up with his later work and haven’t seen him for some time, but his 70th birthday concert at RFH was irresistible. It proved to be deeply moving – he appeared to be ‘signing off’ and almost cracked up a few times. The 8-piece brass and string ensemble meant he focused mostly on my personal Roy Harper period and I loved it. When Jimmy Page guested for the double-guitar fireworks (on 5th November!) of That Same Old Rock (he played on the album) it was absolutely magical and the hall erupted.

I was amazed when they decided on Hammersmith Apollo for the Gillian Welch concert. It’s a shabby, tacky and dirty place and ever so big for two acoustic musicians. Though I would have much preferred somewhere like the Barbican or the Southbank Centre, she did pull it off. I like the new album and the first set was largely taken from it. The big surprise though was how this was a mere taster for an outstanding second set which ended with superb encores of country classic Jackson and Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit . I’ve waited a long while to see her, but it was well worth the wait – next time, somewhere else though? Please…

Taking eight people to Ronnie Scott’s to see jazz vocalist Ian Shaw was always going to be a risk, but one that paid off. The musicianship shone through and the audience were suitably attentive. His band included a silver-haired bassist who played with Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker. Wow! Astonishingly, it was my first visit to RS, but now that they have shows at civilised times I shall be back!

Opera & Classical Music

The operatic adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness seems to me to be a great success. Set mostly aboard a boat in the Congo, it has great atmosphere and tension thanks to Robert Innes Hopkins superb design and Tarik O’Regan’s music. There was some excellent singing from Alan Oke, Gweneth-Ann Jeffers and Morten Lassenius Kramp with the small ensemble Chroma under Oliver Gooch providing a colourful orchestral background. Just what the Linbury Studio is for.

The Guildhall School of Music & Drama have uncovered a neglected comic gem with Die Lustigen Weiber von Windsor, Nicolai(who?)’s take on Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor. It’s given a sparkling and fresh modern dress production by Harry Fehr with a brilliant set and costumes from Tom Rogers. For some reason Nicolai changed the names of the Ford’s and Page’s but not Falstaff or Fenton. He’s dumped Mistress Quickly, Bardolph and Shallow, but otherwise it’s true to its source. Barnaby Rea is excellent as Falstaff, Ashley Riches is very good as the second cast Fluth (Ford) and Ellie Laugharne is a sweet-voiced Anna – but its Sky Ingram’s show; her Frau Fluth (Ford) is fabulous; we’ll be hearing a lot more of her for sure.

I’ve wanted to see Vaughan Williams’ Hugh the Drover for a very long time, so Hampstead Garden Opera’s production was very welcome indeed. I have to confess though that I wasn’t expecting it to be such a good opera and for the musical standards of this ‘amateur’ production to be so outstanding. It was beautifully played by The Dionysus Ensemble, a group of music students & recent graduates, under the leadership of Oliver-John Ruthven. The leads were also students & recent graduates and they were also exceptional. David de Winter was terrific as Hugh, with Elaine Tate a lovely sweet-voiced Mary and Ed Ballard fine as baddie butcher John. This ballad opera is so so underrated, but this new chamber version will hopefully lead to more productions. A whole packet of gold stars to HGO for leading the way.

Handel’s Saul is a lovely dramatic oratorio and Harry Christophers & The Sixteen delivered an excellent interpretation at the Barbican, helped by a set of outstanding soloists including Sarah Connelly, Christopher Purves and Robert Murray. The quality of the choir is exceptional with a handful of them stepping forward to sing the smaller solo parts.

Opera North’s Ruddigore is destined to be as classic a G&S production as ENO’s The Mikado still is many years on. It’s a completely preposterous story of course, but it’s given a sparking fresh production by Jo Davies, with sepia design from Richard Hudson, and is an absolute delight. Grant Doyle is an excellent leading man, Hal Cazalet (who trained next door at GSMD) acts and sings superbly well as sailor Dauntless, Heather Shipp is as batty as Mad Margaret should be and there’s superb support from a few old favourites I seem to see too little of these days – Anne-Marie Owens, Richard Angas and Stephen Page. I sincerely hope their visits to the Barbican become regular – it would d be good to have good quality opera at decent prices here in London!

Dance

I loved the Scottish Ballet programme I saw a couple of years ago in Edinburgh, so I booked to see their new double-bill at Sadler’s Wells. The first piece – Kings 2 Ends – was playful, funny and quirky. Choreographed by Jorma Elo to music by Steve Reich and Mozart, this young company excelled. Kenneth MacMillan’s Song of the Earth to Mahler’s song cycle took a short while to settle but soon became spellbinding. More classical than the first piece, I liked the contrast, though the dancers seemed to find it more of a challenge. I liked soprano Karen Cargill but I’m afraid tenor Richard Berkeley-Steele was nowhere near as pleasing on the ear!

I’m new to Ballet Rambert and this second showing didn’t live up to the first. It was certainly a diverse triple bill. RainForest was a somewhat abstract 40-year old piece by Merce Cunningham with an electronic score, danced in Jasper Johns costumes in an Andy Warhol setting. Seven for a secret, never to be told was Mark Baldwin’s exploration of child behaviour to a Ravel score and Javier de Frutos’ Elysian Fields was a steamy and violent homage to Tennessee Williams and A Streetcar Named Desire in particular, danced to that film’s score with unnecessary and intrusive dialogue. A bit of a mixed bag – I admired the dance / movement but didn’t really find anything entirely satisfactory.

Art

The Royal Academy’s Degas & the Ballet – Picturing Movement should have been subtitled ‘A study in obsession (with a touch of pedophilia)’ It pushed the dancer theme just a bit too far for me. There were some exhibits that I felt were padding (animation and panoramas) and I think it would have been a better 5-room exhibition than it was an 8-room exhibition. That said, the penultimate room of 13 paintings was simply glorious and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. Also at the RA, Building the Revolution – Soviet Art & Architecture 1915-1935 was a small but fascinating series of pictures and drawings which illustrated the iconic art deco / modernist hybrid that existed there and then. Most of these buildings are now run down (or worse) and I was struck by how many I’d seen on recent trips to the Ukraine & The Caucasus.

The most extraordinary thing about Gerhard Richter’s retrospective at Tate Modern is that it feels like a show by a bunch of artists rather than one. He completely reinvented himself on a regular basis so there is much diversity on show here. It didn’t all work for me, but as a body of work it’s certainly impressive.

Grayson Perry moved from my list of OK-but-overrated-modern-British-artists to the premier league on the strength of his brilliant exhibition at the British Museum. His own work is interspersed with items from the BM collection (few of which I’d ever seen before). It was equal parts learning, fun and beauty and I was bowled over by it.

Another pleasant surprise was the John Martin exhibition at Tate Britain. This early 19th century artist created vast canvases, mostly on dramatic religious themes like Sodom & Gomorrah. They seem to be the precursors of / influence for apocalyptic films like Independence Day and covers for 1970’s progressive rock albums by bands like Yes. In their day they toured the country with sound and light shows to accompany then, seen by millions of people, so it was terrific that they created a modern version for the Judgement Day triptych – a first for an exhibition? How can I have lived this long without ever knowing about this man?! Upstairs, sculptor Barry Flanagan’s early work seemed tame and dull, I’m afraid, but it did mean you get to climb their brilliant and bright newly painted staircase!

I was smitten by the Pipilotti Rist exhibition at the Hayward Gallery last month and almost smitten by George Condo’s Mental States, which is now sharing the venue. His portraits are like a cartoon version of Francis Bacon and his abstracts like Picasso on acid. I’d never heard of him before, so it was good to see such a comprehensive and fascinating collection. Also at the Southbank Centre, the 2011 World Press Photographer exhibition maintains the standards of this superb annual tradition. It’s often hard to look at, but the photography is always outstanding.

Visiting Two Temple Place is a double-dip treat. The former Astor home is a riot of carving, stained glass and OTT decoration and it currently houses a William Morris exhibition with a superb collection of tapestries, fabrics, wallpaper, paintings and drawings. Gorgeous.

Just as gorgeous was the Royal Manuscripts exhibition at the British Library, a stunning collection of richly decorated books from the middle ages. It’s superbly curated and, provided you go at a quiet time, it’s a real treat.

Film

Two excellent British films this month, the first of which was Weekend, about an intense gay relationship which begins and ends in, well, a weekend. Chris New and Tom Cullen were both outstanding and it was beautifully shot. The second, Resistance, is set in Wales after the failure of the D-Day landings resulting in an invasion of German troops, a small group of whom have reached a Welsh valley! It explores the reaction of the locals and their relationships with the invaders. It’s a bit of a slow burn, but eventually draws you in and becomes deeply moving without a touch of sentimentality. There are some lovely performances, most notably from Andrea Risborough.

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Contemporary Music

Todd Rundgren’s concert at the Jazz Café was a real treat. Small venue – ‘greatest hits’ set – terrific band; and Todd on fine and funny form prancing around like a man half his age. I’m not as familiar with this material as most in the audience, but loved it nonetheless.

Steve Earle couldn’t be accused of offering poor value for money. His sets at the Royal Festival Hall totalled 160 minutes. Sometimes, though, more is less and with poor sound contributing, I’m afraid that’s what it was here. The band was great, the set list eclectic and Earle on brittle and funny form with his chat, but it outstayed its welcome and became a bit of a rushed affair in the end.

Honest John’s Chop Up turned out to be an impulsive treat. Damon Albarn’s label showcased a Ghanaian rapper, Malian singer, US brass ensemble and three people from South Africa who defy description but were huge fun. It was like a party with turns, not all of which were good but some of which were great and I loved it.

Opera

Our autumn opera pairing at WNO, the UK’s most accessible opera company, was a brilliantly cast Don Giovanni and a musically thrilling Katya Kabanova, dedicated to Charles Mackerras (with his wife and daughter present). David Kempster isn’t the best DG I’ve ever heard but his acting was exceptional. There was superb support from a home-grown cast which made you wonder why people make such a fuss about casting international stars. David Soar was a terrific Leporello, Robin Tritshler and Camilla Roberts in fine voice as Don Ottavio and Donna Anna and Gary Griffiths an excellent Masetto. Music Director Lothar Koenigs brought out the best of the WNO Orchestra whose playing of the Katya score in particular was stunning. Amanda Roocroft was an outstanding Katya, with an excellent supporting cast including a fine Boris from Peter Wedd and a suitably malevolent Kabanicha from Leah-Marian Jones.

The Passenger at ENO was a somewhat harrowing experience, but an opera I’m very glad I did experience. It moves between an ocean liner in the 60’s, whose passengers include a former Auschwitz guard and one of her victims, and Auschwitz itself back in the 40’s. It’s a very dramatic but very accessible score and David Pountney’s production is masterly, partly thanks to Johan Engels extraordinary design, with the ship’s deck towering over the rail tracks and desolation of the concentration camp. Richard Armstrong’s conducting was also masterly and the orchestra sounded sensational. Amongst a fine ensemble, Giselle Allen as Marta and Michelle Breedt as Liese were wonderful.

Classical Music

The Cardinall’s Music under Andrew Cawood gave a brilliant recital of William Byrd’s unaccompanied church music at Wigmore Hall. They included selections from five of his contemporaries which by-and-large made Byrd shine (Tallis the exception) and I liked the fact that Cawood breaks with convention to introduce and explain his selections.

I’ve had a passing interest in the music of John Taverner but haven’t really heard that much, so a whole evening of small-scale works at Wigmore Hall seemed like a good place to start. Six choral pieces, three song cycles and solo pieces for cello and piano certainly made it a musical feast. The highlight for me was the choral work, sung with great beauty by a ‘scratch’ choir of young singers put together for the evening under the name Caeli Chorum. Patricia Rozario’s vocal fireworks were extraordinary but the works more challenging, as were the solo instrumental pieces, but it was a fascinating immersive experience nonetheless.

Dance

Clod Ensemble took over Sadler’s Wells but only sold 15% of the seats. Starting at the back of the upper circle, the show took us down each level for a new segment until we were at the back of the stage watching the curtain come down on them with the stalls as the backdrop. I can’t say I understood the concept, and it was more movement than dance, but it was a captivating experience.

Film

I liked The Debt, a film about the botched Mossad abduction of a Nazi war criminal It surprised me and gripped me, not least because of an excellent performance from Helen Mirren.

What I liked most about Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was the fact that it didn’t patronise you; you had to work to keep up with it! The other thing I liked about it was the collection of stunning performances, including Gary Oldman as Smiley, John Hurt, Kathy Burke, Toby Jones, Colin Frith, Cairan Hinds, Tom Hardy and Benedict Cumberbatch.

We Need to Talk About Kevin was a harrowing experience, but a brilliant piece of film-making. Tilda Swinton really is one of the very best actors working today and yet again she inhabits a role. Wonderful, but if I was a parent it would scare me senseless!

Unless I’ve been avoiding this type of film too long (quite possible!), with The Adventures of Tin Tin – The Secret of the Unicorn, Stephen Spielberg seems to has invented something that is neither animation nor live action but, for a story like this, is better than both. The almost-but-not-quite lifelike characters can look more realistic doing stuff actors or animation can’t. It’s also the best 3D I’ve ever seen. Great fun.

Art

I went to Treasures of Heaven at the British Museum fired up after my recent Caucasus trip. Interesting though it was, there’s a limit to how many religious relics an unbeliever can take – the least interesting of the BM’s big Reading Room shows.

Locked Room Scenario was another of Artangel’s extraordinary installations. When you enter the warehouse where it takes place and ask a girl which way to go, you get a surly response. You’re at an exhibition of the Blue Conceptual art movement, but the entrance to their exhibition is locked so you end up walking round, peeping in where you can, picking up leaflets and looking at the fictitious movement’s timeline. When I was walking away, a young man handed me a page from a book he said I’d dropped. I read it and became convinced this was all part of the experience; the rest of my walk was rather surreal and disorientating.

I’d never heard of Pipilotti Risi before I went to her show at the Hayward Gallery. I love the playfulness of her videos, on translucent screens or hidden in handbags, conch shells and all sorts of other objects. It was like revisiting psychedelia, but with technology which enables artists to do so much more. Huge fun.

The Barbican Gallery continues its unique position amongst London’s major spaces with an exhibition from / about architectural practice OMA (whoever they are!) curated by Rotor (whoever they are too!). It’s a very original presentation of drawings, models, materials etc. though I think you have to be an architect or designer to get the most out of it. An interesting and intriguing one hour wander nonetheless.

The second Koestler Trust Art For Offenders exhibition at the RFH was simply extraordinary. This year it included video, music and spoken word as well as paintings and sculpture. Many of these items would hold their own in any contemporary art selling exhibition. Though the art was uplifting and enthralling, one was left with the feeling of hopelessness that so much talent is locked up.

A visit with the V&A Friends to then newly refurbished Renaissance St. Pancras Hotel was terrific. The highlight is the 5-story stairwell with ceramic tiles on the ground floor, wrought iron and wood banisters, stencilled walls and an extraordinary painted ceiling. They’ve done a wonderful job of restoring all of this and it was a treat being able to see it without having to take out a mortgage to book a room!

In Oxford for lunch, I had enough time to pop into the lovely Ashmolean Museum again (now one of the UK’s very best museums) which included a small but fascinating display of iconic Chinese Cultural Revolution art that showed you how it is possible for paintings to influence people; you could see how they fell for Mao with all these idealised images.

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Contemporary Music

Todd Rundgren’s concert at the Jazz Café was a real treat. Small venue – ‘greatest hits’ set – terrific band; and Todd on fine and funny form prancing around like a man half his age. I’m not as familiar with this material as most in the audience, but loved it nonetheless.

Steve Earle couldn’t be accused of offering poor value for money. His sets at the Royal Festival Hall totalled 160 minutes. Sometimes, though, more is less and with poor sound contributing, I’m afraid that’s what it was here. The band was great, the set list eclectic and Earle on brittle and funny form with his chat, but it outstayed its welcome and became a bit of a rushed affair in the end.

Honest John’s Chop Up turned out to be an impulsive treat. Damon Albarn’s label showcased a Ghanaian rapper, Malian singer, US brass ensemble and three people from South Africa who defy description but were huge fun. It was like a party with turns, not all of which were good but some of which were great and I loved it.

Opera

Our autumn opera pairing at WNO, the UK’s most accessible opera company, was a brilliantly cast Don Giovanni and a musically thrilling Katya Kabanova, dedicated to Charles Mackerras (with his wife and daughter present). David Kempster isn’t the best DG I’ve ever heard but his acting was exceptional. There was superb support from a home-grown cast which made you wonder why people make such a fuss about casting international stars. David Soar was a terrific Leporello, Robin Tritshler and Camilla Roberts in fine voice as Don Ottavio and Donna Anna and Gary Griffiths an excellent Masetto. Music Director Lothar Koenigs brought out the best of the WNO Orchestra whose playing of the Katya score in particular was stunning. Amanda Roocroft was an outstanding Katya, with an excellent supporting cast including a fine Boris from Peter Wedd and a suitably malevolent Kabanicha from Leah-Marian Jones.

The Passenger at ENO was a somewhat harrowing experience, but an opera I’m very glad I did experience. It moves between an ocean liner in the 60’s, whose passengers include a former Auschwitz guard and one of her victims, and Auschwitz itself back in the 40’s. It’s a very dramatic but very accessible score and David Pountney’s production is masterly, partly thanks to Johan Engels extraordinary design, with the ship’s deck towering over the rail tracks and desolation of the concentration camp. Richard Armstrong’s conducting was also masterly and the orchestra sounded sensational. Amongst a fine ensemble, Giselle Allen as Marta and Michelle Breedt as Liese were wonderful.

Classical Music

The Cardinall’s Music under Andrew Cawood gave a brilliant recital of William Byrd’s unaccompanied church music at Wigmore Hall. They included selections from five of his contemporaries which by-and-large made Byrd shine (Tallis the exception) and I liked the fact that Cawood breaks with convention to introduce and explain his selections.

I’ve had a passing interest in the music of John Taverner but haven’t really heard that much, so a whole evening of small-scale works at Wigmore Hall seemed like a good place to start. Six choral pieces, three song cycles and solo pieces for cello and piano certainly made it a musical feast. The highlight for me was the choral work, sung with great beauty by a ‘scratch’ choir of young singers put together for the evening under the name Caeli Chorum. Patricia Rozario’s vocal fireworks were extraordinary but the works more challenging, as were the solo instrumental pieces, but it was a fascinating immersive experience nonetheless.

Dance

Clod Ensemble took over Sadler’s Wells but only sold 15% of the seats. Starting at the back of the upper circle, the show took us down each level for a new segment until we were at the back of the stage watching the curtain come down on them with the stalls as the backdrop. I can’t say I understood the concept, and it was more movement than dance, but it was a captivating experience.

Film

I liked The Debt, a film about the botched Mossad abduction of a Nazi war criminal It surprised me and gripped me, not least because of an excellent performance from Helen Mirren.

What I liked most about Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was the fact that it didn’t patronise you; you had to work to keep up with it! The other thing I liked about it was the collection of stunning performances, including Gary Oldman as Smiley, John Hurt, Kathy Burke, Toby Jones, Colin Frith, Cairan Hinds, Tom Hardy and Benedict Cumberbatch.

We Need to Talk About Kevin was a harrowing experience, but a brilliant piece of film-making. Tilda Swinton really is one of the very best actors working today and yet again she inhabits a role. Wonderful, but if I was a parent it would scare me senseless!

Unless I’ve been avoiding this type of film too long (quite possible!), with The Adventures of Tin Tin – The Secret of the Unicorn, Stephen Spielberg seems to has invented something that is neither animation nor live action but, for a story like this, is better than both. The almost-but-not-quite lifelike characters can look more realistic doing stuff actors or animation can’t. It’s also the best 3D I’ve ever seen. Great fun.

Art

I went to Treasures of Heaven at the British Museum fired up after my recent Caucasus trip. Interesting though it was, there’s a limit to how many religious relics an unbeliever can take – the least interesting of the BM’s big Reading Room shows.

Locked Room Scenario was another of Artangel’s extraordinary installations. When you enter the warehouse where it takes place and ask a girl which way to go, you get a surly response. You’re at an exhibition of the Blue Conceptual art movement, but the entrance to their exhibition is locked so you end up walking round, peeping in where you can, picking up leaflets and looking at the fictitious movement’s timeline. When I was walking away, a young man handed me a page from a book he said I’d dropped. I read it and became convinced this was all part of the experience; the rest of my walk was rather surreal and disorientating.

I’d never heard of Pipilotti Risi before I went to her show at the Hayward Gallery. I love the playfulness of her videos, on translucent screens or hidden in handbags, conch shells and all sorts of other objects. It was like revisiting psychedelia, but with technology which enables artists to do so much more. Huge fun.

The Barbican Gallery continues its unique position amongst London’s major spaces with an exhibition from / about architectural practice OMA (whoever they are!) curated by Rotor (whoever they are too!). It’s a very original presentation of drawings, models, materials etc. though I think you have to be an architect or designer to get the most out of it. An interesting and intriguing one hour wander nonetheless.

The second Koestler Trust Art For Offenders exhibition at the RFH was simply extraordinary. This year it included video, music and spoken word as well as paintings and sculpture. Many of these items would hold their own in any contemporary art selling exhibition. Though the art was uplifting and enthralling, one was left with the feeling of hopelessness that so much talent is locked up.

A visit with the V&A Friends to then newly refurbished Renaissance St. Pancras Hotel was terrific. The highlight is the 5-story stairwell with ceramic tiles on the ground floor, wrought iron and wood banisters, stencilled walls and an extraordinary painted ceiling. They’ve done a wonderful job of restoring all of this and it was a treat being able to see it without having to take out a mortgage to book a room!

In Oxford for lunch, I had enough time to pop into the lovely Ashmolean Museum again (now one of the UK’s very best museums) which included a small but fascinating display of iconic Chinese Cultural Revolution art that showed you how it is possible for paintings to influence people; you could see how they fell for Mao with all these idealised images.

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The Proms is unquestionably the world’s greatest and most accessible music festival; this year there are 74 concerts and promming is still £5. New life has been breathed into them in recent years with chamber proms, late night proms, children’s proms, proms in the park and the inclusion of jazz, folk, world music, film & TV music and comedy. My selection of 5 this year was particularly eclectic.

The first was Havergal Brian’s Symphony No.1 ‘The Gothic’, written in the 1920’s by an almost forgotten British composer. How can you resist something that requires c.1000 performers? – two orchestras, nine choirs, four soloists and the RAH organ! A third of the stalls was given over to the three children’s choirs, four timpanists and most of the brass. No wonder it’s very rarely performed (and therefore no wonder he’s almost forgotten). Conductor Martyn Brabbins deserves a medal for having the balls to put it together. They made a terrific sound in unison, but even in the quieter moments it impressed. It’s not a great work, but I’m glad I took this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hear it.

I never saw the Human Planet TV series, but I like listening to music from around the world and this prom caught my imagination as something a little bit different. It combined five extracts from Nitin Sawhany‘s orchestral TV score with five visiting musicians / groups from Greenland, Russian Siberia, Zambia, Mongolia and Papua New Guinea, with scenes from the programme projected onto screens around the auditorium. I liked the orchestral music and would like to hear more, but it was the visitors who caught my, and everyone else’s, imagination. The boys from Papua New Guinea and Enock Mbongwe from Zambia had never left their own countries and their excitement was infectious. Their innocence meant they didn’t leave the stage when they’d finished as they didn’t really know when to do that. At the curtain call, Enock was jumping up and down excitedly and the audience’s warmth was palpable. There was a bonus too, as the BBC Concert Orchestra under Charles Hazelwood gave us the world premiere of the 1812 overture played on specially made instruments made by professional instrument makers entirely from re-cycled material. It didn’t half sound bad, but it was the sheer fun of it that brought the audience to its feet for one of the most spontaneous standing ovations I’ve ever seen at the Proms. What a surprising and thrilling evening.

Verdi’s Requiem and the Royal Albert Hall are made for each other. With a chorus of almost 400 and a large orchestra, it fills the space. This was one of the best interpretations I’ve ever heard. The BBCSO & Chorus under Semyon Bychkov were joined by  the BBC National Chorus of Wales and the London Philharmonic Choir and four fine soloists – Marina Poplavskaya, Mariana Pentcheva, Joseph Calleja (hugely impressive) and Ferruccio Furlanetteo (guess where he’s from?!). The choruses have never had so much power, yet more delicate moments were deeply moving.

The late night prom of Grainger songs included folk favourite June Tabor, so this one was always going to be a must. I’d had to miss the Kings Place Grainger songs concert earlier in the year, so that made it essential. Northumbrian piper Kathryn Tickell‘s clever programming included pairing contrasting orchestral / folk interpretations of four songs collected by Grainger. I loved both her band’s instrumentals and the Teeside Wilson Family unaccompanied vocals and June Tabor’s solo voice was hauntingly beautiful in the RAH. The orchestral contributions sat well alongside the folk, but I’m afraid the BBC Singer‘s jarred with me – they just didn’t suit the material. We ended with a clog dance, as if to prove the Proms goes where no-one else dares.

The Spaghetti Western Orchestra have been on my ‘maybe’ list many times; the fact they had a late night prom promoted them to the ‘let’s go’ list. These five mad Aussies recreate the film scores of Ennio Morricone with both instruments and sound effects – from a variety of items including a tree branch and cornflake packets. On this occasion, they also get to use the RAH organ. The whole thing has every tongue in every cheek, but it’s an affectionate  homage rather than a comic spoof.  Even from good stalls seats, we couldn’t see exactly what was being played some of the time and I think screens would have helped in this vast hall. It was great fun, though something I think you can only do once – though many there seemed to be regulars.

As I said at the outset, a lovely eclectic cocktail at the world’s greatest music festival.

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Though marred a little this time by late information and mis-information, my second visit to MIF confirms it as a permanent new fixture for anyone interested in the arts. It’s USP is that everything is a world premiere, so what it loses in quantity it make up for in originality. This year I got to four things…..

Whilst Manchester’s own Gallagher brothers are nowhere to be seen, their former adversary, Londoner Damon Albarn, returns with his second ‘opera’. I wish they wouldn’t call it that, because it sets it up for all sorts of unfair comparisons. It’s the story of the now obscure Elizabethan renaissance man Dr. Dee, brought alive in staged scenes and songs. It is an extraordinary story, and though they’ve got the essence of the man, it’s more of an impression than a story as there isn’t enough narrative for that. Albarn’s music is a lovely combination of early music, folk, world music and Philip Glass and Rufus Norris’ staging is wonderfully inventive. There’s a 10-piece band in a giant container which rises high above the action, with Albarn perched precariously on a platform jutting out, and there’s an orchestra in the pit. As the show starts, a raven flies from the auditorium onto the top of the container and then off stage right. Characters walk onto the container roof from stage left and fall backward onto the stage (well, presumably a mattress otherwise there’d be a lot of broken backs). The scenes onstage unfold below this, each accompanied by songs – some sung by Albarn and some by onstage characters with operatic voices. I found the whole thing captivating if indescribable!

National treasure Victoria Wood has written a musical before (Acorn Antiques) and a play with music (Talent) and her new show That Day We Sang is billed as a play with songs. It has a true local story and with community involvement it has a Billy Elliott feel. It’s starting point is the re-union, for a Granada ‘documentary’, of four adults who as kids participated in a famous recording by a children’s choir. As it unfolds, it becomes a touching story of the unfulfilled lives and love of Tubby and Enid, two of these children. The other two child singers, now grown up, act as social catalysts which eventually leads us to our happy ending. We move back and forth between the 1929 auditions, rehearsal and concert and the filming and subsequent events of 1969. There’s a specially assembled children’s choir of 44 and the Halle Youth Orchestra are in the pit. It still needs a bit of work, but it’s already a charming, heart-warming and funny show. There are two show-stoppers – when the wonderful Jenna Russell as Enid sings about what it means to be called Enid (where scalectrix and swarfega get rhymed, as only VW would) and a quartet in a Berni Inn singing about the delights of dining at Berni’s, complete with four dancing waiters & waitresses – and Black Forest Gateaux! In a show packed with her usual nostalgic references, we also get to visit The Golden Egg and Wimpy’s and there are many nods to iconic products of the day. Vincent Franklin is brilliant as Tubby, who uses humour to cover his sadness and vulnerability. Gerald Horan and Lorraine Bruce are also excellent, doubling up as former child singers Frank and Dorothy (now obsessed with the niceties of entertaining at home; cue doilies and matchmakers) and Enid’s boss and colleague Mr Stanley and Pauline. Young Raif Clarke was absolutely adorable as young Jimmy (Tubby). I can’t believe such a good idea and such a good show won’t live beyond these 13 performances.

Well, if Dr Dee was hard to describe, The Life & Death of Marina Abramovic is impossible to describe. She’s the godmother of performance art and amongst her career highlights we have 700 hours sat silently in NYC’s MoMA being visited and observed by people, many of whom queued all night, and a walk half the length of the Great Wall to meet her partner, who walked the other half, in order to say goodbye as they split up. Well, I suppose if you’re a performance artist, you don’t write your biography, you, well, perform it – and that’s just what you get here. Eleven scenes from her life bookended by her imagined funeral. It’s narrated by Willem Dafoe no less, looking and behaving manically as a cross between the MC in Cabaret and the Joker in Batman. The music is by Anthony (as in Anthony and The Johnsons), William Basinski and Svetlana Spajic and its staged by avant guard director Robert Wilson. It was often surreal, sometimes absurd and occasionally wince-inducing with stunning visual imagery and beautiful music (and three dogs stalking the playing area during the ‘funeral’!). Somehow you just couldn’t take your eyes off the stage. It was much later that I realised how much I’d learnt about her – which I guess is what a biography is for. Extraordinary.

The fourth piece was 30 minutes at Piccadilly Station with a soundscape called Audio Obscura by Lavinia Greenlaw provided through headphones. There were no directions, but you were encouraged to explore the space. If there was a narrative, I didn’t get it. Somehow, though, you did get lost in some other world and became only semiconscious of your surroundings. I’ve had similar experiences which were better, but I don’t regret this particular ride.

The original plan included Punchdrunk’s immersive Dr. Who show, but they withheld the information that unaccompanied adults would not be admitted until after I’d booked the other three shows and only decided to allow unaccompanied adults for a few evening shows much later, by which time I couldn’t fit them in. Mis-information about the first day’s opening hours of Eleven Rooms at Manchester Art Gallery also meant I missed that, and I managed to find John Gerard’s outdoor film Infinite Freedom Exercise despite confusing direction in the publicity material. MIF needs to improve the timeliness and accuracy of its information as this is the sort of thing that screws up a carefully planned trip (and visitors from afar – well, London – do need to plan) and can easily piss of the punters!

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