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Posts Tagged ‘Academy of Ancient Music’

Opera

At the Royal College of Music, five mini-operas on the theme of Frankenstein – The Modern Prometheus saw five composition students produce very diverse responses, including misuse of digital data, genetic modification of babies and time travel. They were all staged professionally and beautifully performed and played by the students. It made me realise opera is a live art form and in these hands very much alive.

George Benjamin’s opera Lessons in Love and Violence at the ROH, about Edward II, lived up to the hype, and more. A brilliant piece of storytelling with great psychological depth, thrillingly dramatic music and some wonderful singing by a faultless cast. One of the best modern operas I’ve ever seen, proving how much you can achieve in 90 minutes without padding.

Classical Music

The BBC Singers continue to shine, this time at Milton Court accompanied by St James Baroque in an all Handel programme. I’d have preferred an all Handel choral programme; as much as I admired the organ concerto, it didn’t really belong. The choral pieces were lovely.

A lunchtime at LSO St. Luke’s saw the Academy of Ancient Music perform two of Handel’s Chandos Anthems in a sandwich with a Trio Sonata, and a lovely diversion it was too. All the works were new to this Handel fan, which was a bonus.

The UK premiere of Howard Goodall’s new oratorio, Invictus: A Passion, at St John’s Smith Square was a real treat. His classical works, like his musicals, are full of gorgeous melodies and this was no exception, beautifully sung by The Choir of Christ Church Oxford, with two soloists from The Sixteen and a small instrumental ensemble. It’s rare that Handel proves to be an anti-climax, but the Foundling Hospital Anthem which followed was; though it was another Handel piece that was new to me.

Contemporary Music

I tend not to go to cabaret, particularly ones made up of musical theatre numbers, as I’ve convinced myself I don’t much like them out of context, but every time I do go I enjoy it and say I should go more often! The first May bank holiday weekend gave me a double-dip, starting with one of my favourite performers, Clive Rowe, at the Orange Tree Theatre. His selection was mostly American standards and his piano and double bass accompaniment was first class, but it was the extraordinary warmth of the welcome and the absolute joy of the performance that made it for me. It was hard for the Stephen Sondheim Society’s monthly cabaret at Phoenix Artist Club to live up to it, but it was a jolly good night, thanks to MD Aaron Clingham and fine vocals and comic input from Sarah-Louise Young, Sooz Kempner and Tim McArthur. The bonus was vising a lovely new venue and feeling I’d brought the average age down, a rare occurrence these days.

I very much enjoyed the first collaboration between Welsh harpist Catrin Finch & Senegalese Cora player Seckou Keita five years ago, but the chemistry between them is now much developed as they proved back at Union Chapel with a new album to play, inspired by the migration of ospreys between their two countries. The big bonus was support from Gwyneth Glyn, a lovely Welsh singer with a great backing group, who was new to me.

I went to see folk ‘supergroup’ Imar at King’s Place on the strength of one number performed at the BBC Folk Awards on TV and a good decision it was too. Though lots of dance tunes can sometimes seem relentless, and leave you breathless, there were some slower numbers to bring some light and shade and I was anyway mesmerised by the musicianship. The camaraderie and banter added a warmth to the evening.

Effigies of Wickedness, a collaboration between ENO and the Gate Theatre, gets its title from a pre-war Nazi exhibition of ‘degenerate’ music, including pieces by Weill, Eisler & Brecht and Schoenberg. Sub-titled ‘Songs Banned by the Nazis’, it’s a cabaret made up of some of this music, but much more, with staging and design that is wild, colourful, loud and in-your-face and hugely committed performances and consummate musicianship from opera, theatre and cabaret professionals. It was often hilarious, but often chilling. Extraordinary.

Dance

Hofesh Shechter’s Show at the Lyric Hammersmith had his trademark earthiness and pounding, but it was also macabre and had some humour and a lightness that set it apart from the other works of his I’ve seen. It was rather mesmerising, with more false endings / curtain calls that you may ever have seen before.

Film

I haven’t looked away from the screen as much as I did in South African film The Wound, about a tribal manhood ritual, which was so authentic it felt like a documentary. Gripping stuff.

Tully was a film that lulled you into thinking one thing before it surprised you by being something else and I really enjoyed it. Charlize Theron was terrific in her frank look at motherhood.

I didn’t go and see The Greatest Showman when it came out because I’d just seen a revival of the musical Barnum, about the same man, covering the same ground, and the reviews were a bit ify. Word of mouth made me change my mind and I thought it was terrific, despite the schmaltz, and definitely worth seeing on a big screen. When the lights went up, I discovered I’d seen it alone!

Art

The Wildlife Photography Exhibition at the Natural History Museum seems to start as soon as the previous one ends; sometimes I think I’ve seen the current one but I haven’t, one day I’ll unintentionally go twice. It was great again, and blissfully quiet. I’ll never make a wildlife photographer – I don’t have enough patience, or a good enough kit.

Known Unknown at the Saatchi Gallery was the usual curate’s egg – good pieces hanging alongside dross. Still, the space is great, and it’s free!

London Nights at the Museum of London exhibits photographs taken over more than a hundred years of the city at night. It went off at a few tangents, such as fashion, but there was much to enjoy, including a stunning snap taken by Tim Peake from the ISS. Along the High Walk in the Barbican Music Library, there was a small display of photos and equipment Inside Abbey Road Studios but not enough from its iconic period in the 60’s for me. Jill Furmanovsky’s photos were great, but they were the wrong subjects for my timeline!

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Contemporary Music

Alain (Les Mis) Boublil’s play with music, Manhattan Parisienne, was workshopped before an audience in The Other Palace Studio Theatre. It tells the story of the brief relationship between a French actress stranded in NYC and a gay cabaret pianist. Its structure was overly contrived – within, within, as it were – and some of the song choices, from both the French & American songbooks, a bit quirky, but it was performed well and as work-in-progress showed promise; well, some.

Martin Simpson’s Kings Place concert was a treat, particularly the song selection in the second half. The superb sound showed off his guitar and banjo playing and an attentive audience ensured you heard every note. Lovely.

The first concert at the new Bridge Theatre was folk-rock hero Richard Thompson, and after a hesitant start where he seemed a touch unhappy, it became one of his best solo concerts, with a superb selection from his back catalogue, great sound and a respectful audience. How wonderful to be top of your game at 68!

Opera

AAM’s contemporary semi-staged, Brexit-themed version of Purcell’s King Arthur at the Barbican Hall didn’t really work, but I admired them for trying and it was worth going for some lovely music and narrator Ray Feardon’s Henry V speech.

A challenging WNO three-opera weekend at the WMC in Cardiff started with a gorgeous Eugene Onegin, then an often thrilling Khovanshchina, culminating in From the House of the Dead, one of the first operas I ever saw, 32 years ago in the same production at ENO. The orchestra and chorus shone in all three and though by the third I was a bit exhausted, you have to admire WNO for their boldness, whilst others play safe.

Brett Dean’s opera of Hamlet at Glyndebourne (Touring Opera) proved to be one of the best new operas I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen many); indeed, one of the best operatic productions I’ve ever seen too. With music all around the auditorium as well as on stage and in the orchestra pit, it was tense and hugely atmospheric. If you think the touring cast and orchestra (starting with three performances at home) would be second best, think again – they were sensational!

Dance

14 Days is the fourth Ballet Boyz show I’ve seen at Sadler’s Wells and quite possibly the best, largely because it consists of five very different pieces, each by a different choreographer and composer, each one mesmerising from start to finish. Wow!

Film

Victoria & Abdul was a delight, much funnier than I was expecting, a sumptuous production with superb performances.

I liked Blade Runner 2049, though it was too long and a touch overblown. Brilliantly filmed, though.

I enjoyed The Party, and the ending was a genuine surprise, but at 70 mins in B&W maybe I should have waited for the inevitable TV showing?

The Death of Stalin is Armando Iannucci on audacious form again, this time with a cast to die for, including a rare film appearance from acting hero Simon Russell Beale. Brilliantly blackly funny.

Art

At the RA there are another two great exhibitions to add to Matisse in the Studio. Dali / Duchamp is fairly small, but a fascinating comparison and juxtaposition of two artists, contemporaries and friends. Dali comes off better. Jasper Johns’ Something Resembling Truth is much bigger, and a revelation for me, though I did begin to overdose by the end, and on number pictures before then!

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I don’t normally blog classical music, except in my monthly round-ups, but I feel compelled to abandon this policy to tell as many people as possible about this extraordinary event. I only found out about it c.10 days before; despite being a Barbican member, it had somehow passed me by. 60 performances, from 15 to 105 minutes long, by 450 performers in seven venues, plus foyers and lakeside, over two days. You exchanged your day or weekend ticket for a wristband and created your own event by seeing whatever took your fancy. 

Saturday started brilliantly with the BBC Symphony Orchestra giving an excellent Firebird Suite, in front of a specially commissioned film synchronised live on stage by the director. This is one of my favourite pieces of music, so I was on a high as I walked over to the lovely St Giles Cripplegate for a recital by favourite countertenor Iestyn Davies and Lutenist Thomas Dunford, but by the time this beautiful concert, mostly Dowland, was over I was in heaven. Next stop was the Conservatory where you picked up earphones and waited for the four character mini-Carmen to begin their short promenade performance, ending with a strangulation under the greenery, almost at my feet. In The Curve the BBC Singers gave a lovely selection of unaccompanied choral pieces in atmospheric lighting. Moving half-way through was a pointless distraction, though. Back in the Hall, I fell in love with the voice and personality of the beautifully named American soprano Angel Joy Blue whose eclectic set was, well, a joy. In the foyer and at the lakeside I encountered Street Orchestra London, a cross between buskers, pop-up and flash-mob. They were a delight and their sense of fun was infectious. Then there was a short walk up the road to the lovely LSO St Luke’s where the Guildhall School post-graduate wind students thrilled with Richard Strauss rarely heard symphony for winds. I has planned to return home at this point. The final Britten Sinfonia concert featured someone called Chilly Gonzales, whose talents apparently included rap, something I’m not fond of, to put it mildly. I had second thoughts as there was by now a buzz about it, so I thought I’d give it a go, sitting on the end of a row in case I decided not to see out the ninety minutes. 1h 45m later I was leading the standing ovation! He deconstructed the Oasis’ song Champagne Supernova as Britten had a Purcell theme and gave us The Young-ish Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. I have never laughed so much in a concert, though it was as musically brilliant as it was funny. From Chilly virgin to Chilly fan in an evening, going home on another high.

Sunday started just as well, with the LSO playing a selection of the John Williams film music they originally recorded. It sounded thrilling with almost 100 players on stage and the video interview clips with Williams between pieces, putting them in context, was a great idea. I discovered the second LSO Williams concert was not a repeat (as the BBC SO’s had been the day before), so I was tempted to return, but decided to stay with my plan to support a new work by Sven Helbig with the BBC Singers, Helbig’s electronics and an atmospheric accompanying film. I liked it, though it was dark in the hall and the sound soporific, so I struggled to remain conscious! In between these two events there was a quirky visit to The Curve Gallery where the music came from helium filled balloons as they exhaled and descended. ‘Horn Hangout’, an entertaining Q&A with the LSO horn section was followed by a horn flash-mob at the lakeside as they were joined by members of the Coldstream Guards and amateur players. Great fun. Back in The Curve, you walked through a sound installation in darkness whilst people in black made further sounds and illumination waving what seemed to be pliant light sabres! On to the Hall, where The Academy of Ancient Music played a selection from Handel’s Water Music preceded by a lovely trio of Handel arias from countertenor Tim Mead. Up to the Conservatory again, this time for a percussion sextet playing a one-hour piece called Timber on planks of wood. I didn’t think I’d see it through, but it hypnotised me – like Glass, but wood! The final concert in the Hall was another inspired idea, featuring brass and winds with pieces by Bernstein, Miles Davies after Rodrigo (featuring trumpet player Alison Balsom) and Gershwin. A big, brash, loud statement to close the weekend.

It’s intention was to be accessible, informal and friendly and it certainly achieved that. The performers dressed casually, there was illuminating commentary from the stage, live video for close-ups, free seating and sessions in the foyers and at the lakeside. There was quality music from premiere league orchestras, choirs and soloists, plus GSMD students and I particularly liked the fact it featured works for winds, brass and percussion that get less airtime. The quirky additions were great fun. My personal selection was 14 events in 6 venues and another 4 in the foyers / outside. I enjoyed every single one of them.  Something like ten hours of music; an absolute feast. I can’t wait for the next one, when I intend to take a gang with me.

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