Posts Tagged ‘Art’


Eccentric American rock singer / composer / producer Todd Rundgren has re-invented himself many times. At his London concert he gave us two incarnations – the first was as support act (supporting himself !) with a set of extremely well played but otherwise undistinguished Robert Johnson blues songs from his latest project, Todd Rundgren’s Johnson (get the double entendre there? – made more explicit towards the end of the set when he said ‘you’ve taken most of my Johnson, just a few inches left’).  The main event was his 1973 ‘concept’ album ‘A Wizard, A True Star’. I’m more of a fringe fan, so the significance and thrill of this was a little lost on me (I don’t even get the concept!). The staging involved more costume changes than Kylie, with (unintentional?) 37-year old production values to match the album’s period. It had it’s ‘Spinal Tap’ moments, but the music worked much better live and seemed a lot less off-the-wall. A quirky but somehow charming evening.

My reason for going to see John Hiatt & Lyle Lovett is that I’m a fan of the former. The stage looked set for an interview rather than a concert, and indeed they did question each other a bit at first; but seemed to become inhibited after a shout of ‘get on with it boys’! They took turns to sing songs and occasionally contributed vocals or guitar to the others’. The alternation of songs from a familiar friend (Hiatt) with introductions to a new one (Lovett) proved rather compelling, the quality of musicianship was exceptional and the evening had a cozy charm about it. They were joined by Joe Ely, someone I know of more than Lovett but less than Hiatt, who sang a couple of songs and contributed to a harmonious trio for a Woody Guthrie number and a ‘Texan folk song’.

I’d never heard Alice Coote live before and her powerful Mezzo voice impressed me; it was particularly powerful in the Elgar songs in this English Song recital, but it was the Argento settings of extracts from Virginia Woolf’s diary that blew me away. How can you not like a song with the line ‘…..one gains a certain hold on sausage and haddock by writing them down’!

Composer / singer Helen Chadwick interviewed her neighbours and turned their stories into an acapella song cycle called Dalston Songs, which in its current incarnation has ended up in Covent Garden’s studio theatre. They’ve created a composite street / café / shop setting and it’s well staged & choreographed. It was sometimes moving, occasionally funny, always charming and highly original.

Such is the respect and esteem in which he’s held, when the National Theatre invited Stephen Sondheim to discuss his work in his 80th year, the Olivier Theatre sold out within hours. He looks great for a man a few weeks short of his 80th, comes over completely devoid of ego and, responding to Jeremy Sams questions, he provided much insight to his writing and his work. Without question the greatest writer of musicals ever, it was an honour to be in the audience of the great man himself.


Another visit to the UK’s most accessible opera company in Cardiff for a well matched pair – Mozart’s The Abduction of the Seraglio and Puccini’s Tosca. The Mozart is really a songspiel, with too much dialogue in German for my liking. This production relocates it to the Pasha’s suite on the Orient Express, which worked surprisingly well. It was well staged and sung and proved to be a rather charming evening (‘charm’ is turning out to be the word of the month!). The latter was an 18-year old traditional production which scrubbed up well. The Portuguese Tosca was a bit old-school-screechy for my taste, but the other leads were good enough and the orchestra was on spectacular form, so Puccini’s lush score still managed to weave its magic spell.

Jonathan Miller is the master at successfully moving the time and location of operas (Rigoletto to 30’s gangster Chicago, Tosca to 40’s fascist Italy, Carmen to 30’s civil war Spain, Mikado to 20’s Britain…..) and the latest – The Elixir of Love – is a delight from start to finish. It’s 50’s mid-west US (think diner-garage-Marilyn Monroe- James Dean) with a sparklingly funny libretto, great set & costumes and four excellent leads – Sarah Tynan, John Tessier, David Kempster and Andrew Shore with another of his comic gems. One of the best things the ENO have ever done.

The only other time I saw Prokofiev’s The Gambler was almost 19 years ago at ENO. The reason I remember this was that it was the day of the Poll Tax riots and I had to take a detour through the side streets around Trafalgar Square and knock on the door of the Colliseum to be let in; it was still scary when I left and I pranged the car in a moment of panic! All of the cast and orchestra made it but only about half of the audience; I guess you’d appreciate anything in those circumstances. This first Covent Garden production is well played and well sung, but somehow falls as flat as a pancake. Unusually for producer Richard Jones, it’s just dull! The star turn is John Tomlinson’s General but I’m not sure that alone was worth the ticket price.


How can you resist a film with Ray Winstone, John Hurt, Tom Wilkinson, Ian McShane, Steven Dillane and cameos from Stephen Berkoff and Edna Dore? Unfortunately, the material they were given in 44 Inch Chest didn’t really utilise their talents – the story of a cuckolded man’s revenge didn’t really go anywhere.

Precious is harrowing and disturbing but somehow ends up hopeful. Her story of horrendous abuse is told with compassion but without sentimentality and with lots of original and clever touches including fantasy sequences. I think it’s an extraordinary piece of film-making and I’m (pleasantly) astonished that it’s getting the distribution and awards nods it is rather than languishing in art houses.

A Single Man looks gorgeous, a reminder of 60’s style, and Colin Firth’s performance is simply terrific, but it’s a very slow journey and in the end a case of style over substance.

I had to wait almost six weeks to get seats to see Avatar in IMAX 3D. It is an extraordinary technical achievement, shown off to stunning effect at the IMAX, but it has a weak and very predictable story and is about 30 minutes too long.


Van Goch & His Letters at the RA is clearly their biggest block-buster since Monet zonks ago; it’s very crowded. The idea of the illustrated letters alongside the works didn’t work too well for me – too many people and I don’t read Dutch or much French! – but there are so many staggeringly beautiful paintings, that its absolutely unmissable.

Identity at the Wellcome Collection is an exhibition that looks at its subject from all sorts of angles, with rooms about Phrenology, DNA, transexuality, twins, diarists and diaries and much more. Though some of the exhibits were fascinating, it didn’t really hang together as an exhibition for me. I did find out a lot about the name James though – the highest concentration out side the UK is Buller on the south island of New Zealand; I wish I’d known that during my surreal visit there in 1999 (in the travel archive on the blog)!

The Saatchi Gallery’s fourth exhibition of contemporary art from other countries continues with India. Again, it’s a hit-and-miss affair, with much of the work derivative of established European / American artists, but it’s fascinating to review what’s going on in other countries and there are a few gems to make the trip worthwhile. I was there for a ‘conversation’ with my favourite sculptor Richard Wilson (www.richardwilsonsculptor.com) , whose 23-year old piece 20/50 (which floods the gallery with perfectly reflective oil) has it’s fourth London incarnation here. I saw the original in a small East London gallery 23 years ago (you had to ring a bell and someone let you in!), a later one at Saatchi County Hall and now this and it’s extraordinary how it changes in character with each space. The ‘conversation’ was a bit disappointing, largely because of the interviewers questions, the short private conversation I had with him a few years back on his Slice of Reality sculpture (a section of a ship!) in Greenwich was as illuminating.

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A musical feast this month! The contemporary concerts started with Martha Wainwright, who had spent the last two months at her premature baby’s hospital bedside before taking time out for a couple of intimate gigs at the Jazz Café, presumably because she was a bit stir crazy and needed to remind herself what she does when not breast feeding! I’d only seen her once before – at the outset of her solo career (with the now huge James Morrison playing solo as support!) so I wasn’t prepared for the extent to which she has developed her highly original and spellbinding vocal style; it was thrilling stuff. Just a few days later her mum, Kate McGarrigle died; her music with sister Anna made me smile so much; her death made me very sad.

‘Way to Blue’ was a homage to Nick Drake who died 35 years ago leaving only three albums. His songs were interpreted by Scritti Politti’s Green Gartside, The Soft Boys’ Robyn Hitchcock, Vashti Bunyan, Lisa Hannigan and the sons of Richard Thompson, Paul Simon and Ewan McColl & Peggy Seeger. Names new to me were Scott Matthews, Kirsty Almeida and Krystle Warren. The terrific band was led by Kate St John and included Danny Thompson, who played on all three Drake albums. Not everything worked, but there was much to enjoy. Lisa Hannigan stole the show with a stunning re-invention of a song, Black Eyed Dog, from a fourth album released posthumously many years later.

The Beggars Opera Reborn was an ‘impulsive buy’ which turned out to be a real treat. Charles Hazelwood put together three baroque musicians with folkies The Unthanks, the guitarist from Portishead, the bassist from Goldfrapp, a saxophonist, a drummer and a singer to re-interpret songs from John Gay’s 18th century ballad opera. Often the soprano, cello and lute played the songs as intended followed immediately by a re-interpretation. A wholly original and fascinating experience.

Imagined Village is a ‘project’ originated by Simon Emmerson and involving folkies Martin & Eliza Carthy and Chris Wood to take English folk songs and give them a world music spin. This second incarnation adds Indian instrumentation and electronica to great effect and it comes over better live than on record. An encore of Slade’s Cum On Feel the Noize re-invented as an old folk song was inspired.

The idea of a concert from both the London Adventist Chorale and the Swingle Singers in the final of the 1st London A Cappella Festival really appealed to me and it turned out to be another treat. The Chorale stuck to spirituals, sung delicately rather than shouted. The Swingles moved from Corelli to The Beatles via Bach and Mozart; they’ve added pop and rock to the classical-jazz cocktail and I found the eclectic set a very satisfying combination. Both groups paired for a couple of numbers which, though enjoyable, weren’t as good as either achieved on their own.

I was lucky enough to get a ticket for a recital by Russian soprano sensation Anna Netrebko & Russian baritone Dmitry Hvorostovsky, part of my plan to see a bunch of world class singers this year that have passed me by now that I no longer go to Covent Garden. I felt a bit cheated; including the encores, we got 5 arias each and 2 duets with quite a bit of orchestral fillers (for those in the top seats, it came to over £8 per song!). Still, they both sang wonderfully (though the audience – containing a lot of Russians! – were a bit uncritical and over-reverential).

I seem to be on a mission to hear every English song in the classical repertoire, so I had to go to see tenor James Gilcrest’s programme of English songs by Bliss Gurney, and Vaughan Williams with the Fitzwilliam Quartet. He isn’t a great tenor but he is a good interpreter of these songs and a string quartet backing made a refreshing change from the usual solo piano.

Friends have been raving about American mezzo soprano Joyce DiDonato so her recital at Wigmore Hall beckoned. I wasn’t enamoured with the programme of Italian love songs, but her voice is beautiful (as is she) and she engages with the audience with a charm rarely seen in recitals. Just before she began Desdemona’s final aria from Rossini’s Otello a mobile phone rang in the audience. Quick as a flash, she said ‘It’s Otello; tell him I didn’t do it’. Priceless!


I was so taken with La Boheme at the Cock Tavern that I gave them an immediate blog entry the day after I saw the show on 10th January! A couple of days later it was another LSO opera in concert; this time Richard Strauss’ Elektra. It wasn’t up to the earlier ones steered by Sir Colin Davies, but it was still worth a visit. The main problem was that such a dramatic opera doesn’t lend itself to a concert reading as well as other operas. Add to this a huge orchestra (not hiding in a pit, like a staged production) with a ‘loud’ conductor like Gergiev and you have a tendency to drown out vocals. American Jeanne-Michele Charbonnet made up for the lack of staging by acting her angst as Elektra and Angela Denoke sang beautifully as her sister.


At first, I found the non-linear nature of Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, a biographical film about Ian Dury, difficult to get into. It hops around rather a lot and blends bio drama with flashbacks, fantasy sequences and live performance. By the end though, it proved to be a very satisfying telling of an intriguing life.

I enjoyed Up in the Air, the style and look of which reminded me very much of Catch Me If You Can. George Clooney is a very believable outplacement consultant (who, in the US it seems, fire you as well as help you!) in love with the nomadic lifestyle and obsessed with airline, hotel and car hire loyalty programmes. Often funny, but moving and thought provoking too.

No Distance to Run starts as a record of Blur’s 2009 reunion, but becomes a much more interesting and surprisingly frank reflection on the band’s history. They each movingly give their different perspectives on the turbulence that beset the band, which makes the reunion and reconciliation all the more uplifting. The live footage proves they were the best band to emerge in the 90’s.


Howard Hodgkin’s exhibition at Gagosian proved to be just seven small new pictures, but he’s a very special artist and four of them were lovely. At Chris Beetles small gallery (two floors of each of two small terraced houses) he’d packed in three exhibitions, all of which would be worth a visit on their own. British Photographers included Parkinson, Brandt, Beaton, Snowdon and O’Neill with the famous picture of Olivier as Archie Rice no less. Quentin Blake’s book illustrations were fun, as were a collection of other British Illustrators including Heath Robinson, Bateman and many more modern.

Maharaja at the V&A was a brilliantly curated review from powerful pre-colonial Indian kings through to powerless post-colonial Western-obsessed playboys. There were gorgeous paintings, furniture, ornaments and jewellery on show – more bling than at any other exhibition I’ve seen! Also at the V&A, a fascinating exhibition of new interactive digital art called Decode enabled you to change images by speaking, ‘paint’ with your body and have your photographic image projected and changed in slow motion following your movements; a great playground for boys who like toys, so my iPhone and I interacted appropriately.

Filled a gap between work and concert with a couple of small exhibitions at the NPG. Twiggy: A Life in Photographs was lovely – she’s so photogenic and has aged so gracefully; who’d have thought? The Observer’s Jane Brown, who I first saw at Kings Place a couple of months ago, also has a small exhibition of B&W photo portraits which were just as good as the more extensive Kings Place selection.

At the newly restored Whitechapel Gallery there is an exhibition of photographs from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh over 150 years called Where Three Dreams Cross which is far more interesting than it sounds. It features images from the Maharajas and colonial times with some striking contemporary pieces. Also at the Whitechapel are selections from the British Council collection, including a piece from my favourite sculptor Richard Wilson – this one a cross-section cut from a table football table!


I wasn’t sure how to categorise Barbershopera II, but I finally decided its comedy. It’s a rambling comic story sung through unaccompanied by three actor singers with minimal props and costumes. It had its moments and I have much admiration for the performers, but at 80 minutes, I’m afraid it was an overlong sketch.


A visit with the Royal Academy Friends to Dr. Johnson’s House proved more interesting in learning about the man than the building. In a four-story town house, hidden behind Fleet Street and now surrounded by modern buildings, he compiled the first English dictionary c.250 years ago. I loved the second definition of Politician – ‘a man of artifice; one of deep contrivance’. Nothing changes.

What a busy month!

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A weekend in Leuven

I’ve had a love affair with Flanders since I visited Antwerp a while back. Subsequent visits to Bruges, Ghent, Ostende & the coast and a visit on business to Mechelen last November consolidated it. 

It’s seeped in merchant history much like the guilds of the City of London and was home to one of the great artistic movements of history. The architecture is varied, but there is an emphasis on gothic and classical. 

Leuven is a university city, much like Cambridge, with colleges around every corner and university life fully integrated in the city. It’s great to walk around (though there are a lot of cobbles to ‘massage’ the soles of your feet!) and unlike Cambridge, you are welcome to wander into the college courtyards. 

The grandest buildings are the 15th century gothic City Hall covered with statues, the 20th century classical University Library built as a commemoration of the first world war but ironically needing to be rebuilt after damage in the second world war, and St Peter’s church which dominates the Grote Markt, the focal point of the town. 

Last November they opened a new museum which they somewhat coolly called ‘M’ which takes the former College of Savoy and bolts on a faux Greek temple and a modern structure to great effect. The permanent collection of paintings, sculptures and restored rooms is small but beautiful. 

It’s a lovely little city and only 2.5 hours away from London by train. Here’s a link to some photos. 

You are invited to view Gareth’s photo album: Leuven Jan 2010
Leuven Jan 2010
Dec 31, 2001
by Gareth
To share your photos or receive notification when your friends share photos, get your own free Picasa Web Albums account.

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I think it’s the fifth time I’ve seen Paul McCartney and this was amongst the best. It was a gloriously nostalgic 2 hour 50 minute set of 38 songs, including 22 Beatles songs (many which were never played live by them as they stopped touring so soon) with 23,000 people singing along. The atmosphere was electric. He made a few misjudgements (Mull of Kintyre with pipe band and Ob-la-di Ob-la-da!) but they are easily forgiven in a set that started with Magical Mystery Tour and included Drive my car, Got to get you into my life, Long and winding road, Blackbird, And I love her, Eleanor Rigby, Something, Back in the USSR, I’ve got a feeling, Paperback writer, A day in the life, Let it be, Hey Jude, Day tripper, Lady Madonna, Get back, Yesterday, Helter Skelter, ending with the Sergeant Pepper reprise / The End. There is no-one on the planet who can select a set that good. He delivers it with huge energy and warmth with just a 5-piece rock band – no dancers and no gimmicks – at 67 years of age that makes you a hero in my book.

The LSO’s concert versions of opera have become legendary, and those under Sir Colin Davies especially so. This Otello doesn’t quite match an earlier one, but it was a treat nonetheless. Though the soloists were good, it was the orchestra and chorus that were the stars.

 I’ve never been entirely comfortable listening to counter-tenors – it all seems so unnatural and you keep wanting to check you’ve still got your full equipment! – but it was a programme of mostly English songs that drew be to a recital by Bejun Mehta. Well, despite the fact that I didn’t really like the more strident Haydn and Beethoven pieces, he converted me. The two encores in particular (one hilarious and one sublime) were worth the ticket price alone.


Impropera is the operatic equivalent of comedy improvisation. As all improv, it’s hit and miss and depends entirely on that night’s ration of inspiration. It wasn’t a classic but there was much to enjoy.

Much of the very surreal Pyjama Men seemed improvised and again when it works it’s brilliant, but even when it isn’t, you have to admire the skill of these two American comedy actors. I’m not sure all of my party of six shared my enthusiasm though!


I was really disappointed in the Coen Brothers latest, A Serious Man, which seems to me to be somewhat impenetrable to a non-Jewish audience and struggles to keep your attention – I just wasn’t that interested in the main character or his story. I’m clearly out of synch with the critics who loved this and No Country for Old Men but disliked Burn After Reading; I loved the latter but found the former’s violence hard to stomach.

Nine was another big disappointment; so much talent wasted on an adaptation of a stage musical which just doesn’t work on screen. Daniel Day Lewis and Jennifer Lopez are terrific and there are fine cameos from Judi Dench and Sophia Loren, but they can’t really save what is a very dull two hours – all style, no substance.

Nowhere Boy, however, is one of the very best films of 2009 – and a debut for artist Sam Taylor-Wood too. I don’t know how speculative its exploration of John Lennon’s relationships with his mother and aunt (and the early days of his relationship with Paul McCartney) is, but it has much psychological depth and made a lot of sense to me. Anne-Marie Duff and Kirsten-Scott Thomas are both superb and Aaron Johnson makes a charismatic and passionate young Lennon. As much as I admired his performance, I think the casting of Thomas Sangster is a bit of a cheap trick to heighten the coolness of John – the films one flaw.


Stood up by a client stranded with train problems, I caught up with the current exhibitions at Tate Modern. The Turbine Hall installation by Miroslaw Balka is a giant two-story high container which you walk into up a ramp. You lose the light and seem to be walking into nothingness, but if you turn around you can clearly see where you’ve come from; extraordinary. Pop Life tells the tale of pop art from Warhol onwards. Looking back at the early stuff, it all seems rather cheap and tacky and one wonders what all the fuss was about. The highlight was the final room of recent highly detailed Japanese kitsch by Takashi Murakami. I was surprised by how much John Baldessari grew on me as I moved through the exhibition; I think it was the sense of almost obsessive experimentation which appealed – how he keeps moving on after exhausting his interest in producing different versions of the latest thing.

The National Gallery has an installation called The Hoerengracht by American artists Ed and Nancy Kienholz which is a recreation of the Amsterdam red light district; I’m afraid it all seemed very old hat to me. At the Royal Academy’s outpost at Burlington Gardens, an exhibition called Earth presents work by 35 contemporary artists as a response to climate change. It’s the usual hit-and-miss affair, but there is enough fascinating work to make it well worth the visit. In the same building, an exhibition of work made from abandoned / found objects by Stuart Haygarth is a wacky treat – chandeliers made from the arms of spectacles, table lamps from china cats, and a globe from car wing mirrors – great fun.

Turner & the Masters is a brilliantly curated exhibition which explores the influences of Turner and the paintings executed in homage to them. If an artist worked like that today, they’d be accused of plagiarism, but 200 years ago it was a very different thing. After being told it’s the best for years, The Turner Prize shortlist exhibition, also at Tate Britain, disappointed – probably because it doesn’t do justice to some of the artists – particularly Roger Hiorns, whose Seizure, a flat filled with copper sulphate solution then drained to leave a deep blue crystal interior, was one of my artistic highlights of last year.

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Bryn Terfel showcased his new album ‘Bad Boys’ at the RFH. Part of me would have liked more opera arias and less numbers from musicals, and more of Bryn with less orchestral pieces, but in the end I was won over by the accessibility and populism he aims at and achieves and his rapport and warmth by interacting with the audience rather than standing mute and stiffly like most recitalists.

At King’s Place, two short concerts on the same evening were devoted to six of Britten’s rarer song cycles by six great young singers and pianist Martin Martineau and it proved to be one of those unexpected treats. Sadly, fewer than 200 people turned up, but it’s their loss.

I came late to Steve Earle but this is the fourth time I’ve seen him in as many years. Coinciding with his album in homage to Townes van Sandt, it was mostly Townes songs linked by some stories and anecdotes. It was a highly personal account of their relationship and I found it captivating; without question the best concert of the four.

I decided to give US retro folk-rockers The Decemberists a second chance after a disappointing concert a couple of years back and I was glad I did. The first half was their excellent new ‘concept’ album (wow, man, remember them?) Hazards of Love in its entirety and it worked brilliantly on stage. The second was a lighter collection of earlier material which sat well alongside the more earnest and serious first half.


L’assedio di Calais was another fine night at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, a rare Donizetti which creaks a bit, but has enough good music to make a revival worthwhile. This time it wasn’t the soloists that shone, but the fine chorus.

I’m only an occasional visitor to contemporary dance and was attracted to the Michael Clark Company’s programme by its music – Lou Reed, Iggy Pop and mostly Bowie – but I’m afraid until the last few pieces it left me rather cold. The sequence with Jean Genie and Aladdin sane, though, was terrific.

Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Cyrano de Bergerac was more dance drama than ballet, with a score by the prolific Carl Davies. It was rather ruined by a late start following evacuation of the theatre when the alarms went off; a cock-up on the diary front meant I had another commitment (too) soon after this, so I had to depart before the last act, leaving Amanda on her lonesome. I sort of enjoyed what I saw, but being incomplete it’s hardy satisfying.

I thought the ENO’s pairing of Bartok’s one-act opera Duke Bluebeard’s Castle with Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring was inspired and both got a complete makeover. I didn’t think Bluebeard quite matched the intensity of their classic former production with Gwynne Howells (who Jeff spotted in the audience) and Sally Burgess and I didn’t entirely understand the interpretation of Rite (nothing new there then), but it was musically thrilling and visually fascinating.


An Education proved to be a delight. It’s got a nostalgic 60’s feel and a simple but satisfying story of how a young girl’s life changes when she’s swept away by an older man. It’s an auspicious debut from young Carey Mulligan and Rosamund Pike’s portrayal of the friend’s girlfriend is a real treat.

I was disappointed by the quirky satirical comedy The Men Who Stare at Goats. It was a great idea and there were some terrific performances (including another comic cameo gem from Kevin Spacey), but somehow it just didn’t work – I think because they didn’t push the absurd & surreal far enough.


Beatles to Bowie at the NPG is a terrific review of the evolution of pop photography of the 60’s from old hands turning to pop photography to a new breed of pop photographers (many of whom went on the become mainstream themselves). It’s my decade, so suffice to say I was in my element. At the same venue, the Photographic Portrait Prize has such a high standard that I’m glad I didn’t have to choose the winners; inspirational stuff.

I was disappointed by the Ed Ruscha retrospective at the Hayward; I’m afraid I don’t really ‘get’ his paintings of words and it all seemed much ado about nothing and certainly not worthy of a major gallery show.

Bunker is an extraordinary painstaking recreation of a WWII bunker by a Polish artist in the curve space at the Barbican; the attention to detail is such that you soon feel you are exploring as historical space rather than an art installation.

Anish Kapoor’s major exhibition at the RA really has caught the public imagination and it was great to see so many kids and young people there. The mirror sculpture room is great fun. In another, large capsules of what looks like red play dough get fired from a cannon at the wall. A giant block of the same material which is around 10 ft high, 6 ft wide and 40 ft deep moves slowly on rails through five galleries, fitting the doorways between them perfectly; you can’t take your eyes off it. It really is a sculpture fest at the RA with another exhibition called Wild Thing bringing together Jacob Epstein, Eric Gill and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska; I’d never heard of the latter, had seen a fair bit of Epstein, but it was Gill’s almost art deco work that was the real revelation for me.

A photographer I’d never heard of called Jane Brown had an exhibition of B&W portraits of the famous (mostly from the arts) at the King’s Place concert venue and it proved an excellent pre-concert and interval diversion. Taken mostly in the 60’s and 70’s, B&W suited both the period and the subjects.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some photos….. 

You are invited to view Gareth’s photo album: Turin & Piedmont Wine Weekend
Turin & Piedmont Wine Weekend
Nov 1, 2009
by Gareth
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Another successful visit to Britain’s most accessible and best value opera company, Welsh National Opera,  in Cardiff. Wozzeck was given a great production and was brilliantly sung, but the depressing tale and inaccessible music meant it didn’t really light my fire. La Traviata, however, was one of those evenings at the opera when it all comes together. You might be able to hear better individual singing, but the combination of staging, design, acting and singing made this a deeply satisfying experience, amongst the best in 30 years of opera going. Madam Butterfly was marred by the sickness of Amanda Roocroft though, despite wooden acting, her substitute Anne Williams-King’s singing was impressive in what appeared to be her first (and hastily rehearsed) role debut. Conductor Carlo Rizzi worked wonders keeping it all together, at one point slowing down the orchestra whilst she got back on track in her aria! A wonderful comic moment was provided by the child actor who proceeded to set light to a small cherry blossom branch. Suzuki extinguished the flame but thereafter every time he picked up another piece, she grabbed it off him!

Sometimes ify reviews lower your expectations and you come out pleasantly surprised……and so it was with the ENO’s Turandot. Rupert Goold’s ‘big idea’ is to set it in the Imperial Palace Chinese Restaurant where there appears to be a fancy dress party taking place. There is an extra (mute) character called ‘The Writer’ which appears to be Puccini himself (he is killed at the point where Puccini himself died whilst writing the opera). He steals his own ideas from his own recent production of Six Characters in Search of an Author; at times the characters seem to be telling him they don’t like the part they have been written. The critics found it gimmicky, but I found it intriguing (and the interval conversations interesting). No-one seems to have focused on the fact that the musical standards are exceptional – the orchestra and chorus make a terrific noise and the leads are very well cast.


At the Barbican, the City of London Sinfonia and the LSO Chorus put on a deeply moving tribute to the life and work of conductor and champion of British music Richard Hickox who died just under a year ago. Britten’s Sea Interludes have never sounded better and the chorus excelled in Holst’ Hymn of Jesus. Pieces by Elgar and Vaughan Williams made up a gorgeous programme.


Moctezuma is the fourth exhibition of the lives of great rulers in the reading room at the British Museum, following China’s First Emperor, Hadrian and Persia’s Shah Abbas, and it is as fascinating as the others. This is such a good space and again it’s curated very well.


I thought District 9 was going to be pure SciFi , but it turned out to be Dr. Who meets Terminator and far too gory for me, I’m afraid.  500 days of Summer was a clever film but the story and characters didn’t interest or engage me enough to hold my attention.

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