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Opera

L’Amour de loin is a strange concoction by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho; a 12th century love story played out at a distance between France and Lybia. The music is hypnotic in a Debussy-like way and the staging by a Swiss Italian better known for circus spectacles by Cirque Eloize and Cirque du Soleil includes a lot of colour, light, and flying! I found the first half soporific and the second half slow. The staging is highly inventive, it looks gorgeous and I found the music soothing; but it’s not an entirely satisfying whole. Roderick Williams is superb, Faith Sherman makes an auspicious UK debut, but Joan Rogers was disappointing.

Art

The month started with a frustrating morning in the office, so I sneaked off to catch a handful of small gallery exhibitions. Bill Brandt’s photos were a mixed bunch – I liked the gritty street life but not the surreal nudes. Tracey Emin’s show of drawings (which, in truth, I only really popped into as it was on the way to the next gallery!) was a complete yawn. Howard Hodgkin’s giant colourful prints (£20k to £70k, if you’ve got some spare cash!) were lovely and I was surprised how well they compared with his paintings. David Hockney continues his Yorkshire landscape project with a series of lovely colourful digital prints that have as much impact as the paintings and the portraits they are shown with work well in the same medium.

A very nostalgic exhibition at the Cartoon Museum features cartoons of Margaret Thatcher by the usual suspects. It reminds you how much she divided people and invited vitriolic responses. Gerald Scarfe’s contributions are the best, but there’s a real range here and 15 or so years on it makes a fascinating show.

Bassline is a very atmospheric slide, sound and light installation in the Barbican Car Park 5, but whether it’s worth the lost revenue from an awful lot of parking spaces, I’m not sure. But it passed an interesting 20 minutes between a film and a play!

The Saatchi Gallery’s tour of the contemporary art world continues with Abstract America. This wasn’t as good as the earlier Chinese and Middle East exhibitions and the 10 rooms were rather overshadowed by 1 room of Korean contemporaries and an exhibition of photos by musician Bryan Adams. The Serpentine Gallery has a blockbuster on its hands with Jeff Koon’s Popeye Pictures. The busyness seems to have led the staff to turn into a Gestapo, reciting rules before you could enter. When inside, I found it talentless tacky tosh! It was much better outside, where the Summer Pavilion is a lovely structure by Japanese architects.

The annual Press Photographers exhibition in the NT foyer is great as usual. Covering everything from news to people at play, it has the capacity to bring a smile to your face and a tear to your eye.

Contemporary Music

Marianne Faithfull’s concert at The Royal Festival Hall was a success, as much because of the song selection, arrangements and wonderful band under MD Kate St John. She hasn’t been particularly prolific but she’s survived and it’s this that comes over most. She can’t really sing for toffee but her song interpretations are unique.

Rachel Unthank & The Bairns’ concert at Covent Garden’s Linbury Studio was an absolute gem. The song selection hadn’t changed much since I last saw them around a year ago, but the venue, audience and significance of the evening (the lovely Steph’s last major concert with them) somehow combined to make it very special indeed.

Lucinda Williams’ concert was a strange affair. After a shaky start she threw a wobble three songs in, citing incessant photo taking as the reason, followed by the barrier in front of the stage and later nervousness (with an attempt to flatter us? by telling us this only happens in LA, NYC and London). A long period of ‘going through the motions’ with no audience engagement (not even a smile crossed her face) meant that she took too long to recover from this, effectively sabotaging her own concert. Her band (who had their own instrumental set as support) is terrific and she’s got some great songs, so the whole thing was such a shame. A whole concert turns on a small wobble!

Classical Music

My three-visits-in-five-days to the Proms started with a celebration of Cambridge University’s 800th anniversary. Once you’d ignored the rather obnoxious audience, it turned out to be a lovely programme including a world premiere and choral pieces by two other living composers. Simon Keenlyside was wonderful singing Vaughan Williams’ Five Mystical Songs and it was great to see conductor Andrew Davies (now mostly based in the US) again. The second was a fascinating East-meets-West programme of mostly Japanese and French 20th century music. In the final part, Debussy’s La Mer sat very comfortably alongside Hosokawa’s Cloud & Light even though there were 100 years and 6000 miles between them. The third was a programme of British 20th century music by three composers who dies within 4 months of each other 75 years ago this year. It included a rare outing for Holst’s Choral Symphony which sets Keats poems (and the first at the proms against the 90th for Elgar’s Enigma Variations!). I thought it was absolutely fascinating and cannot for the life of me understand why it is so neglected whilst his Planets is so over-exposed.

Film

Bruno was even more outrageous than I was expecting and there were many laughs and a lot of open mouth moments. I think it’s as good as Borat, but whether he’ll be able to come up with a third, I’m not so sure – I think the formula may have run its course. I decided to see the new Harry Potter at the IMAX in (partly) 3D as I’d so enjoyed Superman, Spiderman and an earlier Potter in the same way. It’s a terrific experience, but HP6 is a darker, sadder affair without the excitement of its predecessors. All the teenage stuff was funny though.

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This is only the second MIF. The first, two years ago (it’s biennial), had one big coup – Damon Albarn / Jamie Hewlett’s ‘opera’ Monkey. This one has lots!

My visit started with It Felt Like A Kiss, a site specific installation / film / journey from Punchdrunk. This is the fourth of their shows I’ve seen – The Firebird Ball was their take on Romeo & Juliet in a disused factory in Kennington, their version of Faust was in a warehouse in Docklands and The Mask of the Red Death, based on Poe stories, took over the entire Battersea Arts Centre building. This show covers six floors of an empty office block and starts with a walk through lots of rooms, initially 50s/60s Americana (the American Dream?) later becoming more mysterious (broken dream?). These take you to an extraordinary 35-minute film montage, which seems to show the American Dream unravelling, before you enter a more sinister phase where you are ‘processed’ in groups you are instructed to stay in but are prevented from doing so. I ended up being chased from the building by a man with a chainsaw! It has a great soundtrack of contemporary music plus an original score by Damon Albarn. I found it just as inventive but more accessible than their earlier work, largely because it was linear. A surreal 2 hours I suspect I will never forget.

I love the Royal Exchange Theatre; it’s like sitting in a spaceship which has landed inside a historic building. I haven’t been there for ages but have fond memories of Alan Price’s musical Lucky Man, an adaptation of Russell Hoban’s Ridley Walker and an all-day Count of Monte Cristo. Neil Bartlett’s Everybody Loves A Winner is a play about bingo and people who play bingo. They’ve turned the theatre into a seedy bingo hall and obtained a license so that the audience can play during the play (for a £200 jackpot!). It’s a great idea which at first seems just populist fun, but it also has a lot to say about the motivation of the players and their exploitation, without in any way patronising them. It was both entertaining and thought provoking – but I didn’t win the £200!

The Manchester City Art Gallery has put on a cracking festival exhibition called What Are You Like? based on the Victorian practice of drawing / painting your likes and dislikes. They’ve asked public figures to produce their own and, with no other rules, the variety is amazing. People like Andrew Marr and Anna Ford prove to be talented artists and there are hilarious contributions from cartoonists Glen Baxter & Peter Brookes. I’d never been to this gallery before so it was an opportunity to see their permanent collection, which majors on the Victorian period with a superb collection of Pre-Raphaelites and some good impressionists (including a wonderful one new to me, Adolphe Valette, who taught in Manchester and whose pupils included Lowry).

Rufus Wainwright is one of my favourite singers; he has an extraordinary voice and writes wonderful songs. His debut opera, Prima Donna, is a real coup for MIF and they’ve easily sold out the six performances. In many ways it’s an old fashioned opera, more like Puccini than anything else, which suits it’s subject matter – a Prima Donna who can no longer perform – as does its performance in French. There is much lush music and lovely tunes and the story (of why she can no longer perform) unfolds well. His lack of operatic experience shows as he writes beyond the range of his singers (though probably not beyond his own!) as does the lack of experience of director Daniel Kramer who sometimes gives the singers too much to do whilst they are trying to sing! It’s certainly not the finished article, but it is a most auspicious debut and suggests there is at least one masterpiece further down the line.

Architect Zaha Hadid has created a temporary chamber concert venue on the 2nd floor of the City Art Gallery specifically for the performance of solo pieces by Bach. On the evening I went it was four cello suites performed by young French cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras. In truth, 80 minutes of Bach solo cello meant it outstayed its welcome, but it was nevertheless a great experience.

This festival’s mission of only mounting commissions or other new work successfully differentiates it from others and based on this year’s programme, I shall certainly be back.

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OPERA

At the Guildhall School of Music & Drama there was a pairing of Martinu and  Rossini one-act comic operas. I love these Guildhall opera evenings – always value and often a treat. I wasn’t mad keen on the music of the Martinu though I liked the production and performances (particularly Nicky Spence). The Rossini, an inspired setting in a lap dancing club, was a hoot, with Spanish soprano Elena Sancho-Pereg giving a sensational vocal performance. Who needs Covent Garden when you can have as much fun as this for a sixth of the price.

Roberto Devereaux at Opera Holland Park made for a nice summer evening. There’s something formulaic about Donizetti’s operas, his obsession with setting British history is intriguing, and the result – assorted queens, dukes and duchesses emoting histrionically in Italian – is somewhat incongruous. Having said that, this is the perfect opera for OHP’s backdrop and it looks both attractive & authentic, it was played and sung beautifully and a good time was had by all. OHP is a summer must and this rare outing of this opera was very welcome.

James MacMillan’s opera Parthenogenesis (fatherless conception) is based on a 2nd World War tale about a woman whose conception is triggered by a bomb blast. It’s an intriguing story but it makes for a slight 50-minute opera, which I’m not sure is worthy of the huge resources the ROH have heaped upon it. It has some lovely atmospheric music and passionate performances, but designing in restricted views for those at the side (well, certainly on the left) is unnecessary, inconsiderate and unforgivable.

I’d been so looking forward to Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Royal College of Music. As soon as I saw there was no designer credit in the programme, I groaned…..and so it was; an opera set in a forest without a tree, bush, branch or even leaf in sight. It’s not easy to enjoy Britten’s magical music in such an unmagical setting. It didn’t help that the Britten Theatre, with the most uncomfortable seats, was hot, stuffy and airless.

 CLASSICAL MUSIC

Another concert in Julius Drake’s English song series at the Wigmore Hall; this time with soprano, mezzo, clarinet and piano! The programme combined rarer pieces and curiosities with the usual suspects (which is probably why it was so empty) so it was different but complimented the earlier concerts in the series. I’ve really enjoyed these.

The programme for the City of London Choir’s concert of rarely performed English choral music was inspired – two works by Vaughan Williams & Holst bookending pieces by Britten, Parry & Foulds – with the symmetry of a secular first half with piano and harp accompaniment and a scared unaccompanied second half. Despite my love of British music, all bar VW’s Mass in G was new to me and it was an absolute treat.

I love work which breaks out of the theatre or concert hall, and this year Spitalfields Festival invited five extraordinary musicians and four composers from the Royal Academy of Music to create music in the old Huguenot houses of Spitalfields. We visited five houses in 100 minutes and were given solo Baroque Cello, Tuba, Flute, Clarinet and Violin (with electronic soundscape). In addition to four new pieces (all for violin) they included a whole range of composers from Bach to Turnage and I though the whole experience was enthralling, with a walk around the much gentrified Spitalfields a real bonus.

My only visit to this year’s City of London Festival was for a chamber programme by the Hebrides Ensemble at the wonderful Stationers’ Hall. The programme of this year’s festival is 60º North, linking music from Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Finland, St. Petersburg and the Scottish isles. Tonight’s programme had Sibelius, Shostakovich and Stravinsky plus three living Scots (or adopted Scots) Peter Maxwell Davies, James MacMillan and Judith Weir and a bonus from Iceland. It was inspired programming – challenging but thrilling – and the venue was terrific. I loved the way the organisers mingled with the punters over a (free) glass of wine in the interval. Bravo!

ART

The one-room exhibition of Picasso prints at the NG complements the main exhibition, but it was a mixed bag. Next door at the NPG there was a small but brilliant exhibition of photos of Bob Dylan’s famous 1966 tour. I never saw the tour, but it still felt nostalgic. Richard Long is an eccentric Bristolian who travels the world carrying out obsessive walks, creating art from nature. The trouble is, photos and word descriptions don’t do this justice and in this huge Tate Britain exhibition the one room of stone sculptures just isn’t enough to capture your imagination. Also at Tate Britain, BP Connections is a slim contemporary art exhibition but it does deliver one coup – a room of (seemingly) ethnic sculptures collected from around the world by the Chapman family. They turn out to be modern creations with hidden references to a hamburger chain, its character for kids and hamburgers themselves! The exhibition of actor Anthony Sher’s paintings at the NT is wonderful; he’s as good an artist as he is an actor. The portraits in this exhibition include his family, but it is largely made up of fellow actors. At the same venue, the 30th anniversary of Greenwich Printmakers is celebrated by a lovely exhibition which shows just how under-rated printmaking is. The exhibition is made up of a very eclectic selection, but its more hit than miss. I ventured into another unexplored part of fast up-and-coming arty E1 / E2 for an exhibition of 60’s photos by ‘Hoppy’ Hopkins, an extraordinary man who founded International Times and set up the UFO club. The pictures, which ranged from street kids to The Beatles via demos and drugs, were terrific. Futurism at Tate Modern proved much more extensive and exciting than I was expecting; an amazing range of work that is mind-blowing today, so imagine seeing this for the first time 100 years ago. At the same venue, a major retrospective of Danish artist Per Kirkeby (who I’d never heard of) started with a yawn, but rather grew on me. The sculptures were awful but the big canvases splashed with colour were lovely – very Hodkinesque!

FILM

Two of Britain’s greatest film directors have tried lighter fare with their latest outings. Whereas Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky failed to impress me, Ken Loach’s Looking for Eric proved to be a real treat – utterly charming and ultimately hopeful. I have little interest in football, no interest in Man United and to me Eric Cantona is some idiosyncratic Frenchman who uttered quirky statements at press conferences, but even I was captivated by what is clearly a bizarre cult. Nick Moran’s Telstar was a good play with a sensational leading performance by Con O’Neil. The story of 60’s record producer Joe Meek, it makes a good film but somehow I think it could have been a great one if he’d handed it over to another director able to bring objectivity and a new perspective. Con O’Neill reprises his role (less sensationally on screen) and is accompanied by a superb collection of young actors and a surprisingly good retired army major from Kevin Spacey!

OTHER

The prospect of a concert version of Kurt Weil’s first Broadway musical, after his exile from Nazi Germany, was a tempting one. It’s a First World War tale called Johnny Johnson which, for the 30’s, made very brave statements about young men as cannon fodder. In reality it’s a musical play, not a musical, and by including all of the dialogue it outstayed its welcome at over 3 hours. A curiosity, but not particularly entertaining.

I’ve got mixed views about classical ballet – I can’t stand the dancer hierarchies, the overly mannered performances, the sickly unnatural bows & curtain calls and the audience! – but when it’s good it takes your breath away as Jewels, a triple bill of Balanchine ballets to music by Faure, Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky, did at Covent Garden. The costumes and sets were gorgeous, the three ballets were complimentary and much of the dancing – particularly from Carlos Acosta, Alexandra Ansanelli and Rupert Pennefather – really did take your breath away.

Taste of London in Regent’s Park has now become an annual must. It features 36 restaurants, each presenting 3-4 signature dishes for you to sample in small portions for between £3 and £6. It has grown to include cooking master classes, lectures, wine & other drinks, cooking shops etc. We found a nice place in the VIP enclosure and took it in turns to wander around and sample 10 dishes each. It has got very popular (it is now replicated around the world) and may become overstretched, but for now it’s still a fun afternoon.

Having heard about the completion of their renovations and added galleries etc., I couldn’t resist a trip to Northampton to see one of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s last commissions – 78 Derngate. It’s a small terraced house which is fascinating because it shows how he was evolving towards Art Deco – more geometric (triangles and straight lines) and stronger colouring (black combined with yellow, purple and turquoise). They have taken over two adjoining houses so that they can add galleries and the customary shop and restaurant. I particularly like the fact that they’ve given over galleries to modern designers for selling exhibitions.

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OPERA & CLASSICAL MUSIC

Handel’s Giustino, one of his 42 operas!, was given a very rare performance by Trinity College of Music in Wren’s wonderful Royal Naval College Chapel in Greenwich. The staging was a bit hit-and-miss but the singing was terrific. The venue has great acoustics and a wonderful atmosphere, but the pews proved a challenge for a bum-numbing 3 hours 10 mins. Welsh National Opera’s Queen of Spades is another feather in their cap. I found it a bit imbalanced, with a first act that dragged and the next three speeding along, but you couldn’t fault the innovative staging and fine performances and Tchaikovsky’s music is gorgeous. Peter Grimes is, in my view, the greatest opera of the 20th century and this spring at the ENO, it got the production it deserved. The orchestra and chorus under Edward Gardner were electrifying and have never sounded better. In a terrific British cast, John Daszak was a fine Peter with particularly stunning support from Felicity Palmer’s Mrs Sedley, Matthew Best’s Swallow, Gerald Finley’s Balstrode and Amanda Roocroft’s Ellen. This is one of the best things the ENO have ever done and it’s great to see this recently troubled company on such a roll.

I paid my first visit to London’s newest concert venue – Kings Place – for an OAE (Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment) concert of Handel concerti, arias and a short cantata and it was a treat. I’d never heard soprano Julia Doyle before but I can’t wait to see her again; she has a lovely voice. The OAE chamber group played beautifully and the venue really is terrific – two small halls of c.200 and c.400 seats with two galleries, restaurant and café and a canal-side setting. At St John’s Smith Square, the Lufthansa Baroque Festival opened with Handel’s oratorio Athalia. The German chorus & orchestra were exceptional as were the soloists, particularly Sarah Fox; though soprano Simone Kermes rather overdid her acting histrionics. A few days later, Handel’s opera Arianna in Creta, in concert at the Barbican, disappointed largely because in all truth the music is second rate Handel and its far too long. I was taken to a home concert in Kensington to hear South Africa’s entry to the Cardiff Singer of the World competition, baritone Dawid Kimberg, give a run through of his repertoire. He sang far too loudly for a drawing room, so that there was no light and shade and no subtlety and his choice of programme was a bit idiosyncratic – eclectic, but not the best of any of the composers chosen. Delius’ Mass of Life isn’t really a mass at all, but an oratorio based on Neitshe’s Also Sprach Zarathustra. I love Delius but I’d never heard this and it proved to be a complex and demanding piece, particularly for baritone Alan Opie who rose to the occasion magnificently. The Bach Choir and the Philharmonia were also lucky to have Susan Bullock, Susan Bickley and Nigel Robson as well as Alan Opie and it was a great performance. It has to be stopped at one point because an alarm had gone off in some lady’s bag; she bizarrely tried to sit it out until she realised the show would not go on. I’ve never seen so many dirty looks and I was amazed she had the nerve to stay.

 CONTEMPORARY MUSIC

Nick Lowe defines growing old gracefully and on his current tour he’s happy, charming and on great form. The selection was skewed to the 90’s but executed with perfection. I’ve never really taken to support Ron Sexsmith, but on this occasion I began to get the point – maybe he’s matured, or maybe I haven’t given him a fair crack of the whip until now. Anthony Hegarty is a bit of a one-off – when you hear him sing his hypnotic songs with his extraordinary voice you find it hard to believe it’s coming out of this tall, stocky, transgender, British-Canadian. I’d seen two earlier shows – one a collaboration with an artist and one with the LSO, but this was my first ‘bog standard’ Anthony & The Johnsons concert. Apart from a long ramble about climate change which continued into the song Hope Mountain thereby spoiling it, he sat at the piano in a half-light hardly engaging with the audience – but the sound that emanated from his mouth with piano / acoustic guitar / string accompaniment was heavenly. Malian singer / guitarist Rokia Traore has been a favourite since an impulsive visit to see her in Cambridge on a free evening during a short work assignment a few years ago. I think she’s moving too much away from traditional instrumentation, but when she’s rolling she’s simply terrific. She has one of the best rhythm sections I’ve ever heard and the whole Barbican audience was on its feet dancing – it was just impossible to sit still.

ART

I love the V&A’s comprehensive reviews of periods / styles which have in the past included Art Deco, Arts & Crafts, Art Nouveau, Modernism and Gothic. Baroque is just as comprehensive and if it’s less enjoyable that’s more to do with this OTT style than the exhibition. It really made the point that the style permeated everything and travelled far. I enjoyed the National Gallery’s Picasso:Challenging the Past much more than I thought I would. It’s a clever curatorial idea – how he paid homage to artists before him – that captures your imagination. At the NPG there is a stunning ‘installation’ of c.300 paintings of St. Fabiola by Francis Alys, based on an original now lost, discovered in places like flea markets and crammed onto 8 walls in 2 rooms. All but c.5 of them face left and all but c.15 are the same colour and it takes your breath away was soon as you enter the first room. I love Diane Arbus’ quirky 60’s portraits of real people but the exhibition at the Timothy Taylor Galleries was disappointing because of the overlap with her big V&A exhibition a few years back.

CINEMA

The British comedy Is Anyone There? featuring Michael Caine disappointed me – it was charming but it all seemed so contrived with a stunning British cast somewhat wasted. For some reason, I could hardy stay awake in Star Trek but what I did see seemed rather good, so I left the cinema deeply frustrated. I can’t say I understood Synecdoche New York but I was captivated by the surreal weirdness of it all. It made Kauffman’s earlier films – Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – seem positively straightforward.

OTHER

I was lucky to be invites to the London International Wine Fair, the major trade event. It was a bit of a maze and as a LIWF virgin I’m not sure I got the best out of it, but it was an excellent experience all the same.

I’ve wanted to see La Clique in Edinburgh but it’s normally at 1am and I’m not convinced anything can keep me awake at that hour in a darkened room. It’s been so well received in London that I was surprised to find myself underwhelmed. I was expecting edgy but got mainly mainstream and rather tame. Maybe it’s running out of stream after a long run.

The month ended at Bale de Rua, a colourful high energy Brazilian street dance show and the last in the Barbican’s BITE season. It started a bit over-slick and conventional but soon took off; another show picked up from the Edinburgh fringe.

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CINEMA

I really enjoyed The Damned United, a film about Brian Clough’s short time at Leeds United with another stunning portrayal of a real person by Michael Sheen. I found it more sympathetic to Clough than the backlash suggested.

In The Loop, Armando Ianucci’s big screen version of his BBC profile of spin doctors benefits from the transatlantic storyline and is often laugh-out-loud funny, but the ending lets it down a bit.

Shifty is a small independent British film made for £100k which proves there is no relationship between money and quality. It features one of my favourite young actors, Daniel Mays, and has a terrific twist. I loved it.

State of Play was a superb TV series written by Paul Abbott with David Morrissey and John Simm. When I saw the appallingly over-rated Russell Crowe starred in the movie I groaned, but despite him it has successfully made the transition in part because it has been given a contemporary relevance with a post-Iraq war context.

ART

Performance artist Bobby Baker’s evocative drawings / paintings documenting her 11 year mental health experiences at the Wellcome Collection makes for a stunning highly original thought provoking exhibition; I can’t recommend it enough.

The expanded Whitechapel Gallery has opened with four exhibitions, the best of which are a stunning one-room collection of pieces bought (for peanuts) by the British Council to tour the world (including Bridget Riley, Petter Doig and Lucien Freud) and a fascinating room devoted to The Whitechapel Boys; early 20th century Jewish east end artists with a distinctive and striking style. It also has the tapestry of Picasso’s Guernica on temporary load from the UN.

MUSIC

Elvis Costello renewed his 15-year old collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet for a short tour which I caught at the Barbican.  It was a lot more than a re-run of their Juliet Letters album with EC songs revisited, some covers and one new song. It was good to see Elvis again and I enjoyed it a lot.

In my occasional role of rent-an-audience I went to a ‘reading’ of a new musical called The Piper. The Boston Strangler is an odd choice for a musical, but there was some nice music; I doubt it’ll make a staged production though.

I’ve wrongly ignored many of the Lost Musicals concert season at Sadler’s Wells, but I did go to The New Yorkers, a 30’s satire, and loved it. Like the Opera North full productions of Let Them Eat Cake and Of Thee I Sing in February, they seemed way ahead of their time.

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MUSIC & OPERA

Only two operas and an oratorio in a musically lean two months! Dr Atomic at ENO would have been a much better opera if he’d cut it by 30 mins (especially in the more static first half). I liked the design and staging, the music is accessible and there are some very good performances (though Gerald Finley’s understudy didn’t really cut it and looked too young) but it’s a case of more is less. I saw the premiere of The King Goes Forth to France at Covent Garden in the 80’s, but enjoyed this revival at the wonderful Guildhall School so much more (or maybe I’ve grown into modern opera). This production seemed to lighten the fantasy and bring out the humour and the staging and performances were yet again exceptional for a conservatoire. Another conservatoire put on the hugely ambitious Britten War Requiem with considerable success. The venue was tiny so the singers and musicians outnumbered the audience but this gave this anti-war piece so much more power.

Maria Friedman’s Sondheim concert was the fourth I’ve seen by her in the last year. Her interpretations of Sondheim are as goods as any others and the selection was as inspired as the choice of cello and piano accompaniment.

CINEMA

I was put off Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino because I thought it was a classic revenge movie; I’m glad I gave in as it’s a lot more than that – and it may well be the last chance to see him act.

The Boat That Rocked was overlong and would have benefited from an independent director’s scrutiny. However, it was nowhere near as bad as the reviews and is worth the ticket price for the soundtrack alone.

ART & EXHIBITIONS

Another dire month for ‘art’ though better for ‘other’ exhibitions. The only art exhibitions I enjoyed were Rodchenko / Popova at Tate Modern (way-ahead-of-its-time iconic design – the posters, pamphlets and other graphic designs were as captivating as the paintings), the Japanese painter /  illustrator Kyunoshi’s stunning range of work at the Royal Academy and the wonderful original artwork for London Travel Posters  at the London Transport Museum.

All of the contemporary stuff was disappointing – the middle eastern contemporaries at the Saatchi were patchy though there were a few crackers, the Annette Messager installations at the Hayward seemed to me to be the product of a disturbed mind and I found it impossible to like, and worst of all was Tate Britain’s dreadful After Modern; like walking through the cast-off’s in an art school after they’ve taken the good stuff out for an exhibition.

I’m afraid the oldies didn’t fare much better – Tate Britain’s Van Dyck exhibition was only for those who are prepared to view room after room of lifeless nobles in their finery in preposterous over-staged poses and Constable’s portraits at the NPG were even less interesting than his biscuit-tin landscapes.

Gerard Richter’s photo-paintings at the NPG didn’t do a lot for me either, I’m afraid, though the DeutscheBank Photo Prize finalists at the new Photographer’s Gallery as the best short-list in a while.

Of the two architecture exhibitions, I preferred Le Corbusier at The Barbican to Paladio at the RA, though there were too many drawings which may be fascinating to an architect but rather dull to a layman.

The Russian Linesman collection at the Hayward seemed to me to be another of those excuses-for-an-exhibition that the Hayward (and others) are rather too fond of.

I caught up with the British Museum’s Babylon just before it closed and even though it falls into the excuse-for-an-exhibition category, like the Queen if Sheba before it at the same museum, there were enough good exhibits to excuse it on this occasion. By the time I saw it the Shah Abbas exhibition had moved into the converted Reading Room and proved to be as good as The First Emperor and Hadrian before it with some terrific exhibits, but above all telling the story of a great leader very well.

The Natural History Museum’s Darwin exhibition was a huge disappointment – very static; you’d learn more and have more fun reading a book. The V&A’s contribution was an exhibition about Hats which I went to ‘passing through’ the museum but I’m afraid left me cold – it was crowded though, so its clearly up a lot of other people’s streets. I was there to see the new performance galleries and they proved to be a real treat – a superb collection of costumes, memorabilia, video clips really well curated in just four galleries (though rather hidden somewhere on the 3rd floor). We went to the new British Music Experience at the O2 in its first week. It’s a terrific interactive tribute to 50 years of popular music. You can learn to play instruments, watch and hear video and sound clips and view memorabilia and store what you like onto a web space you can then access at your leisure. I’m not sure I’ll access my attempts at drumming and keyboard playing much, but I did love the experience and could have stayed all day. Of course, you tend to concentrate on your favourite period – in my case 60’s and 70’s – and provided the visitor age range is as wide as it was the day we went that means the visitor numbers are managed well.

DANCE

Eonnagata is a collaboration between a favourite dancer (Sylvie Guillem), a favourite theatre director (Robert Lepage) and a favourite choreographer (Russell Maliphant). I’m not sure the idea of staging a story of a transvestite 17th century French nobleman works, but the craftsmanship is unquestionable and the visual imagery stunning; I was spellbound for all 90  minutes.

OTHER

Frank Skinner’s Credit Crunch Cabaret was a great idea – a variety show thrown together on the day for a tenner. It was a hit-and-miss affair but enough of a hit to make it a decent birthday treat. My other (surprise) birthday (and Christmas) treat was a visit to Simon Drake’s House of Magicwww.houseofmagic.co.uk – I think Lynne & Graham were as pleased that the surprise remained a surprise and that they’d found something in London I’d never heard of as they were that I enjoyed it so much – it’s a very original night out.

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‘Why?’ I hear you ask. Before I went I would have said ‘Why Not?’ After the visit, I can report lots of good reasons for visiting this welcoming and interesting city with lovely buildings, canals and green spaces.

 

I landed on my feet accommodation-wise at one of the best examples of the ‘boutique’ hotel in a nice part of town with bars, restaurants and excellent public transport (www.mozaic.nl). The rooms are spotless, stylish and comfortable and the (entirely female) staff couldn’t be more helpful. Though the exchange rate makes you wants to make you say ‘how much?’ to everything, the restaurants were very good; the highlight being a family-run Italian where you get what the lady of the house thought as best when she went shopping that day (though there’s a limited choice). It was a superb 4 courses, as good as any meal I’ve had in Italy, for 38 Euros.

 

The Dutch are very direct but they’re also very welcoming and tolerant. When I sat in 1st Class on the train in error the guard said, in perfect English, ‘never mind, don’t move, you’ll know next time’. My pre-booked tour of the parliament was in Dutch but they gave be a transcript in English, a simultaneous translation of the video and often stopped to ask if I had any questions. There were some sort of carnival celebrations while I was there and on my last evening there was a little bottle of wine and a bowl of Pringles in my room with a note ‘just in case you missed the carnival, have a drink on the house’. How thoughtful is that?!

 

The Parliament visit was very interesting, but the tour of the Peace Palace (home of the arbitration and mediation courts, but not the war crimes tribunals) was spectacular with sensational stained glass, silk wall coverings, paintings, ceramics, carved & painted ceilings and marble floors from all over the world. Such a beautiful building.

 

Art was another highlight, with the modern art museum proving particularly good. I’m not sure I liked the way the permanent collection was curated, with film and video in each room showing 20th Century events alongside the art, but there were a couple of special exhibitions – one showcasing a German artist called Christian Schad I’ve little knowledge of and another featuring artistic couples (O’Keefe / Stieglitz, Khalo/ Riviera etc.). The collection of Dutch art at the Maurithuis had its moments – Vermeer’s ‘Girl With A Pearl Earring’ and Rubens’ ‘Old Woman & A Boy With Candles’ – but a lot of mediocrity. The artistic highlight though was the Escher Museum; the most comprehensive collection of his work anywhere, in a palace with kitsch modern chandeliers. Talking of kitsch, I mustn’t forget Madurodam which is a miniature replica of most of Holland including cities, ports, airports and forests!

 

I made the mistake of choosing Sunday for a side trip to Delft which meant that you couldn’t visit it’s greatest attractions – The Old and New Churches. Still, it was a pretty town of canals just like you expect in Holland!

 

The Hague is a perfect weekend city which I would thoroughly recommend.

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ART & EXHIBITIONS

What a disappointing month! I can’t really see the point of Rothko and found his Tate Modern exhibition dull. The Miereles installations and Gonzales-Foerster in the turbine hall at the same venue were only slightly more interesting. The Royal Academy’s GSK Modern was another dull affair; if this lot are the best of British contemporary art, god help us. The best of Indian contemporary art at the Serpentine was better, but still not up to the outstanding selection of Chinese contemporary’s at the Saatchi, which was the highlight of these two months. This was my first visit to the new Saatchi Gallery in Chelsea and what a great space it is too.

 The Warhol exhibition at the Hayward was all video and films so you’d need to spend a few days there to see it all. I dipped in for a couple of hours, but can’t say I got much out of it.

Photography fared better with a very good Capra / Taro exhibition at The Barbican. These were mostly black & white war photographs, many from the Spanish Civil War, and provided a stunning photographic documentary on these events. At the NPG, the Annie Leibovitz exhibition had its moments, but I didn’t really like the idea of the personal story interwoven with the work; it somehow seemed rather self-indulgent and vain.

CINEMA

In the run-up to all those awards, cinemas are awash with good films; then you spend 10 months looking for something worth seeing. Well, this year was no exception.

I have to agree with all the accolades given to Slumdog Millionaire. It somehow managed to portray the contradictions of India – all that poverty but all that contentment and hope – without the usual tourist glamorisation. I can’t agree with the ‘feelgood’ label, but it’s certainly hopeful and uplifting.

I’m glad I didn’t have to choose the best actor awards because it would be impossible to select from Micky Rourke in The Wrestler, Sean Penn in Milk and Frank Langella in Frost / Nixon. The problem with the Wrestler was that as much as I admired the performance, I didn’t really have empathy with the subject matter. Penn was a revelation and the film captured the period and the significance of the events brilliantly. The expressions on Langella’s face told much more than words and it’s a shame that he missed out on recognition. The film gripped you just as much as the play but those close ups added much.

Though a rather sad and depressing film, The Reader was craftsmanship of the highest order. Kate Winslett was terrific and deserved her accolades, but the boy was great too and somehow got ignored in the awards round. Though the story of The Changeling was fascinating and the period setting excellent (but why so much lipstick!) I somehow found it an old fashioned film So now I suppose it’ll be lean film times for another 10 months!

A lean month for OPERA and MUSIC with just one visit to the Wigmore Hall’s where the exploration of English songs continued with another lovely programme of the usual suspects – RVW et al.

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I’ve got to like avoiding the excesses of a British Christmas and this was the 8th escape in the last nine years; the third to Italy. After a very busy two months, the sleep, fresh air and walking were particularly welcome (not that the food and drink were exactly unwelcome!).

I’d only been to Florence once before, something over 30 years ago, and hadn’t really liked it. This has proved a bit puzzling over the years, as so many friends have returned raving about it, so a 2nd visit seemed to be in order. I still stick to my view of the city as a city (though it didn’t help that last time I arrived straight from Venice!), but this time I appreciated what it contained.

We started with the architecture and statuary of Piazza della Signora, most notably a wonderful Neptune, a scary Perseus and The Rape of the Sabine Women (three intertwined bodies carved from a single piece of marble). These were eventually surpassed by Michelangelo’s David at the Accademia and by the sheer number of statues in the Bargello, but they’re out there where statues are supposed to be.

The highlights in a feast of frescos were in the priory cells at San Marco (though rather too many crucifixions and Madonna’s for my taste), in the Capella Brancacci hidden away south of the Arno, and in the Cappella Gozzoli in the Palazzo Medici Riccardi. The Medici’s were an extraordinary dynasty, a huge influence on Florence, great benefactors of the arts and apparently selected as royalty by the citizens themselves. Of course, this was accompanied by larger-than-life egos which means their crest appears absolutely everywhere and they turn up as ‘guests’ in works of art – looking modest whilst making it clear it was their cash what made it!

A side trip to Sienna brought us snow; atmospheric rather than restrictive. The Duomo is simply stunning and the frescos in it’s Libreria Piccolomini and a 13th century carved marble pulpit took my breath away, but there was also much pleasure to be gained from wandering the small streets and gasping at the scale of the Piazza del Campo.

Christmas lunch was at a restaurant on a hill overlooking the city – peccorino souffle, tiny ravioli floating in a capon consommé, roasted capon and chocolate cake washed down with copious quantities of prosecco and chianti – followed by a visit to the nearby San Miniatto del Monte to cleanse the soul and a long and much needed walk back to the hotel to cleans the body.

Though I enjoyed Christmas in Palermo and Rome more, I was glad I returned to Florence and those frescos and statues are now embedded in the memory.

Here’s a link to a small selection of photos:

 
You are invited to view Gareth’s photo album: Florence Christmas 2008
Florence Christmas 2008
Dec 22, 2008
by Gareth
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A lot of dance this month, starting with Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Stravinsky triple bill. Petrushka was a bit of a museum piece and in The Firebird they allowed the spectacle to overtake the ballet (but the music’s always lovely), so it was the newer production, Le Baiser de la feu which we enjoyed most; the critics, of course, thought the opposite! I’d been looking forward to Mark Morris’ Romeo-and-Juliet-with-a-happy-ending for a long time. This is apparently the lost first version of Prokofiev’s wonderful score, recently uncovered and restored. It’s not Morris’ best work but there was much to enjoy and the critical panning was totally unjustified. Being a lover of Howard Goodall’s music, I had to go to Rambert to see the premiere of their new ballet set to his especially composed requiem Eternal Light. The music was gorgeous but I found the dance uninspiring and the design tacky. The final dance piece was Independent’s Ballet Wales’ Under Milk Wood, which proved to be a delightful and charming chamber piece which didn’t dispense with the verse but illustrated it.

 

An opera-rich month too, starting with a new Michael Berkley chamber opera called For You. It was well staged and sung but the music isn’t particularly accessible so it left me a bit cold. At the Guildhall School, a wonderful rare Gluck opera, Le Recontre Imprevue, proved to be a delight in a highly inventive and very funny production. Three outings to ENO this month, the first to Partenope, yet another lovely Handel (there seem to be so many of them and I wonder if I’ll ever get to see them all). Later in the month, a disappointing Boris Gudunov which was rather static – come on, sing, go off, someone else comes on and sings, goes off – so even though it was musically good it didn’t really inspire. The third was Vaughan Williams short opera The Riders to the Sea. I’d seen a concert version in Brighton in May and this was musically as good and was well staged – but I felt cheated. They added a short Sibelius piece and a musical link which I thought was pointless. Instead, they should have paired it with another British one-acter and given us a full evening rather than a slight 55 minute morsel.

 

The Vaughan Williams 50th anniversary also produced two concerts of symphonies and shorter pieces at the Royal Festival Hall, both of which were real treats. The Philharmonia and Richard Hickox have done the anniversary proud – unlike the opera companies and other orchestras who should bow their heads is shame. Les Arts Florissants’ concert version of a rare Rameau opera at the Barbican was well performed but I wondered if the work was worth it. The musical month ended with the Bach Choir at the RFH in a combination of Howells and Vaughan Williams with an eccentric Maxwell Davies world premiere thrown in.

 

After the Philharmonia concerts but before the Bach Choir and Riders, the news of Richard Hickox death at the untimely age of 60 came as a real shock. Richard was the undisputed champion of British music and being a lover of Britten, Vaughan Williams and Elgar I was at his concerts regularly; four times in his last 6 months. His semi-stage Pilgrim’s Progress may well prove to be a career high, though there were so many. I became a friend of his Endellion Festival this year so that I could add a visit to my musical life. His death is a sad sad loss.

 

I also went to my first live Opera in HD at the cinema and loved it. It was Robert Lepage’s stunning production of Berlioz’ The Damnation of Faust live from the Met in New York. The sound and pictures were great and I liked the backstage stuff before and during the interval. I could have done without the preposterous audience members who dressed up, quaffed champagne and applauded as if it was the real thing. The only other cinema outing was to see the new Bond movie; after an exhausting month and in a hot cinema I’m afraid I dozed for the first part so if anyone would like to update me on the story….it was nice to see Bolivia as a film location anyway!

 

Art-wise, Byzantium at the Royal Academy was well worth the visit but I think I’d have preferred it to be chronological. The small exhibition of Miro, Braque, Calder & Giacometti was much better than I was expecting (given that I don’t really like any of them that much!).

 

A staged evening of the last two Scott Walker albums with guest stars like Jarvis Cocker and Damon Albarn seemed like a good idea at the time but turned out to be rather pretentious and dull. At the lovely Bush Hall the Carolina Chocolate Drops were the sensation my American friends said they would be. The atmosphere was wonderful and this trio performed a range of bluegrass, blues, country….you name it, which had you clapping, tapping and smiling. Finally, a rare visit by the legendary Todd Rundgren to promote his new heavy rock album. Though good, he made the mistake of following 30 minutes of oldies with an unbroken 70 minutes of the entire new album in sequence. Not all the tracks work well live and they would have been better interspersed with the old stuff. By the time he got to two great encores, much of the buzz had gone.

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