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Opera / Classical Music

My second Nash Ensemble War’s Embers concert at LSO St. Luke’s featured beautiful pieces from Bax and Butterworth with others by Rebecca Clarke and Patrick Hadley, neither of whom I’d ever heard of. I do enjoy these lunchtime treats.

BBC SO’s Total Immersion In Remembrance: World War I at the Barbican combined an excellent film about poet / composer Ivor Gurney, a concert by hugely talented GSMD students of pieces from composers who died during / because of the war, the first revival of Mark Anthony Turnage’s brilliant opera The Silver Tassie, David Lang’s choral work Memorial Ground performed in the foyer (the wrong location!) with a couple of talks and even a Virtual Reality experience, culminating in a BBC Singers concert featuring new choral works by Bob Chilcott and Roderick Williams, the former conventional but beautiful and the latter stunningly re-inventing recitative with a new form of prose setting. Given the reason for this mini-festival, it was a melancholic experience, but a musically thrilling one nonetheless.

The Royal Academy of Music’s production of Handel’s Semele will be one of my operatic highlights of the year. A production that looked great, a chorus and orchestra that sounded great and a star was born – Lithuanian soprano Lina Dambrauskaite. Gorgeous.

The BBC SO pairing of Tchaikovsky’s 1st Piano Concerto and Ethyl Smyth’s Mass in D at the Barbican Hall seemed odd, apparently put together because the former said some nice, if patronising, things about the latter. As it turned out, though, both were treats, the first because young pianist Pavel Kolesnikov was sensational and the latter, which I’ve been wanting to see for some time, because the chorus and orchestra sang and played terrifically.

Back at the Royal Academy of Music, their Symphony Orchestra thrilled again under visiting American conductor Robert Trevino with a superbly played Bruckner’s 4th Symphony. I can’t think of a better way to spend a lunchtime.

I was attracted to a French song recital by Sarah Connolly & James Newby at Wigmore Hall as it featured two favourite composers, Ravel and Debussy, but their songs, which I didn’t really know, did not live up to their orchestral, chamber or operatic works, so despite the artistry I was a bit disappointed.

Back at Wigmore Hall, Mark Padmore & the Britten Sinfonia paired a Vaughn Williams song cycle with a premiere by Luke Styles and sadly the former overshadowed the other. The new piece was too challenging for me!

ENO staged Britten’s War Requiem, as it has done with other choral works before. I’m not sure the staging adds much, though there was some beautiful imagery, and the orchestral sound lost something in the pit, but the three soloists and chorus sounded terrific.

Dance

Layla & Majnun at Sadler’s Wells is the first Mark Morris show to disappoint me. Based on a Middle-Eastern / Central Asian Romeo & Juliet, with Azerbaijani music by the Silkroad Ensemble, it had little of his creative flair and the designs by favourite artist, now deceased, Howard Hodgkin disappointed. I liked the music initially, but it did wear me down long before the 75 minutes were up.

GoteborgsOperans dance company made their first visit to Sadler’s Wells with two of the most thrilling dances I’ve ever seen, both choreographed by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and designed by Anthony Gormley. Icon started with Gormley re-cycling some of the clay people in his 25-year-old work Field before tons of soft clay, thirteen dancers and five musicians playing mostly Japanese music became one mesmerising whole. In Noetic, nineteen dancers with a singer & percussionist and pliable metal strips which created a globe before your eyes were spellbinding too. Let’s hope they become regulars here.

Film

A catch-up month starting with A Star Is Born, which I enjoyed. Bradley Cooper and Lady Ga Ga were impressive, the former also as director in his debut.

Widows was a superbly unpredictable film, beautifully shot by Steve McQueen with musical theatre’s Cynthia Erivo proving she’s no one-trick pony.

First Man took a while to take off, but once it did I was captivated by the blend of personal story and actual history, which was gripping even though we all know the outcome!

I wasn’t a big fan of Queen, and I didn’t think they got Freddie Mercury right (teeth too pronounced and too camp), but I was surprised by how much Bohemian Rhapsody moved me and was very glad I went to see it.

Despite superb performances from Glenn Close & Jonathan Pryce, The Wife disappointed, largely because the emphasis on the endgame meant they brushed over the meat of the deceit.

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald was technically accomplished and well-acted but I didn’t really engage with the story, though it was good to see Hogwarts again, and to meet the young Dumbledore.

Art

Faux Pas of the year was visiting Ribera: Art of Violence at the Dulwich Picture Gallery thinking it was (Diego) Rivera! I’m afraid Ribera’s pictures of torture, and his particular penchant for flaying, were not to my taste! Fortunately, as a member it’s free, oh, and the brunch was great!

Modern Couples at the Barbican Art Gallery is a fascinating idea well executed, work by artist in relationships shown together, with biographical information about the relationship. It’s a huge affair featuring some 45 couples, some well-known and others unknown (to me), but had much to like in it.

The Hayward Gallery’s Space Shifters was a bit gimmicky, but again worth a visit, though I didn’t bother to queue for the highlight, Richard Wilson’s 20/50, as I’ve seen it quite a few times since its first outing at the tiny Matt’s Gallery 31 years ago.

At the Barbican’s Curve Gallery, Kiwi artist Francis Upritchard has created a ‘museum’, called Wetwang Slack, of item’s she’s made, from quirky models of people to hats, jewellery, urns and much more. It made me smile.

I think it’s extraordinary that a 20th Century weaver can get a huge retrospective at a major public gallery, but that’s what the late Anni Albers has at Tate Modern. In yet another connection with my Bauhaus trip, she trained with them. It was interesting, but probably more for real lovers of textiles and weaving than a generalist like me.

The Edward Burne-Jones retrospective at Tate Britain was brilliant – well, at least to this lover of the Pre-Raphaelites. I normally find studies and drawings exhibition fillers, but here they demonstrate his craftsmanship. The finished pictures and tapestries were stunning, though the stained glass less so for some reason. Upstairs the Turner Prize exhibition was all films, which I skimmed as life is too short to waste several hours on some pretentious shit masquerading as art.

Oceania at the Royal Academy is probably the best showcase of a culture and peoples I’ve ever seen. Art and objects from some of the 10,000 islands that make up the vast area of Polynesia, Micronesia and Melanesia between them conveyed the real essence of this part of the world. Absolutely fascinating. Upstairs in the Sackler Galleries I was surprised at how much I liked Klimt / Schiele drawings from the Albertine Museum in Vienna. The outstanding skills of these two artists really came over in what were mostly portraits and nudes. Beautiful.

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Opera

There was much to like about Coraline, the Royal Opera at the Barbican Theatre, but I’m not sure the adaptation and production served both Neil Gaiman’s story and Mark Anthony Turnage’s music well as neither were dark enough. Good to see a family friendly opera at accessible prices though.

I didn’t go and see the Royal Opera’s 4.48 Psychosis first time round in 2016 because I didn’t like the Sarah Kane play from which it is adapted. The reviews and awards propelled me to this early revival, again at the Lyric Hammersmith, and I’m glad they did. Philip Venables work makes sense of Kane’s play, a bleak but brilliant exposition of depression and in particular the treatment journey in the eyes of the sufferer. Words are spoken and projected as well as sung and there is recorded music, muzak and sound effects. The artistry of the six singers and twelve-piece ensemble was outstanding. Not easy, but unmissable.

Classical Music

The new Bridge Theatre put on a lunchtime concert of Southbank Sinfonia playing Schumann’s 3rd Symphony, which was a delight, particularly as they unexpectedly blended in poems read by actors. I only wish I’d booked seats within the orchestra, as that would have been a rather unique experience; let’s hope they do it again.

At Wigmore Hall, a young Stockholm-based chamber ensemble called O/Modernt gave a recital spanning almost 400 years of English music from Gibbons to Taverner with an emphasis on Purcell & Britten. They were assisted by a mezzo, a theorbo and vocal ensemble The Cardinall’s Musick. There was even a quirky improvisation on a theme by Purcell. It all sounded very fresh, though there was a randomness about it.

At the Barbican, a delightful double-dip started with a concert of Elgar choral works by the BBC Singers at St Giles Cripplegate. I particularly loved the fact the Radio 3 introductions were made by members of the ensemble. Then at Barbican Hall the BBC SO & Chorus under Andrew Davies gave a wonderful WWI themed concert bookended by Elgar pieces and featuring the London Premiere of a contemporary song cycle and a lost orchestral tone-poem, the highlight of which was an Elgar piece this Elgar fan had never heard, the deeply moving but thoroughly uplifting The Spirit of England, so good I will forgive the ‘England’ that should be ‘Britain’.

Another LSO rehearsal at the Barbican, this time with their new Chief Conductor Simon Rattle, a man who knows what he wants, if ever I saw one; Mahler’s 9th and a new work. It proved to be a fascinating contrast with Mark Elder’s less directive rehearsal method. Again, I wanted to book for the concert.

London Welsh Chorale did a good job with Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus at St Giles’ Cripplegate. It’s one of the first oratorio’s I ever heard (my mother was in Caerphilly Ladies Choir!). They were accompanied by a small orchestra and had four fine young soloists.

I actually went to the LSO Tippett / Mahler Barbican concert to hear Tippet’s Rose Lake again (I was at its world premiere) and as much as I enjoyed it, it was Mahler’s unfinished 10th which blew me away. A highlight in a lifetime of concert-going.

The British Museum reopened the fabulous Reading Room for some concerts and I went to the quirkiest, obviously, for Lygeti’s Poeme Symphonique for 100 Metronomes. They were all set off at the same time, but ended individually, with the fifth from the left on the back row hanging in there the longest for its solo finale followed by a minute’s silence. Strangely mesmerising.

Dance

The Royal Ballet’s Bernstein Mixed Bill was a lovely addition to his Centenary. The first piece, danced to the Chichester Psalms, was wonderful, and the last, to the Violin Serenade, was a delight. Though I love the 2nd Symphony, which provided the music for the middle piece, it was a bit dim and distant to wow me as the others had.

The Viviana Durante Company’s short programme of early Kenneth Macmillan ballet’s, Steps Back in Time, benefitted from the intimacy of Barbican Pit, but could have done with programme synopses so that we could understand the narrative, better recorded sound for the two works that had it, and on the day I went some aircon! Lovely dancing, though.

Comedy

Mark Thomas’ latest show tells the story of running a comedy workshop in the Jenin refugee camp in Palestine, two Palestinian comedians with him on stage and four more showcased on film. In addition to a good laugh, you learn a lot about life in occupied Palestine. The post-show Q&A at Stratford East was a real bonus. Important and entertaining.

Film

Love, Simon is as wholesome and sentimental as only American films can be, but its heart was in the right place and it was often very funny.

The action was a bit relentless in Ready Player One, and the ending a touch sentimental, but it’s a technical marvel and proves Spielberg can still cut it, now with mostly British actors it seems.

Funny Cow was my sort of film – gritty, British, late 20th Century – with some fine performances and some really funny stand-up. Maxine Peak was terrific.

I enjoyed The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society, though it was a bit slow to get off the ground. Particularly lovely to see Tom Courtney at the top of his game.

Art

A bumper catch-up month!

I was impressed by Andreas Gursky’s monumental photographs of the modern world (ports, factories, stock exchanges…) at the Hayward Gallery. Much has been said about the gallery’s refurbishment, but I honestly couldn’t tell the difference!

I’m not sure I understand the point of an exhibition about performance art events that have taken place, so Joan Jonas at Tate Modern was an odd affair; intriguing but not entirely satisfying. However, Picasso 1932, also at Tate Modern, was astonishing – work from just one year that most artists would be happy of in a lifetime, with an extraordinarily diverse range of media, subjects and styles. Wonderful.

I love discovering artists and Canadian David Milne at Dulwich Picture Gallery was no exception, his Modern Painting exhibition is a beautiful collection of landscapes, with one room of early city scenes, all very soft and colourful.

Another Kind of Life: Photography on the Margins at the Barbican Art Gallery brought together some world class, cutting edge photographers, but it was all rather depressing. The quality of photography was excellent, but all those prostitutes, addicts, homeless people…..Agadir by Yto Barrada downstairs in the Curve didn’t do much for me and the wicker seats you sat in to listen to the audio aspects of the installation were excruciatingly uncomfortable.

At the NPG, Victorian Giants: The Birth of Art Photography consisted entirely of portraits, mostly from the mid-19th Century, by four photographers. They were surprisingly natural and technically accomplished, but I’m not sure it was the ‘art photography’ it said on the can. At the same gallery Tacita Dean: Portrait consisted mostly of short films of people with loud projector sound as accompaniment and it did nothing for me.

At the RA, a small but exquisite display of Pre-Raphaelite book illustrations by the likes of Millais, Rossetti, Burne-Jones and Holman Hunt. A little gem, but oh for a much bigger one.

Ocean Liners: Speed and Style at the V&A was a brilliantly presented exhibition which conveyed the glitz and glamour but also covered the wonders of the engineering and the historical significance of the mode of travel. Unmissable.

At the Photographers Gallery the annual Deutsche Borse Photography Foundation Prize Exhibition had a real political bite this year with swipes at Monsanto, the US justice system and former Soviet and East European states. Downstairs Under Cover: A Secret History of Cross-Dressers was difficult to take in as it was a load of standard size snaps found in flea markets and car boot sales, but the accompanying display of Grayson Perry’s Photograph Album covering the early days of his alter ego Clare was fascinating.

The content of the Sony World Photography Awards Exhibition at Somerset House was better than ever and it was much better displayed, though it made me feel like a rubbish photographer again. In the courtyard, there were five geodesic domes, ‘Pollution Pods’, replicating the pollution in five world cities with live readings. New Delhi and Beijing come off particularly badly but London wasn’t as bad as I was expecting. It really made you think.

All Too Human at Tate Britain was another of those exhibitions where the premise was a bit questionable, but there were enough great paintings to forgive that. Wonderful Lucien Freud and Bacon pictures and a lot of 20th century British artists new to me. In the Duveen Hall, Anthea Hamilton has created a quirky swimming pool like space with sculptures and a performer moving around all day. Called The Squash, it was momentarily diverting.

Rodin & the art of ancient Greece places his sculptures alongside some of the British Museum’s collection of Greek pieces and it works brilliantly. Rodin apparently took inspiration from The Parthenon sculptures and was a regular visitor and lover of the BM. Wonderful.

The Travel Photographer of the Year Award exhibition moved completely outdoors and to City Hall this year, but the standard was as good as ever. The young photographer entries were particularly stunning.

I was overwhelmed by the scale and beauty of Monet & Architecture at the National Gallery. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see 78 pictures together, a quarter of which come from private collections, a third from public collections scattered all over North America, and only 10% in the UK, half in the NG’s collection. Going at 10am on a Monday was also a good idea, seeing them with a handful of people instead of the crowds there when I left. While there I took in Drawn in Colour: Degas from the Burrell, thirty lovely works, but as always with pervy Degas all young women and girls, Murillo: The Self Portraits, which isn’t really my thing, and Tacita Dean: Still Life, which I enjoyed marginally more than her NPG show!

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Opera

My winter pairing at WNO at the WMC in Cardiff was Verdi’s La Forza del Destino, a hugely underrated opera, and Puccini’s regularly revived Tosca. The former was an excellent new production and the latter a 26-year-old one which has stood the test of time. Both were beautifully sung and conductor Carlo Rizzi has real feel for the Italian repertoire, so the orchestra sounded gorgeous.

Jake Heggie & Terrence McNally’s opera Dead Man Walking has taken eighteen years to make it to the UK and even then only semi-staged by the BBC SO. Why on earth haven’t ENO or the Royal Opera staged this modern masterpiece? Anyway, at the Barbican Hall it was an absolute triumph with a sensational cast led by Joyce DiDonato, Michael Mayes, Maria Zifchak and Measha Brueggergosman and students from GSMD in smaller roles. I left emotionally drained but privileged to have attended something so special.

Classical Music

The LSO and LSC gave one of the best performances of Mahler II I’ve ever heard at the Barbican Hall. It’s a big work that’s often more suited to bigger venues like the Royal Albert Hall, but here it was uplifting and thrilling.

Attending an LSO rehearsal in the Barbican Hall proved fascinating. Most movements were played right through before revisiting sections at the request of the conductor, soloist or players. Elgar’s 1st Symphony sounded so good I almost returned for the concert, and the rehearsal introduced me to new pieces by Janacek and Bartok.

Another of those delightful Royal Academy of Music lunchtime concerts saw their Symphony Orchestra virtually on fire under the baton of Jac van Steen in a beautiful Sibelius programme. I so love these lunchtime RAM treats.

The Royal College of Music Symphony Orchestra’s programme of more obscure Stravinsky pieces from the first ten years of his exile was more enticing on paper than it turned out in performance, though the eight visiting singers from Moscow’s Tchaikovsky Conservatoire were excellent, and their enthusiasm infectious.

Film

Phantom Thread looked gorgeous and the performances were outstanding, but I couldn’t engage with the rather flimsy and inconsequential story at all, I’m afraid.

I adored Lady Bird, a delightful coming of age film told through the relationship of a mother and daughter. It feels like an Inde film but its nominated for BAFTA’s and Oscars.

I try and see all the Oscar and BAFTA nominated films and only one or two normally disappoint. This year, in addition to Phantom Thread, it was The Shape of Water. There was a lot to enjoy, but it seemed a bit slight and overlong. A case of too much hype, I suspect.

Finding Your Feet is my sort of film, a quintessentially British cocktail of humour & romance within a well observed account of growing old. Laughter and tears. Loved it.

I, Tonya is the most extraordinary true story made into a brilliant film which is ultimately sympathetic to its subject in the same way Molly’s Game was sympathetic to its subject. Two great contemporary true stories in one year.

Art

A disappointing afternoon of art started with Peter Doig at the Michael Werner Gallery, where so many seemed sketches or unfinished works, and much smaller than his usual giant canvases. At the Serpentine Gallery, Wade Guyon’s digital paintings did nothing for me while up the road at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, Rose Wylie’s child-like pictures did a bit more, but not a lot. On to the National Gallery, where I fared much better with Monochrome, an exhibition of black & white, grey and one colour art throughout history, ending with Olafur Eliasson’s yellow room. Fascinating.

Whilst visiting Cardiff, I popped in to the National Museum of Wales to see Swaps: Photographs from the David Hurn Collection. This Welsh photographer did just that – swapped photos with other photographers he met, including global figures like Cartier Bresson, which he has now given to the museum – a brilliant idea and a fascinating collection. Another exhibition called Bacon to Doig showed 30 items on loan from a major private collection of modern art; a real quality selection it was too. Finally, in a room containing a decorative organ they have removed the art and someone plays and sings a piece by Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson called The Sky in the Room continuously – beautiful!

The Royal Academy’s exhibition Charles I: King & Collector doesn’t really contain my sort of art, but I admired much of the artistry, the significance of the collection and was hugely impressed by the extraordinary achievement of getting all of these pictures from all over the world into one exhibition.

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Dance

Matthew Bourne’s 20-year-old production of Cinderella, revived at Sadler’s Wells again after seven years, scrubbed up as fresh as ever. The Second World War setting works even better today and the expansion of Cinderella’s family with three step-brothers continues to add much. It looks gorgeous, Prokofiev’s score is one of the best ballet scores ever and the performances are thrilling, packed with detail.

Opera

The Royal Opera went walkabout to the Roundhouse for Monteverdi’s The Return of Ulysses. It’s not my favourite early opera, but it was an impressive in-the-round production, with the orchestra in a central pit revolving slowly and the stage around them revolving independently in the opposite direction! I was surprised I didn’t leave feeling giddy.

Music

Christopher Purves’ recital of ten Handel arias at Milton Court was lovely, though I’m not sure the selection is the best he could have made. The bonus was accompaniment by the ensemble Arcangelo, who also played two concerto grosso’s and two opera overtures.

The Sixteen’s concert of Purcell’s music for Charles II at Wigmore Hall was an eclectic cocktail of welcome songs, theatre songs, tavern songs and instrumental numbers. The singing and playing was of such a high quality it took my breath away.

The BBC SO’s Bernstein Total Immersion day at the Barbican was a real treat. Eleven works over three concerts in three venues, covering orchestral, jazz, chamber, choral, vocal and piano, clarinet and violin works, only two of which I’d heard before. The GSMD musicians opening concert in Milton Court was the highlight for me, though the BBC Singers came close with their short but beautiful choral concert in St Giles Cripplegate. There was also a brilliant film of his 1961 concert for young people about impressionism. The following day, at LSO St. Lukes, there was a terrific selection of Bernstein stories and anecdotes from Edward Seckerson with musical theatre songs sung by favourite Sophie-Louise Dann and played by the wonderful Jason Carr.

Film

January is always a good month for film as the best are released in the run-up to awards season, and this year is no exception.

Molly’s Game isn’t subject matter I would normally be interested in (Olympic skiing and poker!) but this was a brilliantly made film which gripped me throughout.

I was also riveted by All the Money in the World, and in particular by Christopher Plummer’s last minute takeover of Kevin Spacey’s role. It won’t do J Paul Getty’s posthumous reputation much good though!

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri lived up to every bit of the hype. Watching Martin McDonough’s transition from playwright to screenplay writer to film director / writer has been deeply rewarding.

There have been a number of films along similar lines to Darkest Hour (Dunkirk and Churchill just last year) but this differs in showing the loneliness and vulnerability of its subject. See it for Gary Oldman’s extraordinary performance, and many other fine supporting ones.

The Post is extraordinarily timely, covering press freedom based on an incident before Watergate, and I very much enjoyed the old-fashioned film making, which rather suited the material.

Art

The Soutine exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery was good, but with only 21 pictures in 2 rooms, I was glad it was a while since I’d seen their permanent collection, as this made the visit more worthwhile.

I am a bit embarrassed that I’d never heard of the Scythians before the British Museum exhibition was announced. It was fascinating, particularly lots of 2000-year-old gold animal representations. With a forthcoming trip to Kazakhstan, on the edge of where they once roamed, it was also rather timely. Also at the BM, I was surprised at how interesting Living with Gods was – religious objects from just about every faith on Earth.

At Tate Modern, not one, not two, but three fascinating exhibitions! Modigliani lived up to expectations. I so love his palette of colours and the warmth of his portraits. Ilya & Emilia Kabakov are artists I’ve never heard of, so it was a treat to immerse myself in their retrospective of excellent paintings and installations. Red Star Over Russia was a fascinating visual history of Communist Russia, or should I say USSR, with lots of those rousing posters which define the period. Treatsville Bankside.

Over at White Cube Bermondsey, a ginormous Gilbert & George show called The Beard Pictures & Their Fuckosophy paired walls and walls of phrases all containing the word Fuck, with walls and walls of their giant, loud, symmetrical, in-you-face pictures. Part of me finds it all too samey and juvenile, but I keep going back for more. A gold star this time for a signed catalogue at £10!

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Contemporary Music

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

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

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

Classical Music

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

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

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

Dance

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

Film

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

Art

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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The Rest of 2016

I spent a third of the last third of the year out of the country, so my monthly round-up’s for this period have merged into one mega-round-up of the two-thirds of the four months I was here!

Opera

Opera Rara’s concert performance of Rossini’s rare Semiramide, the last Bel Canto opera, at the Proms was a real highlight. It’s a long work, four hours with interval, in truth too long, but it contains some of Rossini’s best music (and I’m not even a fan!). The OAE, Opera Rara Chorus and a world class set of soloists under Sir Mark Elder gave it their all, with ovations during let alone at the end. Brilliant.

I was out of the country when I would have made my usual trip to Cardiff for WNO’s autumn season, so I went to Southampton to catch their UK premiere of Andre Tchaikowsky’s The Merchant of Venice when I got home and I was very glad I did. It’s a fine adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, with a particularly dramatic court scene, and it was beautifully sung and played, with a terrific performance by American Lester Lynch as Shylock.

I’m not sure I’ve ever been to something that sounded so beautiful but looked so ugly. Handel’s Oreste, a pasticcio opera (a compilation of tunes from elsewhere, in Handel’s case his own works) which the Royal Opera staged at Wilton’s Music Hall. The singing and playing of the Jette Parker Young Artists and Southbank Sinfonia were stunning, but the production was awful. One of those occasions when it’s best to shut your eyes.

Classical Music

Another delightful lunchtime Prom at Cadogan Hall, this time counter-tenor Iestyn Davies and soprano Carolyn Sampson, both of whom are terrific soloists, but together make a heavenly sound. I was less keen on the six Mendelssohn songs than the six Quilter’s and even more so the glorious six Purcell pieces. It was a joyful, uplifting hour.

Juditha triumphans is a rare opera / oratorio by Vivaldi that was brilliantly performed at the Barbican by the Venice Baroque Orchestra and a superb quintet of female singers including Magdalena Kozena as Juditha. It took a while to take off, but it then soared, and the second half was simply stunning.

Visiting the LSO Steve Reich at 80 concert at the Barbican was a bit of a punt which really paid off. The three pieces added up to a feast of modernist choral / orchestral fusions. The composer was present and received an extraordinary ovation from a surprisingly full house.

Berlioz Requiem is on a huge scale, so the Royal Albert Hall was the perfect venue, and it was Remembrance Sunday, so the perfect day too. The BBC Symphony Orchestra, with ten timpanists and an enormous brass section of 50 or 60, occasionally drowned out all three choirs (!) but it was otherwise a thrilling ride.

Joyce DiDonato‘s latest recital with the wonderful baroque ensemble Il Pomo d’Oro was a bit if a disappointment. It had some extraordinary musical high spots, but the selection could have been better and she didn’t really need the production (lights, projections, haze, costumes, face painting and a dancer!). It didn’t help that the stage lights sometimes shone into the eyes of large chunks of the audience, including me, blinding them and sending me home with a headache.

At the Royal Academy of Music their Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Sir Mark Elder in a lunchtime concert of Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony and it was thrilling. Sir Mark did another of his fascinating introductory talks, this time illustrated with musical extracts.

The BBC Singers gave a lovely curtain-raising concert of unaccompanied seasonal music by British composers at St Giles Cripplegate, half from the 20th century and half from the 21st, before the BBC SO‘s equally seasonal pairing of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Christmas Eve Suite and Neil Brand’s A Christmas Carol for orchestra, choir and actors in the Barbican Hall. This was a big populist treat.

I’ve heard a lot of new classical music since I last heard John Adams‘ epic oratorio El Nino, so it was good to renew my acquaintance and discover how much I still admire it. 270 performers on the Barbican stage provide a very powerful experience – the LSO, LSC, a youth choir and six excellent American soloists who all know the work. Thrilling.

Canadian bass-baritone Gerald Finley, accompanied by Sir Antonio Pappano on piano no less, gave a superb but sparsely attended recital at the Barbican Hall. It was an eclectic, multi-lingual and highly original selection, beautifully sung. More fool those who stayed away from this absolute treat.

The standards of amateur choirs in the UK are extraordinary, and the London Welsh Chorale are no exception. Their lovely Christmas concert at St. Sepulchre-without-Newgate included extracts from Handel’s Messiah, Vivaldi’s Gloria plus songs and carols. The soprano and mezzo soloists were superb too.

Dance

Rambert’s ballet set to Haydn’s oratorio The Creation at Sadler’s Wells was one of the best dance evenings of recent years. If you shut your eyes, this would be a world class concert with three fine soloists, the BBC Singers and the Rambert Orchestra. With a gothic cathedral backdrop, the dance added a visual dimension which wasn’t literal but was beautifully impressionistic and complimentary.

English National Ballet had the inspired idea to ask Akram Khan to breathe new life into Giselle and at Sadler’s Wells boy did he do that. It’s an extraordinarily powerful, mesmerising and thrilling combination of music, design and movement. From set, costumes and lighting to an exciting adapted score and the most stunning choreography, this is one of the best dance shows I’ve ever seen.

Michael Keegan-Dolan’s Swan Lake the following week, also at Sadler’s Wells, wasn’t such a success, and steered even further away from its inspiration. It revolved around a 36-year old single man whose mother was desperate to marry off, but there were lots of references to depression and madness. I’m afraid I didn’t find the narrative very clear, its relationship to the ballet is a mystery to me and it’s more physical theatre than dance. It had its moments, but it was not for me I’m afraid.

Back at Sadler’s Wells again for The National Ballet of China‘s Peony Pavilion, a real east-meets-west affair. Ancient Chinese tale, classical ballet with elements of Chinese dance, classical music with added Chinese opera. Lovely imagery and movement. I loved it.

New Adventures’ Red Shoes at Sadler’s Wells might be the best thing they’ve done since the male Swan Lake. With a lush Bernard Herman mash-up score, great production values and Matthew Bourne’s superb choreography, it’s a great big populist treat.

Contemporary Music

Camille O’Sullivan brought an edginess to the songs of Jacques Brel which I wasn’t comfortable with at first but then she alternated them with beautifully sung ballads and I became captivated. She inhabited the songs, creating characters for each one. Her encore tributes to Bowie & Cohen were inspired.

There were a few niggles with Nick Lowe‘s Christmas concert at the Adelphi Theatre – it started early (!), the sound mix wasn’t great and he gave over 30 minutes of his set to his backing band Los Straightjackets (who perform in suits, ties & Mexican wrestler masks!) but (What’s so funny ’bout) Peace Love & Understanding has never sounded more timely and the closing acoustic Alison was simply beautiful. He’s still growing old gracefully.

Film

I loved Ron Howard’s recreation of the Beatles touring years in Eight Days a Week, plus the remastered Shea Stadium concert which followed. What was astonishing about this was that they were completely in tune with all that crowd noise and no monitors or earphones!

Bridget Jones Baby was my sort of escapist film – warm, fluffy and funny – and it was good to see Rene Zellweger and Colin Frith on fine form as the now much older characters.

I, Daniel Blake made me angry and made me cry. Thank goodness we’ve got Ken Loach to show up our shameful treatment of the disabled. Fine campaigning cinema.

I loved Nocturnal Beasts, a thriller that’s as close to the master, Hitchcock, as I’ve ever seen. I was gripped for the whole two hours.

Fantastic Beasts lived up to its hype. Though it is obviously related to Harry Potter, it’s its own thing which I suspect will have quite a series of its own. Starting in NYC, I reckon it will be a world tour of locations for future productions.

Kiwi film The Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a very funny, heart-warming affair with a stunning performance by a young teenager, Julian Dennison, matched by a fine one from Sam Neill.

I loved A United Kingdom, based on the true story of Botswana’s Seretse Khama, leader from mid-60s independence to 1980. It’s the true story of a country that has been a beacon of democracy in a continent of corruption.

The Pass must be one of the most successful stage-to-screen transfers ever. I was in the front row at the Royal Court upstairs, but it seemed even tenser on screen. Good that three of the four actors made the transfer too.

One of my occasional Sunday afternoon double-bills saw Arrival back-to-back with Sully. The former was my sort of SciFi, with the emphasis on the Sci, and it gripped me throughout. I’m also fond of true stories & the latter delivered that very well.

I liked (Star Wars) Rogue One, but it was a bit slow and dark (light-wise) to start with, then maybe too action-packed from then. I’m not sure I will do 3D again too; it’s beginning to feel too low definition and overly blurry for a man who wears glasses.

Art

Sally Troughton‘s installations in the Pump House Gallery at Battersea Park didn’t really do much for me, but Samara Scott‘s installations in the Mirror Pools of its Pleasure Garden Fountains certainly did. A combination of dyed water and submerged fabrics created lovely reflective effects.

There was so much to see in the V&A’s You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970. It was an astonishing five years and the exhibition covers music, art, design, fashion, politics, literature…..you name it. I shall have to go again to take it all in.

Wifredo Lam is a Cuban artist I’ve never heard of, getting a full-blown retrospective at Tate Modern. There was too much of his late, very derivative abstract paintings, but it was still overall a surprising and worthwhile show.

South Africa: the art of a nation was a small but excellent exhibition covering thousands of years from early rock art to contemporary paintings and other works. Most of the old stuff was from the British Museum’s own collection, so in that sense it was one of those ‘excuses for a paying exhibition’ but the way they were put together and curated and the addition of modern art made it worthwhile.

The Picasso Portraits exhibition at the NPG was a lot better than I was expecting, largely because of the number of early works, which I prefer to the more abstract late Picasso. Seeing these does make you wonder why he departed from realism, for which he had so much talent.

Abstract Expressionism at the Royal Academy was also better than expected, largely because of the range of work and the inclusion of artists I didn’t really know. I do struggle with people like Pollock and Rothko though, and can’t help thinking they may be taking the piss!

The Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize exhibition, back at the NPG, seemed smaller than usual, but just as high quality. I do love these collections of diverse subjects and styles.

Back at the Royal Academy, Intrigue: James Ensor by Luc Tuymans was a very interesting exhibition of the work of an underrated Belgian master (with an obsession with masks and skeletons!) curated by a contemporary Belgian artist. I’ve seen samples of his work in my travels, but it was good to see it all together, and I liked the curatorial idea too.

At Tate Modern, a double-bill starting with a Rauschenberg retrospective. I’ve been underwhelmed by bits of his work I’ve come across in my travels, but this comprehensive and eclectic show was fascinating (though I’m still not entirely sold on his work!). The second part was Radical Eye, a selection from Elton John’s collection of modernist photography (with more Man Ray’s that have probably ever been shown together). It’s an extraordinary collection and it was a privilege to see it.

Star Wars Identities at the O2 exceeded my expectations, largely because of the idea of discovering your own Star Wars identity by choosing a character and mentor and answering questions on behaviour and values and making choices at eight ‘stations’ en route which were recorded on your wristband, in addition to film clips, models, costumes etc. The behavioural, career and values stuff was well researched and the whole experience oozed quality.

I didn’t think many of the exhibits in Vulgar: Fashion Redefined at the Barbican were vulgar at all! It was an exhibition made up entirely of costumes, so it was never going to be my thing, but it passed a pre-concert hour interestingly enough.

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