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Contemporary Music

It’s a long time since I last saw Ben Folds. His concerts used to be a bit random and frequently irritated me. I certainly never expected to see him at the Royal Opera House, but that’s where he played with New York sextet yMusic (violin, viola, cello, clarinet, flute and trumpet / horn) and drummer Sam Smith and boy was it a treat. Though there were some songs from the back catalogue, rearranged for this configuration, it was mostly new stuff and I now can’t wait for the album to follow. It was a serious but good-humoured affair and the vocal contribution of the audience, conducted by Folds, was stunning. A treat.

Classical Music

My second Prom of British music wasn’t as good as the first, as it turned out to be a bit of a ragbag selection. It was bookended by Walton with Vaughan Williams, Elgar and a piece by Grace Williams, a 20th century Welsh composer I’d never heard of, in-between. It wasn’t the individual pieces, which were each good in their own way, it was that they didn’t seem to belong together. Perhaps my continual thinking about the journey home during a tube strike was distracting me.

I was attracted to Prom 32 by works by Gershwin and Copeland and the fact it was choral, though I’d never heard of Eric Whitacre, the American conductor and composer of four of the seven works. It turned out to be a huge treat – Whitacre’s works were inventive and captivating, there was a refreshing informality with introductions to each piece and a touch of showmanship for good measure. I think I became an instant fan.

We followed it (after the picnic, obviously) with another Prom featuring the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique under John Eliot Gardiner playing two classic symphonies, Beethoven’s 5th and Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique, and though they were well played (despite the rather rasping brass) it didn’t rise to the afternoon’s heights.

The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra is as good as most of the London orchestras, as they proved convincingly in their lovely Prom programme of three works written in the last year of the Second World War by Britten, Korngold & Prokofiev under their dynamic young Ukrainian conductor Kirill Karabits. The Sea Interludes and Prokofiev’s 5th weren’t new to me and both were beautifully played, but the Korngold violin concerto was and Nicola Benedetti played it (and an encore) brilliantly.

Film

My problem with Dear White People is that I couldn’t get past my distaste of the conservative, traditional middle-class American college system to get to the satire on racism. It was OK, but only OK.

Art

The Alfred Wallis exhibition at new Old Street gallery Modern Art, on loan from Cambridge’s Kettle’s Yard, was fascinating. His naïve childlike paintings, mostly of ships and boats, were painted from memory on salvaged card and paper. They weren’t technically accomplished, but there was something compelling about them.

The London Metropolitan Archives are new to me, but once I’d found them (!) the exhibition of Victorian London in Photographs was fascinating. They included street scenes, street sellers, theatrical figures and albums from schools and asylums.

A trio of photographic exhibitions three days after completing a photography course may not have been my best idea as it plunged me back into feelings of photographic inadequacy. The first was Revelations at the Science Museum, examining the influence on early scientific photography on modern & contemporary art. Though the photos were almost all fascinating, I’m not sure it did what it said on the can. At the Natural History Museum, my reaction to the Wildlife Photography Prize Exhibition was different with the extra knowledge I’d gained since I saw it last. I now seemed to be more aware of, and therefore thinking about, the technology that enabled the photos as much as, if not more than, the creativity of the photographer. Still, they were still amazing. The same happened at the Royal Geographic Society’s annual Travel Photography Prize exhibition, but I was still wowed and still in awe of the results.

Duane Hanson’s uber-realistic sculptures of people at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery were rather spooky. I mistook more than one for real people and a real person for a sculpture; fortunately I didn’t stare too long or photograph him. Back in the Serpentine Gallery itself, I popped in to see an exhibition of paintings, mostly dark portraits with occasional flashes of colour, by contemporary British artist Lynette Yiadom-Boakye and loved them – an unexpected bonus in an art afternoon, which also provided an opportunity to see the extraordinarily colourful 2015 Serpentine Pavilion from the inside.

Utopia, at The Roundhouse, was their most ambitious summer installation yet. Taking its lead from Thomas More’s 16th century book, it took us through sweat-shops, bookshops and wastelands, questioning the price and value of consumerism. Brilliant, thought-provoking stuff.

Up in Edinburgh it was lean pickings for art this year, though I chose to wait for two exhibitions heading to London, but what I saw I liked. The annual International Photography exhibition was up to its usual standard with a hugely improved colour catalogue for a knock-down price. At the Scottish NPG there was an interesting exhibition of photos by Lee Miller documenting the friendship of her and her husband Roland Penrose with Picasso (which provided an opportunity to see the newly renovated gallery in all its glory). At the new Ingleby Gallery there was a fascinating exhibition of pictures, posters and sculptures by Charles Avery, someone new to me, whilst at Dovecot Studios, another new space, two treats – Kwang Young Chun‘s obsessive but enthralling work made of tiny folded paper parcels and Bernat Klein‘s tapestries with the artwork for them.

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Contemporary Music

I’ve been to enough Ben Folds concerts to know that they can be can be hit-and-miss affairs. He often fools around so much, at the expense of musical quality, but at his February Hammersmith Apollo concert he got it just about right. The songs from Lonely Avenue (penned with novelist Nick Hornby) worked as well on stage as they do on record, but it was the older stuff which really came alive – and he has the most tuneful fans as the choruses proved conclusively!

Classical Music

The classical month started with a lunchtime concert at Wigmore Hall, part of the YCAT season dedicated to providing early recital experience for young artists. This one showcased soprano Caroline MacPhie accompanied by Joseph Middleton and you’d never believe it was her first recital if you didn’t know, such was the quality of her singing and her confidence. It was a hugely ambitious programme  that packed in 21 twentieth century songs by Rodrigo, Poulenc, Britten and Bridge in Spanish, French, Russian and English! In truth, I thought it was a little heavy for lunchtime and a little less volume and more subtlety would have helped, but the ambition and talent is unquestionable. One to watch.

Opera

Lucrezia Borgia sees the ENO missing another opportunity to encourage talented young opera directors in favour of film director opera virgins. As if uncomfortable leaving his comfort zone, Mike Figgis framed his opera debut with four films, which were frankly more dramatic than anything on stage. With cardboard cut out sets and static singers, it looked dreadfully old-fashioned. The English libretto was occasionally silly (perhaps not surprising as it was translated by the conductor, Paul Daniel – is ENO determined to cross disciplines!), but thankfully there was some good singing.

Dance

It’s taken me 10 years to see Ballet Black (on their 10th anniversary!) and very impressive they were too. The four short pieces in the first half showed off their style and range, but it was Will Tuckett’s Orpheus one-act ballet that followed that was the highlight. It was in the Linbury Studio, so by law it had to have a Tuckett work, obviously.

Film

Brighton Rock was better than the reviews, but there was still something missing. Both the city and the period looked great and with a cast like Helen Mirren, Andrea Risborough, John Hurt and Phil Davies it was watchable, if a little slow at times.

True Grit is an extraordinary piece of film-making, even if it isn’t really my sort of film – too violent, I’m afraid. The cinematography is gorgeous and the performances are terrific, with Jeff Bridges better than he’s ever been and Matt Damon unrecognisable; the young girl, though, stole the show.

I hadn’t read the book of Never Let Me Go. I decided to go and see it despite the reviews because it had two of my favourite young actors – Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield. It’s very John Wyndham, but I’m afraid I found the basic premise a bit preposterous and the film was very slow and very dull.

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