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Posts Tagged ‘Benjamin Britten’

Contemporary Music

A friend suggested going to see Welsh harpist Catrin Finch & Senegalese cora player Seckou Keita at Union Chapel and what a brilliant suggestion it was. Their instruments blend beautifully and create an uplifting sound. It was the perfect venue, with a quiet respectful audience. Gorgeous.

I really don’t know what to make of Elvis Costello‘s concert at the Royal Albert Hall. Part of BluesFest (what?!). He brings Steve Nieve & they play 8 songs together, some in radical new arrangements. His song selections are eclectic and perhaps a bit quirky. He’s often uncharacteristically flat or off key. He talks a lot. It contained sublime moments, but not enough of them. It was certainly no crowd-pleaser and the audience reaction was distinctly underwhelming. Georgie Fame & the Blue Flames, supporting, were great (though he talked a lot too). They played two songs together, one in each others’ set. I’ve seen almost every EC London outing in 30+ years and this was probably the least satisfying. Most odd.

Opera

The autumn Rossini pairing at WNO was amongst their best ever. Neither William Tell nor Moses in Egypt are typical Rossini (which may be why I liked them so much!); the latter more identifiably Rossini. Tell was the more satisfying all round – Moses was also a musical feast but the production wasn’t so good. Former MD Carlo Rizzi brought the best out of the orchestra and chorus (yet again) and there was no weakness in the soloists – just various levels of good to great.

The English Concert’s performance of Handel’s opera Alcina at the Barbican was a huge treat. A faultless cast was led by Joyce DiDonato & Alice Coote and the orchestra made a beautiful sound. I’d thought it might be a star vehicle for Joyce, but she was superbly matched by the rest and the audience showed their appreciation for them all.

I’ve seen a handful of Philip Glass operas, but until The Trial they’ve all been on a huge scale. What this chamber piece proves is how much more suited his music is to this smaller scale. It’s an absurdist, impenetrable story but it was superbly staged and performed by Music Theatre Wales in Covent Garden’s Linbury Studio.

Dance

Lord of the Flies is a big departure for New Adventures at Sadler’s Wells. With two-thirds of the large cast amateurs selected from workshops and open additions, there’s a freshness and energy thoroughly in keeping with William Golding’s story and contemporary dance is a suitable form to tell the tale. It was dark, but I loved it.

I don’t normally like mixed ballet programmes but Birmingham Royal Ballet‘s Shadows of War at Sadler’s Wells caught my imagination, largely because of the music. The first piece, to a Ravel piano concerto, was a bit frivolous for me, but the second was a fascinating re-staging of a Robert Helpmann work set in wartime Glasgow with music by Arthur Bliss and the third a lovely piece set to Malcolm Arnold and Benjamin Britten – and all at a half to a third of prices at the other Royal Ballet.

Cassandra is a rare modern dance piece from the Royal Ballet at the Linbury Studio. It was a nice combination of dance, music and film and it held me for 70 minutes, but in the end it was just OK. I think it was the lack of effective narrative drive / story that was its weakness.

Classical Music

I persuaded a friend who has recently taken up choral singing to go for one of those ‘scratch’ performances put together in one day. The choice of Elijah was ambitious, but they pulled it off. The soloists were terrific, particularly baritone Neal Davies, who gave it his all as if was at the Royal Albert Hall, and the orchestra of a handful of Philharmonia section principals with music students sounded great. It would have been good to see a much bigger audience – where were all the friends and families of the orchestra and chorus?

The third of the Composer Portrait series at St John’s Smith Square was the best so far. Reverie was about Debussy whose writings were spoken by Simon Russell Beale no less. Pianist Lucy Parham played his gorgeous music beautifully and it was a captivating couple of hours.

Film

As much as I loved Pride, the casting of so many English and Irish actors as Welsh characters did irritate me – though I suppose you need Bill Nighy and Imelda Staunton to sell films like this. I was surprised I never knew the true story behind it, but maybe it didn’t get much news coverage at the time. It’s certainly the most heart-warming, feel-good film for a long long time.

Dylan Thomas centenary

I found out about the Dylan Thomas in Fitzrovia festival very late on, by which time the diary was choc a block with other stuff, but I did manage to fit in some. A Warring Absence was readings of writings by him and his wife about one another by Daniel Evans & Sian Thomas with accompaniment by the Bernard Kane Players as a Platform performance in The Olivier Theatre and it was original and fascinating.  I’d never heard the Stan Tracy Jazz Under Milk Wood before – read excerpts accompanied by jazz which somehow works brilliantly; again original and fascinating. The final Gala Concert I had known about and this proved a real treat. An eclectic selection of Welsh music played by Camerata Wales (including world premieres) with readings of letters and poems by Sian Phillips, Tom Hollander, Griff Rhys Jones, Robert Bathurst, Lesley Manville, Jonathan Pryce and Owen Teale and songs from Welsh tenor John Owen-Jones and old folkie Ralph McTell. Two of the pieces combined Thomas’ works with music very successfully. For an Englishman, Tom Hollander’s reading of Fern Hill was almost as good as Dylan’s own!

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Contemporary Music

Billy Bragg is the antidote to people who don’t give a shit and his value-for-money (£22, half price for the over 60’s!) 2.5 hours set was passionate, covering his whole career but majoring on the excellent new album Tooth & Nail. The new band sounded great and there was a mini-set of solo stuff too. There are few singers or bands left with this much integrity and respect for their audience and we repaid it in quiet engagement and warm response. Kim Churchill, a barefoot man from SE Australia with hair that looked like a straw hat, played an excellent set in support. He told us that he’s been busking around the world for four years when he got a gig at a festival in Canada and needed a lift for the 45-min drive from the hotel to the venue. Billy came to the rescue and there he was nervous but elated on the RFH stage. Dreams come true, it seems.

The Albion Band‘s Christmas concert at Kings Place was a bit of a punt that turned out to be a delight. A combination of songs, carols and readings, with an egg dance thrown in for good measure, it was a charming combination made into an occasion by the presentation of the English Folk Song & Dance Society’s Gold Badge to band founder Ashley Hutchings.

Seeing The Bootleg Beatles in Nottingham was a surprise until an hour or so before and it was a huge treat. They split the show into two halves, each with two sections, so we got the moptops, film period, psychedelia and the endgame. The resemblances and mannerisms were uncanny, but it was the brilliantly played songs that sweep you away, roll back the years and get you singing along, with the occasional dad dance (well, uncle dance in my case). Brilliant.

Opera

How the Whale Became at Covent Garden’s Linbury Studio is an opera for children, particularly those whose parents prefer to take theirs to the politically correct rather than to the panto. With music by Julian Phillips and a libretto by Edward Kemp, it’s based on Ted Hughes stories about the creation of animals by god. It’s not the easiest musical ride (particularly for children) but the production is very inventive and the performers (and musicians) very engaging. A worthy attempt rather than a full-on hit, I think.

Classical Music

The Britten Sinfonia with the Choir of Kings College Cambridge provided my penultimate Britten Centenary event at the Barbican. The timely Ceremony of Carols, just boy’s choir and harp, sounded lovely and Saint Nicholas provided a more rousing second half. As much as I approve of audience participation, I have to confess I didn’t really appreciate the audience drowning out the beautiful choirs during the two hymns for audience participation! I’d never heard Arvo Part’s Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten and it proved to be the perfect opener, with John Tavener’s The Lamb also a timely opening to part two and a taster for my Tavener weekend in January.

I’d never heard Britten’s three Cello Suites so it was nice to end my centenary with something new to me. They are more to be admired for their virtuosity than aural beauty and they were played with extraordinary skill by Dutch cellist Pieter Wispelwey, who gave each one in an informative, charming and entertaining illustrated introduction.

Art

A few hours on the South Bank delivered a bumper crop of exhibitions. First up was Go Away Closer, Dayanita Singh’s B&W photos of India presented in books and museum panels. I loved both the material and the presentation. Downstairs at the Hayward Gallery, Ana Mendieta’s Traces was harder to swallow until her obsession with making ‘art’ using her own body gave way to using the environment instead / as well; a bit too conceptual for me. In the project space, a small exhibition of protest art was nostalgically enthralling – all those anti-war posters and copies of IT. Finally, in the RFH, the annual exhibition of art by offenders, secure patients and detainees (the tile gets longer every year) called The Strength & Vulnerability Bunker was as awe-inspiring as ever; it was the last day, so most of those for sale had gone otherwise there were a number I would have happily bought and hung on my walls.

I adored both Australia and Daumier (1808-79): Visions of Paris at the Royal Academy. The former was a 13-room, 200-year review of the art of a whole country, and I only knew one of the artists! From aboriginal art through colonial landscapes to wonderful Australian impressionists to the present day, this was a real feast. The latter was pretty revelatory too, containing his trademark caricatures but also very high quality paintings and sketches. The two together constituted one of the most enjoyable visits to the RA in a while.

At The Photographers’ Gallery, Home Truths: Photography, Motherhood & Identity wasn’t the easiest exhibition to view, but given that it sets out to challenge the sentimental view of motherhood, that’s not a surprise. The quality of the photography, rather than the subject matter, is what I enjoyed most. At the same gallery, the 1920’s B&W photos of French amateur photographer Jacques Henri Lartigue were charmingly homespun but technically accomplished. I have to confess I enjoyed it more.

The latest Curve installation at the Barbican, Intervals by Ayse Erkman, is a series of theatrical backdrops which you have to navigate as you walk through the gallery whilst they rise and fall. Even though it only takes 10 minutes to get through, the fact you are occasionally trapped means it irritates (well, impatient me, anyway). It is a very original idea, though and another great use of this space.

A Sunday afternoon in Trafalgar Square was a feast of art, starting with Facing the Modern: the Portrait in Vienna 1900 at the National Gallery, a great taster for my Christmas trip to that very city. Wonderful works by Schiele and Klimt plus lots of artists new to me. I went to the NPG for the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize exhibition, as wonderful as ever, and Elizabeth I & her People, which was a whole lot more interesting than I was expecting, but there were rich pickings in the displays too. Passable portrait sketches by Bob Dylan, Benjamin Britten’s life in photos, William Morris’ wife and Pre-Raphaelite muse Janey, Michael Peto photos of famous people of the late 20th century, Vivien Leigh photos and film posters, terrific Jonathan Yeo paintings and the imaginary portraits of Derek Bashir!!! Room 31 (post-war Brits) may be my favourite room in any gallery anywhere and the NPG my favourite gallery!

It’s extraordinary how quickly erotica can become dull. The 17th-20th century Japanese pictures in Shunga at the British Museum are technically accomplished and often beautifully coloured, but ever so samey. I’m afraid I became bored ever so quickly. Fortunately, the gold and ceramic pieces from ancient Colombia in Beyond Eldorado at the same venue made up for it. This was a beautifully curated exhibition packed full of fascinating items which told a stories of ancient civilizations.

A couple of hours between kids opera and kids theatre enabled me to catch London Transport Museum’s celebration of 150 years of tube posters and it was a real treat, with lots I’d never seen before. The range of reasons for and themes of posters was extraordinary. The space was too cramped but thankfully there weren’t many people. Just as cramped as the space in Somerset House that I then ventured to in order to see Stanley Spencer’s Heaven in a Hell of War, on a short tour from Sandham Chapel during restoration. They are wonderful and I now can’t wait to see them back in the chapel with the three they couldn’t remove without damaging them.

Film

The Hobbit – The Desolation of Smaug was a lot better than the first installment, visually stunning with terrific 3D, but it’s a still just a journey drawn out to three films – albeit an exciting journey (mostly).

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Opera

Even a lover of modern opera like me found American Lulu at The Young Vic challenging. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that the score was the worst I’ve ever heard; positively excruciating. There’s nothing wrong with adapting Berg and moving it to 50’s-70’s USA and Lulu as a black dancer / whore makes sense. There were some excellent visuals, most created by projections onto an oval bead curtain, but nothing could block out that awful sound. You have to feel sorry for the singers and musicians who have to perform this for 100 minutes on each of 10 nights (and that’s just in London)!

Noye’s Fludde is a short opera by Benjamin Britten written for children and amateurs and the RFH turned over their ballroom for a promenade performance by the LPO, professional singers and children’s groups. It was a rare chance to catch it in this centenary year and it proved a minor treat, despite some of the children behaving as if they were in a different show or a show of their own!

Contemporary Music

I’ve enjoyed Caro Emerald’s brand of retro jazz / pop on record but wasn’t expecting the live experience to be so much fun. She’s got a terrific band, the visuals were lovely and her personality and the quality of the songs shone through. It seems to me she occupies a unique space in contemporary music which is maybe why she has attracted a big following in a short period of time.

Music Hall!

Seeing music hall in Wilton’s Music Hall, one of only two left in London, was an enticing prospect, but it turned out to be so much better. Somehow I think the venue raised the game of the performers. A pair of dancing and singing sisters, a ukulele player, a comedian and a trio of songbirds were all good, but were topped by both John Styles sets as a comic Chelsea Pensioner and a magician and Peter John’s brilliant creation of barmaid Bertha. The audience needed no encouragement to shout out and sing along and it turned into a huge treat. Encore!

 

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Contemporary Music

Nashville band The Silver Seas have been personal favourites for a while and I found it astonishing that the London showcase for their new album was a room above a pub in Islington! It could have been a touch quieter and the mix could have brought the keyboard more to the fore, but it was a tight 75 min set (with lots of songs from the new album) and the atmosphere was great.

Anthony (&the Johnsons) Hegarty has always been unconventional, a true original, but his Swanlights show at the Royal Opera House elevated him to high art indeed. A 90-min best of, with songs re-arranged for piano & orchestra (the wonderful Britten Sinfonia), it was so so beautiful. This was played within an installation lit by lasers which changed shape and colour from green to blue to white to red to pink, so it was a visual feast too, and overall way beyond expectations.

Classical Music

The First Night of the Proms was an eclectic and thrilling affair. It started with a short but intriguing choral word premiere by Julian Anderson and continued with personal favourite Britten’s Sea Interludes, ending the first half with (for me) a premiere hearing of Rachmaninov’s Paganini rhapsody paired with Lutoslawski’s Paganini variations. As if this wasn’t enough, in the second half 500 musicians and singers took the roof off with Vaughan Williams’ brilliant Sea Symphony. Better than any Last Night by a mile.

Opera

Bampton Opera is the antidote to grand country house opera – on a small scale, in a back garden, picnic yes, dressing up no. They always showcase something rare, sometimes never seen before, and this year it was 12-year old Mozart’s La Finta Semplice. It was apparently his 4th opera, so it enabled me to ask my 13- year-old godson, who came, when we were getting his first opera! It’s an astonishingly accomplished piece and the production did it full justice. Not only was it played and sung beautifully, but it had a superb Magritte inspired design….and for once, the sunny warm evening was perfect!

Art

A visit to Tate Modern proved to be an eclectic global art feast with exhibitions from Lebanese, Somalian, African-American & Beninois artists which were about as varied as it’s possible to be. African-American Ellen Gallagher‘s exhibition proved to be the most rewarding & diverse (and quirky) with paintings, collages, double-sided pictures, film, animation and sculpture, much with a playfulness that made me smile. In Somalian Ibrahim El-Salahi‘s work, abstract meets Islam to produce something very original. Lebanese Saloua Raouda Choucair‘s exhibition was smaller yet just as varied, but more hit-and-miss; I’d have loved to have seen more of her portraits and fewer sculptures. The Museum of Contemporary African Art is an extraordinary multi-room installation created by Meschac Gaba that includes a library and shop. I thought it was fascinating and fun, with hands-on, play-with and sit-in elements that engaged the visitors. Phew!

A couple of nice freebies at the NT. The River, a whole load of paintings of The Thames by Dale Inglis which were rather lovely and The Press Photographer’s Year, rich pickings this year with some great Olympic shots and some really funny ones – David Cameron in dinner suit with shirt buttons undone and Peter Capaldi taking the piss out of his Thick Of It character’s role model Alistair Campbell.

A trio of exhibitions provided an eclectic afternoon between two work commitments. At the NPG, unknown (to me) 20th artist Laura Knight‘s portraits were hugely impressive. Her subjects ranged from circus folk to gypsies to poor black Americans to people at war and her naturalistic / realistic style brought them alive. At the ICA, things were somewhat racier with a show of drawings about war, race, censorship & politics, but mostly sex (!), with the tongue-in-cheek title Keep Your Timber Limber! Though technically accomplished, they were somewhat angry. The Hayward Gallery had another of their quirky shows, this one called The Alternative Guide to the Universe, which showcases ‘self-taught artists, fringe physicists and inventors’ who re-imagine the world as painted megalopolis’, number sequences & detailed models. Obsessive, sometimes disturbing, occasionally playful, it’s an eccentric show which does provide a unique experience but left me a bit unsettled, as if I’d been peering into some troubled souls. The small accompanying exhibition, The Museum of Everything, was much lighter fare and rather fun.

The Royal Academy‘s Summer Exhibition was the usual crowded hotchpotch, lighter on architecture, more photography and as much art & sculpture as usual. This year’s highlight was Grayson Perry’s series of six finely detailed, funny tapestries a la Rakes Progress called ‘The Vanity of Small Differences’. So good, I bought the book! Mexico: A Revolution in Art 1910-40 upstairs covered a short time period but was too broad, including artists visiting as well as from Mexico plus a lot of photos taking up too much of the limited space. Mexico’s most famous artist couple – Frida Khalo & Diego Riveria – were under-represented and there were only a few ‘wow’ pictures.

Comedy

A preview of Mark Thomas‘ Edinburgh show a mile away?! I’d never even heard of the Balham Comedy Festival! The latest idea of this passionate, campaigning yet always funny comedian,  so soon after his biographical Bravo Figaro and Manifesto (based on audience suggestion)  is 100 acts of dissent over 12 months. I loved it when they turned the Apple Store into a little bit of Ireland to make the tax-dodgers feel at home and can’t wait for the rest to unfold. I have fond memories of the stunts he pulled when he had a Channel 4 programme and these, smaller scale without a TV budget, look like providing more. A really funny hour.

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It’s sixteen years since my last visit to the Buxton Festival and twenty years since my first, and boy has it grown. Then there were two operas, now there are eight. It has dropped ‘Opera’ from its title and added recitals, lots of spoken word and more. It has grown a fringe that, like Edinburgh, has got bigger (though maybe not better – yet!) than its parent. Fortunately, it hasn’t succumbed to dressing up and other poshness, though the average age seems to have gone up (same audience getting older?) enabling me to feel good about bringing it down!

The first opera was Vivaldi’s first. He apparently wrote 50, but we rarely see any. By the interval I thought I understood why – mediocre music, perfunctorily performed here – but he saved his best tunes until the second half and the cast responded by raising their game significantly. Ottone in Villa is one of those silly love quadrangles with trouser roles and implausible disguises, but when the music was good, it didn’t matter – though three stifling hours on the hottest day of the year was a challenge!

The same first half / second half contrast occurred in the double-bill, with the first opera, Saint-Saens’ La Princesse Jaune, creaking somewhat, despite a clever set and good singing. It has been relocated to Paris and set in an attic where Lena is pursuing her cousin Kornelis who has an opium-induced fantasy about an oriental woman! A bit slight and a rather dated feel to it. The second, Gounod’s La Colombe, made up for it though; a delightful comedy about how a parrot gets killed for love! Beautifully sung, with Jonathan Best’s Maitre Jean a masterclass in comic opera performance. Les Brotherston’s clever set relocated this in the apartment below the attic of the first opera, which was still in view, as the top of the apartment had (just) been in the first opera without giving the game away.

I’d failed to get tickets for Britten’s Church Parables in Aldeburgh, but managed to get them for the same productions here, and what a treat they were. Written at two-year intervals over four years in the mid-60’s and performed in the same four-day period in June, they are now rarely staged (I’d only seen them once, in a concert hall). Though each lasts just 70 minutes or so, they have huge atmosphere when staged in a church, weaving an extraordinary spell. Singers process as monks to a high stage where they play out the parables – a woman’s search for her lost son in Curlew River, a father’s unconditional love in The Prodigal Son and Nebuchadnezzar’s killing of three Israelites in The Burning Fiery Furnace. Director Frederic Wake-Walker has infused them with Japanese, Middle-Eastern and Balinese influences respectively and it works. A big feather in Mahogany Opera’s cap and yet another treat for the Britten centenary.

The unexpected highlight was Literary Britten, which interspersed two Britten song cycles, beautifully sung by tenor Andrew Kennedy, with poems and letters to Britten by WH Auden read by Alex Jennings no less. There was a bonus too – a world premiere of Tim Watts’ excellent new song cycle. It was a perfectly formed 70 minutes and I was a bit surprised the audience weren’t cheering loudly – I think this might have been the inclusion of Auden’s more racy letters; it’s a conservative crowd here!

Add in a talk by former Labour MP and writer Chris Mullin and a walking tour of the town and you have as fine a festival weekend as you could wish for – despite the fact it wasn’t really the weekend to spend indoors! It was good to return and I hope (and suspect) it won’t be another 16 years before my next visit.

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Contemporary Music 

I couldn’t make Neil Young’s concert at the O2 and it was always going to be risky going to Birmingham instead. Sadly, nine hours of my life and c.£130 weren’t really worth it; I’d have been better off staying with my memories of all his concerts since the first one 42 years ago! The core issue was song choice. 50 minutes in, four songs later, I began to despair. The new stuff is fine, though elongated – one ending with 10 mins feedback and another with 10-mins of ‘What a fuck up’ chanting (not wrong, there, Neil) – beyond my self-indulgence tolerance limit. In the first two hours, just two classics from the 45-year back catalogue (one also subjected to the endless ending). There was apparently another hour, but I had to leave – and in truth, didn’t feel too bad about that as I’d had enough by now. I suspect this will be my last NY concert; a sad way to end my relationship with a genuine genius I have virtually worshiped.

The world of wrinklie rock redeemed itself just four days later when The Who performed their second rock opera, Quadrophenia, live at the O2. This is a much neglected work and one I’ve always loved as much as Tommy. It sounded fresh, with an enlarged band including three brass, two keyboards, two guitars, bass and drums. The film / photo montage, put together by Roger Daltrey, and the lighting were brilliant and the sound was good. Modern technology enabled deceased band members to contribute vocals and a bass solo by video; very moving. The additional 45 minutes included tracks from Who’s Next which if anything sounded even fresher. Support band Vintage Trouble, an American retro four-piece, were well worth getting there early for and their hard work paid off with a great audience reception.

Opera

June was opera month – nine! – one of which, Grimes on the Beach, I’ve already blogged.

I’m not a huge Rossini fan, but it’s impossible to resist both Joyce DiDonato and Juan Diego Florez. La Donna del Lago is a bit daft, with a Scottish setting & characters but sung in Italian, and John Fulljames production is a bit odd, starting and ending in some sort of museum, but the music is good and the singing was sensational. In addition to my two faves, Daniela Barcelona impressed hugely in the trouser role of Malcolm. It would be great if the Royal Opera found a better vehicle for these extraordinary talents, though.

The Perfect American is Philip Glass’ new opera about Walt Disney and, of the five operas of his I’ve seen, I think it’s his best. The score has more variety and less minimalist monotony and his subject matter is fascinating. What takes it from good to great though is Phelim McDermott’s astonishing production, designed by Dan Potra, Leo Warner, Joseph Pierce & Jon Clark, which is packed full of Improbable’s trademark invention, with every bit of it appropriate and effective. In an excellent cast (with such clear diction that, for once, you could hear every word – it can be done!), Christopher Purves shone as Walt. One of the best evenings at ENO and of modern opera in a long time.

The summer pairing at WNO was another Cardiff treat. A new opera by Jonathan Harvey, Wagner’s Dream, set at the moment Wager died, was paired with his Lohengrin. Wagner had apparently been contemplating a ‘Buddhist opera’ and at that moment just before death he reflects on it as we see it performed behind him. Wagner’s moments are acted in German and the opera is sung in the ancient Buddhist language of Pali. With added electronica, it was played and sung beautifully and staging and design were both effective and elegant. Lohengrin will go down as one of WNO’s finest moments. Despite needing a stand-in for the big role of Telramund (well done, Simon Thorpe!), the musical standards were exceptional, with the orchestra and chorus soaring (at one point with four additional fanfare groups at four points in the auditorium sending shivers up your spine). Apart from a noisy scene change in Act Three (while the orchestra was still playing), the staging was highly effective. I love pairings / groupings of operas and next time we have Donizetti’s Tudor trilogy – an 18th century Italian spin on 16th century British history!

Britten’s Owen Wingrave was the first opera made specifically for TV and it’s very rarely staged; gold star then to the Guildhall School for this contribution to the centenary. It’s an excellent production of his pacifist opera about a boy who defies his family’s military traditions. The setting is contemporary and the traverse staging is ‘framed’ by scenes from modern warfare showing what might have happened had he not rebelled, with projections used very effectively. Amongst the fine cast, Joseph Padfield was outstanding as military tutor Coyle and Samantha Crawford and Catherine Blackhouse both impressed as Owen’s aunt and fiancée respectively. 

I very much enjoyed the first outing of Deborah Warner’s production of Britten’s Death in Venice at ENO back in 2007, but I wasn’t prepared for how much better a revival could be. With beautiful, elegant designs from Tom Pye, it really is a masterly staging, but the chief reason that propels it to ‘Masterpiece’ is John Graham Hall as Aschenbach. Very occasionally a singer inhabits a role in such a way that they begin to own it. Simon Keenlyside IS Billy Budd and now John Graham Hall IS Aschenbach; it’s mesmerising. I’m so glad the Britten centenary (and half-price tickets!) persuaded me to see it again as it will go down as one of my great nights at the opera.

Gerald Barry’s opera of The Importance of Being Ernest in Covent Garden ‘s Linbury Studio was a quirky affair. The small orchestra was on a series of white steps surrounded by white walls. The singers entered from the audience and occupied the rest of the steps. The instrumentation includes plate-smashing. Lady Bracknell is a man in a suit with no attempt at female impersonation. The music is strident, almost spoken. It’s more semi-staged than staged. I admired the originality, I loved the way the orchestra was part of it and the performances were very good – but I can’t say I loved the opera. 

The ROH contribution to the Britten centenary (and the queen’s diamond jubilee) is his only historical opera Gloriana and it proves to be a better piece than the myths suggest (though having seen the Opera North production 19 years ago I knew this!). The problem with this new production is director Richard Jones decision to ‘frame’ it by our present queen’s visit to see it at a village hall, complete with 1953 production values and visible wings. Even during the overture we get a brief appearance from every monarch between the two Elizabeth’s in reverse chronological order with olympic style name cards and a row of schoolboys holding up cards signalling their geographic origin! This all robs the opera of its grandness, majesty and pomp. Still, musically it’s first rate with the orchestra & chorus on top form and the largely British cast including many personal favourites. Susan Bullock makes a great queen and it was wonderful to see Toby Spence again, in fine vocal form after his serious illness.

Classical Music

Another Handel oratorio for the collection – Susanna – from Christian Curnyn and the Early Opera Company at Christ Church Spitalfields. It’s not in Handel’s premiere league, but it was beautifully played and sung and an uplifting end to a challenging day. Emilie Renard and Tim Mead, both new to me, were excellent as Susanna and her husband, and the small chorus was so good I yearned for more than the seven items they were given. Will I ever hear them all live? I doubt it!

Dance

I returned to see The Clod Ensemble after enjoying their last show at Sadler’s Wells. That one was in four parts, with the audience moving from upper circle to dress circle to stalls to stage! Zero was staged conventionally, on stage, but I’m afraid it did nothing for me. The blues harmonica got it off to a great start but it was all downhill from then. I don’t know what it was about, I wasn’t impressed by the movement and the 80 minutes just dragged.

Britten Dances at Snape, part of the centenary Aldeburgh Festival, was a lovely varied cocktail of four pieces from three choreographers – Ashley Page, Cameron McMillan & Kim Brandstrup –  and two ballet companies; The Royal Ballet of Flanders & our own. In addition to two Britten pieces, the musical choices included his arrangement of Purcell and a piece from contemporary composer Larry Groves’ which takes Britten’s take on a Dowland piece as it’s starting point! A unique evening and a unique contribution to the centenary.

Film

Behind the Candelabra was a must-see after the trailer. Though a touch overlong, what makes it worth going to is highly impressive performances from Michael Douglas, Matt Damon & an unrecognisable Rob Lowe. Hard to believe it isn’t getting a cinema release in the US; the land of the free is still the home of the bigots.

I rather liked the new Superman film Man of Steel, the ultimate in prequels, which starts with his birth on Krypton and ends with him getting his job at the Daily Planet. It’s all a bit exhausting, and I’ve seen better 3D (I think maybe I should give up 3D), but it’s gripping and new Superman Henry Cavill is very good. Russell Crowe plays Russell Crowe again as Superman’s dad.

If you like those American gross out comedies like Superbad, you’ll like This is the End and I do /did. This one adds gore and disaster to the cocktail and the effects are excellent. It’s one of those films that’s better in the cinema than at home, because there’s a contaigon about the audience reaction which improves the experience.

Art

A lean month for art. I did pop into the NPG to see the annual BP Portrait Award exhibition, though it seemed to ack sparkle this year. Over at the lovely new giant White Cube in Bermondsey, there are four North American artists on show, the best (and most) of which is Julie Mehretu (actually, she was born in Ethiopia). Her giant B&W canvases are multi-layered and grow on you. It’s like she started with an architectural drawing, they overlaid it with another , then another….Original.

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Contemporary Music

I couldn’t do either of the Richard Thompson London dates, something which became even more frustrating after I’d bought his great new album. Almost by accident, just a couple of weeks in advance, I discovered he was playing St. Albans on my birthday, they had a few tickets left, it was only 20 mins from St. Pancras and nearby friends fancied it. How serendipitous is that? It had to be great, and it was. His new trio makes a superb sound, the song selection was excellent and the guitar playing beyond genius. As he was about to start the third encore, he joked that they fancied themselves as a power trio but were 50 years late, then broke into a stunning version of Cream’s White Room; it was a bit high for his voice and he stumbled on the words, but the playing was magnificent. Combined with some Roman history (theatre, mosaic and museum), the gorgeous cathedral and lovely Lebanese food, it was a proper birthday treat.

I couldn’t make the original one week run of Maria Friedman‘s Sondheim / Bernstein show at The Pheasantry, so I was delighted when she added a couple of nights, one of which I could do. A brilliant selection of songs, superb arrangements and accompaniment from Jason Carr and a quiet, respectful audience made for a sensational evening that was often moving, often funny and always captivating. Her personality really shines and no-one else can interpret a song like she does. Unmissable, and I didn’t!

Opera

I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed an opera as much as Medea at ENO. It’s not particularly great music (not a patch on Handel) but David McVicar’s production, Bunny Christie’s design, Lynne Page’s choreography, conductor Christian Curnyn’s musical direction and above all a set of fine performances made it a real treat, particularly Sarah Connolly’s superb Medea and Roderick Williams’ brilliant Orontes. The story is in some ways different to the play (which I’ve seen a lot!) but it still makes a great tragedy. A treat!

Imeneo is an unusual Handel opera as it isn’t based on some epic historical tale; it’s a simple story of whether Imeneo gets the girl he wants as a reward for freeing her and her friend from pirates  – should duty be above love. There’s just about enough story for a 2-hour opera and it suits this modern setting at a spa hotel by the sea, where fun can be had with treatments and smartphones. There’s some gorgeous music and the cast of five and small chorus of six are excellent, with Laurence Cummings & the London Handel Orchestra making a terrific sound in the pit. Hannah Sandison & Katherine Crompton were outstanding and counter-tenor Tai Oney showcased a fine distinctive voice. Lovely.

Classical Music

My second Britten centenary event was the (Royal) Academy (of Music) Song Circle at Wigmore Hall with a recital of 20 songs in five languages. Many of these are challenging pieces for any singer, let alone young singers, but Sonia Grane, Angharad Lyddon, Simon Furness and Gareth John were all superb, as were accompanists Manon Ablett and Finnigan Downie Dear. Yet again, I am in awe of the musical talent we have here in London. Two down, c.18 to go!

During a visit to Budapest, I went to the lovely State Opera House for a concert performance of Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion – on Easter Saturday! – and lovely it was too. There was a raised pit for the orchestra, the soloists were on stage behind them, and the chorus were behind a gauze screen on which they projected words and images. It benefited from being sung through without an interval, though this was challenging for the more fidgety audience members.

LSO‘s pairing of the hardly known Stabat Mater by the almost unknown Szymanowski with the ever so well-known Brahms Requiem was inspired. The former turns out to be somewhat Goreckian (though it pre-dates his 3rd Symphony by c.50 years!) and I rather liked hearing it for the first time. Somehow, the Brahms lacked sparkle – certainly not due to the soloists (Sally Matthews and Christopher Maltman) and not really to the playing of the LSO or the singing of the LSC, but lacked sparkle it did. A bit of a puzzle.

Dance

BalletBoyz: The Talent 2013 shows extraordinary growth since their first work four or so years ago. This group of 10 male dancers are unique and the new pieces from Liam Scarlett and Russell Maliphant, though quite different,  both suited them perfectly. Scarlett’s Serpent flowed organically in a hypnotic way whilst Maliphant’s Fallen was edgier and animalistic; I loved them both.

I got the last ticket for Arthur Pita’s dance-theatre piece The Metamorphosis on the day of the performance and it will no doubt be in my highlights of the year when things booked six months before will be forgotten! It’s the first time I’ve seen The Linbury Studio Theatre at Covent Garden in traverse, which meant a better view from my standing position.  Kafka’s tale of a man who turns into an insect is puzzling but mesmerizing and Edward Watson is extraordinary, moving in ways I didn’t think were possible for 80 minutes (8 times in 8 days!). Never has a spontaneous standing ovation been so richly deserved.

Over in Budapest, I saw a lovely production of John Cranko’s ballet of Onegin The music is a mash-up of Tchaikovsky pieces, the design was gorgeous and the dancing beautiful. It was hard to follow the story as they’d run out of programmes (which contained the synopsis in English), so I just let it wash over me – aurally and visually – without really caring what it was all about!

 Art

 An afternoon of two contrasting exhibitions started at the gorgeous (but not very suitable) Two Temple Place for a show called Amongst Heros : the artist in working Cornwall. It’s mostly 19th / 20th century pictures of fishing and fishermen with seascapes and mining scenes and portraits of locals. The highlights were by Charles Napier Hemy (who has popped up all over the place since I first saw his work in Penzance) and Stanhope Forbes, someone new to me whose pictures are wonderful and who will hopefully now also pop up all over the place. At Tate Modern, the Roy Liechtenstein retrospective proves he’s not a one-trick pony in terms of subjects, but is in terms of technique and style. The cartoons are well-known but the landscapes, abstracts etc less so and I enjoyed seeing them, but by the 14th room you’re more than sated.

I thoroughly enjoyed Light Show at the Hayward Gallery – 25 installations that play with light in some way. In addition to the usual suspects like Turrell and Flavin, there were lots of new names (to me). The booking system meant that the numbers were well controlled; great to see a gallery not being too greedy at the expense of visitor enjoyment.

The Bride & The Bachelors at the Barbican Art Gallery brings together the work of ‘artists’ Marcel Duchamp, Robert Rauschenberg & Jasper Johns with the music of John Cage and the dance of Merce Cunningham. For me, it’s well curated bollocks, particularly the work of Duchamp, the key influence on the others. Some of Johns’ work is good as is some of Cage’s, but the rest seems pointless to me.

I have to confess I’d never heard of artist Kurt Schwitters. Some of his Tate Britain exhibition was familiar, though, but I think this may be indicative of his influence rather than previous sightings. His collages date back to the 30’s and seem ahead of their time, but there were an awful lot of them and it got a bit monotonous. I rather liked Simon Starling‘s Duveen Gallery commission – a film of previous commissions (apparently re-staged) made by what looked like a flying camera, and the screen the only object in a giant atmospherically lit space.

George Bellows at the RA is a great exhibition of an artist I’ve never heard of. His late 19th / early 20th century paintings and drawings vary from boxing to cityscapes to landscapes to portraits to seascapes and they are wonderful. How is it possible someone this good can pass you by?

Back at the NPG, there’s a surprisingly good exhibition of George Catlin‘s paintings of native Americans first shown in London in 1840. The blurb accompanying a picture of the Mandan tribe suggested they intermarried with descendants of a 12th century Welsh prince called Madoc; that came as a bit of a shock!

At Somerset House, there’s an eclectic exhibition of photos called Landmark which ranges from landscapes to satellite shots to arty images, but all with the theme of planet Earth and an underlying environmental message. It was very good, but I wish they’d said where each picture was taken as I kept puzzling over locations!

Film

I thoroughly enjoyed Arbitrage, a multi-layered piece about a wealthy New York financier who embarks on both a business and personal cover up. It’s a gripping thriller which takes unexpected turns and Richard Gere is outstanding in the lead role.

I wasn’t sure I wanted to see Side Effects, but I was so glad I did. It lulls you into thinking you know what it’s about then turns a corner and takes you somewhere else. It really did keep you guessing until the end and enthralled throughout.

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