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Posts Tagged ‘British Library’

Contemporary Music

In recent years, the Proms have been embracing non-classical musical genres, and this year it was the turn of folk music, with five folk acts joining the BBC Concert Orchestra in what was a largely successful crossover. The highlights were favourites The Unthanks and Julie Fowlis, but it was good to be introduced to Welsh group ALAW and to sample the music of Jarlath Henderson and Sam Lee.

You rarely hear a musical score played as well as the John Wilson Orchestra played West Side Story at the Proms; you could hear every nuance, every note, every instrument. It moved you and thrilled you in equal measure. Add to that a fine set of young soloists, a chorus drawn from two drama schools specialising in musical theatre and a rapt full house and you have a very special evening indeed. So good, I even forgave them the ticket & programme price hikes, the unnecessary interval and the failure to televise it!

My second and last Cadogan Hall Chamber Prom combined some rare Bernstein works with pieces by his friends and contemporaries, plus a new commission, and it was a funny, quirky delight with a fine performances by American mezzo Wallis Giunta. It included songs set to recipes, one a world premiere, a UK premiere of an early ballet which contained the seeds of West Side Story and six pieces new to the Proms.

Opera

Grimeborn gave us more treats with an inventive adaptation of Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffman – A Fantastic Bohemian – which moved between three locations in the building. The quality of singing and playing was stunning, and at such close quarters there’s no hiding place. It was hard to follow, particularly on the same day, and as much I enjoyed my first outing of Donizetti’s Rita and renewing my acquaintance with Ravel’s L’Heure Espagnole, they struggled to live up to the afternoon. Same day double-dips do have their downside, as we found with this and in Chichester two days before, on both occasions the highlight coming first. Six days later it ended (for me) with a revival of Mark Anthony Turnage’s Greek. It’s hard to believe it was premiered thirty years ago; it’s still original, visceral and edgy and in this production was very well sung, with the Kantanti Ensemble on fire. This has been a great Grimeborn, now fully established as an annual event in my diary.

The live cinema relay of Glyndebourne’s production of Vanessa, Samuel Barber’s 60-year-old opera getting its fully-staged UK premiere, was simply extraordinary. The design was superb, the singing stunning and the London Phil sounded sensational. It has the feel of a Hitchcock film, very mysterious and suspenseful. Wonderful stuff, probably better than being there with non-opera lovers and a 90-min interval to destroy the dramatic flow!

Classical Music

My first Cadogan Hall Chamber Prom saw Dame Sarah Connolly give a recital of English song which included four world premieres, including two by Benjamin Britten written 70 years ago! It was lovely, though somewhat melancholic, which made me feel it might be more of an evening programme.

I appear to be picking well this year, as my next Prom was a sometimes challenging, but fascinating and rewarding 20th century Anglo-American programme with the BBC Philharmonic playing Barber, Britten, Copeland and Walton. Two of the five pieces were new to me, and indeed to the Proms, including two arias from Barber’s opera of Anthony & Cleopatra which made me want to see a production.

Film

Apostasy is a quiet but defiant rage against fundamentalism in all its guises, in this case Jehovah’s Witnesses. Siobahn Finneran is stunning, but above all it’s a hugely impressive debut from writer / director Dan Kokotajlo, an ex-witness himself. Harrowing but brilliant.

Art

James Cook; The Voyages at the British Library was one of the best exhibitions of its type I’ve ever visited. Superbly curated and thoroughly objective, it contained journals, specimens, paintings & drawings and testimonials from experts and indigenous peoples. Illuminating.

London 1938: Defending ‘Degenerate’ German Art at the Weiner Gallery was a huge disappointment, consisting as it does of glass cases showing letters, flyers, catalogues and photos, plus copies of pictures. Only one actual painting and a couple of drawings!

Collier Schorr is a new photographer to me, but her exhibition at Modern Art did nothing for me, I’m afraid. All a bit too pretentious in my book.

A theatrical visit to Chichester was extended to visit the lovely Palant House Gallery which had three exhibitions. Virginia Woolf: an exhibition inspired by her writings had some great 20th century works, particularly those by Vanessa Bell and Laura Knight, but though I liked the idea of including contemporary works, there were too many, and the quality was very variable. It was another of those exhibition whose raison d’etre was a bit dubious. Dance: Movement & Modernism was a one room curate’s egg, but again it had some nice works. However, I loved Sussex Days: Photographs by Dorothy Bohm, a little known Lithuanian British photographer who captured people in the county in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s brilliantly.

It was worth the detour to Tate Britain for Lisa Brice’s one-room exhibition of mostly blue paintings of women. Very striking and very original.

At Proud Central, the photos of the Observer’s late photographer Jane Bown were like a review of people in my lifetime; stunning B&W pictures, some now iconic. Downstairs a multi-photographer selection focused on pop and rock stars; this too was outstanding.

The Frieze Art Fair consisted of thirty or so sculptures placed in a corner of Regent’s Park. It was more miss than hit, but made for a pleasant wander en route to the Open Air Theatre in the same park.

Great British Seaside at the National Maritime Museum brought together the work of four photographers using the seaside as their subject over the last fifty years. I identify the seaside with my youth, so there was something very nostalgic about it, and some terrific pictures too!

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Opera

Italian-American composer Gian Carlo Menotti wrote 28 operas, but we hardly ever see them here, so GSMD’s The Consul was a great opportunity to see an opera I’ve only seen once, zonks ago in Stockholm, and a great job they made of it too (though I wish they’d lost the final scene!). The only Menotti I’ve seen in the UK was a double-bill of short works in a tiny room at the Edinburgh fringe, also ages ago. The audience was small, but one of them stood to take a bow; Menotti was now living in Scotland!

I’m very partial to Handel operas, and Rodelinda’s a good one. ENO assembled a superb cast, in which Rebecca Evans, Tim Mead and Neal Davies positively shone. Though I liked the relocation to fascist Italy, I thought some of the black comedy in Richard Jones’ production jarred, with laughter sometimes drowning out the beautiful singing. Still, musically exceptional.

Classical Music

The LSO’s celebration of Bernstein’s centenary at the Barbican started two months early with his first and third (last) symphonies. I don’t normally like narration but the latter had acting royalty Clare Bloom which helped. It was well paired with Bernstein’s flute concerto Halil and the adagio from Mahler’s (unfinished) 10th but in the second concert Mahler’s twice-as-long 1st, as much as I loved it, hijacked Bernstein’s bash by swamping his 1st.

Dance

Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Aladdin at Sadler’s Wells looked gorgeous and I loved the score, but the choreography seemed somewhat uninventive and I didn’t really engage with the story, I’m afraid.

Film

Call Me By Your Name is a quintessentially ‘continental’ film that’s (mostly) in English and I thought it was delightful, living up to its 5* reviews for once, and a brilliant advert for visiting Italy.

Paddington 2 is as charming as it gets, a delightfully funny film with a British who’s-who cast.

I loved Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool and was surprised, at the end, to find it was based on a true story. That’s what happens when you don’t read the blurb and the reviews!

Beach Rats was a bit slow, inconsequential and overrated, I’m afraid. Another case of reviews leading me astray.

I can’t recall the real events depicted in Battle of the Sexes, but they made for a very good film, with Emma Stone impressive as Billie Jean King.

Art

I surprised myself by how captivated I was at Basquiat: Boom for Real at the Barbican Art Gallery. An untrained Haitian-American who started as a graffiti artist, this year one picture sold for £80m! Given he only lived 28 years, his influence is extraordinary. In the Barbican’s Curve Gallery, there was a climate change installation by John Akomfrah featuring a one-hour six screen film, two triptych’s and hanging containers, all of which I found rather powerful in making its point.

Harry Potter: A History of Magic at the British Library was an excellent 20th anniversary celebration of the phenomenon, illustrating J K Rowling’s take on magic with real historical writings and objects, with handwritten drafts of the stories and book illustrations thrown in as a bonus, including very good ones by the author herself. Well worth a visit for potterheads!

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Contemporary Music

I was looking for something to take a visiting friend to. I looked at the Globe website and saw someone called Becca Stevens was playing. I’d never heard of her but I looked at some clips on u-tube and booked. Little did I realise that I was going to become a big fan. Her concert by candle-light in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse was a lovely combination of folk pop and jazz. She has a beautiful voice and a terrific band and her love of her work and this venue was infectious. A real treat!

Sadly the following night’s Gospel Prom wasn’t a treat. It showcased lots of different British gospel styles but, with one exception, they were all pop-rock-gospel, way too loud and lacking in any subtlety or even genuine feeling. It was hosted by former Destiny Child Michelle Williams, which seemed very appropriate given the content.

I’ve seen guitarist Antonio Forcione many times, mostly in Edinburgh, but his Kings Place concert was the first solo one for a long time. His style is percussive and his talent virtuosic and he never disappoints, though I did miss some of the colour percussion and other instruments can and have added. Support Will McNicol was technically accomplished, but perhaps lacking in the flair and personality of Forcione. A nice evening.

KlangHaus: On Air was part rock concert, part art installation, a promenade performance in the roof space / plant rooms of the Royal Festival Hall, exiting onto the roof. It was put together by band The Neutrinos. The music ranged from neo-punk to gentle ballads. It was unique and extraordinary.

Part of the problem with the Bowie Prom was that most of the audience just didn’t know what to expect. They wanted a celebration, but they got an avant-garde neo-classical evening with a sometimes off-the-wall selection of songs and quirky arrangements. It was interesting but it disappointed nonetheless.

Opera

I haven’t seen that many productions of Il Travatore and haven’t seen it for some time. This Royal Opera production is unquestionably the best musically, with a fine quartet of leads, three new to Covent Garden, and the wonderful RO Orchestra and Chorus. As for the ‘concept’, I’ll just say tank, gypsy caravan and an army taking a selfie with their captured prisoner and you’ll no doubt get my view.

Classical Music

My first proper Prom was a lovely programme of rare Faure, Shylock, Stravinsky’s Pulcinella and Poulenc’s Sabat mater. I like all three composers but the works were new to me. Beautifully played / sung by the BBC SO and BBC Singers, this is just what the Proms are for.

My second proper Prom was an unusual combination of two choral pieces (one a world premiere, with composer Anthony Payne in attendance), a violin concerto (with an auspicious Proms debut by Taiwanese-Australian Ray Chen, playing the same violin the world premiere was played on in 1868!) and a symphonic poem based on Shakespeare’s Tempest – but it all worked brilliantly well under the great Andrew Davies.

My third proper Prom was Mahler’s 3rd Symphony, not one of my favourite symphonies, or even one of my favourite Mahler symphonies, but a fascinatingly structured, monumental work which the LSO did full justice to. The rapturous welcome and standing ovation given to 87-year-old conductor Bernard Haitink was very moving; the Proms audience is the best!

Dance

Natalia Osipova appears to be ‘doing a Sylvie Guillem’ with her first venture into contemporary dance at Sadler’s Wells in a collaboration with three top flight choreographers. The first piece, with two male dancers, was mesmerising, but the second and third, with her (life) partner Sergei Polunin, disappointed – the second was more movement than dance and the third more physical theatre. Overall, it didn’t really show off her talents and I felt she was showing off and being a bit of a diva. Failing to pick up two of the four bouquets thrown on stage at the end was a bit revealing!

Film

I enjoyed Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie, but it was another one that didn’t really live up to the hype, and the huge number of cameos seemed a bit desperate. Probably worth waiting for the inevitable TV screening (it is BBC Films) rather than the trip to the cinema.

Romantic comedies are one of my guilty pleasures and Maggie’s Plan is a nice quirky one with some outstanding performances which feels like a homage to Woody Allen rather than a plagiarism of him.

Watching Star Trek Beyond in 3D, I realised how much technology is now swamping storytelling and characterisation. I found myself being wowed but not excited enough and not moved at all. Maybe 3D compounds this – at some points it was moving so fast I lost track of who was who and where each place was in relation to others.

The BFG was the most charming film I’ve seen since Paddington. Mark Rylance was perfect casting, the young girl playing Sophie was delightful and Penelope Wilton as The Queen. What more could you ask for? Rafe Spall as HMQ’s footman, of course!

Art

David Hockney’s Portraits (82 of them, plus 1 Still Life!) at the Royal Academy of Art works well as an installation, scanning the three rooms to get the effect, but as individual works you get bored very quickly, because each one has either blue background and green floor or vice versa, the subjects are all seated in the same chair and some subjects have been painted more than once! Downstairs, favourite sculptor Richard Wilson has done a great job on this year’s Summer Exhibition, which had a very different feel and was very playful.

Shakespeare in Ten Acts at the British Library is a superb celebration of the 400th anniversary of his death. It includes a mass of fascinating written material plus video interviews and performance extracts. It was worth going just to see footage of Peter Brook’s now legendary A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Improbable’s The Enchanted Isle for the Met.

Imran Qureshi’s modern miniatures in the Barbican Curve Gallery were a delightful surprise. With paint on the walls and floors and low lighting, it’s a fascinating and rather beautiful installation.

I liked both the portraits and landscapes in Adam Katz Serpentine Gallery exhibition, but there were only 20 of them. Fortunately the brilliant Summer Pavilion (and four Summer Houses inspired by the eighteenth century Queen Caroline Pavilion near them, a new innovation this year) made the visit very worthwhile.

I’ve always liked William Eggleston’s urban landscape photos, but had never seen the portraits in the NPG William Eggleston Portraits exhibition. They were original and striking and I liked them.

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Contemporary Music

In Laura Muvla‘s late night Prom she performed the whole of her one and only album, Sing to the Moon, with an orchestra and choir. Some of the arrangements were a bit overcooked, smothering the lovely songs a bit, but overall it was a success as the writing and singing shone through. The sound was great and the audience even more quiet and attentive than most classical Proms. Now we need a new album, Laura.

Anything Goes at Cadogan Hall was anything but another one of those song compilation shows. First it was Cole Porter and the 50th anniversary of his passing. Second, it was musical theatre royalty with Maria Friedman, Clive Rowe, Jenna Russell & Graham Bickley all at the top of their game, with obvious chemistry, mutual respect and friendship. It was great to see the Royal Academy of Music MTC Chorus given a chance to work with such musical theatre icons and with a band as good as the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra under Richard Balcome. You rarely hear musical theatre songs played this well, and the winds and brass were positively glorious.

Opera

A return to Opera Holland Park after a few years to see an early 20th century  relative rarity by Francesco Cilea, Adriana Lecouvreur. My enjoyment of the first half was badly hampered by a full-on view of the conductor and not a lot else – a relatively expensive restricted view front row seat that wasn’t sold as restricted view! The highlight of the evening was the fantastic orchestra under said conductor, Manlio Benzi. There was some good (rather than great) singing and the updated production just about pulled it off. Sadly, OHP seems to be turning into a London version of those country house operas – rising prices, conspicuous corporate hospitality, dressing up…..if they introduce long picnic intervals, the transformation will be complete!

Classical Music

I don’t often go to piano recitals, then when I do I ask myself why?! A visit to Oxfordshire included one by John Lill at Christ Church Cathedral and I thoroughly enjoyed it. In a great programme of Mozart, Schumann, Brahms and Beethoven, the Schumann and Beethoven shone and the venue was a real bonus.

My first proper Prom of 2014 was an all-English affair, with three works from Vaughan Williams and a real rarity from someone I’ve never heard of – William Alwyn. Alwyn’s 1st Symphony isn’t brilliant, but it’s good enough and not worthy of such neglect (like the rest of his work). By contrast, The Lark Ascending is by all accounts the most popular classical work and here it was beautifully played by Janine Jansen. The gung-ho Wasps Overture and rarer Job ballet suite made up an excellent programme conducted by the BBC SO’s new chief conductor Sakari Oramo, whose enthusiasm and joy were infectious.

The next Prom was named Lest We Forget and it was a melancholy but very beautiful affair, featuring four composers, one German, who fought in the First World War, three never coming back. Two were completely new to me (the German, Rudi Stephan, was getting his Proms debut and Australian Brit Frederick Kelly is rarely performed). George Butterworth‘s song cycle A Shropshire Lad was sung beautifully by Roderick Williams and the BBC Scottish SO under Andrew Manze played all four pieces wonderfully. Vaughan Williams Pastoral Symphony (with tenor Allan Clayton, instead of the more usual soprano) has never sounded better. The loss of three talented composers was very sad, but it was a lovely tribute.

My final Prom for 2014 saw Andrew Davies back where he belongs and he chose a terrific programme of Strauss (R), Elgar & Berlioz to show off his great new band, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, who got a great welcome from the Proms audience. Music by German  British & French composers spanning 89 years, an Australian orchestra & a Norwegian cellist & a British conductor and an audience of real music lovers – that’s what I like about the Proms.

Cabaret

Celia Imrie’s show Laughing Matters at St James Studio was a quirky and sometimes surreal affair. Songs accompanied by a pianist and drummer (I wish I knew who wrote them), monologues and anecdotes and two male assistants! It ended with a panto-style sing-along complete with song sheet, with the cast dressed as sailors and the audience in sailor hats emblazoned with ‘R.M.S. Celia’! She can’t really sing, the show had a certain amateurishness about it, but her charm won you over and made you smile – a lot.

Film

I was lured to The Inbetweeners 2 by rave reviews (4* in The Times!) and even though it was fun, it was like watching a triple episode of the TV series with big screen technicolour projectile vomiting. A peculiarly British take on gross-out teen comedy.

Positive reviews also lured me to Guardians of the Galaxy (another 4* in The Times), but it was no time at all before I was bored with the banal story and just watched the 3D effects, but they became relentlessly repetitive too. There were some nice tongue-in-cheek touches, but I’m now wondering why I stayed.

I refused to pay Sonia Freidman’s obscene prices for Skylight in the West End but I eventually succumbed to the ‘encore’ of the live cinema transmission. Carey Mulligan proves to be an exceptional stage actor and Bill Nighy has lost none of his charisma. The 19-year-old play seemed bang up-to-date and the interval interview with Hare was a bonus. I’d have loved to see Bob Crowley’s brilliant set live, but hey it came over as a great production and I thoroughly enjoyed my first NT Live experience, even though it wasn’t the NT and it wasn’t live!

Art

I think I’m going to have to stop going to the Saatchi Gallery as, yet again, only a small fraction of what was on show appealed. This time it was Abstract America Today upstairs and Pangaea: New Art from Africa & Latin America downstairs. When the best room has walls covered with giant insects, you know you’re in trouble.

I’m not a fan of fashion and if I’d had to pay I probably wouldn’t have gone, but The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier at the Barbican was great fun and extremely well curated with a nice tongue-in-cheek touch (some of the dummies had holographic talking heads!). Whatever you think of his clothes, you have to accept that he has a colossal imagination.

No less than three exhibitions for an afternoon at the Royal Academy. The Summer Exhibition never changes but it’s an important institution and it’s always worth a visit. The highlights this year were the model of Thomas Hetherwick’s garden bridge (I can’t wait to see it built) and a couple of hilarious Glenn Baxter cartoons. Upstairs, Radical Geometry is an exhibition of 20th Century South American art which you’d never know was South American if it wasn’t billed as such. It’s well executed but they are very derivative abstract, geometric works. Interesting, but…..Round the back, Dennis Hopper: The Lost Album is a very personal record of six years in the sixties which would never be seen if the photographer wasn’t a famous film actor / director. Interesting, but…..

In just six years the Travel Photography Awards exhibition at the Royal Geographic Society has become so popular that my usual amble through it has become a scrum, partly because I left it until the final day I suspect. It was hard to get close enough to what seemed like a less impressive collection this year. Down the road at the V &A Disobedient Objects is an original, fascinating and wide-ranging look at items associated with protest, including banners, posters and even vehicles. Well done, V&A!

The British Library Comics Unmasked exhibition was a frustrating affair – low lighting combined with small print labels, but above all lots of nerds stooped over the exhibits reading every word of every cartoon and monopolising them. Again I was probably hampered by catching it on its last day, but it could have been curated so much better. The Enduring War exhibition, part of the WWI commemorations, was a lovely unexpected bonus which I enjoyed more!

The Photographers Gallery continues to be an essential regular visit and this time it was a fascinating exhibition tracing colour in Russian photography over 120 years. It proved to be a social and political history as well as a photographic history. At the entrance, they currently have a video wall which shows how a couple of Germans mined Facebook for images then put them on a spoof dating site with categorisations based on the images. It includes the victims comments, TV coverage and the legal threats they received. Clever, fascinating but spooky! I shall brush over the other exhibition – still life photos (and installations including them) of decaying fruit from Ridley Road market!

The first few rooms of the Malecvich exhibition at Tate Modern are spectacular – bright, colourful, original paintings of people and landscapes with a geometric spin. Then he goes all dull and abstract before returning to his earlier style. Frankly, it would be a better exhibition if it was ‘The early and late works of…’ and reduced from 12 rooms to 6!

There was some great stuff to see around town this month; two WWI tributes – the moving sea of poppies at the Tower of London, spectra – the lights illuminating the sky from Victoria Embankment Gardens – and this year’s Serpentine Pavilion, like a spaceship which has landed. Up in Gateshead, Daniel Buren created glorious colourful spaces in Baltic by covering the windows and skylights with coloured panels and placing large mirrors on the gallery floor. A real regional treat.

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The Rest of November

Contemporary Music

Blind Malian’s Amadou & Mariam staged their concert in complete darkness. The effect was to heighten the listening experience of their uplifting music. I could have done without the life story narrative, which was a bit naff, but otherwise it was an extraordinary experience.

Roy Harper is another of those artists who are part of the soundtrack of my life and Stormcock one of my very favourite albums. I haven’t kept up with his later work and haven’t seen him for some time, but his 70th birthday concert at RFH was irresistible. It proved to be deeply moving – he appeared to be ‘signing off’ and almost cracked up a few times. The 8-piece brass and string ensemble meant he focused mostly on my personal Roy Harper period and I loved it. When Jimmy Page guested for the double-guitar fireworks (on 5th November!) of That Same Old Rock (he played on the album) it was absolutely magical and the hall erupted.

I was amazed when they decided on Hammersmith Apollo for the Gillian Welch concert. It’s a shabby, tacky and dirty place and ever so big for two acoustic musicians. Though I would have much preferred somewhere like the Barbican or the Southbank Centre, she did pull it off. I like the new album and the first set was largely taken from it. The big surprise though was how this was a mere taster for an outstanding second set which ended with superb encores of country classic Jackson and Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit . I’ve waited a long while to see her, but it was well worth the wait – next time, somewhere else though? Please…

Taking eight people to Ronnie Scott’s to see jazz vocalist Ian Shaw was always going to be a risk, but one that paid off. The musicianship shone through and the audience were suitably attentive. His band included a silver-haired bassist who played with Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker. Wow! Astonishingly, it was my first visit to RS, but now that they have shows at civilised times I shall be back!

Opera & Classical Music

The operatic adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness seems to me to be a great success. Set mostly aboard a boat in the Congo, it has great atmosphere and tension thanks to Robert Innes Hopkins superb design and Tarik O’Regan’s music. There was some excellent singing from Alan Oke, Gweneth-Ann Jeffers and Morten Lassenius Kramp with the small ensemble Chroma under Oliver Gooch providing a colourful orchestral background. Just what the Linbury Studio is for.

The Guildhall School of Music & Drama have uncovered a neglected comic gem with Die Lustigen Weiber von Windsor, Nicolai(who?)’s take on Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor. It’s given a sparkling and fresh modern dress production by Harry Fehr with a brilliant set and costumes from Tom Rogers. For some reason Nicolai changed the names of the Ford’s and Page’s but not Falstaff or Fenton. He’s dumped Mistress Quickly, Bardolph and Shallow, but otherwise it’s true to its source. Barnaby Rea is excellent as Falstaff, Ashley Riches is very good as the second cast Fluth (Ford) and Ellie Laugharne is a sweet-voiced Anna – but its Sky Ingram’s show; her Frau Fluth (Ford) is fabulous; we’ll be hearing a lot more of her for sure.

I’ve wanted to see Vaughan Williams’ Hugh the Drover for a very long time, so Hampstead Garden Opera’s production was very welcome indeed. I have to confess though that I wasn’t expecting it to be such a good opera and for the musical standards of this ‘amateur’ production to be so outstanding. It was beautifully played by The Dionysus Ensemble, a group of music students & recent graduates, under the leadership of Oliver-John Ruthven. The leads were also students & recent graduates and they were also exceptional. David de Winter was terrific as Hugh, with Elaine Tate a lovely sweet-voiced Mary and Ed Ballard fine as baddie butcher John. This ballad opera is so so underrated, but this new chamber version will hopefully lead to more productions. A whole packet of gold stars to HGO for leading the way.

Handel’s Saul is a lovely dramatic oratorio and Harry Christophers & The Sixteen delivered an excellent interpretation at the Barbican, helped by a set of outstanding soloists including Sarah Connelly, Christopher Purves and Robert Murray. The quality of the choir is exceptional with a handful of them stepping forward to sing the smaller solo parts.

Opera North’s Ruddigore is destined to be as classic a G&S production as ENO’s The Mikado still is many years on. It’s a completely preposterous story of course, but it’s given a sparking fresh production by Jo Davies, with sepia design from Richard Hudson, and is an absolute delight. Grant Doyle is an excellent leading man, Hal Cazalet (who trained next door at GSMD) acts and sings superbly well as sailor Dauntless, Heather Shipp is as batty as Mad Margaret should be and there’s superb support from a few old favourites I seem to see too little of these days – Anne-Marie Owens, Richard Angas and Stephen Page. I sincerely hope their visits to the Barbican become regular – it would d be good to have good quality opera at decent prices here in London!

Dance

I loved the Scottish Ballet programme I saw a couple of years ago in Edinburgh, so I booked to see their new double-bill at Sadler’s Wells. The first piece – Kings 2 Ends – was playful, funny and quirky. Choreographed by Jorma Elo to music by Steve Reich and Mozart, this young company excelled. Kenneth MacMillan’s Song of the Earth to Mahler’s song cycle took a short while to settle but soon became spellbinding. More classical than the first piece, I liked the contrast, though the dancers seemed to find it more of a challenge. I liked soprano Karen Cargill but I’m afraid tenor Richard Berkeley-Steele was nowhere near as pleasing on the ear!

I’m new to Ballet Rambert and this second showing didn’t live up to the first. It was certainly a diverse triple bill. RainForest was a somewhat abstract 40-year old piece by Merce Cunningham with an electronic score, danced in Jasper Johns costumes in an Andy Warhol setting. Seven for a secret, never to be told was Mark Baldwin’s exploration of child behaviour to a Ravel score and Javier de Frutos’ Elysian Fields was a steamy and violent homage to Tennessee Williams and A Streetcar Named Desire in particular, danced to that film’s score with unnecessary and intrusive dialogue. A bit of a mixed bag – I admired the dance / movement but didn’t really find anything entirely satisfactory.

Art

The Royal Academy’s Degas & the Ballet – Picturing Movement should have been subtitled ‘A study in obsession (with a touch of pedophilia)’ It pushed the dancer theme just a bit too far for me. There were some exhibits that I felt were padding (animation and panoramas) and I think it would have been a better 5-room exhibition than it was an 8-room exhibition. That said, the penultimate room of 13 paintings was simply glorious and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. Also at the RA, Building the Revolution – Soviet Art & Architecture 1915-1935 was a small but fascinating series of pictures and drawings which illustrated the iconic art deco / modernist hybrid that existed there and then. Most of these buildings are now run down (or worse) and I was struck by how many I’d seen on recent trips to the Ukraine & The Caucasus.

The most extraordinary thing about Gerhard Richter’s retrospective at Tate Modern is that it feels like a show by a bunch of artists rather than one. He completely reinvented himself on a regular basis so there is much diversity on show here. It didn’t all work for me, but as a body of work it’s certainly impressive.

Grayson Perry moved from my list of OK-but-overrated-modern-British-artists to the premier league on the strength of his brilliant exhibition at the British Museum. His own work is interspersed with items from the BM collection (few of which I’d ever seen before). It was equal parts learning, fun and beauty and I was bowled over by it.

Another pleasant surprise was the John Martin exhibition at Tate Britain. This early 19th century artist created vast canvases, mostly on dramatic religious themes like Sodom & Gomorrah. They seem to be the precursors of / influence for apocalyptic films like Independence Day and covers for 1970’s progressive rock albums by bands like Yes. In their day they toured the country with sound and light shows to accompany then, seen by millions of people, so it was terrific that they created a modern version for the Judgement Day triptych – a first for an exhibition? How can I have lived this long without ever knowing about this man?! Upstairs, sculptor Barry Flanagan’s early work seemed tame and dull, I’m afraid, but it did mean you get to climb their brilliant and bright newly painted staircase!

I was smitten by the Pipilotti Rist exhibition at the Hayward Gallery last month and almost smitten by George Condo’s Mental States, which is now sharing the venue. His portraits are like a cartoon version of Francis Bacon and his abstracts like Picasso on acid. I’d never heard of him before, so it was good to see such a comprehensive and fascinating collection. Also at the Southbank Centre, the 2011 World Press Photographer exhibition maintains the standards of this superb annual tradition. It’s often hard to look at, but the photography is always outstanding.

Visiting Two Temple Place is a double-dip treat. The former Astor home is a riot of carving, stained glass and OTT decoration and it currently houses a William Morris exhibition with a superb collection of tapestries, fabrics, wallpaper, paintings and drawings. Gorgeous.

Just as gorgeous was the Royal Manuscripts exhibition at the British Library, a stunning collection of richly decorated books from the middle ages. It’s superbly curated and, provided you go at a quiet time, it’s a real treat.

Film

Two excellent British films this month, the first of which was Weekend, about an intense gay relationship which begins and ends in, well, a weekend. Chris New and Tom Cullen were both outstanding and it was beautifully shot. The second, Resistance, is set in Wales after the failure of the D-Day landings resulting in an invasion of German troops, a small group of whom have reached a Welsh valley! It explores the reaction of the locals and their relationships with the invaders. It’s a bit of a slow burn, but eventually draws you in and becomes deeply moving without a touch of sentimentality. There are some lovely performances, most notably from Andrea Risborough.

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CONTEMPORARY MUSIC

I booked to see Elvis Costello in Oxford before his London Meltdown date was announced, so off to Oxford I went 3 days after his appearance here. His choices for this solo show were unpredictable and refreshing and he seemed very relaxed and confident. There was something that prevented it being a classic, but I can’t put my finger on what (though it might have been the man sitting next to me who sang along – albeit quietly – for most of the show!). Still, it was great to see him again, great to see him solo again and just great really!

CLASSICAL MUSIC

The Spitalfields Festival’s concert of Handel’s beautiful oratorio Saul in Christ Church was glorious. You will find more experienced, and no doubt better, singers and players than those of the Royal Academy of Music, but I doubt you’d get a more spirited and thrilling performance. Laurence Cummings conducted with brio and the soloists – Laurence Meikle, Clare Lloyd, Aoife Miskelly, Stuart Jackson and Roderick Morris – all sang with passion. The orchestra & chorus were so uplifting in the lovely Church acoustic.

OPERA

Albert Herring was Britten’s’ only comic opera and, as far as I know, the only British comic opera to enter the international repertoire. I’ve seen it before and liked it but it took the Guildhall School of Music & Drama’s production for me to realise how much of a masterpiece it really is. It’s a simple story of village life, where a May king is crowned as there aren’t any worthy queens, but he too ultimately upsets the moralistic conservative village elders. It’s the way the music (orchestral playing as well as singing) conveys the humour that is so clever. The musical standards were as good as always at GSMD and the production values better than ever. Lucina-Mirikata Deacon turned Lady Billows into a brilliant (and appropriate) Mary Whitehouse clone and her busy bee housekeeper was excellently played and sung by Amy J Payne. The quartet of local worthies – Leonel Pinheiro’s mayor, Matthew Stiff’s policeman, Eva Ganizate’s teacher and Gary Griffiths’ vicar – was all superb. It was a great idea for butcher’s apprentice Sid (a terrific Matthew Sprange) and baker’s assistant Nancy (equally terrific Maire Flavin) to be played as punks! It was hard to believe Sylvie Bedouelle was a student, so believable was she as Albert’s mum. The children were played with gusto by Sophie Junker, Lucy Hall and Ciara O’Connor and Thomas Herford was a perfectly naïve Albert. My only negative would be that a dialect coach should have been employed to help the non-native English speakers – well, if you do it with Italian and German, you should do it with English! Another wonderful night at the Guildhall.

Mozart never finished his early opera Zaide (why?) so Ian Page decided to do so 230 years later (why?)! Instead of writing new music, he requisitioned other Mozart pieces, but with new English sung text from poet Michael Symmons Roberts and spoken text (of which there is too much) from dramaturge Ben Power and director Melly Still. What results in a cohesive finished product which somehow doesn’t come alive. The singing and playing is good rather than great, the acting is significantly better than opera’s norm and the staging is exceptional. A worthy effort, but one has to question whether it was worth all the trouble.

ART

Another catch-up month and a veritable art fe(a)st!

Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto has taken over the upper galleries and all three outdoor rooftop sculpture courts of the Hayward Gallery for a playful installation which includes a ‘nylon’ labyrinth (which you can walk in and behind and view from above) and an outdoor swimming pool you can take a dip in. It was fun (and would be particularly good for kids) but as it’s made of thin fabric and plywood, I’m glad I was there on the first day as I’m not convinced it will survive 11 weeks! On the ground floor, The New Décor is a bizarre interior design exhibition where everyday items are subverted in terms of both appearance and display. I can’t really describe it, can’t say it caught my imagination but wouldn’t say ‘don’t go’. I think that might mean indifference.

The Saatchi Gallery’s new exhibition of contemporary British art isn’t going to make the impact previous ones like Sensation have – I’m not sure there are any Damien Hirst’s or Tracy Emin’s here (that could be interpreted as a relief!). Somehow it all seems a bit tame and derivative.

My friend Amanda’s twin brother Paul Rennie has an exhibition of 20th century posters at Black Dog Gallery to coincide with the publication of his new book. I’ve seen so many 20th century posters (Shell, London Transport, British Rail….) that I was pleasantly surprised to find much that was new to me. Small – just 60 or so prints – but perfectly formed.

The Beauty of Maps exhibition at the British Library is terrific. I loved the way it was curated, grouping by the locations they would have been first seen in – audience rooms, galleries, bedrooms etc. – and there are some wonderful items on view. I am going to have to go back as there’s just so much to see.

A day trip to Oxford provided an unexpected bonus as Modern Art Oxford had a Howard Hodgkin exhibition; he’s one of my favourites, but most of his work is in private collections. It’s a great space that the 25 pictures didn’t really fill, but there were a handful of gorgeous ones I’d never seem before.

Tate Modern has been a bit hit-and-miss of late, but their current pairing provides for an intriguing visit. I’d only seen one work by Belgian artist Francis Alys before (a room full of paintings of the same subject, St. Fabiola, which he picked up in flea markets and junk shops!). This comprehensive retrospective, A Story of Deception,  includes a lot more work, including footage of his walk through Jerusalem with a dripping can of green paint to recreate the 1948 Green Line (through checkpoints without being stopped!) and the re-creation of a gunman walking through Mexico City (until the police arrested him, but after an unnervingly long time!). The other exhibition, Exposed, links photographs from more than 100 years which are voyeuristic, clandestine or surveillance. It sounds tacky, but it wasn’t really (well, most of it!) and the older photos were fascinating – photos of people are much more interesting when they don’t know they’re being taken.

For a lover of the surreal, I was rather underwhelmed by The Surreal House at the Barbican. They’ve gone to a lot of trouble (and expense) to find connections and links to make it hang together as an exhibition that they rather bury some terrific pictures from Dali, Magritte et al…..but I loved the grand piano hanging upside down from the roof which explodes every two minutes and then implodes two minutes later!

I remember coming to London 30 years ago and going to see an exhibition of American artist Andrew Wyeth’s paintings at the Royal Academy. I was compelled to visit it after seeing a couple of images in a newspaper or magazine. It was sensational. I’ve been hunting Wyeth’s ever since, but most are in private collections. I was amazed to find none in public collections in New York, then thrilled when I discovered a gallery devoted to him in Pennsylvania where I also visited his studio and was introduced to the work of his father NC and son Jamie. So, imagine how excited I was when a Wyeth Family exhibition turned up on my doorstep at Dulwich Picture Gallery! Only 10 of the 55 completed pictures are Andrew’s but they are lovely and include a handful from his 80’s, the last decade of his life. There are some terrific pictures by dad NC who illustrated many iconic books including Treasure Island and Rip van Winkle but Jamie’s are not as good as the ones I saw in Brandywine. We’re also introduced to Andrew’s sister Henriette with four nice pictures. I’d have loved more of Andrew’s but there’s more in Dulwich than New York, so it’s hard to complain!

FOOD & WINE

When we arrived at Taste London this year it was obvious that the numbers had gone up and the show had gone down market. There seemed to be fewer Restaurants (which is the point of the show) and more bars and exhibitors. In the end, I did enjoy it but I suspect it’s another of those things you go to regularly and enjoy – until the world finds out, when you leave them to it.

OTHER

Only Connect is a theatre group who work with prisoners, ex-offenders and those at risk of offending and I’ve admired and supported their work for a couple of years, as a result of which I was invited to a workshop of scenes from the first act of a new musical called The Realness at their atmospheric Kings Cross base, a former chapel. The performances were astonishingly good, including a terrific one by male lead Mensah Bedlako, who took over at just 5 days notice! The show itself is very promising and I can’t wait to see the finished work. Support them on www.oclondon.org

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