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The Rest of 2016

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

Opera

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

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

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

Classical Music

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dance

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

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

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

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

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

Contemporary Music

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

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

Film

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Art

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Contemporary Music

There was a lot to love about Weimar Cabaret at Cadogan Hall.  The period and the place produced an extraordinarily eclectic collection of original music which gathered together has an eccentric, manic quality. The Australian Chamber Orchestra played brilliantly, in dark suits and trilbies, and Barry Humphries provided insightful and funny commentaries, and sang a song or two with cabaret star Meow Meow, who sang a lot on her own and with a lady violinist from the orchestra. I will never forget her Serenata Erotica! A unique evening.

John Wilson has a large, loyal and attentive following and last year’s brilliant Bernstein Prom propelled us to book for this year’s Gershwin Prom. I was expecting some, if not all of it, to be from Broadway, but it was all Hollywood, and a third of the songs were Ira Gershwin’s lyrics without the then late George Gershwin’s music. The first half disappointed; with little light and shade it was relentlessly showbiz and the sound mix wasn’t great, with strings buried beneath brass. It picked up significantly in the second half though, with better sound, some slower numbers and the ballet from An American in Paris as a closer. Overall, though, a bit too Friday Night is Music Night for me, and a rather expensive one too.

Opera

I’ve never seen anything in the Arcola‘s annual Grimeborn opera festival before but after their brilliant Tosca, very powerful at close quarters, I won’t make that mistake again. In fact, I’ve already booked for another two! The singing was superb and the whole score heroically played on one grand piano, and all for the price of a cinema ticket. Eat your heart out, ENO & RO.

My journey to and from the Arcola Theatre for my second Grimeborn production was more than twice as long as Rimsky-Korsakov’s rarely staged 40-minute opera Mozart and Salieri. Composed eighty years before Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus on the same subject, also derived from Pushkin’s play. It was a bit slight for me, though it was well staged and performed. I’ve only seen a few of his fifteen operas and this was more of a collector’s item than anything else.

Grimeborn reached its pinnacle with Opera Alegria’s Mozart Double – an opera he wrote when he was twelve, Bastien & Bastienne (not his first!), which may or may not have been performed at the time, and one from his late career when he was thirty, a satire on opera itself The Impresario. You can hear clearly how he matured, though both operas are good. As they both have dialogue they are technically operettas or singspiel and the settings in this production are contemporary, the libretto updated. The performances were brilliant and it was the most fun I’ve had in 35 years of opera-going.

Cape Town Opera‘s Mandela Trilogy at the Royal Festival Hall was a hit-and-miss affair. It told Madeba’s story in three parts – youth to University, the politicised years centred in Sophiatown and his trial & imprisonment through to his freedom speech on release. I liked the prologue and Parts 1 & 3 by Peter Louis van Dijjk, but though I liked the idea of the Part 2 jazz musical by Mike Campbell, I wasn’t convinced by the contrast its inclusion created. It was semi-staged but from our top price front stalls seats we couldn’t see the singers, which rather marred the experience.

Classical Music

The off-site Prom at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse was an absolute treat and a triumph. Eleven piece ensemble Arcangelo led by Jonathan Cohen played Shakespeare-inspired music from the late 17th century by candlelight with three brilliant soloists, Katherine Watson, Samuel Bowden & Callum Thorpe, who animated the arias by interacting and moving around the space. Wonderful.

A gorgeous lunchtime Prom at Cadogan Hall paired viol ensemble Fretwork with vocal ensemble Stile Antico for a programme of 17th century Shakespeare settings (plus a few others) with two brilliant contemporary ones by Huw Watkins and Nico Muhly. A real tonic.

The third Shakespeare themed Prom showcased music for stage and screen, with the first half music by Walton, Finzi, Sullivan and Joby Talbot written for screen and ballet versions of Richard III, Love’s Labour’s Lost, The Tempest, As You Like It and The Winter’s Tale and the second half music for the stage – Bernstein’s West Side Story based on Romeo and Juliet, Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate based on The Taming of the Shrew and The Boys from Syracuse, a version of The Comedy of Errors by Rogers, Hart and Abbott. I really liked it, more than the Gershwin Prom (with better sound), and conductor Keith Lockhart engaged with the audience unlike most conductors.

European cities usually have a cultural black hole in August, but I managed to find a performance of the rare Cherubini Requiem in C Minor at the Liege Opera House during a short overnight visit. Though I’d never heard it before, it seemed a bit lacklustre – WNO on an off night (we don’t know how lucky we are) – but it was good to hear it, and the theatre was lovely.

Film

Matt Damon didn’t have many lines to learn for Jason Bourne which was all action, exhaustingly so, with an extraordinary car chase at the end that I honestly don’t know how they pulled off. Great fun.

I eventually caught up with the female Ghostbusters remake, which was good fun and technically accomplished, though hardly ground-breaking.

Art

The Liverpool Biennial Festival of Contemporary Art was absolute shite. It was devoid of any beauty, lacking in ingenuity and it all seemed derivative and dated. Fortunately, Tate Liverpool had three good exhibitions – Francis Bacon: Invisible Rooms, Maria Lassnig & Ella Kruglyanskya, the latter two artists completely new to me. These, together with the permanent collections at Tate and the Walker and the Peter Blake designed Mersey Ferry, Everybody Razzle Dazzle, redeemed the weekend. I won’t get fooled again!

Icelandic performance artist Ragnar Kjartansson‘s ‘exhibition’ at the Barbican was about as off-the-wall as it gets. The only live part was ten troubadours lounging, strumming and singing – for the whole 8 opening hours! There were records of previous projects, mostly on video, including a 9-screen installation recording a 1-hour concert where each player was in a different room of a house (including the bath!), brass players cruising whilst they played in Venice for six hours every day for six months, a crooner singing the same three words for 30 minutes, band The National singing their song A Lot of Sorrow continuously for six hours, 144 paintings of the same subject in the same place where they both spent six months and four 5-yearly videos of his mother spitting in his face. I rather liked it all!

I managed to catch the exhibition of Francis Townes‘ late 18th century watercolours of Italy on its last day at the British Museum. They were beautiful, though a touch faded and mostly behind glass. He was apparently never accepted by the art establishment, despite his undoubted talent.

The Travel Photographer of the Year exhibition has moved south-east and indoors to Greenwich University and, despite the journey, is better for it. It was the usual high standard but it made me feel less inadequate as, since last year, I’ve done a short photography course, had some coaching and went on some photographic safaris, so next year I think I might enter!

The Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition at Tate Modern exceeded its expectations bigtime. A hugely comprehensive retrospective which also allowed you to learn about her life through photographs and room descriptions. I’ve always loved her work, now I’m virtually obsessed. I’ll be back!

The exhibition I went to the Photographers’ Gallery to see, as instructed by Time Out (!) – Made You Look: Dandyism and Black Masculinity – disappointed, but upstairs there were two floors of Terence Donovan’s wonderful, iconic, mostly black and white 60’s and 70’s photographs in Speed of Light. An unexpected treat.

Colour & Vision at the Natural History Museum sought to explain the evolution of vision in the animal world. It started well, with fascinating fossils in particular, but then threw in the kitchen sink and became overpowering and confusing. Shame.

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Contemporary Music

Rufus Wainwright returned to form with an eclectic concert as part of the new Festival of Voice at the WMC in Cardiff. In addition to a fine selection of his own songs, we had an aria from his opera, a sonnet from his recent collection and a whole host of show tunes from his Judy Garland tribute, with stunning accompaniment from a cabaret pianist. His own vocals and piano playing were faultless and the sound and audience silence were a rare treat. Support Ala.Ni sang beautifully, with just guitar accompaniment, though I was less enamoured with her retro songs, which were a bit samey. She charmed the audience, though, with her infectious enthusiasm and excitement and complimented Rufus.

I very much like Elbow and booked for three concerts in Guy Garvey’s Meltdown, though one was cancelled when Robert Plant had to hot foot it to LA to defend Stairway to Heaven against copyright infringement some forty years on! Mr Garvey himself was a bit low on solo material so his own concert was short but sweet and very good-natured and warm-hearted. There was excellent support from the delightfully melancholic Jesca Hoop. Laura Marling, the second Meltdown concert at the Royal Festival Hall, was a bit of a disappointment. It was so slick, clinical and soulless, a bit monotonous and lacking in any excitement or emotion. At 75 mins with no encore for £40, I also felt more than a bit cheated – 50p per minute! Another good support act in Marika Hardwick, though.

The Orchestra of Syrian Musicians, many refugees, were invited to Europe by Damon Albarn and world music champions Africa Express. At their Royal Festival Hall concert, they played Syrian music with guests from five African countries, the US and the UK, including Albarn and Paul Weller. It was welcoming, uplifting, positive, inspirational and heart-warming – the day after the referendum result!

Opera

Welsh National Opera’s 70th Birthday pairing of their first ever staged opera, the classic verismo double-bill Cav & Pag, and a brand new one, In Parenthesis, at WMC in Cardiff was inspired. I have never seen a better Cav or Pag, a great production that were beautifully played and sung. Iain Bell’s new opera followed the National Theatre Wales in commemorating the Battle of Mametz Wood (part of the Battle of the Somme) where many Welsh soldiers met their end; it was an impressive new work. Both showcased WNO’s not-so-secret ingredient – its superb orchestra and chorus – as well as featuring some fine soloists.

Opera Holland Park provided a rare opportunity to see Iris, a full evening opera by the man best known for the Cav half of Cav & Pag. It’s an odd story set in Japan, before Puccini wrote Madam Butterfly, made odder by a third act that seems to be bolted on for dubious reasons, but it’s lush romantic music with particularly good choruses and here it was played and sung beautifully.

Classical Music

At the Royal Academy of Music, the hugely talented Symphony Orchestra gave a lunchtime concert featuring unlikely Scandinavian bedfellows Sibelius & Neilson which proved to be a real treat. Melancholy + Thrills under the encouraging baton of Sir Mark Elder, who continues to defy convention and provide informative introductions. Lovely.

The Royal College of Music Symphony Orchestra gave a short but beautiful early evening concert of English Orchestral masterworks by Vaughan Williams, Gurney & Britten. I am in awe of the talent of these college players. Even the conductor of the VW piece was a student.

Art

Newport Street Gallery, Damien Hirst’s new initiative, opens with a Jeff Koons show. I’m not mad keen on the mounted hoovers or his porno pictures, but the more playful stuff such as giant steel balloon animals and piles of play doe make me smile. It’s a lovely bright airy space and free and I’m looking forward to returning regularly.

Performing for the Camera at Tate Modern was interesting in telling the story of how photography is used to record performance, but as an art exhibition it was rather dull. It was very hard work looking at walls and walls of mostly B&W, mostly small framed photographs.

Dulwich Picture Gallery provided another opportunity to discover an unknown artist (well, to me) Winifred Knights. Though there were only c.20 paintings, and c.5 major mature works (and a lot of studies for…) what was on show was a significant quantity of her limited output and all very beautiful.

A members preview of the Tate Modern extension turned into an art feast, but not because of what was in the extension (largely dull, the space for collections is c.30% of the total space, but the building’s nice!). Indian artist Bhupen Khakhar’s retrospective was wonderful – quirky, original and colourful – and I surprised myself by loving about a dozen of Mona Hatoum’s large sculptural / installation pieces. It was also good to see Ai Wei Wei’s tree in situ on the bridge, though I was puzzled by two mounted police riding around it!

Sunken Cities: Egypt’s lost worlds at the British Museum was as good as an archaeological exhibition can get. In addition to the items recovered from the Med, there were terrific pieces from the museums in Alexandria and Cairo. Wonderful.

Painting with Light at Tate Britain showed the impact of the invention of photography on art and was rather fascinating, with some particularly good pre-Raphaelites on show. Upstairs Conceptual Art in Britain 1964-1979 just proved it was a movement better forgotten! Meanwhile in the Duveen Galleries Pablo Bronstein has built replicas of both Tate Britain facades and painted geometric patterns on the floor where dancers perform period works in contemporary clothes. Outside in, old and new. Very clever.

The Deutsche Borse Photography Foundation Prize shortlist exhibition at The Photographers Gallery was the best for a long while, and for once they got the winner right! The four projects covered the Arab Spring uprising, European immigration, space & surveillance and car restoration!

Ethics of Dust is an extraordinary installation in Parliament’s Westminster Hall. The artist cleaned the east wall during the hall’s renovations by capturing hundreds of years of dust in a thin latex cast which has now been hung in the hall. Extraordinary.

Film

Nice Guys was a fun caper movie, but it was way too violent for the genre and my taste and overall a bit beyond preposterous.

I very much liked Money Monster, a real thrilling ride with some great performances, a snipe at financial sector ethics but a bit of a depressing ending.

Love & Friendship was an odd affair. I liked it, but again not as much as the hype. A tongue-in-cheek interpretation of a surprisingly racy Jane Austin novella!

Much of the sentiment in Michael Moore’s documentary Where to Invade Next could be applied to the UK as well as the US. As we’ve blindly followed their model, we have lost our way. I thought it made some good points very well.

I loved Adult Life Skills, a lovely independent British film that was again way better than its critical reception with another extraordinary child performance.

I don’t know how much of Elvis & Nixon is true (it’s based on a photo!) but it made for a quirky and funny film which I enjoyed more than I thought I would.

Other!

The Greenwich & Docklands International Festival specialises in outdoor events and everything is free if you stand, and very cheap to sit. My first visit this year was to the Queens House at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich for a spectacular called The House that included dance, projections and fireworks – and the wonderful Sharon D Clarke. I’m not sure I quite got the narrative, but I certainly enjoyed the spectacle! Six days later in Bethnal Green, Polish theatre company Theatr Biuro Podrozy performed Silence which I think was about refugees, but the narrative was even less clear than The House. Still, it kept my attention, though it was beyond melancholic so I ended the evening feeling rather sad. I first saw this company in Edinburgh 23 years ago and it was one of those shows that you’re still talking about, well, 23 years later.

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Contemporary Music

It was obvious from the second number that Elvis Costello had a problem with his vocal chords, but he didn’t acknowledge it until two-thirds of the way through the main set. It’s a pity because the set for this London Palladium concert was new stuff and less obvious things from the back catalogue (only four or five crowd pleasers) which for me at least was very welcome. He was upstaged I’m afraid by two sisters from Atlanta going by the name of Larkin Poe who’s 30 min set as support was terrific. The evening partially redeemed itself by another 30 min set of Costello with the girls and a couple of crowd-pleasing solo encores, but in truth he should have postponed. There’s nothing sadder than seeing a hero die on stage.

Opera

How can you resist an opera set in a gay club with the toilet attendant played by Lesley Garrett?! As it turned out, Mark Simpson’s 70min 4-hander Pleasure at the Lyric Hammersmith proved rather good, and a hugely impressive operatic debut for this prodigious 28-year-old. The music suited a very dramatic story and the tension built well.

Many years ago I went to a shed in East London to see a bunch of mad Catalans perform a show in which they raced around wheeling supermarket trollies full of dead babies, throwing real liver around. That same company, La Fura Del Baus, are now at Covent Garden staging the UK premiere of Romanian composer Enescu’s only opera Oedipe, one of three 20th century operas based on the Oedipus myth and the most epic, telling the whole story from birth to death. Such is the world of opera in the 21st century. As it turns out, it’s a stunning production of a superb opera which was played and sung brilliantly. Why on earth has it taken 80 years to get here?!

Dance

I loved everything about the Royal Ballet’s Frankenstein. Liam Scarlett’s staging and choreography is excellent, there’s a great dramatic score from Lowell Lieberman and John Macfarlane’s designs and costumes are terrific. Pity the critics were so down on it. Why?

Film

Midnight Special is one of the best SciFi films of recent years. I was gripped throughout. The young actor playing the eight-year-old boy was extraordinary.

Eye in the Sky was another cinematic treat which I almost missed by reading the crits. Its edge of the seat stuff, but very objective in its examination of the ethics around drone attacks. One of Alan Rickman’s last roles, and he was great.

I have fond memories of Peter Quilter’s play Glorious, where Maureen Lipman played Florence Foster Jenkins, now played brilliantly by Meryl Streep in a film that is more poignant though also at times hilarious. A lovely film where even Corrie’s Mavis gets a bit part as a New York socialite!

The Hank Williams biopic I Saw the Light was a good rather than great film, but it was well worth catching. Tom Hiddleston is excellent and I understand he does the singing himself, which makes it an even bigger achievement, as the segments when he’s onstage at the Grand Ole Oprey are particularly good.

Our Kind of Traitor is another good rather than great film, different from the normal spy movie, let down by an ending that was a bit too low key.

I went to see Everybody Wants Some!! on the strength of the director’s last film Boyhood and rave reviews for this. I’m afraid I was underwhelmed. It wasn’t exactly Porky’s 8, but it wasn’t far enough away from it.

Though its ending is somewhat implausible, Sing Street is a delightful Irish coming of age story, real feel-good stuff, with terrific performances from its young cast.

Art

Sicily: Culture & Conquests at the British Museum is a lovely presentation of the history of an island almost everyone visited, but most particularly the Greeks and Normans. It made me want to go back to Syracuse post haste.

I didn’t know much about the work of American photographer Paul Strand until the Strange & Familiar exhibition at the Barbican. In his retrospective at the V&A I loved his B&W portraits and films but the abstracts and B&W flora & fauna did nothing for me. Lots to like, though. Across the road at the Science Museum they look at the birth of photography with an exhibition featuring William Fox Talbot, who just about invented it. The thing that grabs you most is how much the art / science moved forward in its first decade; the difference between the 1834 pictures and the 1845 ones is extraordinary.

Other Worlds at the Natural History Museum was a spectacular exhibition of photographs of the planets taken from satellites and spacecraft then touched up in a real meeting of science and art. Across the road at the V&A again there was a hugely clever exhibition called Botticelli Reimagined which showed the influence of this 15th century artist on 20th & 21st century design, then on late 19th / early 20th century artists like the Pre-Raphaelites before leading you into the biggest collection of Botticelli ever seen in the UK. In this last section, I overdosed on Madonna’s and other religious subjects, but it was a highly original exhibition nonetheless.

Other

Trespass is the latest in the series of passionate, funny, campaigning shows from one-man opposition Mark Thomas. This one, visiting the Tricycle Theatre, looks at the erosion of our rights to roam this green and pleasant land. He was his own support, with different material. Great stuff. If only the real opposition could pack such a punch, as entertaining as they are!

 

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Opera

I liked the music of The Firework-Makers Daughter at Covent Garden’s Linbury Studio but I wasn’t that keen on the production. I usually like this lo-tech style but there was too much I shouldn’t see and too much I couldn’t see in this production. The narrative isn’t the clearest, so I was surprised it was billed as suitable for over-6’s.

Art

The World of Charles & Ray Eames at the Barbican Art Gallery was much broader and deeper than I was expecting. The American design couple are best known for their iconic furniture, but they designed so much more. Like Mackintosh, Lloyd Wright and Gaudi, they covered almost every aspect of design including architecture, exhibition spaces, film and printed matter. Fascinating – and way ahead of their time.

Even though eighteenth century portraits aren’t my oeuvre, I admired the skill of the work of Jean-Etienne Liotard at the Royal Academy, even though he was better at fabrics than faces and some of his men were feminine and his women masculine!

There were some beautiful and stunning items in the British Museum‘s Celts exhibition, but by challenging and questioning modern thinking, it rather muddied the waters and became more of a review of North European history of 1500-3500 years ago.

Film

I rather liked Star War: The Force Awakens; it was well paced, didn’t lag and sustained its 2h15m running time. The 3D was above-average and the story seemed to flow and follow logically from the third film (the 4th to 6th being prequels). I’m now looking forward to the next two!

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Contemporary Music

I so wish John Grant hadn’t started dabbling in electronica, because even his older songs are now all beginning to sound the same. Without it, the songs shine and the voice soars and much of his Roundhouse concert was stunning, but some of it was annoyingly dated 80’s electromush! Icelandic support act Samaris had two Biorkesque female voices but a similar electronica background which grated on me, I’m afraid.

Classical Music

Going to see Daniel (younger brother of Henry) Purcell’s The Judgement of Paris at St. John’s Concert Hall was a bit of a punt but worth the effort. It was written for the composer X-Factor of its day with four others in contention, using the same William Congreve libretto. It’s one of the first operas written, though not a particularly good one, telling the story of Paris’ goddess beauty parade to select a wife, but the five soloists, Spiritato orchestral ensemble & Rodolfus Choir under Julian Perkins did it full justice.

I like early music and have heard Rameau works before, but didn’t know much about Les Indes Galantes. It was an extraordinary ‘opera’ with five loosely connected ‘courses’ set on an Indian Ocean island, the Peru of the Incas and with Native Americans, amongst others. Each story was told quite quickly, followed by longer musical ‘interludes’. It was a long evening at the Barbican, but it was all beautifully played and sung by six soloists, ensemble Les Talens Lyriques and the Chorus of Opera National de Bordeaux under Christophe Rousset.

A lunchtime freebie at the Royal Academy of Music turned out to be a real treat. Sir Mark Elder led their Chamber Orchestra (seemed a bit big for that title to me!) in a programme of Verdi overtures and preludes, with a bonus aria from Dennis O’Neill no less, and an informative and entertaining commentary from the conductor. The orchestra sounded so much more than conservatoire students and were often thrilling, just like they were for Edward Gardiner last year.

The second of Lucy Parham’s composer portraits at St. John’s Concert Hall, Odyssey of Love, focused on Liszt. It was a little lighter than the previous one, with Martin Jarvis and Joanna David bringing some humour to the tales of his sex life, but just as fascinating and a superb introduction to a composer I know little of. Now I can’t wait for the next two in the autumn.

Imagine a school tackling Verdi’s Requiem! Well, it was Harrow, and the soloists were professional, and they were supplemented by adults. You will hear more technically perfect performances, but may not hear a more rousing & powerful one. The bass drummer was so passionate his huge instrument came close to falling onto a horn player! The Speech Room of Harrow School was grand enough for the occasion but small enough to make you jump. Great stuff.

Opera

I’ve liked the other three Jonathan Dove operas I’ve seen, but I absolutely adored The Adventures of Pinocchio. It’s a bit of a stretch at almost three hours, but it’s hard to see where it could be cut. At GSMD, it’s given a brilliantly inventive production by director Martin Lloyd-Evans and designer Dick Bird and the musical standards achieved by Dominic Wheeler are nothing short of astonishing. The chorus was the best I’ve heard it and there were a whole load of great performances, with Marta Fontanals-Simmons a simply stunning Pinocchio. Watch out for her; she’s going to be huge.

A very welcome initiative by Aldeburgh Music, Opera North and the Royal Opera brings us a pair of new operas, The Commission / Café Kafka. I admired them, but they didn’t entertain me and it made me realize that’s what’s wrong with a lot of modern opera – it aims to impress more than to entertain and composers and writers would do well to consider that. Café Kafka succeeded more than The Commission, and both were well played, sung and staged – but not entertaining enough!

Ariodante at The Royal Academy of Music was simple, modern and elegant with fine playing under Jane Glover no less and some lovely singing. This is one of my favourite Handel operas and they did it full justice.

Art

United Visual Artists provided the Barbican Curve space with one of it’s best installations with Rain Room where it stopped as you walked under it; now they’ve done it again with Momentum, using moving light to create images and shadows on the gallery walls, floor and roof. Another hugely imaginative use of the space.

Glass maker Dale Chihuly is back with another selling show at the Halcyon Gallery only a couple of years after the last. It all seemed more organic – lots of curvy bowls within bowls – but with the trademarks of scale and colour. I discovered he’s opened a museum in his home town Seattle, where I will be later in the year, so that’s clearly going to be a must. Down the road, the Pace Gallery were showing four of James Turrell’s light works but they seemed more of the same to me. Moving on to the Royal Academy for Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined where seven international practices (none of them British!) have created giant, mostly room filling, installations. As much as I admired them, I couldn’t help thinking they didn’t really justify the energy and expense that had been invested in them. Still, it was a rare foray into architecture for the RA and to be welcomed for that.

Soon after I entered Body Language at the Saatchi Gallery, I felt like I was at an end of term school art show. It got better, as did New Order: British Art Today upstairs, and it was good to see more painting than sculpture and installation for a change, but so much of it seemed derivative. I think I might have to give up on modern art.

After the first few rooms, I didn’t think I was going to like the Richard Hamilton retrospective at Tate Modern, but it rather grew on me as the work got better. I’m not sure I’ve ever been to a show so eclectic by a single artist; is there anything he didn’t have a go at?!

I very much enjoyed Vikings : Life & Legend at the British Museum. The exhibits aren’t exactly spectacular, but the story they tell is. I was amazed how far they travelled, all by boat (Nova Scotia & Uzbekistan!), and how the simplicity of their design has continued to modern-day Scandinavia. Beautifully curated, with a recreated long boat and all the Lewis Chessmen.

Film

The Grand Budapest Hotel had a great trailer, but turns out to be just a good film, which is probably a good lesson in overselling. It is quirky and funny and Ralph Fiennes is a revelation in a larger-than-life comic role, but the trailer meant it left me a little disappointed.

As much as I admired the cinematography, I didn’t really understand Under the Skin so I didn’t get much out of it. I admired the fact that ordinary people were filmed, then asked if they minded being in it, but that wasn’t enough to make it worth seeing.

Starred Up was sometimes difficult to watch, but it’s a brilliant film exposing the damage prisons can do and the hopelessness they perpetuate. Jack O’Connell’s small screen debut in Skins was impressive; here he is simply stunning. Unmissable.

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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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